Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Russian and Canadian differences

I am getting a great deal of feedback from friends and fans that enjoy reading about life in Russia. Looking at my reach statistics it is easy for me to see just what countries people are reading my blog and I am happy to tell you Russians are reading it too. So I thought I would try and summarize some of the stuff into kind of a rambling compare and contrast and attempt to give you a general feel. Perhaps a tall order but painting a detailed picture is my comfort zone so let’s step outside it; shall we?

Before I get going too far let me make some things clear when we are talking about generalizations, we are getting into the area of stereotypes. Stereotypes exist for a reason. To a degree they are true and it is only when we use them to make racist statements do we get into trouble. So I will be making some generalizations but I mean no slight on any culture. So if you find, while reading this, your blood pressure rise try to remember it is written by a guy who embodies many stereotypical cultural stereotypes himself and it’s written with a kind hand in fun.

To get a general handle on any country, you have to spend about a month in the actual country itself. I did a ton of research on Russia before Inga and I moved here and got a small idea about what to expect. While it wasn’t a complete waste of time, it was close to it. I could have just listened to what my good friends Dimitri and Sergei said about the place, along with Inga of course, and would have had the same amount of information. But it still wouldn’t have been real for me. Reality is to a large extent our interpretation of the world we perceive. So this is my reality of Russia and no doubt, should you visit this interesting country yours will be different. So why continue reading?

Because it should be fun,

 We grow up learning almost nothing about the largest country in the world. Even now in its shrunken state it is still vaster than even my home Canada. While I might blame this lack of knowledge on the fact my education was carried out in Surrey {NOTE this is that tongue and cheek stuff I mentioned earlier, so relax teachers union 36} but I cannot. Russia is by far just not talked about in our history. It was only through stories and my military education that I even knew Russia and Germany started the Second World War and Russia fought on the Canada/European side. I don’t mention America here; as they were late to get into the fray, content instead to supply Russia with materials for the war.  Inferior quality materials, missing deadline after deadline but Oliver Stone wrote about this in his most recent book and so I will avoid the situation of plagiarizing him and say if you want to know more look it up.

One of the things I’ve learned is that Russians are slow to trust but when they do, they do so completely. This is much different than home. We Canadians trust in stages. We trust our friends with money, but not our car. Russians and trust translate most correctly for us as “Canadians and brotherhood.” So this is one of the reasons a visitor to the country for a few days may find Russians distant or cold. I can assure you they are not. I have had the pleasure of making several good friends and they are warm, generous people. But they have to get to know you. I am lucky as I have Inga to translate. Being a Canadian and living in Canada for more than half her life, Inga understands how to say what I am meaning and not just what I am saying. This difference is the world in translating as rarely is something based on an idea simple to translate.  An idea is far more elaborate as it is what we mean based on culture and how that crosses over into Russian. We aren’t ordering a beer and an accidental plate of cut fruit as I just did.

Perhaps this is a good example. I am writing in a nice little cafĂ© called Slavyanka. It is attached to our building, as many businesses are, and we have enjoyed many a night here. Perhaps some of you have seen the pictures on my Facebook account. Anyway they know I am Canadian and can’t really speak Russian yet they assume I understand as much Russian as they understand English. Many Russians know English to a degree, they just don’t speak it as they haven’t heard it spoken much and thus have no idea how to arrange the words.  So I ordered a beer and looked at the menu and tried to figure it out. I saw something like apple and words that appeared to be another fruit and another word that I thought meant layered. Putting this together, I thought I might have found a baked strudel, or better a deep fried fruit wrapped in dough. The waiter took the order and went and wrote down and few words in English and came back to show me. This should have been my first clue he thought this was an odd order. I was happy to see that I had figured out apple and that I was correct it had other fruit, oranges and grapes. I said, “thank you” and “yes that is good” and off he went after pouring my beer. Ten minutes later out came a very nice sliced fruit tray of oranges, apples, and two types of grapes.  Not what I expected and thought I was ordering but probably better for me.  So while I write this I am picking at a healthy fruit platter wishing I knew how to order the dough roll. The waiters reality now is Canadians must eat very healthily. Such is perspective reality and trying to decipher the language of symbols that have little in common with Latin-based languages.  But I am Canadian and so I enjoyed my fruit.

