Dealing with Russians is often confusing. We have a duality in almost all aspects of our behavior. We do not smile to strangers, but have a great sense of humor. We are pessimistic when things go well, but have great stamina and joke, when they don’t. We believe in fate but will never cross the path of a black cat. Does the famous “Russian Soul” really exist and what is it?
It is impossible to fully describe Russian national character in one post. Here are just some snippets that may help you better understand Russians.
Russians Are Very Direct
That is not necessarily bad – we do say what we think and you can be sure we say what we mean.
But we are not born-diplomats at all. If we do not like your idea, we will rather say it is stupid, than (like the British people) – that it is “interesting”. We are often thought of as being rude because of it. We are not, we just give you an honest feedback. You may argue that we are wrong in return, that is very acceptable. We love heated discussions!
Russians Are Rude to Strangers, Polite To Acquaintances And Rude To The Close Circle
That one is interesting. We do not care about you at all if we do not know you. But will be really nice to you if you are a friend of a friend and will go out of our way to help you. But if you are our spouse or a close friend – we will skip “thank you, please, would you be so kind etc.” You will think – what is going on? Why are we suddenly hostile? We are not. We just do not think we need to say extra words if we are already close friends or more. We just omit the unnecessary reverences, but if you need us – we will always be there for you.
Russians Tolerate Cheating At Exams But Will Never Betray Friends
Cheating at exams
If you cheat at the exam – we would rather help you than turn you in. If you commit a bad thing at work and we know about it – we would rather keep silence than turn you in (even if we disagree and think it is bad). Turning somebody in – that is what is considered a crime. Questionable in the case of exams, but that is how ethics works here.
In the same time that behavior has its positives. You can always rely on your friends and be very open with them. They will tell you what they think about you and your stupid behavior, but will try to help you to get out of any difficult situation. As we say – Russian will give the only shirt he has to a friend.
Russians Do Judge And Think That It Is OK
Nothing gets unnoticed by babushkas, resting on a bench near apartment building entrances
We will judge how strangers dress their kids to school (“you are a bad mom, your kid is not wearing a hat”). We will tell you that your kid should wear a hat even if you do not ask our opinion. We will judge how you dress at work, how you live etc. We honestly think it is in your benefit and should be considered as a valuable feedback. Terrible part of the character, which may have come from the Soviet times, when various committees at work or in school were allowed to publicly judge unwanted behavior.
Famous “Russian soul”. Does it really exist?
Not all Russians have a mentality, described in Dostoevsky novels, but we all have a bit of a dark side in us. Reading too much and living without proper sunshine for 9 months a year makes one think about life and gives a lot of time to do so. From what I read about a correlation of happiness and a number of sun days around the world – there is a strong correlation between these two parameters. We, Russians, are most similar in our mentality to people from South America in many aspects. But we and them have a different level of base happiness. Russians tend to overanalyze things, expect pessimistic outcome even if things go rather well. Long winter nights in our cold country give us a lot of time for self-reflection.
Here is how the city looks on a sunny and on a foggy day from the same point. Difference is even more pronounced when it is a snowy, winter, foggy, grey day:
In the same time, if things are really bad – we pull ourselves together, get help from friends, believe that the dark stripe will always be followed by a white one and invent really funny jokes about the situation. We are very strong in the times of hardship.
Black cat brings bad luck
So, what is a typical Russian soul? It is indeed more on a pessimist side. But with a strong belief in luck and magical forces that can make a difference. It is quite rare for a Russian to be in a super elevated mood and see the life through rosy lenses. There are so many things, which can go wrong, even when everything looks fine. One of the most famous modern sayings, which captures the essence of our attitude towards life was a saying from a former prime minister Chernomyrdin. He said – ‘we always want to do our best, but things turn out as usual”. Hell is full of good meanings and intents. But Russians are fatalists in their core. Unlike Americans with their “can do attitude”, we always expect that external forces will be against our best wishes and intents. In the same time, we truly believe that luck and other good forces can truly help us. This is an ongoing battle and we do think about cause and effect a lot. Maybe even too much.
We are prone to analyze and over-analyze all our conversations with people. Very often we seriously discuss not the exact words that a person said to us, but what we think he or she really thought or felt at the moment. Non-verbal communication is something that we pay a lot of attention to. In most cases it has nothing to do with open/closed postures or other scientific stuff. It is about – “I said this and I felt that she was uncomfortable with the news. She answered that, but I think she felt the opposite”. One of the popular Russian pop songs has the following text – “I glanced back to see if she had glanced back to see whether I had glanced back”. That behavior is very typical for us.
