THIS AND THAT

We are Russians, and that explains a lot

How do Russians differ from Americans? How does an American differ from the French? How do Americans differ from the French? In quite a lot of ways, but most of all they differ from each other in their culture.

The word Culture in this case must be written with a capital “C.” That is because we are talking here not about the ability to hold a fork and a knife properly, dance the waltz or understand Picasso’s paintings. Instead, we are talking about Culture as a value system of one or another people. Included in this understanding are language, traditions, habits, and, finally, mentality. As such, Culture is the basis of any society, defining its politics and its economy.

This idea is not new. In any case, great thinkers spoke on this in the XIX century. Robert de Montesquiou was an example of one of these thinkers, speaking on the impact of not only Culture, but also Geography on the politics and economics of a country.

This truth, it would seem, is simple, but in Russia it has always been completely rejected. At first it was the Marxists. In every philosophy textbook published in the Soviet Union “geographical determinism” was spoken of as being groundless. This philosophical school was labeled as being not just untrue, but also reactionary. Of course, geography does not decide everything, but there is still a grain of truth in this idea. Regardless of what anyone says, people who live in cold place are more insular, sullen, and laconic. People in warm places are more open, emotional, and cheerful. That is not even speaking of how climate impacts the history, economy and way of life of a country.

Be that as it may, according to official statistics, less than 30 million of Russia’s 140 million people live beyond the Urals, which divide Russia between Europe and Asia – that is, in Siberia. The remaining 110 million – the lion’s share of the population – prefer to live in the European portion of Russia, where the winters are not so harsh and the climate as a whole is much more advantageous. If one recalls, Margaret Thatcher pointed this out when, in the capacity of Prime Minister of Great Britain, she arrived to Moscow for a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in a beautiful fur hat. According to those close to 10 Downing Street, she declared outright that, in her opinion, a decent life in Russia was possible only in the European portion of the country and beyond the Urals there was no life. Judging by the statistic mentioned above, this is, unfortunately, accurate.

Nevertheless, regardless of a state’s geography, the most important thing is Culture. Take for example Europe, where so many various peoples live in a compact space. They all have the same geography, but their Cultures are different. Are the French similar to their neighbors in Germany or in Belgium? Are the Swiss similar to Italians or Hungarians? Even the Spanish and the Portuguese, residing on the same Pyrenees peninsula, are different in their ways of life and mentality, or, in other words – in their Culture

Fernando Diaz-Plaja, author of the Spanish bestseller “The Spaniard and the Seven Deadly Sins,” sees, for example, the essence of Spanish national character in pride, which is accompanied by arrogance, haughtiness, and vanity.  A Spanish person is driven by honor and dignity, pushed frequently to passionate confrontation and even to extremism. Cervantes spoke of this in his “Don Quixote.” The Portuguese are softer, calmer, more patient and more flexible. One can take as an example the story of the Portuguese admiral who, during a standoff with the Spanish fleet, unexpectedly invited the Spanish admiral to a meeting. “How many ships do you have,” he asked him, to which the Spanish admiral replied two hundred. The Portuguese admiral, to the surprise of all, said “But I have only 100 vessels. This means you win.” After which, he returned to his vessel and led the fleet homewards.

Take Brazilians as another example. Regardless of the fact that they live on the same continent as Argentinians, Bolivians, Peruvians, and Chileans, they differ greatly from their Central and South American neighbors. “The New York Time’s Marlise Simons, who has lived and worked in Brazil and Mexico for a number of years, described Brazilians to me as being like Americans in their optimism, can-do attitude, belief in the future – and unlike Hispanic Americans, for example, the Mexicans, who are so focused on the past. And Landon Lockett, an American who taught for five years in a Brazilian University, told me that “Hispanic Americans are  bundles of complexes, preoccupied with ‘dignity.’ Brazilians are casual” notes Lawrence E. Harrison in his book “Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success.

Why is this so? Because Brazilians have a different history, which serves as the foundation for its Culture. It is enough to say that in contrast to the majority of South and Central American countries, Brazil reached its independence through peaceful means, its king being the representative of the Portuguese dynasty ruling at that time.

In short, no matter what one says, Culture defines Poltics and Economy, and not the other way around. “We are Russians, and that explains a lot,” the wise Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov pointed out. Unfortunately, politicians and economists in our country for a long time have not understood this, making a mess out of things as a result of this ignorance and lack of culture. This mess still has yet to be cleaned up.

When the Soviet Union failed, those in power tried to take Russia in every which direction, whether it be according to the Swedish model, or according to the Japanese model, or according to some other model. We behaved as monkeys, trying to blindly imitate and adopt the ways of others. At the same time, this was done completely without knowledge of the fact that, in order to follow the Swedish model, it was at the very least necessary to be a Swede, and at most to have the same History and Culture! Quite recently, one of the leading figures in Russia’s government agreed to the point that he declared “Russia... should become the second Norway!” Is it not funny? Why should Norway not want to become the second
Russia?! “Why is it that the English do not want
to be like Russians, but we exhaust ourselves
[trying to be like them],”another famous
director declared with emotion. He was,
 coincidentally, Andrei Konchalovsky,
Nikita Mikhalkov's brother.

Nonetheless, today, 33 years after the
beginning of perestroika, rational people
are beginning to understand that Russia
must go its own way. This idea has been
loudly expressed by experts in the topic –
members of the traditional Gaidar forum.
We must complete economic reformation
based, most of all, on our own History,
traditions, the customs of our people,
and lastly, on our mentality – that is,
based on our Culture. We must go down
this difficult and seemingly lengthy road
to prosperity. In any case, no one will do
it for us.

 

Pictures by Anastasia Saifulina

CAPITAL IDEAS

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