Friday, August 6, 2010

Russian Culture As I See It

As the city of Moscow continues to endure a sweltering heat wave and the surrounding forests and peat bogs continue to burn and pour choking, toxic smoke into the city, I and everyone around me has become not a little on edge as of late. Sleep is nearly impossible and working at Central School, with all its politics and screwy scheduling, is a grinding ordeal. Taking the metro four times a day (which is also filled with putrid eye-burning smoke from the fires) and being jostled by millions of equally irritable people has stretched my nerves to the breaking point.

Yet there are a few things that keep me going. These things stop me from throwing my arms up in the air, boarding an airplane and getting out of this near-hell. The things that allow me to retain my sanity are Katya, Russian history and culture and my hope for the future.

As a girlfriend Katya is far and above anyone I have ever had the fortune (or misfortune) of dating in Canada. The qualities that make a Russian woman the best lover and companion in the world are too numerous to recount here, and there are millions of websites and books devoted to this topic, so I won't touch on them. All I can say is that, for the most part, Russian women are very intelligent, stunningly beautiful, entrancingly feminine and extremely charming. With their quick wits, laisser-faire outlooks on life and well-timed sense of humour, I have been blessed to have captured the heart of a Russian girl and it is in large part due to her that I can endure this summer in Moscow.

Indeed, what gives Russian woman these world-class qualities is Russian culture itself, and this is another reason I can put up with the heat and smoke and crappy situation at work. Russian culture is at the same time subtle and loud, beautiful and terrible, awe-inspiring and completely stupid.

I went to a restaurant near the Old Arbat that was located on ground floor of a beautiful 19th Century building. Inside the walls were painted in a calming soft-yellow and lime-green curtains hung from the huge windows. Paintings of serene Russian village life adorned the walls and soft yellow mini-chandeliers gave the place a warm atmosphere. With the decorative samovars dotted here and there and the wood-carved cats on the table and the smell of cooking lamb and chicken and potatoes wafting from the kitchen, it would have been the most cultured Restaurant I've ever been to.

Of course, this is Russia, and something beautiful has to be countered by something ugly.There were three badly-beaten televisions hanging from the ceiling and they were blaring horrendous Russian pop so loud that I couldn't hear my companions speaking. Although the food was delicious the service was horrible, and the mean old woman who served us actually shouted at us to hurry up and finish eating so she could stop working (it was 4 in the afternoon). A group of businessmen in the corner were getting pasted on vodka and started shouting at each other.

Oh, Russia.

Russia is ancient. People were settling these lands when Socrates was speaking at the Parthenon. The Vikings, on their epic trade journeys to the middle east, mixed with the original inhabitants to create the unique Slavic ethnicity. The Orthodox Church added an old-world, slightly-oriental mysticism to Slavic culture. The Mongol onslaught and subsequent four centuries of occupation gave Russian culture its distinct territoriality and ethnic pride. The beginning of the Czars, with Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible, created an Empire where politics and culture could be organized within the borders of a once-chaotic land.

Go to Red Square and stand in awe in front of the massive red-brick walls of the Kremlin, the original site of Moscow and the centre of so much of world history, or gaze with spiritual contemplation at the beauty of St. Basil's Cathedral. Check out the 700-year-old defensive walls of old Moscow in the Kitay Gorod. Visit the traditional splendour and beauty of old Russia at Suzdal and Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod.

Moscow 600 years ago: St. Basil's Cathedral.

This is the land of a culture that has confused and dazzled the world many times. In the mid 1800s a wave of Russomania swept over the world as the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Pushkin went international. Tchaikovsky was composing his great symphonies. Czar Alexandre I had liberated Europe from Napolean and Alexandre II was emancipating the serfs and slaves. Enourmous palaces and monuments were going up in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

The 19th Century was Russia's Golden Age, and everywhere I go I can see evidence of this.Walk along the Old Arbat and take in the street painters, cafes, musicians and the beautiful Russo-European architecture. Check out the area around Red Square and admire the buildings and statues and gardens and cobbled streets. Take a visit to St. Petersburg for a real taste of Russia in the mid-19th Century.

Moscow 200 years ago: The Old Arbat.

Then came the October Revolution of 1917 and the brutal civil war that saw the Bolsheviks (Communists) of Lenin seize power, and overnight the classical culture of Russia was forcefully changed. The 20th Century was one of Soviet idealism and repression. The great monuments of Stalinism can be seen today in the glamorous Moscow Metro and the Seven Sisters skyscrapers that ring the city. Bleak and soulless apartment tenements from the era of Kruschev and Brezhnev are everywhere. Statues to Lenin can be found in every park.

Moscow 50 years ago: one of the 7 Sisters near Leningradski Station.

The Soviet era was not all bad for Russian culture. Indeed, it is because of the Communists forced-modernization of Russia that the value of a top-rate education is part of Russian culture today, and most Russians are very-well educated (some of the best Universities in the world, such as Moscow State University, are in Russia yet Russian degrees are not recognized in much of the world, despite a long history of producing some of the most brilliant minds in science, humanities and the arts). It was during the Soviet period that Bulgakov, one of my personal favourite authors, wrote "The Master and Margarita", a thinly-veiled critiscism of Soviet culture in which the Devil and his entourage come to Moscow and wreak hilarious havoc on the bureaucrats and Communist elite.

"The Master and Margarita" serves to show the world that although traditional Russian culture, wit and creativity and deep insight into the human soul, was well-hidden during the Soviet era, it was alive and well.

Russia today is undergoing another violent upheavel in its cultural values, as out-of-control capitalism clashes with traditional mores. The people of Russia, the bearers of the torch of that beautiful Russian culture, are losing their touch as they struggle with every day frustrations, government corruption and decreasing opportunities for the future. Katya, a true Slavophile who has done so much to teach me about the subtleties of these great people, despairs for the future of Russia and has told me that, today, "Russia is for sale at discount prices".

Moscow today: Glass high-rises going up all over the city.

Soon enough I will be returning to Canada, a country with a different and younger cultural heritage than this ancient land, and I no longer know what to expect. Canada is an experiment in multi-culturalism, with a stable democracy and government, well-managed free-market economy and a multi-layered diaspora of cultures all working together for a common cause. Canada represents above-average standards of living blended together with a deep love of nature and freedom, while Russia represents a long and beautiful cultural history mixed with periods of horror and uncertainty about the future. In short, Canada is much more boring than Russia.

And that is mainly why I continue to endure in this terrible Moscow summer.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you completely! This is why I am so excited to arrive in Moscow in a few weeks (hoping the heat wave is over though, or at least has abated!) and begin the Intern Training Program with language link (I posted previously on your's been a great source of information for me this summer!)I was wondering if I'd be able to ask you some questions about life in Mytishchi..I'm just trying to figure stuff out about what to bring, what to budget, how expensive daily life is, internet etc. My email is and if you could email me any suggestions that would be greatly appreciated!!