Emory Richardson

Notes on Culture and Context

Globalization and Russia

Amid the chatter about Russia’s isolation (here, here, here, and here) I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the Russian internet. In particular, my newsfeed on the Russian Facebook, Vkontakte, has seemed to me to offer a pretty good cross section of Russian culture; after all, I’m a teacher, so I encounter people from every part of society. Kids and teens make up the majority of the postings, of course, but I consider this to be a boon in terms of cultural transparency. Firstly, politically, young people parrot their parents, and will often say the things their parents in a simpler manner than their more socially adept parents are willing to. And scondly, young people are prime consumers and the most active internet denizens. Their social life has been digitized, and the their cultural currency shows up in their likes, reposts, and comments.

Without further ado, on to the things I’ve noticed about Russia in the last several years.

The first thing I noticed was the aestheticism. This is notable in their musical talents, their willingness, almost eagerness, to dance, their sincere interest in art and poetry, and, perhaps more superficially, in the way the (women) dress. Being an important cultural aspect of the country, this aestheticism of course manifests in their social network newsfeeds. Look at the photos below, shared virally by teens and occasionally even created by the teens themselves, and think about whether you would ever see color-coordinated advertising in America. Would you even see anything that had gone viral just because it was beautiful?

Russia 1a

"I want to.....pick films...decorate the tree....watch [holiday] films"

“I want to…..pick films…decorate the tree….watch [holiday] films”

"can't wait"

“can’t wait”

"Winter - my favorite time of year"

“Winter – my favorite time of year”

"If my house stood at the edge of the world...I would dangle my legs out the window and admire the sunset."

“If my house stood at the edge of the world…I would dangle my legs out the window and admire the sunset.”

Point number two: Russians are solidly integrated into Western popular culture. This of course means that they view the US and Western culture through the oversexed, violent, saccharine, somewhat obtuse lens of Hollywood, and there are undoubtedly diverse reactions and echoes of that throughout authentic Russian culture, but it also means that they have formed impressions of the West based primarily on our superficiality, taking it to be the extent of our cultural landscape. Hence, techno is the norm in Russia, Maroon 5 is considered indie, Tupac, The Rolling Stones, and Nirvana are the realm of audiophiles only, and Talib Kweli, Marvin Gaye, and Dylan are simply unheard of. (This isn’t a question of taste, by the way; when the songs appear in popular television series, they can briefly gain fame and garner interest. The problem is that they’re currently marketed by American advertisers. A case in point would be Michael Jackson, for whom the record labels apparently decided not long ago to work on the Russian market, as he went from “crap” to “great’ in the words of a Russian friend in the course of two months – which just happened to correspond to a remarkable spike in appearances of his image and hit songs on VKontakte.) Product icons like the iPhone, Frozen, and Iron Man, and Coca Cola have similarly made their way into teen consciousness, as has duct tape and Sponge Bob.

Russia 2a Russia 2b

Associations with [the holidays]: [Christmas] trees mandarins Oliviye salad [Christmas] lights Home Alone Gifts Coca Cola ads

Associations with [the holidays]:
[Christmas] trees
Oliviye salad
[Christmas] lights
Home Alone
Coca Cola ads

Lenin and the iPhone (a one act play on the theme of the movie script for "Lenin and Shaktai")

Lenin and the iPhone (a one act play on the theme of the movie script for “Lenin and Shaktai”)

"The main thing is to believe in yourself"

“The main thing is to believe in yourself”

Quiz: which iPhone fits your personality? Check yourself and see your results

Quiz: which iPhone fits your personality? Check yourself and see your results

"What is "don't love you" supposed to mean?! - a couple of knocks with the frying man across your mug and "thorry dear, I din' mean it"

“What is “don’t love you” supposed to mean?! – a couple of knocks with the frying man across your mug and “thorry dear, I din’ mean it”

Note for engineers: "Does it move? Should it? [follow the yes or no instructions"

Note for engineers: “Does it move? Should it? [follow the yes or no instructions”

10 best tracks

10 best tracks

Russia 2j

Thirdly: Russians are not in a political backwater. In fact, comparatively, I would venture to say that they are more in tune with the world than their American peers. This impression may of course be a product of milieu into which I’ve fallen here, but even my milieu (a language school with international language camps) is indicative of broader trends. I’ve often heard locals call their town “the ass of the world” and say ironically “we’re so cool we live in Ulyanovsk by choice”. The fact that there are three major international language schools in a town that would be happily compared to Oklahoma City says something. It also should be noted that Americans still suffer and benefit from an intentional isolation from the rest of the world, despite the vivacity of our government on the world stage. Note that as a rule, we speak only one language, read only American news, don’t watch foreign TV or movies, and have never taken an interest in any country’s culture except as a human interest story in the midst of a bombing or some other horrendous event – see Koney 2012, the Mexican child refugee crisis, Haiti.

