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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Secret to Prosperity

Now build yourself an America-style kotedzh right here: American-quality materials and workmanship!"


At last it's clear. It's easy to see from the advertisement above -- which has been appearing with some frequency in Russian newspapers -- that the only thing that distinguishes Russia and America is the availability, in America, of material comforts. Sound like reality as you know it?


Alas, the ad represents all too accurately a sentiment shared by most Russians, even those who are less acquisitive -- or less ostentatious about it -- than the crass class of potential kotedzh-builders to whom it's addressed. At the same time, Russians routinely stereotype Americans as being materialistic.


Take my friend Vadim, for instance. Vadim is one of the most sophisticated and well-traveled Russians that I know. But the fruit of his abundant opportunities to learn about life elsewhere comes to little more than a litany of sanctimonious cultural comparisons. Inevitably these pronouncements ooze with a kind of spiritual chauvinism -- a peculiar sort of Russian pride that has a long tradition here, beginning well before the Slavophiles and ending, no doubt, well after Solzhenitsyn.


Typically, Vadim thinks that Americans are not free, but virtual slaves to the god of acquisitiveness. This spiritual bondage, he says, is not found among Russians, who despite an oppressive political culture enjoy true inner freedom. Instead of slaving away at a job, after all, they spend much of their waking lives philosophizing, drinking and wondering at the sorry "fate" that history has dealt them.


The fact is, as far as I can tell, most Russians are far more materialistic than Americans. Simply put: insofar as Americans have the things that they have, they don't need to think all the time about how to get them.The fundamental problem is that Russians recognize only the things of a prosperous economy. They fail entirely to see the moral structures underlying America's economy. They fail to see in our culture an ethic that stresses the value to both the individual and to society of respectful human relations, of law, of the hard work that results in an abundance of things.


In 1991, political upheaval left Russia's ponderous doors once again slightly ajar -- a spasm that seems to occur once every so often throughout Russian history. Russia once again has begun to grab at the material trappings of the world outside -- and it has almost completely ignored everything else.


Peter the Great, for example, imported the Italian architecture of his time: He took its ornate facades, but nothing of Renaissance philosophy. Anna and Elizabeth imported ballet, which had been diverting the courts of France, but nothing of the Enlightenment that was sweeping French salons. Other Russian rulers, from the last tsars to Stalin and Khrushchev, adopted heavy industry, flattering themselves with giant production figures but blind to worker dignity. Yeltsin has thrown open the doors to Mercedes, Mars, and Marlboros -- without a whit of the work ethic behind them.


The reality is that Russians spend as much time as Americans -- and very likely more -- looking for things, trying to figure out how to find things, waiting in lines for things, connecting with the right parties to bribe for things - in general, trying to attain the things that they want -- as Americans do in working. The difference is that, through working, Americans not only acquire the funds they need to buy the things they want, but at the same time contribute to the general prosperity.


In other words, Americans have more to show for the time spent. More, they are left with more time than Russians, not less, to muse, if they want, about non-material things.


The voices of Russia's odd spiritual narcissism also fail to understand that things don't appear from nowhere. Busy contemplating the illies of the field, these Russians have little if any understanding of the connection between effort and result.


They fail to understand that working is not something abstracted from the rest of life, something that people do only in order to buy things. Work is how those things get made in the first place.


These Russian "philosophers," moreover, fail completely to recognize that working can be in itself one of life's great satisfactions. They fail to recognize that some people work at things they love.


They fail to recognize that Americans -- even when they don't like their work and even when their work is nothing more than a means to material ends -- nevertheless often pride themselves on a job well done, and on knowing that whatever prosperity they have achieved is the fruit of their labor.


Finally, our Russian philosophers fail to recognize that work -- whether to make things, to build things, to help others, or simply to keep from being bored -- seems to be a basic human need. Without it, people become lost; without it they lose self-respect. That, alas, is a condition that can lead to behavior that is capricious and cruel, and that is destructive of the self and others. It is the dark flip side of the Russian ethos.


Incredibly, amid all this punditry our Russian philosophers proclaim the off-the-wall notion that it is Russians, of all people, who hold the secret to life's meaning. Russians, from the saints to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and my friend Vadim, whose chief contribution to philosophy is that the best a person can do in this life is to turn his back on society and its "evils" -- not to resist them, not to engage them, not to build something better, but rather to opt out --- whether by endless philosophizing, or alcohol, or by hiding in a Church that preaches passivism and the moral "purity" of "internal emigration."


No. Russian philosophers, kotedzh-builders, and my friend Vadim: An American-style kotedzh is last of all the many things you need.





Glenn Garelik is a journalist and an instructor of journalism. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.