Today, Russia is arguably one of the most controversial countries on the planet. Much is said about them one way or the other (primarily due to Vladimir Putin), and very few countries have as many stereotypes (especially negative ones) floating around about them. While it’s understandable for many Westerners to be worried about Russian influence on their governments or people, it’s also important to be able to separate the Russian people and culture from their government, and to understand who the Russians really are — and not just what we know from crude and often demeaning stereotypes.
10. Russians Don’t Look At Governance The Same Way Many Westerners Do
Many Americans and other Western countries have trouble understanding Russians’ idea of government, because Westerners cannot imagine a life where they could have so little personal freedom. To Westerners, personal freedom — or at least the appearance of it — is practically a life or death matter. Now, Russians see things differently. It isn’t that they are naturally submissive or something, but the Russian people have never really had anything like the Democracy that many Western countries enjoy… and the Russian people go back a very long way.
When you haven’t ever had something in the first place, you’re hardly going to find yourself missing it greatly or fighting for it. For this reason, personal freedoms are a much lower priority for many Russians, and they don’t entirely understand why so many countries are worried about those issues. Particularly when they haven’t fixed other problems yet. This doesn’t mean there’s no one in Russia interested in Democracy, but by and large, you aren’t likely to find many willing to risk prison for something they’ve never even had to begin with.
9. Russians Look European, But Are Also Sort Of Asian
Perhaps one of the things that makes it so difficult for Westerners to deal with Russians is that they look so similar to many of us, despite thinking so drastically differently. This likely stems from their cultural origins. The larger portion of Russia is, geographically, essentially in Asia, but the more populated part is in what some call “European Russia” — a portion of Russia that’s still considered part of Eastern Europe. This is all quite confusing, and borders are all, of course, man-made to begin with, but the overall issue is that the Russian people hardly fit in any normal cultural box.
Even the ones from “European Russia” are still much farther East than most people who are considered to be from Europe, and this likely changes their thinking. They’re also part of a country that has much of its territory in the actual continent of Asia, which means many people from the European part will still have their culture influenced by the more Asian part. For this reason, some in Russia have said they felt they have a more unique identity, which is actually part Asian and part Eastern European.
8. Napoleon Made Them Incredibly Paranoid Long Ago; Now Others Think Them Aggressive
Americans Tchaikovsky’s Overture of 1812 well, and some even confuse as being in reference to the American War of 1812. However, at that same time in history, there was a war going on basically all over the world because of a little guy named Napoleon. This titchy fellow had been stirring up the nest all over the place, and had even pushed his way into Russia. Now, today many people look at this as a folly of Napoleon, and talk about how Hitler later repeated the same mistake: Attacking the hardy Russian people during the harsh winter.
However, the truth was that Napoleon came far closer, at least in the Russians’ minds, to completing a successful invasion than they were comfortable with. They were absolutely terrified, and never forgot it. Well over 100 years later, the term “Bonapartist” would still be a fairly common term in Russia. They feared the idea of a warrior general rising up and going on a rampage so much that they immortalized Napoleon’s name with a specific word for his little invasion attempt into their country. Many people today think the Russians are just aggressive, but this near-miss so long ago drove them to shore up their borders, and it’s primarily for this reason they’ve been so hostile to those closest to them since. The truth is that the Russians only won with scorched earth tactics and great losses. Napoleon scarred them forever.
7. Russian National Pride Goes Back A Long Way, But Has Clashed With French Culture
Some people don’t understand why Russians are willing to forego so much comfort for the good of their country, and many people like to claim it’s Soviet propaganda. But the Russian people have been behaving this way for some time now. Considering the country of Russia is really one of the oldest surviving countries and cultures in the world, it’s not surprising that they have a gigantic wellspring of national pride, whether the situation warrants it or not. They also have a history of dictatorships, which means they’re used to simply being proud of their country and letting others run it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Russians have always remained truly proud and obsessed with Slavic culture. A situation that still exists (to a smaller extent) today — but blew up shortly after the time of Napoleon — is the fight between the Slavophiles and the Francophiles. The Slavophiles wanted to keep Russia Slavic and focus on Slavic cultures, traditions, dress, and customs. However, enthralled and enraptured by the French, many young people were now dressing in French fashions, taking up their customs, and studying their culture and language. This has changed the Russian people even further over the years and, if anything, has made them even more incomprehensible to the rest of the world.
6. The Russian Concept of “Poshlost” Explains Why They Often Think Of Wealth Differently
These days you have people who like to make fun of people like the Kardashians, or joke about how they became famous for doing literally nothing at all. However, at the same time, many of those same people view being in a position like the Kardashians as something to aspire to. Now, despite misconceptions, the Kardashians still have a lot of work to do to maintain their empire of nothing. But many see their lifestyle as an aspiration because it’s perceived as a life where they can just chill and enjoy the finer things while not having to work or do… well, anything. In many ways this almost makes them the ultimate American dream, but Russians would find the whole thing ridiculous.
While there are some Russian billionaires today, and Russia has a lot of corruption, those who are at least in business or working are given a great deal of respect by the common person regardless of their ridiculous wealth. It’s only the playboys, who don’t really work or do anything, that get the true disrespect. In Russian literature, there’s a concept that many of the greats like Pushkin, or Lermontov, wrote about called “Poshlost.” Poshlost has been called untranslatable, but we will try our best to explain the concept: it’s used to refer to outer beauty, or empty wealth that is flaunted, while the individuals behind that wealth spend most of their time lounging, trying to look important, and contributing nothing of value to society at all. In a way, it was a backlash to the fashionable trappings of high society brought forth by the Francophile fad.