Russia 3a

Rubles already sunk so far that soon it's going to be the official currency of Bikini Bottom.

Rubles already sunk so far that soon it’s going to be the official currency of Bikini Bottom.

Russia 3c Russia 3d

An 8 hour difference

An 8 hour difference

Is it really possible to isolate a country entirely in the modern world? If so, it would take a lot more serious measures than what’s underway in Russia at the moment. A more pertinent question seems to me to be, what are the side effects of the imperfect integration the world has been experiencing in the internet age? Who is best taking advantage of it, who is reacting, and who just doesn’t get it?

In Russia aesthetic presentation is a huge boost to viral advertising. How does this compare to the US?

How does Westernization affect cultural identity? Do other countries willingly, blindly, consciously, accept our consumer goods? To what extent are these countries divided on Westernization, and how does it affect their attitude towards us?

Russian Economics and Group Mentalities

The juxtaposition of these two articles on my favorite Russian news website (snob.ru) caught my attention.

Russians have begun stocking up on Lexus and Porsche

Lexus dealerships in Russia have called in additional staff in order to handle the increased demand for their cars. Porsche has also noted a significant sales growth, according to a Bloomberg report from Monday, December 8th.

The sale of Lexus SUVs in Russia grew 63 percent during November 2015, and Porsche’s sports cars sales grew 55 percent. Lexus representatives say that the number of buyers increased by a third this month. “Our vehicles are going like hot cakes right now, regardless of whether they’re the more affordable models or premium class,” says Tatyana Lukovetskaya, the executive director of Rolf Group, one of the largest dealerships in Russia. According to her, this is the first time the Russian auto market has seen such a boom in decades.

Bloomberg attributes the the sales growth to rising inflation in Russia and the significant drop in the ruble. Russians have taken to buying cars as a type of investment, says Andrei Rodinov, head of the Corporate Relations Department in the Russian branch of Mercedes-Benz.

The growth will continue in December, say surveyed analysts. Automakers are in no rush to raise prices, but according to Lukovetskaya, the prices will “inevitably” soar in 2015, as no one wants to take a loss.

Governor of St. Petersburg cancels New Year’s reception “in the interests of frugality”

The Governor of St. Petersburg has refused to host the traditional New Year’s reception, his press-secretary Andrei Kibitov reports on Twitter.

The governor has decided, in the interests of frugality, to cancel the New Year’s reception, wrote Press-Secretary Poltavchenko.

By canceling the reception, the governor saved around three million rubles allocated to the event from the city budget. The city cultural committee had begun searching for an organizer for the event in September, with the announcement of bidding for New Year’s events. The governor’s bid for the MC duties was one of many. Nothing has yet been said about the cancellation of other ceremonial events planned in St. Petersburg for the new year.

Georgiy Poltavchenko has cancelled the New Year’s Reception for the second year in a row. In 2013, it was cancelled due to the terrorist acts in Volgograd on the 29th and 30th of December. The governor forbid that year’s New Year’s fireworks show.

The last New Year’s reception which the governor hosted was in 2012. The guests were the chiefs of the various embassies in the city.

Russian organizations from the government to the average family, are going to have budget problems this year, and in that sense it’s reasonable that they would cancel some government-financed public events. But what can we make of the fact that they’re buying luxury cars? Until last year, I thought it was part of common adult knowledge that cars were not only a bad investment, but that they began losing value as soon as they were driven off the lot. Then a friend here from Moscow picked me up from the train station in a car which was not the one he had left Ulyanovsk in; I congratulated him on the new car, and he gave me a strange look and said that it was just an investment that he’d had for several years. My friend is a relatively successful businessman who seems relatively well-versed in management and all things money. Money, in his own words, is exciting to him. So why was he buying a car as an investment? Russians seem to have a different understanding of economics than we do.

