Russia is small. That’s probably the most surprising observation. Of course the territory is huge, but the northern part is uninhabited and the southern part….well….most of it too. There are a few big cities and then there is just nothing in between. It’s just like you put 2000 km between Berlin and Hamburg. And Munich is another 9000 km away.
Russia has only 146 Million inhabitants. That’s not even twice as much as Germany, but on an area almost 48 times bigger. So yeah, Russia is just stretched, spread across a whole continent. But that’s all there is to say about it’s size. It isn’t even very versatile. There are cold places and there are even colder places. At least in winter. Most of Russia is forest with the Ural standing out and some other beautiful mountain ranges in the south. And of course Lake Baikal. But unlike China or the US, it doesn’t have subtropical regions, canyons, deserts or dream beaches. Even the few mountain ranges are usually in border areas. Most parts of Russia are plains, birch tree forests and swamps.
Moscow with its surroundings is so big it actually is a separate country, because everything else not only is indeed far away, it also feels far away regarding the way people dress, work or live. Only the language as well as the orthodox faith and the cheap vodka are very much the same from Bryansk to Irkutsk,
Taking the transsiberian railway doesn’t mean you miss a big part of the Russian territory. The inside of the train is much more interesting and versatile than the passing landscape. And it’s just incredible, when you look on the time table and then there are 12 h between two cities, which aren’t even big enough for you to recognize their names.
Since I am on my way home I also want to mention, how things change back to what I am used to and sometimes I only realize that after a little while. In Mongolia for example the chopstick and rice era ended. Before that I got chopsticks in almost every restaurant for almost a year. However, in Mongolia people still looked very much what we call „Asian“. The Russians on the other hand look very European even in Siberia.
Only in the area south-east of Lake Baikal (Buryatia) I met some native people. Also religions are rather mixed in this area.
Apart from that I also entered my culture, when I entered Russia. The European culture has been influenced mostly by Christianity. So not only did I see churches, I also heard bells. Another thing in Russia that very much reminds me on my culture is the high education. Actually the only thing that strongly differs is the soviet past and therefore the different cars and soviet monuments with their very special style.
Writing about Russia for me is personal. I have been interested in this country already when I was still in school. My little knowledge of the Russian language improved during our time in Central Asia. However, I’m still a beginner. But even with the few words I know Russia was more accessible to me, especially after spending so much time in South East Asia, Japan, China and Mongolia, where it was often impossible to communicate in any language.
Breaking the ice
On this journey I found out speaking a different language somehow also transforms your personality. I have a totally different humor in English and it’s easier to show amazement: „That’s beautiful! I love it! English is a fantastic language!“.
In Russian I am not yet at this point, where I am able to see a big personality shift, but some details already get noticeable: In my opinion the Russian language offers ways to express anger or discontent without using curse words. I often saw people making their point, but it is all done by stressing certain syllables. I can perfectly complain in Russian, just by saying „Это не работает“ („It doesn’t work“) with a special, reproachful emphasis and it already contains all the WTFs you needed to express the same in English.
In general the Russian language is sincere, which I really enjoy. I remember a shepherd on a horse in Siberia, who came to me while I had lunch on the road. It’s hard to explain, but he just asked honest questions and showed true interest. He didn’t smile, just calmly talked and listened. This shepherd was outstanding, but in general there is not much room for small talk in the Russian culture. People get to the point quickly with true affection – or not at all. The „Kazakh“ character „Borat“ is of course a parody, but certainly not a random one.
The language itself to me often sounds like boots walking in snow: The Russian word for „hello“ – Здравствуйте! – is probably already a perfect example. It sounds like scratching or cracking something. They have a letter for s, z, ts, zh, sh, shch, ch and kh (С, З, Ц, Ж, Ш, Щ, Ч and Х). By the way, the audio file of the google translator for „hello“ and „Здравствуйте“ speaks for itself.
Russians like to tell jokes. I have been told many. I often didn’t get the punchline and I certainly cannot recite them. But it seems to be something almost intimate. If you like someone, you tell him your favorite joke. So here is a joke told by Vladimir Putin, which contains many cultural aspects of Russia:
I have already pointed out, that Russia’s landscape is rather monotone. But when you cycle at lake Baikal it almost feels like in Scandinavia or Canada. The vegetation is very much the same and people commit their time to the same work like hunting, fishing or cutting wood. They all have their wooden huts and the winters are cold. I think some Americans from Alaska would get along pretty well with Russians from Siberia. These people are all connected to nature and their lifestyle is more or less identical. After all they are only separated by the Bering strait. But the media is more about Washington and Moscow. They seem to be still separated by an iron curtain.
