Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Strong Hand' Brings Results If All Else Fails

Ever since I began studying this country, which was, I think, just after the ice age, I have been hearing about the silnaya ruka, or "strong hand" theory of Russian history. Russians love to be pushed around, the theory's proponents insist. Just look at the tsars, or at Stalin. When that old softie Mikhail Gorbachev came along, things began to fall apart.


I had always dismissed this thesis as sophomoric bunk, a facile explanation for a complicated phenomenon.


But I'm beginning to wonder. It certainly seems as if Russians will tolerate a level of bullying that would send most Westerners running for the hills, or a lawyer.


I remember the occasion, several years ago now, when I first met Fedya. It was late at night, I was tired and cranky, just back from a poorly organized trip to Uzbekistan with a group of students. Fedya was the poor soul from the cheapskate tour company designated to pick us up at the airport.


As soon as I saw him, I launched into a tirade. I'd like to think I was firm and fair, but at 2 a.m., having gone without sleep for about three days, and trying to treat several students (not to mention myself) who had come down with the Samarkand strain of Montezuma's revenge, I was a bit on the shrill side.


"Let me tell you just what I think of this trip, your guides and your company," I raged. "I hope never, ever to see any of you again."


Fedya, it seems, fell in love on the spot. He told me later that he had been awed by my "power."


It has happened countless times over the years that the minute I really lose it, things start happening. Whether I am trying to buy train tickets or get a table in a restaurant, a dogged persistence and a willingness to raise the decibel level have brought results at times when in the West I would probably have been arrested for disturbing the peace.


An American friend of mine, a soft-spoken Southern belle, recently found this out for herself. Nearing the completion of a long, intense project with a Russian colleague, she tried her best to spur him into action with her antebellum charm. Unfortunately, he was immune, so with a deadline fast approaching, she had the Dixie equivalent of a meltdown.


"I can't believe I did it," she told me recently, still a bit flushed from combat. "I yelled, I screamed. I even got out a hammer. I got rid of years of hostility in just a few minutes."


The result? After the crisis had passed, her Russian colleague praised her for her outburst, claiming it had "jogged his creativity."


"I guess it's all part of the silnaya ruka phenomenon," she sighed. "It worked, but I'm exhausted."


I guess that's part of what keeps me so on edge here. I am constantly mobilizing resources to deal with minor problems, Going nuclear over a rude salesperson or a mistake on a grocery bill can wipe you out pretty quickly.


It is also not a skill that translates easily to the more refined West. I once asked for change at a Munich train station, and when the women refused, began to insist, loudly. Not only did I not get the change, the woman threw a box at me.