In the West’s supersaturated market, no product has much value beyond the sale price; one can always acquire a new one when the old one breaks down, and there’s not really even any point in fixing many products. In Russia, however, the value of many goods is multifaceted. Consider this cultural gem from the same website:

Можно было купить на черном рынке новую пластинку Pink Floyd, а потом каждый день в течение месяца на этот альбом заманивать к себе домой новую девушку.
(In the Soviet Union), it was possible to buy a new Pink Floyd album on the black market [for more than half your monthly salary], and then on the strength of that album, lure home a new girl every day for a month.

Similarly, in a Russia deprived of access to certain Western goods, either by price or policy, the resale value of certain Western products must remain rather high simply due to scarcity and either A) the perceived superior quality, or B) status symbol value. My friend should be able to resell his car for a significant price simply because factors A and B aren’t likely to change, and as his own currency devalues, he’ll have a material investment, the A and B value of which isn’t likely to change as quickly as the price of the ruble.

However, there are some other questions that may come in to play: purchasing a good can at times be considered a political act – see the “Buy American” campaigns in response to NAFTA. Russians certainly connect economics and nationalism to a certain degree; I’ve heard countless times that Putin’s sanctions against Western foods are going to have positive effects on Russian agriculture. Whether this is true, I have no idea. The question is, are Russians ready to forego Western products in favor of their own? Moreover, although I have heard of some cases of Russian extended families having bitterly divisive arguments over situation surrounding the Ukraine, I see a great deal more of the jingoistic fervor (квасной патриотизм) reminiscent of America, 2003, especially among younger teens. That is, a mob mindset that may well become part of their socialization. The second question is therefore, what will the repercussions of the current conflict be on future Russian attitudes towards the West?

How many times in your life have you been taken in by your government’s false portrayal of events requiring foreign policy action? Why do we tend to think alike in times of crisis? Does our operational trust in the media and government change at all after being deceived?

(All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted)

Democracy in America and Elsewhere

“But democracy is just another ideology, and we’ve had enough of ideologies!”, exclaimed one of my friends, “You can’t see it, because you’ve had an ideological education, but we Russians can recognize ideology.” I have a small group of friends here are interested in popularizing the works of a Russian philosopher, Georgiy Shedrovitsky, and we meet Wednesdays in a little cafe to practice our exegetical skills on his works. In our first format, the conversation would often devolve into semantics, and it was during one of these detours that this statement came out. It wasn’t my first time hearing it – anyone with an interest in Russia will notice that Russians are insistent on a “special Russian way”, sometimes a “Russian idea” – but it was still surprising, as it was the first time I had heard an intellectual take the idea seriously, and I was taken aback, to say the least.

Quite frankly, democracy likely is a part of my ideological education; we spent several seminars on de Tocqueville, and I was in the middle of arguing to this friend that a citizen is responsible for everything his government does, and is therefore obligated to know subjects beyond the realm of his personal business; one has to vote on these matters, after all. Russia seems to have very very little sense of civic responsibility, and the most common response among my friends and students when the topic comes up in relation to Russia has been a shrug and an equivalent to the phrase “but it won’t change anything, it’s Russia”. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand this fatalism, and from an American point of view, it’s most likely to be interpreted as a sign of backwardness, propaganda, or – ideology; for us, democracy really is the natural order of things, and to oppose it – to be undemocratic – is to be tyrannical, and therefore evil. De Tocqueville sums up the ineluctable advance of democracy well:

The various occurrences of national existence have everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have aided it by their exertions: those who have intentionally labored in its cause, and those who have served it unwittingly; those who have fought for it and those who have declared themselves its opponents, have all been driven along in the same track, have all labored to one end, some ignorantly and some unwillingly; all have been blind instruments in the hands of God. The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. Would it, then, be wise to imagine that a social impulse which dates from so far back can be checked by the efforts of a generation? Is it credible that the democracy which has annihilated the feudal system and vanquished kings will respect the citizen and the capitalist?