If we consume alcohol – we do not become silly. Well, maybe for a moment. But after it – we become very serious and engage in long conversations about meaning of life. And nothing is more bonding than having a deep and quality discussion with a Russian, whether it is under influence of alcohol or not.
I think that any Russian should find friends from South America. Knowing people, who are so similar to us in so many ways, but so much lighter in how they treat life makes us more happy. We charge ourselves with positive energy from such friends and see life in a much more positive way. Cheers to all my friends from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and other countries from that region!
I do know most of these things because I am Russian and am an insider in the Russian culture. But some of them I have learned in the amazing class on Coursera on Understanding Russians. Hope that class will be offered again next year and really recommend to take it if you are curious to explore the reasons behind Russian character traits and develop your own definition of the famous “Russian Soul”!
A lot has been said and written about the inscrutable ‘Russian soul’ – yet, it still keeps its mystery. No wonder. Here are some of our thoughts about the common traits of the people inhabiting this multiform and contradictive country. Certainly, the picture is only approximate, as those traits vary greatly depending on an age group, region, education, profession, belief, etc. Yet, we hope it will help you understand the Russians better.
Go there no one knows where and bring nobody knows what
All that is done is done for the better
Hope for the better and be ready for the worst
The severity of law is compensated with its loose observance
Revolutionists or conformists?
Lazy or efficient?
Better have a hundred friends than a hundred rubles
What is good for a German, for a Russian is death
'Spacious soul' or 'big nature' - that will be the first thing to hear from a Russian if asked about the Russian national character. The phrase has become a commonplace, while its meaning is not so easy to define.
"Russian people are altogether spacious people, just like their land, and extremely inclined to the fantastic and disorderly", - a Dostoyevsky's character says in "Crime and Punishment".
Just picture the vast expanses of this country stretching over the continent and uniting Europe and Asia, with a great variety of landscapes, nations and cultures … and you will perceive its infinity reverberating in the unconscious collective mind of its people. One life would not be enough to visit all the places of this land; its spaces are hard to take control over and its riches seem impossible to waste. Hence, the Russian generosity and spontaneity, our weakness for extremes and longing for the unknown, as well as our unpredictability and lack of order and certainty.
"Go there no one knows where and bring nobody knows what"- that is the task given to the main hero in many Russian tales. The mission sounds absurd; yet, the hero gets a magic object (a clew of threads or an apple) rolling before him and showing the right path to follow. Similarly, a Russian person is guided by intuition (one's inner voice or the Lord's will, whatever) rather than by mere reason.
Not that logic is null and void here, far from it. Yet when planning something in this country, keep free space left for alternative ways and be prepared that with the Russians some plans might change and events take quite another turn all of a sudden; do not get upset beforehand, anyway - it may happen that some additional opportunities will come your way.
"All that is done is done for the better" - one of the favorite Russian sayings goes. On the one hand, it implies optimistic and adventurous outlook, on the other hand, sheer fatalism and passivity - the opposites coming together in Russian people - drifting throughout life, we are apt to adapt to ever-changing circumstances rather than to oppose them. That feature is quite understandable if you take into account our history of upheavals and cataclysms, from the Tatar yoke with numerous barbaric forays to the 20th century with world and civil wars, revolutions, repressions, coup d'etats and shocking reforms.
Tomorrow is not secured - how can one 'build' one's life (what is quite normal for a Westerner)?
"Hope for the better and be ready for the worst" - the Russians say. And our most common hope is that 'it will work out somehow by itself'. 'A peasant needs thunder to cross oneself and wonder'. Perhaps it is for that notorious Russian carelessness that we are easily beguiled and made use of by various leaders coming in a long train.
Justice and law Unfortunately in Russia these two notions are far from being synonyms. The Russian people and the authorities are concordant about one thing, which is mutual mistrust. Subconsciously, the state is perceived as a mechanism encroaching upon the rights and freedoms of its citizens instead of protecting them. "The severity of law is compensated with its loose observance", - they joke here. The laws can be manipulated in the interests of the mighty of this world, we know from experience. No law can provide for every eventuality of life, we believe. So, relations between individuals are regulated by the idea of justice (as a moral feeling), which is prior to law in Russia. If you are facing the notorious red tape or predicaments caused by certain public or legal agents, do not hesitate to discuss it with your Russian friends. Your indignation will be shared with great pleasure: we use every chance to criticize and jeer at the officialdom, militia and government. Perhaps you will also get some expert advice concerning ways out.
