Russian People, Government, Life, Health

By OptiLingo

What Does it Mean to Be Russian?

A Portrait of a Russian

It wasn’t long ago that an official study tried to look at just how people in Russia viewed themselves. The responses were all over the map and appear to show a people who love everything about their culture at one time, and despise most of what makes up Russia at other times. The responses show that Russians consider themselves, “open hearted and kind, hospitable, lazy and irresponsible, unpragmatic, and patient to the point of humiliation.”

It should be pointed out that there is even a Russian folktale that appears to show just how people in Russia can feel as though their personalities cover so many disparate angles at the same time. In that folktale, Емеля is both lovable and gullible and just a bit lazy. While his older brothers are considered quite a bit smarter, the tale’s hero gets what he wants in the end, despite not working very hard to get it.

The desire to work hard and yet the desire to get things without working hard can certainly be seen in the history of the country. While the government has always encouraged Russian citizens to work as hard as they could, they were also forced to give up what they had created. Why would a citizenry want to work twice as hard as their neighbor, if the fruits of their labor were just going to be taken away by the government or by a Tsar? At the same time, the Russian people have endured one hardship after another and continue to fuel one of the true world powers.

Resignation through Optimistic Fatalism

When attempting to get to know the Russian people, there is one underlying personality trait you should come to understand. That personality trait is often referred to as Optimistic Fatalism. In a poll that was conducted in 2000, Russian respondents were shown 42 different proverbs and asked to pick the one they felt most befit their own personal motto. The proverb that won was, “Whatever is done is done for the better” – “Всё, чтониделается, – клучшему.”

This proverb underlines what makes up optimistic fatalism. In essence, it simply means that life is going do what life is going do and we can’t stop it. We have to roll with the punches and just carry on in the wake of whatever happens. At the very heart of this approach is that only outside forces are really going to be able to change your lot in life. It’s a safe bet that at least some of this comes from a government that didn’t want its people to be too unhappy about their lot in life.

Because life was pretty hard in Soviet Russia for the average citizen, it would not have been good for those in charge to have to deal with people who wondered why some were getting special treatment while others were struggling to feed their families. The communist regime was supposed to be predicated on the idea that everyone was equal, but the government clearly gave special treatment to those who rose up the ranks in the party leadership.

Heart and Gut over Head

While people in the West are generally considered to operate more based on facts and figures, the Russian culture is one that still heavily relies on emotional responses. Researchers recently found a way to demonstrate the difference by saying that when Westerners say things like “I think…” a Russian would say “I feel … “ (“Ячувствую…”) There is a reason the Russian language works so hard at describing emotions. It’s because the culture that spawned that languages loves the ability to speak in terms of different emotions, rather than points of view. Russians still say “ядумаю…” (“I think”), but you would hear “ячувствую…”very often.

The emotional aspects of Russian life are portrayed in a number of different ways. The Russian Orthodox Church, easily the country’s largest religion, is all about chanting and humming and attempting to evoke an emotional reaction, rather than a critical one. It’s important to note that while the Russian Orthodoxy attempts to lift people up, the emotion that is most prevalent when people think and talk about Russia is a kind of gloomy sourpuss approach. There is a rather famous portrayal of this gloomy outlook on life in the movie “Moscow on the Hudson.”

A musician from Russia who is attempting to defect to the United States tells his friend, “Everybody in Russia loves his misery. We haven’t got much else, but each one will love his own misery, watch it grow, and look after it—it is his own misery after all!” It seems as though this is indeed something that is basically celebrated in Russia, thanks to its history as a long-suffering nation with a population of long-suffering people.

The Soul of Superstitions

While most people in the 21st century are quite a bit less superstitious than their ancestors, Russia is a place that still has plenty of “true believers” about a whole host of superstitions. This is especially true when you are talking about the Russian business world.

If you are attempting to do any kind of business in Russia or with Russians, there are a few things you should know. Chief among them is that if you try to shake hands with someone at the threshold of a door, you will likely get a very concerned frown. Russian superstition holds that doing a handshake in that location is only going to bring bad luck.