The other day, however, I was struck by another thought. What if these modern opponents of democracy are just confused about its meaning and essence? Another friend had mentioned reading a survey of Germans which stated that 1/6 of Germans wanted the Berlin wall returned (and I found a corroborating article here); she claimed that the reasons they gave were all to the effect that they missed the collectivist values of the GDR and felt alienated by the capitalistic dog-eat-dog rules that they are now living under. Her point was that perhaps democracy is not for everyone; but what struck me was the explanation her interpretation offered for another statistic I’d seen: that 1/3 of Russians can’t identify the traits of democracy on a multiple choice test (it’s worth pointing out, however, that 43% were able to say what democracy is). When I hear my Russian friends talk about how democracy isn’t for Russia, they don’t refer to the idea of democracy – they talk about Western values (meaning, materialism and homosexuality), American hegemony, and Russia’s special East-West path. This would seem to imply that democracy for them is simply whatever America is. Yet, when they talk about the Crimea, the first point they make (after confirming that Crimea is, in fact, quite simply, theirs) is that the citizens of the Crimea chose to join Russia by referendum. That is, they rely on the most basic tenant of democracy, self-determination, for an important argument even as they claim democracy is “not for Russia”. Is this not evidence of a total misidentification of the concept?
Before you get too smug, however, notice that America has become much less democratic itself in recent years (see gerrymandering, 2000 Presidential Elections, the PATRIOT Act, NSA surveillance, net neutrality, and this report by Princeton political scientists). My very unscientific impression here is that the United States, by way of its very imperialistic foreign policy in the last few decades, has buried not simply its own reputation, but the reputation of democracy. People may still like us personally (we’re nice!), and they may want to to be friends with us or live with us (we’re rich!), but they’re having serious doubts about following our lead. Moreover, simply following everyday heuristics, they have concluded that since America is rotten and we are democracy, democracy is therefore a rotten form of government. This hypothesis doesn’t entirely hold up, insofar as they also enjoy pointing out that America isn’t a democracy in any case, but the fact that it perhaps was at one point serves their purpose of discrediting the very idea.
So how is one supposed to respond to the accusation that democratic government is not for everyone? It’s not an entirely absurd claim; after all, by examining the peculiarities of democratic and non-democratic government in more detail, we might discover that there are forms of government more successful than ours. Yet, out of affection for my own country and my form of government, I think there’s something else we can do: realize that simply by virtue of our standing in the world for the last 100 or so years, people watch us. The best thing that we can do to promote our values and way of life is behave. We may not be a beacon on the hill, but we are all the same in the public eye.Spying, police brutality, bullying and conniving in foreign policy are all bad-neighbor behaviors. As the standard bearer of free liberal government, we are the world’s conception of free liberal government (even if we aren’t the best example of it), and therefore anything that reflects badly on us reflects badly on our ideas of governance as well. Something to be considered.

Do you think democracy is just an ideology that will be replaced by other forms of government? Why is America at once so popular and so unpopular? Do we have an obligation to be an example, or are our failures our own?

The Night, The Street, The Lamps, A Drugstore / Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека

The night, the street, the lamps, a drugstore,
the meaningless and feeble light.
Even if you live a quarter century more,
it will be the same. There’s no end in sight.

If you die, you’ll begin it all once more
and all will repeat as it was before:
the night, an icy channel’s chants
a drugstore, a street, the lamps.

(All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted)


Expectations and Stress

It first happened in Kazakhstan. I was standing in line at the coat check at the Almaty Opera, and a pumpkin-shaped babushka elbowed her way by and began to crowd the person in line ahead of me. Later, trying to buy tickets for a train, I found myself pushing as close as decently possible to the person queueing ahead of me and trying to make myself appear larger, the way a cat does when threatened. It was explained to us, at the time, as a Russian peculiarity; when you approach a line, you must be aware that you’re actually approaching a queue, and understand that these are different phenomena, with distinct rules. The first of these, they say, is that you must ask “who is last?” and upon identifying said person, announce “then I am behind you”; however, this is false. The first rule is that you must never think that your place in line is secure. It is always in danger of being usurped, especially if you show weakness. And although this is funny at first, after several years of elderly women with set jaws and antagonistic voices usurping your place, you understand – no, this is not usurpation. It is good old-fashioned budging. Stress wears away at the shiny newness of living in another culture. Sometimes, the otherness gets to be too much.

