What Makes the Russians Tick

Book review: Russians, by Gregory Feifer

“Russia has no need of sermons (she has heard too many), nor of prayers (she has mumbled them too often), but of the awakening in the people a feeling of human dignity, lost for so many ages in mud and filth.” – Vissarion Belinsky on the Russian Orthodox Church in a letter to Nikolai Gogol, 1847

This quote opens a chapter of Russians titled “Cold and Punishment”, two topics that may be cliched punchlines when thinking about Russia, but which nevertheless influence Russian identity and character.

Gregory Feifer, a onetime Moscow correspondent for NPR, is an American born to a Russian mother. His ancestry and background, this perspective of both insider and outsider, make him an ideal candidate to explore the cultural identity of the Russian people. Russians and their behavior – cultural, political, economical, you name it – often baffle Westerners. From his unique position and extensive travels in Russia and the former Soviet Union, Feifer attempts to provide insight into the paradoxes and oddities of the Russian character.

Russians is a wonderfully readable, deeply thoughtful account of many of those perplexities. No dry, eye-crossing history here. Touching on major social, cultural, and political topics to affect Russia over the last several decades, each chapter is divided by its influence. These include poverty, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, alcoholism, the prison system, wealth accumulation (especially from Russia’s problematic energy sector), and international relations.

The much-derided but inadvertently brilliant phase of Yeltsin’s longtime prime minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, keeps sounding in my ear: ‘We hoped for the best, but it turned out as it always does.’ Although he was speaking about economic reform, his words have become universal for Russians.

Topical issues from recent years are recognizable from the headlines: the much-protested imprisonment of punk anti-Kremlin band Pussy Riot, Putin’s asylum for Edward Snowden, controversy over the Sochi Olympics, the brief but inflammatory war with Georgia, and of course, plenty of coverage on Putin and his cronies and their suspicious doings.

The glimpses of Russians, their lives and choices and most importantly, their own takes and perspectives on their homeland and its place in the world are enlightening. As a heavy-drinking Siberian tundra photographer tells Feifer over vodka and zakuski (hors d’oeuvres to accompany drinking): “You know the difference between Russians and Americans? Americans love their country and hate everyone who disagrees with them. Russians dislike their country and hate everyone who agrees with them.” 

One of the most telling quotes for me was this one:

The foreign affairs scholar Georgy Mirsky, who taught at Princeton and New York University, told me he believes the process will take generations. “Whenever my American students asked why bad news was always coming out of Russia, with its great culture, I’d tell them to imagine being put into a psychiatric asylum when they were three years old and released at thirty. Could you be a normal person? Of course not. After seventy years of Soviet rule, one of the most antihuman regimes in history, can you expect the next generation to be normal?”

Or this one, making an analogy this time not of a lost lifetime but of a kind of youth, Moscow’s specifically, affecting its world relationships:

Moscow’s growth set the tone for its future relations with Western countries, historian James Billington argues, by propelling it into a world it was not “not equipped to understand…The Muscovite reaction of irritability and self-assertion was in many ways that of a typical adolescent; the Western attitude of patronizing contempt that of the unsympathetic adult.” I feel that that dynamic continues shaping Russian identity today.

Yes, this is a mostly negative, pessimistic portrayal of Russia as it is in its current state, and in predictions for its future. But why try to depict sunshine where there isn’t any, or not much, at least? I appreciate Feifer’s honesty and realistic approach, and I think he’s in a unique, transcultural position to allow him to see things as he does.

“Living in Russia often seemed to me an ongoing lesson in precisely how not to conduct politics, business and almost every other human endeavor.”

And as anyone who feels that strange passion or appreciation for Russia and its culture and history knows, it has an almost inexplicable, magnetic charm all its own. So despite his pessimism, it’s clear that Feifer wants the best for this strange, wild country of contradictions and corruption. He finds many opportunities throughout this narrative of history, current affairs and commentary to inject his appreciation for the country where his parents met.

Although Moscow’s streets are…dirty and difficult to negotiate, the capital can’t be faulted for being boring. The loud and often smelly megalopolis shares something with New York in that it serves as a magnet for strivers from far and wide. Restaurants, theaters and all sorts of other establishments are constantly opening and closing, and there’s always something worthwhile to see or do – in short, the city is very much alive. I feel instantly at home arriving in Moscow because it’s exciting in its way, seething with raw human emotion. That still often appeals to me more than the museum-like qualities of many Western cities, where superficial niceties and the dull veneer of normal life conceal their own inequities and injustices.

Russians: The People Behind the Power
by Gregory Feifer
published February 18, 2014 by Twelve (Hachette)

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