Revolutionists or conformists? Russian patience seems endless as a Russian open country. This people have revealed its ability to endure any privations and severities - an almost superhuman ingeniousness in surviving inhuman living conditions. Moreover, one can suspect a sort of liking to bearing this cross, a certain pride for it. The spiritual experience of the Russian people not in the least proceeding from its sufferings, has given the world invaluable works of art and literature.
The habit for hardships and peaceful nature make the Russians conformists: we dislike open conflicts and prefer compromising. "A lean compromise is better than a fat lawsuit", - that's quite true for us. We can long put up with pressure and injustice (though at heart we might rebel) - but once we explode with all our long suppressed offences - there is no stop to it, watch out!
Lazy or efficient? Russian laziness is almost as notorious as Russian 'spacious soul'. Every Russian soul harbours Yemelya, the great idler, a fairy-tale hero, who does not have to get off his favourite place - a stove, as it can carry him anywhere and all his wishes are fulfilled by magic.
Russian laziness is dreamy and meditative. In a philosophic sense, it is opposed to the worldly haste and 'vanity of vanities'. At times we cannot but submit to our 'Mummy-Laziness' and indulge in musing and wool-gathering - and that in the very thick of work! Not that we welcome or severely criticize it - we rather take it as an elemental force, which can as well endow one with insights and original ideas. Yet, most of these great ideas are not realized for that very laziness. We'll think ten times if something is worth our efforts, before we move a finger.
If you are working in Russia, keep in mind that a Russian person needs time to 'pull oneself together', that is to focus all one's 'infinite soul' on a definite goal. But when ready and interested and emotionally involved, one can beat records in efficiency.
We enjoy challenges and beating records and can work overtime for that - isn't that a good compensation for our tendency to be late at work? Your venture might be a great success if you resort to the famous Russian serendipity…if it clicks incidentally.
Generous spendthrifts The vastness of this land implies our full-handedness. Fond of making handsome gestures, we enjoy surprising our friends and guests with generous gifts and regales. Even if the hosts are having hard times, they will do their best to treat their guests well.
Naturally, the same generosity is expected from you - and it should be sincere. Pettiness and greediness are considered real sins here. Counting expenses on friendly meetings or checking the bill in a restaurant will seem petty. It is natural that everyone contributes to the common good as much as one can. Not long ago it was ok to lend money to a friend in need and forget about it. Nowadays, the commercialization of this country makes the Russians more and more tough-minded and shrewd. But that is not natural for us. It is in our blood to share what we have and hope on somebody's help. Who knows better than the Russians that material wealth is the most unreliable thing? 'God has given, and God will take it back', a Russian saying goes, often used with regard to money and possessions. 'Give, spend and God will send' also suits here. Deep down, the privacy of material possessions is doubted. Surely that has to do with the notorious
Russian collectivism, which is more than just an aftermath of the Soviet times. It takes its roots in the communal living of the Old Rus and the Orthodox moral values. Our inclination to work jointly for the common good, share what we have and rely on somebody's help is based on the feeling of kindred with other people. That is well reflected in the Russian language: a number of words denoting blood relations, such as sonny, mummy, grandpa, grandma, daddy, daughter, sister, etc. can be used when informally addressing somebody, even strangers. The most intimate word expressing deep feelings between soulmates is rodnoy (akin and that's why dear).
"Better have a hundred friends than a hundred roubles". In Russia it works a hundred-per-cent. Personal relations play here a more important role than one's social status or bank account. The dark side of it is that a person's success often depends on profitable connections rather than on one's talents and professionalism. However, this misuse of the unwritten law on mutual aid is weakening nowadays, together with the feeling of fellowship. Yet, it is still habitual among students and co-workers to help each other rather than compete, which is more customary for the Westerners.
"What is good for a Russian, for a German is death "(or vice versa)- another Russian saying goes. Nowadays Russia bent on the Western and European standards is driving towards stability and living on credit, convenient but binding. Yet, it will hardly ever become that stable. Extra stability verging on routine is very suppressing for the Russians. Smooth and scheduled living and working void of variation and collision, that makes a European feel comfortable will depress a Russian. Yet, there is no such a risk - we'll always find some entanglements to use our century-old cultivated resourcefulness.