This past week was very Russian. It began with Very Russian Event #1; some acquaintances from a nearby village came in to town to meet up and go to the movies. It was a bit late, but we agreed to meet at 10pm and see what was playing. Unfortunately, precisely at 10 they called to report that they had been broadsided by a truck, and, although they were fine, they were going to be late. I felt consternated. In my circles, being broadsided by a truck on your way to a late date with friends would mean that they evening was over, and you were lucky to be headed home in one piece. Here, in Russia it means that they plan to come and drink tea in your kitchen for several hours, even if they arrive at 2 am.

While waiting sleepily for them to arrive, Very Russian Event #2 occurred: we noticed a vaguely piney smell coming from the bathroom, and entered to find it approaching sauna temperatures, but void of any catastrophes. About 10 minutes later, a neighbor knocked at our door, demanding to check to see if we were, through some gross oversight of the condition of our plumbing, the cause of the water gushing out of his burst pipes. Our pipes, fortunately, were in order. He left, promising us to have to the emergency plumbing service come up to have a look a bit later. I decided that was as good a reason as any to call it a day, and went to bed, leaving my S.O. to sort things out – after all, it was her friends coming over, and we were in no way obligated to stay up for emergency services to bother us. However, before I could drift off, Very Russian Event #1 continued. The friend of my S.O. knocked at the door, absolutely dying to tell us what had happened to them. Having reassured myself that no one had died in a brief conversation with them, I retired, and found out only at 4 am, when I was awoken to say goodbye to them, that their 2 hours at the scene of the accident was worth 4 hours of retelling, second-guessing, and quarreling with each other.

The next morning, I discovered the results of Very Russian Event #2 waiting in my bathroom: I had no water at all. Russian plumbers don’t work weekends, and so the water to my building had simply been turned off to await the plumbers appearance, on Wednesday.

Very Russian Event #3 happened as we returned home Sunday evening. As I was walking in the entryway door, an old woman said to me roughly “hold the door, young man!”, and then hurried up the stairs to accost my S.O. at the elevator, who quickly evaded her and followed me up the next flight of stairs. The old woman followed us up the stairs as well, shouting about how dirty it was and weren’t we ashamed to throw our trash on the stairs. As we reached our outer door, she said “I clean up here, you owe me 100 rubles for that!” I began to close the door, ignoring her, and she stuck her foot in the door and shouted “100 rubles for cleaning!”. I told her that I certainly hadn’t thrown any trash on the stairs, and wasn’t in the habit of giving strangers money. She answered “you won’t pay!?! Fine then, see what happens!” I was concerned that the woman was crazy and knew where I lived, but thought no more about it until Saturday, when I woke up to find that someone had kicked three bags of trash onto the landing in front of my door. After conferring with my landlord and neighbors, I’ve figured out that the woman lives across the hall, and collects money from renters for cleaning the entryway – however, given the constant condition of the entryway, it’s impossible that she does anything of the sort. I’ve decided to ignore her, but what’s frustrating is that calling the police is out of the question, because, according to my Russian friends,  police in Russia are likely to put you in jail for calling them – people who complain, in their view, are the most likely culprits.

Very Russian Event #4 happened Monday. I had been trying to set up a pull-up bar for nearly two weeks, and had either not had time or run into some obstacle, and finally simply decided to call a handyman to do it, figuring it would save me a lot of hassle and not be all that expensive. The only time he could meet in the course of the week was Monday afternoon, so instead of going to the gym according to my Monday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule, I decided to meet him at 4;30, directly after work, reasoning that I’d be able to do some of the same exercises on the pull up that very night, and then have the thing available to use at my pleasure. I explained to him that it was a simple job, I just didn’t have the tools for it, but he’d need a drill and some wooden blocks to bolt to the doorframe as supports. The handyman arrived around 5, and began to discuss with himself how best to set up the pull-up bar. He had not brought either a drill or the wooden blocks, and at first insisted that he could do it simply by hanging it above the door. I intervened, pointing out the weakness of the screws, the lack of support at the load-bearing point. He faltered a bit, and then changed tactics; “you know, I’ve done these things before, and I think you’ve got a plaster wall here that won’t hold your weight – even if it’s brick, I don’t want to be responsible for the damages.” Now I was concerned, thinking of course that this was a professional, and not wanting to ruin the landlord’s wall. We ended up calling the landlord, who decided he’d rather not risk it. Of course, a few hours later, I realized that this was Very Russian Event #4. The handyman had no idea what he was talking about; only about 40% of my weight would be hanging on the nails, the rest of the force distributed by the the triangular pull-up bar. The problem was that in Russia, handymen are exactly that – a guy with a hammer whom women can call when their husbands are busy or at work. Being a naive American, I thought of him as a certified carpenter who would be giving me advice based on his knowledge of weight-distribution, building materials, and other technical questions with which I was simply not acquainted. All of my thoughts of weight distribution, which I had excitedly figured out and explained to the landlord and my S.O., left my mind in the face of an expected authority. It wasn’t until today, a week later, that I got my pull-up installed, having actually drawn up a force-distribution diagram to verify the safety of the of the set up and called my landlord again.