5. The Idea Of Struggle Is Entirely Embedded In The Russian Cultural Ethos
One of the things many people in America, in particular, understand least about the Russians is their willingness to accept a life without a lot of particular luxuries, and without a lot of options in general. This isn’t because the Russians are just masochistic and enjoy taking punishment, or are trying to prove some kind of specific point. Nor are the Russian people necessarily taking one for the team in order to advance the cause of the current government. The biggest reason most Russians are okay with things being that way is because, within in their ethos, the idea of struggle is deeply embedded.
In many ways, it may by their most important cultural value: Working hard and muddling through to get by is seen as extremely important. For a culture that’s often had to deal with poverty and want, even under their most benevolent leaders, this was something they had to learn as a people very early on. In many ways it has defined them, and explains why they are willing to accept what many in Western culture would consider unacceptable. They are simply far more accustomed to hardship, so they don’t act like everything is out of sorts when things get difficult.
4. The Origins Of Their Language, And Its Structure, Give Them A Unique Perspective
The Russian language, and most Slavic languages, use the Cyrillic Alphabet; however, the origin of their written language is rather strange. The people of the region had mostly used spoken-word and wrote little down when two Catholic missionaries named Cyril and Methodius traveled to the region. These two decided to help create an alphabet and written-word system for the language spoken by the people of the region, and something similar is in use today in most Slavic Countries. Now, this gives them a rather unique language structure and perspective.
The language itself was formed entirely by natives of the region, but the written form was made up mostly by outsiders who didn’t entirely understand their thinking. This has created a language system where the written word (and, as they’ve evolved together, sometimes even the spoken word) are hard to articulate the way the writer would want. Many writers like Pushkin took the written form of Russian to its limit to extract as much wordplay as possible, but they could only go so far, despite their genius.
3. Russians Are Generally Thought Of As A Drunk Country, But There Is A Lot More To It
One of the most famous stereotypes about the Russians is that they are huge drunks, and may even be bigger drunks than the Irish. People talk about teens using mouthwash, hand sanitizer, and other awful things, but in any country with poverty and bored children, things like that aren’t uncommon. And while people like to act like the average Russian just pounds alcohol like there’s no tomorrow, even among the heavy drinkers there are customs to drinking, and it’s only when you ignore them and actually do start pounding for no reason (which is relatively rare) that you have a real problem.
In Russia, drinking is a big social thing, but it is accompanied by lots of little bits of food, toasting to friends, and good conversation and camaraderie in general. Russians like to toast to things while drinking so they have a reason to imbibe, and it’s custom to eat a bit of food after each shot or drink — both for your health, and to avoid a hangover later. Many Russians will simply not drink if they don’t at least have a little bit of bread so they can have a little bite with each drink.
2. Internet Pirates Are Often Russian, But Due To Poverty, Not Inherent Cultural Dishonesty
The Pirate Bay, and other popular torrent sites, have always had a huge amount of torrents coming from Russian hackers. Many who pirate a lot are all too familiar with their written “Russian Accent” and have noticed that many torrented movies have Russian subtitles. Now, some people have noticed this and come to the conclusion that Russians are inherently dishonest or thieves, but this is not really the case.
For starters, an incredible amount of Westerners use torrent sites — even middle class Westerners — so it’s a little bit hypocritical to brand Russians as thieves. However, more to the point, many common Russian folk feel compelled to do these things because they are desperately poor, and simply cannot afford the content otherwise. In many cases it may not even be available for legitimate purchase within their country, so they have to resort to piracy in order to get past government censorship. Russians aren’t generally a bunch of horrible cyber thieves; well, at least not any more-so than most other modern countries and people. Also, while Russians aren’t more dishonest, necessarily, they are better educated than many countries when it comes to IT.
1. The Russian People Usually Know Full Well When They Are Being Fed Propaganda
A lot of folks think that the Russian people are easily fooled, and that Ol’ Putin completely has the wool over their eyes. They believe that Putin’s propaganda machine has managed to get people under his spell, and that they are basically putty in his hands. However, the situation — and the Russian people by extension — are a lot more complex and complicated than that. The Russian people are well aware of the concept of propaganda, and have a word called “Pravda” (which some of you may be familiar with) due to the ironically named Soviet Propaganda paper of the same name.
Now for those who aren’t aware, Pravda means “truth,” but it can also mean a lot more (or less) than that. Some know that Pravda was used sarcastically as a phrase to subtly disagree with Soviet propaganda, but most Westerners don’t know how long this phrase has been in use, or how many things it can mean (and it can mean dozens of things). After all, Russians may not have as many words as some languages, so they often use the same word to mean many things.
Pravda can mean actual truth, but it can also mean that you know you aren’t being told the truth, and are very slightly sarcastically saying “Oh yes, of course I believe that,” when you both know it’s a lie. And this is the funny thing about the Russian propaganda machine: It often knows it isn’t really fooling anyone, and the people often know they aren’t being fooled, but everyone pretends the propaganda is working anyway in order to avoid any kind of confrontation with the government.