There are many, many more superstitions that tend to permeate Russian culture thanks to a wholesale love of all things mystical and magical in Russia. Among other things you should never, ever do is to leave an empty bottle on the table or to whistle while you are inside someone’s home or in a car because Russians believe there will be no money because of that.

The Dacha (“Дача”)

Featured prominently in nineteenth century novels and Russian literature, “дачи” was perceived as a refuge where city dwellers spent their summers. With the white mansions as a backdrop and lined with orchards, ladies spent their days under a lacy umbrella in the shade while their men discussed politics over tea. After post-revolutionary Russia hit, the poor were also given the opportunity to enjoy “дача.”

Pieces of land were then allocated by the state and given to research facilities or factories. The managers were then in charge of the division of the land. Based on the plot distribution, Russians who normally couldn’t afford such luxuries could now purchase their own parcel without having to foot the bill for “дача.” They used “дача” as a weekend retreat to relax and get back to their peasant roots. With “перестройка,” prices skyrocketed and many Russians were left without jobs. Thankfully the vegetable plots on “дачи” provided a means whereby the people could live and survive with the food they grew.

“Дача” unifies the various classes of Russia. Although they may be different in stature such as a mansion for some and shabby hut for others, they are obsessed with the place. Similar to the way the British love to garden, the call to “дача” for Russians is like no other. It’s a part of Russia just as their caviar, bureaucracy and vodka. Built approximately 50 years or more ago and with an outdoor toilet, some can’t help but be drawn to the retreats.

Talking about how successful you are going to be in a specific endeavor is believed to be a very good way to make sure the opposite comes to be. This is especially true when talking about a future business deal. When talking about positive things that could happen to you, you’re more likely to get what you want should you have been married in the rain, or make a wish while sitting between two people who share the same name. There are many other superstitions along the same lines as these that you’ll need to educate yourself on if you want to have success in Russia.

The Russian Community

Love of the Motherland

The love of “Родина” (the Motherland) has always given Russians inspiration and strength. The national idea has become a uniting ideology in the absence of a common goal after the collapse of communism.

60 percent of the population welcomed the return of the music of the national anthem of the USSR as the Russian national anthem and the double-headed eagle (symbol of tsarist Russia before the revolution) as the national emblem.

Russian military history has always been a source of national pride. An inherent sense of justice, self-sacrifice, courage and discipline are traditional Russian military values. Patriotic films about Russian military bravery and discipline in bygone and in present times are shown almost weekly on national television. This is a vivid testimony of the resurgence of this spirit today.

Yet Russia’s massive territory needed protection from its neighbors. In many postwar years the Soviet population lived by the slogan, “We’ll survive any hardships as long as there is no war.” Russian military strength provided additional security and an all-important boost for morale and productivity.

However, there is also a tendency to worry in the present surge of Russian patriotism. In 2003, the slogan “Россиядлярусских”(“Russia for the Russians”) was supported by about 15 percent of the population. In 2006, this figure was more than 50 percent. Sociologists see this as a response to poverty and discontent with the steady flow of working migrants from the former Soviet republics.

The Ideal Individual Is Equal to All

Russia is known for teaching the value of equality through stories and fairytales.

Here are a few Russian favorites:

The first story is about a Russian student who is sharing a room with two English students in a hostel in St. Petersburg. He becomes horrified when one of the English girls brings herself a glass of milk and a bun from the downstairs cafeteria.

“How could she do that?” asks the Russian student indignantly.

“But you didn’t ask her to bring you a bun,” comments the other English student.

“I am not at all hungry, but that’s not the point! She should have thought about you and me and not just about herself!” he replies.

The second story is a fairytale every child in Russia learns written by a famous writer named Pushkin. It is about a fisherman, his wicked wife and a goldfish.

A goldfish that was caught by a fisherman grants him and his wife three wishes.

The fisherman’s wife begins reciting her wishes. She wishes for higher status and a bigger home with each wish. The goldfish fulfills most of her desires, but it stops when she aims too high. She is sent back to her hut after her wishes become too greedy.