In general it’s interesting that Russia has not much of a „hard“ border like a mountain range or a river. Most of the time it’s just endless plains that divide Russia and its neighbors. Someone just drew a line somewhere.
For most of my life if you asked me about a Russian dish, I would have answered: Borsh. It’s probably the most famous Russian dish. However, it’s actually Ukrainian.
That’s the case with a lot of other dishes we got to know. Most of them are „soviet“ dishes, but today of course they are Kyrgyz or Uzbek or Georgian or Ukrainian. Still people tend to call them Russian. I’d like to mention some of them here, because we ate them again and again in the former soviet countries and I often only have a rough idea, where they origin from: Lagman, plov, pelmeni, shchi, manti and busi. My personal favorites are plov and manti. The best plov we had in Turkmenistan. The best manti in Uzbekistan. However, you often also get them in Russian restaurants.
I actually wanted to write about this already in Kazakhstan, but there was no time and also it’s difficult to find all the Russian music on Youtube.
First of all, Russia has a very big and professional music scene, that can easily compete with US music in regards of beats, variety, music video quality and artistic aspiration. Of course it also has its own market, that’s why you never hear any of their songs unless you go on holidays in Russia or one of the former soviet countries. Then you will hear this music the whole day. Of course I didn’t have the time to dive into certain genres and therefore I can only show you the typical pop music that gets played over and over in the radio.
There is for example Vera Bezhneva, which seems to be a mixture of Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue. Cora liked the video and it followed us through several Central Asian countries. Even a year later when I entered Russia, this was still sometimes playing on TV. The song is called мамочка, „Mommy“.
Then there is this laboratory boy band „MBAND“ and their song она вернется, „she will be back“. I don’t know. Annoying music, but got played everywhere.
Or the more Justin Timberlake style „Sergey Lazarev“ with это всё она. I think it can be translated as „It’s all because of her“
Usually I don’t understand anything they are singing. But in general the videos often seem to contain some sort of humor. A story is told with a smile. Another frequent theme is a lot of glamour, decadence and/or party.
And sometimes a desperate guy is singing a ballad about how he made this terrible mistake and didn’t treat her well and now misses her and regrets and wants her back and can’t live without her. These videos are extremely cheesy, but serve a certain stereotype of Russian women, who love men that need a woman like a bottle of vodka. A completely depending man, incapable of living without her and admiring her. And to be honest, that’s not a too uncommon form of relationship here. It’s hard to tell if it all starts with an alcoholic man or with a woman that wants god-like control.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find the video I have in mind.
But here you go with the decadence and party video: „Loboda“ with пора домой, „Time to go home“.
And probably one of the most famous music videos right now in Russia: By the legendary band „Leningrad“, в питере пить, „In St. Petersburg, drink!“. I think it’s worth watching. This video just perfectly illustrates a very common part of Russian identity.
Some European artists are also pretty famous in Russia. You can hear a Robbie Williams song from time to time and unfortunately also Dieter Bohlen aka „Modern Talking“. I remember a TV show we watched one evening somewhere in Central Asia. It was some sort of Karaoke show. And the winner was a guy not only singing a „Modern Talking“ song, but also physically resembling Dieter Bohlen.
So I showed you some aspects of modern Russia that somehow are important to me. The music videos will remind me on Russia probably for the rest of my life.
But I was thinking about something else the whole time when I was in Russia. Because I saw all these well educated people. I saw a long history, astonishing culture, architecture, literature, music, ballet, arts. I thought about the famous chess players, the athletes and last but not least about the scientists, who have sent the first satellite and the first human into space.
Why did this country end up being a failure?
Wo fing das an und wann?
Was hat dich irritiert?
Was hat dich bloß so ruiniert?
Where did this begin and when?
What irritated you?
What ruined you like that?
I mean of course the answer is easy: Communism! At least that’s what you usually hear. But what exactly makes communism a failure? I think many people have good answers to that and I don’t really want to add one.
I just wonder. Inspite of their triumphs, their successes, still somehow nobody said: „Yeah, that’s a great country. They are doing it right!“. Because something is missing here in Russia and somehow always has: Fun.
Yeah, I think what convinced the world and still does convince it is the fact that the western culture is much more capable of promoting fun. Freedom, human rights or capitalism, that’s all very abstract words. After all it is about emotion. And until today, the west delivers a wide variety of emotions. The biggest accomplishment of the western world was not to land on the Moon, but to entertain.
The Dispossessed (German: Planet der Habenichtse) is a science fiction novel I read many years ago. It is about two planets with very different political and cultural structures. The similarity to capitalism and communism is obvious, but setting the novel in a different solar system makes it possible to see the benefits and drawbacks of both systems without being biased by history.