Russians will ask just about anything from how you practice religion to what you think about a certain political situation or ideology. There is no stigma about asking what you paid for something or how much a trip cost, nor commenting about what they think about how much you paid. I’ve been flying a great deal and have had this conversation many times. This is a very odd topic for North Americans as we generally shy away, even with friends, about asking the cost of something. That changes with close friends and in that is the difference. If you’re friends in Russia then, you are by cultural definition “close friends”.

When they want to get to know you, they ask what you believe, or what you think about said conflict. I have had a few conversations as of late as my countries leader Premier Harper made despairing statements in the world press about having to shake President Putin’s hand at the G20 summit. As a polite Canadian, his statement embarrassed me, as it is rude to not shake someone’s hand. Despite the political tension between the two countries, the man is hardly Hitler. While I am certain Harper has shaken hands with far worse during his time in government the simple fact that he was stupid enough to comment knowing that these statements would overshadow anything else he completed as leader of my country and as such hamper foreign investment shows me he is no statesman.

“If he wants to return to a safe and cooperative environment why would he behave this way?” This was a question I was asked. How do you answer that question with limited language skills? I didn’t have Inga to translate the corporate ideology and the actions of a less than smooth leader. So when faced with difficult challenges I find it easier if you break it down to its simplest form. Why did the leader of my country choose to make a statement during a huge economic summit that would take away from the fact Canada’s economy is vibrant and growing and a good place to invest? So I answered truthfully. I said; “he is an accountant out of his league on the world stage and is a Suka to the North American imperialist machine. “ Suka” directly translated into English means bitch.  But that falls short of the meaning of the Russian word Suka (CYKA). It most correctly means prison bitch, the lowest of the prison (or Zone) hierarchy, an untouchable and unmentionable person. Perhaps a little harsher than he deserves but I would have rather seen Justin Trudeau at that summit, if he is anything like his old man, and I have never voted Liberal in my life.

In the West, we have a general language in that it is less specific than Russian. So when the question of why is Russia in the Ukraine and Russia answers that they are not we westerners don’t get it. Crimea is what we mean but using general English. So it starts to sound a great deal like the song There’s a hole in my bucket. Putin was finally asked directly about the Ukraine part called Crimea and he answered unedited on German live television. He compared it to Kosovo and used it to show precedent. This has been widely dismissed by western media saying it was hardly the same. That this annexation of Kosovo came after ethnic cleansing by the Serbian government and so was more right. Really? Do we really want to stand on a moral chair and claim we have to wait till people are being piled into mass graves before we act? Crimea’s outcome would have been the same as the outcome currently happening in Donetsk region. Ethnic cleansing, wrapped in uniform  with insignia resembling that famous designer uniforms created by Hugo Boss in 1937.  The most salient difference for me is that the people for the people annexed Crimea after a vote and Kosovo was annexed by a parliamentary order and decision.

Well, that rambled along into a rather political soapbox but such are conversations in Russia. One has to be prepared to discuss such things and have facts correct. Russians really don’t care if you have a different idea or choice than them so long as you arrived at that position by facts. Recently while I was getting a nice tattoo Inga and the artist began a long discussion about a historical-political situation. Topics forbade from the dinner table and while someone is jamming ink into your skin.

One other thing Russians have to get used to that some Canadians take for granted is the ability to criticize the leaders of our countries for their actions and hold them accountable.

Science fiction often in the past has paved the way for scientific innovation and I find myself wishing for a universal translator that has the ability to convey what I mean and not just what has been spoken. Google is a small start but fails more often than it doesn't. Surely if we as a species want to get along we need some bright MIT type to make one of these devices.


  1. The issue with having an open discussion here (North America) is that too many people have never been exposed to the art of debate. Unless they went to a private school or were fortunate enough as I was to attend an alternative junior high where I took a semester of debate, critical thinking or analytical thinking isn't taught. Thus one encounters the result, which is the automatic hostility on social media whenever a person disagrees with a point of view. Instead of challenging the belief and arguing the case on its merits, they immediately fall into name calling. Educational systems that still introduce students to philosophy, as some schools in Europe do, permit a more open discourse, It's ironic that for all our freedom and access to information, we appear to have become more intolerant of any divirging thoughts. I love having a good "Jack Daniels" conversation with people.

  2. Totally agree and while most of the conversations have been fueled by Vince Wodka over Jack, I still miss having them with you! You always held me accountable for my position and that training has served me well here! I think it is more though. Everyone in North America is so busy working and such that they need sound byte news and fail to do the very basic source check hammered into us in First Year Uni