This tale sparkles with Pushkin’s wonderful gift of storytelling. It also reminds a Russian, “Don’t try to rise above your peers. Don’t aim too high, or you will lose everything.”

Nowadays, the principle of social justice manifests itself in nostalgia. These stories show open disapproval of those who are richer and more successful. The Party of Social Justice (which recently merged with another influential party, the Party of Pensioners) has a significant number of supporters.

A Communal Spirit

In the 1930s, around 80 percent of Russians were still working on the land even though the industrialization plan of the communist government in the 1920s led to the migration of millions of peasants into urban areas.

Those new city dwellers brought with them the agrarian values of the “коммуна” or the village commune “колхоз.” This was historically the core of Russian peasant life.

The head of the “коммуна” symbolized the patriarchal power of the family. He controlled the communal purse and was the ultimate authority. Members of the “коммуна” had to be prepared to help each other survive. They would harvest together and fulfill their social roles dutifully.

Cooperation and reciprocity were the key values of the commune. Everything in the “коммуна” was divided between the members on the principles of social equality and established order. Members of the commune disapproved of anybody who wanted to break out of his allocated role, have his own way or earn more money.

The principles of social justice and equality have been ingrained in the Russian public consciousness as a result. The traditional Russian communal spirit is alive and well thanks to 70 years of classless societies under communism.

Russian Education

Early Education

Education for Russian children typically begins early and at the pre-school age. This means that children under six could begin going to school. The primary focus of the early age school programs are physical and intellectual activities. With three levels of education, school could last close to eleven years. Children in the United States and Europe are in school for 12 years. The school year also typically runs from September 1st to the first week in June. School exams are typically taken in June before school lets out for the summer.

With up to 12 hours of school and homework per day for younger children and sixteen for older kids, many are finding themselves overburdened at an early age. The situation has become so dire that the government has planned to introduce more feasible regulatory standards to schools. This will help lessen the amount of school work students will have to undertake. The better guidelines can also reduce stress for those so young.

Schools without a centralized program in education are responsible for choosing their own school courses. This can include the mandatory math, politics, Russian language, foreign languages, history, writing and science to hobbies such as beekeeping. There are also specialty schools with arts, music and sports on the curriculum. On the other hand, while some children see themselves with too much schooling and homework, others don’t have any to contend with. Truancy for Russian children is at an approximate two million truants. Parents of children who are truant can face jail time if their kids fail to go to school.

Higher Education

Russia boasts over 24 universities. At least 10 of them deemed in the top 400 world-wide. In recent years, Russia has done a major overhaul in its higher education classes. They’ve spent close to $7 billion to upgrade the academies and improve the technology used to teach the students. Lomonosov Moscow State University is listed as the highest-ranking university in Russia, and it has an enrollment that almost reaches the 50,000 mark. Novosibirsk State University and Saint Petersburg State University are other notable and prestigious universities with high-rankings.

Higher education reforms proposed by the Russian government has been debated. A typical degree course at university levels can last five years. You can add another two years for those taking post graduate courses.

Reforms stipulate a three-year bachelor’s degree and two-year master program afterward. However, university professors feel that the system in place would offer students who are ill-prepared for the world. The free Soviet university system is fading. An approximate 89 percent of parents of college-age students in Russia are now willing to take the money out of their own pockets and put it towards their children’s education. In addition to the added learning, a college education can bring them more money and future career success.

Parents sending their children to college in Russia may want to start saving early on. Although higher education is typically dependent on the school and study program, the costs can be around $2,000 to $8,000 per year.

The Typical Russian Education

Russia inherited its strict education principles from the Soviet system. Here their rigid philosophy was based on collective development. Punishment was also used more frequently over praise and positive authority. Core subjects in the Russian school system were focused on the basics and classes in science. They also frowned on students who were free thinkers. Aimed at the emotional, physical, intellectual and moral development, the skills mastered in Russian schools are now in place to help students adapt in society and life. The lessons learned can be taken with them and used in obtaining higher education. Students can also use the skills to get ahead in life as they graduate and move into adulthood.