Very Russian Event #5 took place Wednesday. I was to meet several other foreign teachers in the local clinic to get a full physical, who, being chaperoned by a Russian, were half an hour late. Full physicals are a rarity in the US. Here, there are multiple categories of people who are required to have these yearly check ups, including but not limited to: urine and stool samples, skin samples, a dentists’ glance at your teeth (all teeth are healthy in Russia until they need to be pulled out or covered in gold), a very cursory interview with a psychiatrist (psychology is not considered a real science in Russia) in which the patient answers three direct questions “no, I’m not an alcoholic; no, I don’t take drugs; no, I’ve got nothing else I’d like to talk about with you”, a very serious gel-and-EKG visit to the cardiologist, and a a tuberculosis X-ray. The check-up itself takes about an hour; the Very Russian Problem is the queue concept. I’ve already mentioned the boorish, pumpkin-shaped grandmothers whose single task is to get to the front of the line as fast as possible. There are several ways to do this. The first method I experienced 5 minutes into my wait. As I was speaking with the other foreign teachers, this grandmother parked herself between me and the person ahead of me, and said “I was here”, as though talking to herself. This is of course confusing for a Westerner. Venerable old women don’t simply lie about where they were in line in the West – they’re too venerable for that. But Because of that moment of doubt, all is lost. While you’re still confused about whether it’s possible that this women who you just saw walk in wearing a heavy fur coat and drop it off at the coat-check really had been in line and just needed to step out for a moment – fully understandable, in Russia – her rights to the place in line have solidified, and your objections take on a distinct flavor of the staircase wit that we thought was no longer relevant after graduating middle-school. “Pardon me, were you looking for the end of the line? It’s over there!” The second method was applied by the same woman a bit later,  and has two variations. When a new check-in opened right next to us, the receptionist called us over, and the old hag that had cut in front of us walked over and began to berate us for cutting the line – “you were behind me, what do you think you’re doing stepping over here!?! I’m first!” After getting checked in, and getting in line for the blood test, we experienced Method 2, Variation 2: the same woman, arriving a bit before us, had walked up to the front of the line and stuck her head in the door of the doctor’s office and said something to them. She then struck up a conversation with the person in the front of the line, and when that person was called in, she simply occupied their place in line. When the man who had been queueing second objected, she began to shout at him that he was a brazen lout, he could see that she had been there the entire time, and she wasn’t going anywhere. This is foolproof, in my experience – the more brazen the lie, and the louder you defend it, the harder it is to disagree, simply due to the feeling of shame one experiences on behalf of the other person; for some reason, in English, we’ve reduced the potency of this empathetic shame by calling “a sense of decency”. Method 3 was displayed by half of the crowd; this is very simple, and also Very Russian – simply walk up to the end of every line and announce that you are at the end. All that then remains is to race between the 15 different offices on three floors, monitoring the lines and re-occupying the line, preferably nearer to the front than to the end (by utilizing Methods 1 and 2) whenever you miss your turn. In the end, I spent 2.5 hours waiting in 6 lines and about a half hour with various doctors, missing a lesson and lunch.

