Russia: Openness and Understanding

by Kenneth Rayman on June 9, 2017
When I hear people talk about Russia, it’s almost in a condescending tone or uninformed manner. I hear people talk about politics before the culture and symbolism before understanding what the symbolism means. I’ve studied Russian history all my life and found that it was never just a hobby but a passion to understand the Russian ethos. Growing up at the end of the Cold War, I don’t remember much. I’m pretty sure I saw the news report of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but didn’t understand the significance. I had never heard of Mikhail Gorbachev; Boris Yeltsin was my first known Russian leader.

The Western media portrayed Russia as drunk, unappealing, and with suspicion to any move made. But I heard, as a kid, of leaders named “the Great” and “the Terrible” and caught glimpses of these figures on tv shows. I thought, they can’t be that bad, after all they named Peter “the Great,” right? I heard the names of Nicholas Romanov and his family, learned of their disappearance, and the mystery surrounding what happened to them. Something about Russia didn’t seem so bad and I watched everything I could about Peter, Catherine the Great, Nicholas II and was intrigued by the romantic tragedy that was the end of the dynasty.

Western Media, I found out, also portrayed the government wrong. When talking about the Kremlin, the first thing they’d show was this building with onion shaped domes followed shortly by a red star on a tower, and often in the dark or in a hazy snow. Later in life, I’d find out the name was the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed. After reading several books about the history, I found out that Russian history and culture centered around religion. As I got older, I noticed hatred or fear of the picture of St. Basil’s cathedral, hearing things such as “That’s a beautiful building (often referring to it as the Kremlin), but it’s where the Communists are,” and I’d surprise them by saying “actually, that’s a church, it’s not the Kremlin,” and they’d be surprised and ask, “Russia has religion?!?”

Fast forward to last month, I went to St. Petersburg for five days and Moscow for two. St. Petersburg was just as beautiful as the documentaries had shown. The palaces were larger than life and awe inspiring, the detail was fantastic, the scale of such palaces were unfathomable even after watching countless films and knowing how big they were. I was sad to find out that the Nazi siege of St. Petersburg, at the time the city of Leningrad, didn’t spare the palaces and most were partially destroyed within the city, or destroyed completely in some cases by Nazi soldiers, such as the garden of Tsarskoe Selo where all the trees where cut down for firewood during the winter. As such, most of the palaces are elaborate reconstructions with a few artifacts preserved to show the original construction.

I felt as if I were at home with the culture having studied it so long. When my guide asked me not to take picture of a church’s interior since it was still a practicing church, they were often amazed that my phone was already in my pocket to observe the cultural sensitivity and I fully respected the request. When we talked about the significance of a place, event, or artifact, they were amazed at my knowledge, though, at times they’d have to correct my understanding due to facts only known to the Russians or not usually known to the outside world, or misinterpretation of history. For example, Western society refers to St. Basil though his name was actually Vasily, or that the cathedral, known in the West as “The Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed” is actually “The Cathedral of the Holy Intercession of the Virgin.”

Culturally, the people I met were very kind and understanding. I spoke just enough Russian to be polite and give compliments, simple answers, or ask simple questions. They responded with graciousness at my attempts to embrace their culture and with happiness to accommodate my needs, if I couldn’t respond, in English. When I gave compliments, always in Russian, they were received as if they were done without consideration, just like in the U.S., and appreciated the compliment. People were open to help mostly with a few exceptions, but that is apparent in the U.S. as well as anywhere else too, I’m sure.

Russian History is complex and long compared to the 200+ year history of America. Russia has been around, in one form or another, since the 9th century and much can be overlooked, misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Once the Russian principalities were consolidated around Kiev’s Grand Prince Vladimir, the Russian state was concentrated around Orthodox Christianity and remained so until Peter the Great decided to open Russia up to new ideas and forced Russians to learn and adopt Western European culture. Russia was also invaded by Eastern Asian tribal warriors before the nation was centralized and was “occupied” by them for a few centuries. As such, outwardly, I’ve wondered if that is why the Russian ethos seems mysterious. A culture that is open and curious but reserved.

I founded this blog and idea for the travel portion to be out of total respect to the cultures and histories of the nations I visit. I want to be respectful and open to them and learn where there are gaps in my understanding and not be bound to any preconceived notions or dogmas that might try to minimalize.