Organized by the state, the education system is free of charge and ensures that everyone is a welcome participant, no matter the class or poverty level. An average 8 percent of children now attend private schools. This is a significant rise over years past. However, most schools are state represented. Many Russian school age children look to careers in the management field. This may be caused by a change in educational principles. Although once run by the Ministry of Education, programs are now geared toward emotional growth, leadership and making friends. This type of thinking has progressed over the years and represents the advancements in the education system.

What Type of Government Does Russia Have?

An Uneasy Resistance to Change

Every society develops its own mechanism of adaptation to times of social transformation and instability. In the 1990s, the breakup of the Communist system led to the bizarre transformation of some values and to the appearance of new ones.

The diminished role of the father figure state made many people feel like abandoned children.

The older generation retreated into passiveness and was not ready to accept the new freedoms or the idea of property rights. After seventy years in an egalitarian society, adjusting to the idea of ownership was a burden too heavy for many to bear.

There is no surprise that crime flourished at the beginning of the 1990s since organized crime has its own system of values. These values included total obedience within the group and adherence to a strict clan hierarchy.

This phenomenon was not merely an outcry against unstable times, but it was also a sinister version of the Russian “коммуна” mentality. It ruled by fear and the submission of individuality.

The time of hope, poverty, freedom and complete confusion at the beginning of the 1990s was replaced by disappointment with the reform’s lack of results. Many citizens lost faith in the government and accepted overwhelming corruption at all levels of power.

All these factors have contributed to worrying tendencies in present-day Russian society: national pride sometimes turns to extremism. Exasperation is replaced by aggressiveness and loss of hope that leads to total passivity.

According to a recent sociological survey, 43 percent of the Russian population will vote for the presidential candidate nominated by the president.

The Contradictor Attitude Toward Authority

The Russian saying, “Безцарявголове” translates to, “Without a tsar in his head.” It refers to somebody who does not know what he is doing. Or, one who does not listen to the tsar telling him what to do.

In the 19th century, even Russian liberals cited autocracy as one of three foundation stones of the Russian state along with spirituality and a communal spirit. The tradition of a powerful leader, be it a tsar or a president, is still strong in Russia today.

The Russian president often repeats that he would like the public to see him as a person they have hired for the job, but opinion polls show that the Russian Царь is primarily regarded as a father figure.

Unfortunately, the Russian autocratic tradition was often based on fear. The reigns of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great are solid examples of this.

The pervasiveness and intensity of fear reached its nadir during the bloody regime of Joseph Stalin, and this fear and the necessity to obey orders created a fundamental contradiction in the Russian attitude to authority.

“A peasant will listen to what the master has to say, but will do it his own way,” says a Russian proverb.

“The political regimes change, leaders with different temperaments and intentions come to power, and political systems get replaced. Yet, there is one thing that remains constant in Russia: the power is always “them,” and the people are always “us,” writes the Russian philosopher Shapovalov.

These contrasting attitudes, respect for and support of the top father figure and total disrespect for law and authority are another Russian contradiction.

A Perpetual Fear of Conscription

Army involvement has historically been regarded as a noble profession in Russia. Great family dynasties were once built around distinguished officers and their careers. The situation for the common soldier, however, has always been a different story. The Russian army relies on a draft to build up its ranks. The 18-year-old conscripts are required to serve for two years, though this may change to one year in the near future. There is also more emphasis being placed on professional soldiers rather than conscripted ones. Professional soldiers operate in military units for Special Forces and in combat zones. As more career soldiers continue to fill up the ranks, the required service time for conscripts continues to decrease.

Despite this, many mothers still fear the “повестка”: the document which calls their sons into conscripted service. This piece of paper is often regarded with as much dread as a court sentence. This is due to the wide-spread practice of “дедовщина,” or the bullying, beating, and abuse of younger conscripts by senior officers. This treatment is so bad that it can result in the death of the younger officers either through accident, murder, or suicide. The threat of internal terrorism and the ongoing situation in Chechnya contribute to the bleak circumstances that await conscripted soldiers. While the length of required service time may be on the decline for men pressed into the Russian army, the nature of their time there continues to be as dangerous as ever.