Very Russian Event #6 also took place Wednesday. I had expected to finish at the clinic in an hour and then stop by the bank to open a bank account, so when the clinic ended up taking 4 hours, I moved the bank stop to later that afternoon. I arrived at 4 pm. Banks in Russia, which deal with Westerners far more often than hospitals, have acquired a sense of shame for the disgrace that goes on in other institutions requiring queues, and have instituted a system of call-numbers. I was advised by a receptionist to take two tickets, since I had two types of transactions. When my number was called, I approached the desk and was perturbed to find it occupied. Deciding that the teller must simply be finishing with the previous client, I retreated about 10 steps to keep an eye on the call-board, and in doing so, missed the moment when the client left, the number changed, and my chance was lost. However, oddly enough, the same number appeared again the call-board, this time at a different desk. I rushed over, and again discovered the teller busy with another client. I resolved to wait it out. As soon as they left, I stepped up and announced that I had been called, and the other man who had been there under my number had cut the line. I was already rather put out and suspecting that the system was glitching, and so I insisted on being helped. However, the teller ended up not being able to perform the type of transaction I needed, and sent me to window 7, saying someone would be right with me. No one was at window 7, but upon inquiry, I was told that someone would be right there. In about five minutes, a man appeared and told me that he hadn’t called my number, and I would need to go take a new call number to be served. I refused, and he told me to go resolve the issue with the woman at the second window who had sent me there in the first place. After arguing her in to spending 10 minutes trying to open the account for me, I was sent back to the same window 7, where yet another teller sat, this one finally able to help me. I exited the bank after 2 hours, and finding that I was out of change for the bus, walked home, where Very Russian Event #7 awaited.

The court summons stuck in my door were not for me; one of them wasn’t even for my apartment or floor. The other two were for 20,000 rubles and twenty rubles, the latter of which is the same as the cost of the stamp. However, due to the boorishness of the woman in Very Russian Event #5 and the recollection of Very Russian Event #2, I was immediately seized by the idea that the neighbors whose pipe had burst and left me without water for three days were trying to pin the costs on me, and my mood was spoiled. The message from the teacher who manages foreigner’s housing 15 minutes later did nothing to calm dissatisfaction with Very Russian Event #7.

The next day, I spent an hour and a half waiting in line at the clinic again to collect my results (this time being at fault myself for not understanding the practitioner’s instructions to come right in if I had given my samples the day before), and encountered Very Russian Event #8. None of the doctors whom I had seen the day before had asked me for my medical booklet (an artifact of Soviet bureaucracy), and so I had collected no stamps; moreover, the psychiatrist hadn’t asked me for stool or urine samples, and so I didn’t even have the data for one of the necessary stamps. Proving the absurdity of the whole system of requirements, the practitioner in charge of issuing results simply produced the whole set of stamps from each department and forged my results.

Finally, at the end of a very long post, the point of all of this. Some of these things are simply unimaginable in my culture, and although they’re all frustrating, none of them are unbearable. They’re frustrating mainly in their unfamiliarity. I spoke with a Russian friend about queues and he laughed and agreed that it was boorish what the woman did, but insisted that Russians are extremely tolerant, and everyone uses the general tolerance of disorder to their own advantage at times. It simply doesn’t bother them anymore. Yet, if only because it’s so unusual for me, the whole situation is a thorn in my side – I spend the entire day in shock at the barbarity and complacency of the entire company, sharpening my staircase wit in my mind. Friends recommend that I either pay off the crazy old lady next door, since 100 rubles is about the equivalent of $8-10, and I can certainly afford $10 a month, or bring her a cake and tell her I want to be friends. Yet, I’m unable to offer money or cake to someone who has so grievously sinned against the laws of decency. All of this stress comes down quite simply to expectations; and when expectations are not fulfilled, the stress that accompanies failure of plans. If expectations play such a large role, how much of our interpersonal chemistry, then, is based simply on the fundamental expectations instilled in us by our parents, friends, and minimal milieu? Can we apply the same thing to a monocultural interpersonal communication? Suppose that you’re working next to a person who chatters unendingly about inanities and her own daily stressors; you react poorly, not so much because of the inappropriate behavior of your coworker as because you were socialized in a more reserved environment. The only thing that’s really stressing you out is your coworker’s violation of your expected norms. Within any single culture, as within our singe species, there is a multitude of behavioral norms; shouldn’t these have some underlying cause? One need not even be fully aware of the irritation in having one’s expectations left unfulfilled – the lack, though will slowly accumulate and become dissatisfaction.

