Caitlin Jebens in St. Petersburg

Essay: My Assessment of Russian Culture

Published: May 14, 2011

The following was written as a mid-term essay for an SRAS program in St. Petersburg. Students were encouraged to draw upon not only the program texts, but also on the impressions and experiences gained of Russia and Russians while on-the-ground in St. Petersburg. A select few of these essays have been chosen to be published in this issue of Vestnik.  

The Russian culture is as vast and mysterious as Russia’s abundant landscape and geographic reach. The subtleties of Russian culture initially enamored me during my first years of college. Now that I am experiencing it first-hand, I have the opportunity to peel back its layers and attempt to understand what makes Russians “tick.” Russia has long held a reputation as a country “behind the curve.” Throughout history, rulers such as Peter the Great have announced that Russia must “catch up” with Western society. This led to a never-ending identity crisis that still plagues Russia to this day—is Russia West European or simply “Russian?” Though Russia has often tried to match its society with that of Western Europe, it has and will always have a specifically Russian flavor that can be neither replaced nor erased. Its unique values reflect Russia’s equally unique historical development. Russian culture values pravdadusha, and the in-group, as well as time and money.

Pravda­ is most often translated as “truth.” Each Russian holds a certain belief in a personal “truth.” Pravda represents what is just and fair; it serves as a moral guideline by which “non-truths” in the world may be evaluated and navigated. The film Brother 2 addressed the cross-cultural issue of pravda between Russians and Americans, claiming the American pravda was centered upon money. In contrast, the film claimed Russian pravda to be firmly grounded in morality, friendship and honoring one’s fellow man.

I have encountered many Russians who hold tightly to their personal pravda, especially amoung the older generation, with whom the country’s Soviet past continues to resonate. These elder Russians, when explaining to me their viewpoints on certain matters, claim “it is the truth and there is no other truth.” For example, a woman at a metro newsstand informed me Sergei Bodrov (the star of Brother 2), on the cover of one magazine, was a “good man,” but a woman on the cover of a fashion magazine with a man holding her seductively was “trash,” garnering a dirty flick of the fingers on the cover. My Russian culture professor informed our class about what she believed to be the most famous painting in the world. When we offered differing opinions, she claimed these were incorrect and hers was the truth. It is my belief that this cultural remnant was formed through the utter loss of control Russians had in their everyday lives during Soviet times. Pravda was truth that could be counted on through those years of instability and helplessness under the communist regime of the time.

A similar concept to pravda, though harder to translate into English, is the Russian concept of dusha. Most translations offer the English word “soul” in place of dusha, though some have brought up the limitations of using “soul” as frequently as dusha is used. Perhaps this is because the concept of “soul” is not as laden with multiple meanings nor as ever-present in English-speaking cultures as dusha is in Russian. The English scholar Anna Wierzbicka claims the Russian concept of dusha not only refers to what we imagine “soul” to represent—feelings, emotions and one’s mood—but also to one’s inner life and secret thoughts, their “inner being,” health, an ever-present state subject to change; and yet also the core of one’s being in an everlasting state. According to Wierzbicka, “soul” may serve as an appropriate translation, but the high frequency that dusha is used in Russian is odd to the English ear. Dusha is a very personal concept, with greater emphasis and priority placed upon it than on the English “soul.”

Russian friendship is another unique and deeply ingrained cultural value that can be defined in the exclusive title of “friend,” or drug, as well as the inner complexities of the “in-group,” or krug. The interactions of Russian friendships live and grow within the in-group, a close circle of friends that is not easily formed, nor easily broken. In-groups may be formed over long years of growing friendship, through dusha-bearing moments of vulnerability and years of trust-building. Given the deep roots of these friendships, one’s duties to a friend are taken very seriously, with many Russians willing to go far out of their way and their comfort zones and spend much time and energy to help a friend. To refer to a person as an “acquaintance,” or znakomi, is not an insult in Russia as it may be in some countries, but merely a truthful remark about a less-serious relationship. However, the title of “friend” is a title to be treasured and held up with honor, respect, loyalty and trust. This has also complimented and may be a product of the unpredictability that has plagued Russian history: the in-group offered control, comfort, safety and security among friends who could be trusted and counted upon.

Time and money seem to have a lower priority in Russian culture and society than in others. I have been told by many Russians that Russians simply work to live. There are positives and negatives to this outlook on life. Some positives stand out as obvious—a life not focused on work is a life focused on the more “important things,” perhaps on pravda, the well-being of dusha, and friendship. It can be argued, however, that emphasis on work does not mean denying the “important things.” In fact, hard work and the ability to witness and reap the fruits of one’s labors are rewards that seem to be missing in Russian society. This often results in a misunderstanding of Russian culture, such thatmany foreigners feel frustrated, angered and even depressed when dealing with Russians at work. A lack of priority placed on time and money is evident when some employees do not return after breaks, shops close earlier than their posted times, and prices are raised considerably from one day to another and sometimes simply if the customer is a foreigner. This can be a great problem for many in learning about Russian culture, as it evokes a negative feeling towards a very closed and personal culture.

I have been told by many Russians, however, that once one breaks through the harsh exterior encountered in public, formal instances of day-to-day jobs, encounters on the street and on public transportation, etc., the true warmth, humor and hospitality of the Russian culture may be experienced. I saw this once, when I was able to spend a Sunday afternoon with my friend’s parents who live in St. Petersburg. I can honestly say that I have not experienced such hospitality or generosity in my life—and I live in the southern US, a land famous for hospitality! There is something to be said for a culture whose members “keep their cards closely guarded.” While it may appear detached or uncaring, the true Russian culture, when experienced in full vulnerability and trust, is a unique phenomenon to be treasured.

Every culture has positives and negatives, but putting those aside, Russia has incredibly distinct and Russian cultural values derived from a unique history. Russia, being located far enough from Western Europe to avoid a meshing of cultures with most of the West (that is, until globalization exploded onto the world stage and the Iron Curtain fell), has always seemed an enigma to the outside world. Even to this day, some values such as pravda, dusha, krug, and the Russian perspective on time and money remain a mystery to foreigners and are not always even translatable into other languages. Given its tumultuous history of occupation, expansion, and repressive empires and governments, the Russian culture can seem divided, conflicted, closely-guarded and mysterious. History defines the future, and Russians are living proof of this. However, if one is lucky enough to break through the rough exterior and be welcomed into the mystery of Russian culture, the experience itself is as unique as the culture and the country.


About the author

Caitlin Jebens

Caitlin Jebens is majoring in International Studies at the University of South Carolina. She hopes to eventually work for an international NGO or join the US Foreign Service.

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