What Makes the Russians So Russian?

The best thing about Russian families, friends, and clans is being included in them; the worst thing is being an outsider. The guy who butts in line, slips into a parking space you were clearly waiting for, or reneges on a contract, is also the guy who would drive 500 kilometers in a snowstorm to bring his mother medicine, hand over a packet of cash to a friend in need, and sit up all night with a former classmate distraught over his divorce. Care, consideration, and courtesy are not doled out to humankind in general, but saved for the people close to you.

The “us and them” mentality can also extend to other nationalities, ethnic groups, and religious confessions. Russians are prone to ethnic and religious stereotyping, once codified in jokes and stories, but now with increasing frequency in attacks, both verbal and physical. The jokes are usually good-natured, and the stereotyping includes Russians, who often come off worse than other nationalities. The dislike and mistrust of the “other,” — be it a person of a different race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or physical ability — is partially a function of a rapidly changing world: the sudden visibility of people who are completely different, work migrants who do not have a vested interest in staying in Russia or fitting in, and a huge influx of foreigners. It is sometimes a result of political manipulation and general confusion about what this relatively new country, the Russian Federation, is. But it is also a deep-rooted discomfort and fear of people who are from a different family, village, or region. However, once someone who is “other” becomes known to a Russian, all those alienating qualities tend to melt away. People might have generally negative attitudes towards an ethnic group, but that doesn’t preclude becoming close friends with someone of that ethnicity.

The first magnificent exception to this is a person in trouble. If you have been robbed, if you are ill, if you are lost, if you car won’t start — no matter what is wrong, the same folks who demonstrate against your country, sneer at your religion, or don’t give you a moment’s consideration in the parking lot, will drop everything and be extraordinarily generous with their time, money, and possessions.

The second exception is when Russians are extending their hospitality. If you are a guest, you are brought into the fold and feted like an honored member of the family. In turn, when you offer hospitality, you are expected to be generous, attentive, and emotionally open.

Wherever you are invited as a guest, be prepared to dedicate yourself fully to the occasion. Bring flowers, alcohol, confections — or all three. Expect to eat and drink more than you should (lest you insult your hosts or cause them to wonder if you liked what they offered). Forget polite small-talk. Expect to discuss everything under the sun — including topics forbidden in polite Western company: religion, money, and politics. Be prepared for emotion; there’s nothing wrong with weeping a bit over a parent now deceased or guffawing over a good joke or story. Be prepared to make toasts — to the host and hostess, the occasion, the food and drink, and whatever pops into your head. Don’t worry about staying too long (a sign of a successful party), or eating and drinking too much (it’s expected), or speaking too sincerely (anything else would be an insult), or making a fool of yourself (Russians forgive human foibles). For an evening or an afternoon, you are part of their world.