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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Makes Russians So Russian?

As Russia continues its mad fast-forward acquisition of the attributes of Western life -- shopping malls, coffee shops, cocktails, European fashion, TV shows, and so on -- foreigners may be forgiven for thinking of Russia as "another European country" and Russians as "like us." The large cities look, smell and taste like other European capitals; business etiquette is within a familiar range (at least on the surface); and people look, dress and act pretty much the way they do back home. Except when -- unexpectedly -- they don't. A friend, or colleague or spouse expresses an opinion you think inexplicable (if not heinous). Or does something you find puzzling (if not unethical). Or accuses you of the same (if not worse). And you wonder if it's true, after all, that Russians are enigmatic, mysterious, puzzling human beings whom we foreigners can never understand.

They aren't. It's just that behind the familiar facade of daily life and manners, Russians do not share all of the historical, cultural, and religious experiences and premises of Westerners. What seems on the surface as "illogical" behavior isn't illogical at all -- it is behavior that has been learned to be effective over the millennia, through their culture, upbringing, religion, history and interpretations of history. To understand Russians, you need to know something of their history and institutions.

Physical Russia: History of a Place and the Place of History

At least once every foreigner should travel across the country, preferably by train. That is the only way to truly appreciate the two single most important facts about Russia: the country is huge and situated far to the north. The climate is brutal almost everywhere; the growing season is short; and natural disasters (floods, frosts, droughts, early or late snow) occur with lamentable frequency. Ancient Russians lived in communities (called mir – now the word used for "world") that to some extent worked together, shared tools and seeds, and were willing to help -- and expected to be helped -- in time of trouble. The kollektiv wasn't a construct imposed by the Soviet period; it's the only way, in Russian historical experience, human beings can survive.

Invasion as a way of life

It is also worth remembering that the vast Russian landmass about one fifth of all the land on earth -- is a barely defensible plain. There are few natural barriers to invasion from the West or the East, and over the ages Russia has been attacked from both directions. When not being attacked, the Russian Empire has gone to war against the nations surrounding it and incorporated their lands into their empire.

The first significant invasion occurred in 1224. A Russian chronicler wrote: "For our sins, unknown tribes came. No one knows who they are, nor whence they came, nor what their faith is, but they call them Tatars." These horsemen from the East -- called Tatars in Russia and Mongols in the West -- appeared like a bolt from the blue, pillaged and plundered, and then reigned over Russia for nearly 250 years.

Over the centuries, Russia was attacked numerous times by the Mongol-Tartars, Lithuania and Poland, Sweden, France (the Patriotic War of 1812); and Germany in 1941 (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War). Russia fought Great Britain and France in the Crimean War, in 1905 against Japan, and in World War I against Germany. Russia launched wars against Poland, Sweden, and Turkey and annexed Central Asia and the Far East. Its territory expanded to eventually include Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Crimea, the northern and southern Caucasus (including Georgia, Armenia and present-day Azerbaijan). The Soviet Union invaded Finland, regained the Baltic States and Eastern Poland, sent tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and started a war in Afghanistan.

In about 800 years, through invasions, treaties, and annexations the tiny city-state of Moscow grew enormously to stretch eleven time zones, gaining territories, nations, new religions and vast natural wealth. But in the national psyche, the devastation of the major incursions against Russia (the Mongol-Tartars, the Poles and Swedes, the French in 1812 and Germans in 1941) have overshadowed Russia's own territorial expansion. Today it is not unusual to hear Russians assert that the country has "never invaded another land" or to invoke the specter of enemy encirclement. Certainly this is partially the result of political manipulation. But even in this age of terrorist attacks and nuclear weapons, when natural boundaries or even conventional armies provide little protection or deterrence, the sense of being a people of the plains, vulnerable to land attack, has remained a part of the Russian collective consciousness.