Russian culture: re-encountering the clash

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A carpark in Yaroslavl

My Russian visa arrived today. It still feels like a monumentous achievement when you open that scruffy grey envelope to be reunited with your passport and then flick through the pages until you find it sitting there, safely glued in, your name mutated into Cyrillic and then back into Latin (I am now Aleksandr Dimitris Djordj Roulings again), your entry and departure dates all correct, and now nothing standing between you and your next trip to the largest country in the world.

The visa regime is a charade more than anything else. It’s expensive, an enormous bureaucratic hassle, and a hangover from the days when there was a huge iron curtain hanging across Europe, dividing this world from that. Anyone hoping to have a cheap weekend in St. Petersburg will quickly have their hopes dashed, their bank accounts nearly emptied, and their hairs turned grey by attempting to get around it. However, once you understand the system, it starts to make slightly more sense, and if anything else the process is an important piece of preparation for anyone hoping to visit the maddest country in the world, and survive.

“Россию умом не понять” (Rassíyu umóm nye panyát’) is another thing Russians will tell you with a great grin as you moan to them about anything difficult about being in the country. (“Russia is not to be understood with the mind.”) And it’s true. As I talked about in my previous post on Russia, it took me a long time to get used to being there, the culture, the mentality, and then when of course I fell in love with it. Since the moment I called my old landlady Svetlana out of the blue and then twenty minutes later was entering my card details on the easyJet website, I’ve started to feel my Russian soul re-awakening within me. My old Russian habits are coming back to me slowly, I discovered a Russian radio station based in Germany that plays non-stop Russian music for ex-patriates, and I’ve been listening to it every day. I’ve been speaking to Svetlana more as well, and my spoken Russian is coming back too – I’m aware that it’s still very stilted and unnatural, and I can only imagine what a shock that must be for Svetlana. I lived in her home for eight months, spoke Russian every day at the kitchen table, discussed the world, watched the news, and now only nine months later I’ve regressed so much as I’m sure she can hear. But this is one of the reasons I’m going back: I am determined not to let my theoretical, literary Russian that I have to use every day here in Oxford overtake my every-day Russian. The two have to learn to co-exist. But experiencing Russia in reality is a very different thing to theorising over it all day through 19th Century novels. After all, that would be trying to understand it with the mind.

My old 'dvor' in Yaroslavl

My old ‘dvor’ in Yaroslavl

Privacy is a concept that in Russia is non-existent. This is no exaggeration, the language has absolutely no word for it and hasn’t really needed one until fairly recently. The word that is substituted for the concept is “личность” (líchnost’), but problematically this word can also mean “individual”, “personality”, and in some cases even “personality cult”. Generally Russia’s urban population lives in small flats, stacked closely together with little or no soundproofing between them, arranged around a “двор” (dvor) or courtyard where everyone can see exactly who’s coming in and what they’re doing all the time. And this is a great improvement on living conditions on the whole since the days of the Soviet Union, where often people would share these small flats with several other families, with ten or twenty people living in just a few rooms and one bathroom – President Vladimir Putin himself grew up in one of these flats. As a result, privacy never really had a chance, which for English people with all our etiquette and nervousness and stiff upper lip obsession can be quite shocking.

Russians talk to you, they tell you things you wouldn’t talk about with your own mother, they ask you things they want to know, and they can rarely understand why you would be hesitant to share all this with them. I find it refreshingly genuine, and it’s a part of what makes Russians so hospitable and distinctive in their character. Especially on Russian trains, where you can find yourself sharing a little compartment with four or five other people for at best several hours and at most over a week, people make the effort to get to know each other – they exchange stories, they look after each other, and none of this has the air of small talk like it would in the UK or even the United States.

But people also know each other’s business, inside out. I heard every word that the elderly couple living underneath me used to say, Svetlana knew every last detail of the family upstairs’s son’s history of alcohol and drug abuse, and everybody knew that there were foreigners living in their building. “Здравствуйте! Ну вы, наверное, наш новый гость из-за границу. Добро пожаловать в наш город!” someone said to me quite early on as I passed them in the dvor. (“Hello! You must be our new guest from abroad. Welcome to our city!”) But this works the other way as well. I remember one morning, as I stumbled into the kitchen to have my daily breakfast of undeterminable fish on black bread with black tea, hearing the sound from somewhere upstairs of a babushka throwing open a window and screaming at a group of teenage girls lingering by the swings smoking and playing music on their phones: “Бегите в школу, девушки! Сегодня нет выходных!” (“Run to school, girls! It’s not a holiday today!“). Then when they gave her the finger, she screamed that she was going to call the police, and then come down with her rolling pin and beat them back to the school gates. They didn’t think twice and were gone in the blink of an eye.

The sense of society, of community, is strong in Russia, and it’s one that I’m proud to have once been a part of. Returning is not necessarily going to be straight forwards, and I’m very prepared for the fact that there will be a lot of ghosts. A lot of things happened over those fairy tale-like eight months, and it’s going to be bizarre revisiting them. A place that I had once never set eyes on suddenly became a part of me, and one that I find hard to subdue. Returning, however, will be the first chance I’ve had to try to revive it.