Russian Nightlife

To Health!

The popular Russian toast “Заздоровье!” which means “To health!” only scratches the surface of its meaning. Toasts are strategic and complex. Russians love to toast, and their toasts follow a strict series, beginning with the host making a toast in honor of the guests. The host may say “Завстречу!,” which means “To our meeting!” At a wedding, the first toast goes to the health of the newlyweds or to the birthday girl or boy at a birthday party. The second toast is usually made to the parents at a birthday party or anniversary, or to friendship at a corporate banquet. The third toast is to women, and all the men stand up and toast “запрекрасныхдам” (“to the beautiful ladies.”) The third toast goes to a missing friend if you are a sailor. During the third toast, they might say “Заздоровье” (“To your health”), the popular and shortest toast. Near the end, there is “Напосошок,” which means “for the walking stick,” or “one for the road.” This toast is made to departing guests as the evening of glee starts to wind down and guests make their way home. This toast continues the tradition of pilgrims, who were invited to a final drink before their long journey. The astronauts even have this traditional toast before a space flight.

All drinks during a toast should be completely downed because the Russians believe you don’t have a real toast without wine, so finishing the entire glass is customary. Furthermore, the brevity of “to your health” is not usual. The contents of a toast are usually an anecdote with a jovial or ironic ending.

The Thrill of the Circus and Spending Time with Friends

If you think you have outgrown the circus, think again. “Цирк” (the circus) has been the most popular and most egalitarian Russian form of entertainment since the time of Catherine the Great. It is still a popular form of entertainment today, and the circuses of Russia boast some of the most talented performers and elaborate acts in the world. The high level of talent is cultivated by four-year courses in the Russian State Circus School. If you visit the Moscow Circus on the Boulevard “Цветной” your inner-child will be delighted by the chimpanzees, awed by the courage of those who enter the tiger’s den, and laugh with the Russian clowns. The Russian circus isn’t just for children though, or those who are young at heart. It is an amazing spectacle that delights and awes native citizens and tourists alike of all ages.

Despite the many bars, restaurants, clubs, museums, cultural centers, and music halls, the most popular activity in Russia is still just getting together. Whether it’s a barbeque in the woods, visiting relatives for lunch, or gathering in a café, Russians greatly enjoy the act of simply sharing in one another’s company. The expression “хорошосидим” literally means “sitting pretty” and reflects a culture where the ability to be comfortable with each other and enjoy being around each other is highly valued.

Enjoying the Russian Nightlife

While Russia is known for its unique dishes and variety of vodkas and various beverages, there is more to do in an evening than just eat and drink! In fact, the English actor Simon Callow said the neon lights of Russian nightlife made the country look like “Las Vegas with Cyrillic Script.” It seems years of gray, muted colors and forced restraint have made Russians hungry for previously forbidden fruit. This ‘fruit’ is well-watered by the amount of cash flowing into the capital; 85% of all Russian cash is circulating in Moscow, according to official sources. The options for evening entertainment are many and varied. You can find everything from vodka bars and cocktail lounges to strip clubs, themed discos, and clubs such as “Пропаганда” which promote values quite different from those found on the red and white soviet posters.

Don’t count on being able to gamble though! Casinos have bid farewell to major Russian cities due to an unprecedented attempt by the president to control the gambling business. A new anti-gambling law was passed and went into effect on July 1, 2009 which restricted gambling to four zones, and required super casinos to be built in the middle of nowhere. Gambling is now illegal in the rest of Russia outside of those designated areas. If you really need to get your gambling fix you can travel to one of the four zones or super casinos, but you would probably be better off sticking to more culturally rich and popularly accepted destinations.

What Is the Practice of Medicine like in Russia?

Fixation on Staying Healthy

Russians might look like people that keep everything to themselves at first glance, but the fact of the matter is that they are more than willing to have conversations about almost anything with almost anybody. These conversations include talking about any physical ailments they might be suffering from. There are long standing stories about customs officers wanting to talk about her headaches with her colleagues as she is checking people through.

