Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Russia is a vast country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Russian language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, Russians have a mixed attitude towards authority and government.
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 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.
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.