There are also plenty of stories about people making sure they aren’t getting sick and taking that to a level that gets a bit silly after a while. Secretaries will start bringing in homemade remedies for their bosses if they hear someone cough or sniffle on the bus home the night before. Coworkers will stay home with a hangover because they believe it might be something worse and they don’t want to give it to anyone else.

Westerners, who certainly understand issues like making sure you aren’t catching the strain of the flu going around have certainly noticed the lengths Russians will go to make sure they aren’t catching anything. One story that underlines this behavior came from a British diplomat a few years back. “I can’t work with my Russian teacher anymore,” he complained. “Every time I sneeze she stops the lesson to list the remedies I should take—from honey mixed with black radish juice to onion tincture. At least she doesn’t offer them to me then and there!”

Dressing Appropriately

In order to stay healthy in Russia, you are going to want to make sure you are dressing appropriately. This means that you are going to want to dress appropriately at all times. Even in the summer, Russia isn’t exactly a tropical paradise, though you will be able to dress like it’s a bit warmer than you would if you happened to go there in the middle of the winter.

If you are indeed heading outside in the dead of winter, you are going to want to make sure you are dressing warmer than you might even expect. Even in the middle of Moscow, the temperatures can drop quite quickly and to levels you might not expect if you are coming from the United States. The Northern part of Russia is quite a bit colder than even what you find in Montana or North Dakota, or Minnesota.

Underneath the warm winter clothes, you are going to want to look your best. If you are in Russia in order to do some business, make sure you are wearing a conservative suit. Russians tend to judge a person by what they are wearing before they even really get to speak to the person. If you are dressing incorrectly whether you are heading outside, or heading to a meeting, you are going to be making a mark on the Russians. If you want to be taken seriously, dress for success. A “sense of humor” in your business attire is not funny to the average Russian.

Universal Health Care

Since 1996, the citizens of Russia have received free healthcare per their constitution. But due to the financial calamity that has been ongoing since 2014, the results have warranted major cuts related to spending and quality of service. Close to 40 percent of medical centers have inadequate numbers of staff to provide care to patients. Others have had no other option than to shut down the facilities all together. Treatment waiting times have also increased and patients are paying more out-of-pocket expenses.

Russia has tried to make progress in regards to health care reform. But to date, many practices related to it are still the same and date back to those from the Soviet era. Polyclinics offer both specialized and general exams. Independent from hospital treatments, they provide service to a major geographic region. As the primary core of the health care system, they house separate centers for those who are under the age of sixteen.

Russia has a significant number of doctors and hospitals. But the health care crisis still continues in spite of the numbers. They also have some of the most extensive hospital stays worldwide. This may even be one of the reasons the health care system is diminishing in Russia as it lacks the proper funding for research and state-of-the-art equipment. Although the health care system in Russia still looks bleak to date, resolutions are being looked into to rectify the crisis.

The Positive and Negative Sides of Health Care

While there are many reasons to visit Russia, good healthcare is not one of them. The country’s health-care sector has long been known to be overstretched and underfunded. Their health care is an interesting mix of NHS-type doctor’s offices, hospitals and clinics, and some private insurance centers. The good news is that if you are in trouble and need medical attention in Russia, the doctors are known for showing a level of compassion that will get you treated even if you don’t have the money to pay right away.

At the same time, because the healthcare industry is so poor in Russia, you have the real possibility of not really getting treated at all. You may run into a doctor who does not care about your health and just wants to move you along. There are plenty of stories in which a doctor will diagnose you with the correct malady, but barely even treat the problem. One story tells of a banker who was given generic painkillers to treat a bacterial infection in his stomach as well as bronchitis.

Not feeling better after a week or more, the banker returned to the United States and headed to a doctor. The doctor told him he had the same malady that the Russian doctor had reported to him, but the “medicine” he was given had not done anything to fight either of the health problems the man went to the doctor to treat.