What is a cause of stress for you? How do you react to it? Is it possible to reduce stress by understanding its cause? Especially in the holiday season – are there members of your family whose habits seem totally alien? How did they, coming from the same background, become such distinct people?

What’s the Wind to Us? / Что Нам Ветер?

Oh exquisite distance, swallowed by the sky
Clouds pressed to the earth as though to a lover;
where you and I, under a simple roof,
were searching for warmth in one another

What’s the wind to answer us but this:
in a rush of broken wings going past
and falling between we new lovers
it shattered our embrace like simple glass

We stood in the past, waiting for a beginning,
pressing ourselves to that wall of vanishing faces –
A wall where death wed yet another life
in a burst of fire, in these strange days

Organization, As It Were: Business in Russia

There’s a hilarious cracker-barrel wisdom comedy called День Радио (Radio Day, named after a holiday celebrating the Soviet-version of history inventor of the radio, Alexander Popov), which as far as I can tell, is essentially a send-up of doing business in Russia. The production team of a fictional Russian radio station, Radio, As It Were, desperately try to pull together a theme for a 10 hour fundraising (read: publicity) marathon after discovering three minutes before the live broadcast that their direct competitor is running exactly the same banal theme. Combing the newspapers, they discover that a ferry full of zoo animals has been stranded in the Sea of Japan and is awaiting rescue , and decide to fudge the story a bit to fit their purposes – “Rescue the rare animals menagerie of Dr. Schvartsengold, distinguished Professor of Science!”, complete with an interview from an endangered animals expert in the person of their alcoholic sound producer, and Brigitte Bardot – courtesy of a taped introductory French lesson. In the clip below, however, they realize that the jig is up, since the marathon has been so successful that the Russian military is sending a battleship to rescue the rare animals ferry. At this point, of course, there’s nothing to be done – and so the director of the station decides to enlist his entire team in the search for a button that he may have lost in the office, saying “Can we find the button? Purely theoretically, yes, we can find the button; as for the Ministry of Defense, there’s absolutely nothing we can do. Conclusion? Look for the button!!”

I had probably watched this movie 15 times and lived in Russia for two years before I realized that precisely this moment was a microcosm of business and organization in Russia. Last minute decisions, double-duty shifts, a not-quite-there application of capitalism, a half-absorbed Western culture and its conflict with the remnants of the Soviet philistine hegemony (imagine if the Tea Party had been in control of the country for 70 years and was only beginning to cede airtime for Kenny Chesney and Blake Shelton to anything north of Memphis!) all culminate in the pompous announcement (which later turns out to be a political fiction) that the Navy has been dispatched to save the rare animals.

The point here is not to do an exegesis of the film, however. The point is organization in Russia. About a week ago, apposite to the perfectly mundane task of buying some goldfish, I fell into a perfectly Russian situation. I had been very excited by the discovery of a rough approximation of Yelp! (in Russia, there is not yet an app for that, but the pioneers of innovation, small-timer rip offs of the major Western products, are becoming available), and decided to use it to find the nearest pet store. Coordinates entered, I set off. Upon reaching the spot indicated to be 5 Division Street by the app, I noticed with no little consternation that the large, unfriendly brick building, which quite clearly contained no pet-store, was marked on the corner to one of a rain-pipe “Karl Leibknecht Street 17”, and to the other side “5” – this being Division Street, the address would apparently be correct. To sooth my distress at the double address, I checked my map:

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The app, as you can see, is quite convinced that the building is 5 Division Street, no matter what the map itself may have to say about that. However, with the naive eyes of a Westerner, the map would not appear to be trustworthy either:  across Division Street from No. 17 is No. 10, which appears to be joined with number 19 and share a courtyard with No. 38. I was not to be fooled, however; I am an Experienced Expat, and have long ago learned that Russian addresses are not to be bound by linearity or even parity: it is perfectly okay for 24 to be on the same side of the street as 17. Better to ask for directions. The woman in the newspaper kiosk next to 17 Liebknecht/5 Division, unfortunately, was not local, and I was forced to drop into a nuts retailer next door. The nuts ladies told me that although they didn’t know where 5 Division was, there could be a pet store in Sparta, the new mall on Division Street (on this map, No. 24). Hopeful, I walked in to the building to check it out, and after awhile, was able to find the pet store. However, not without wondering at the mall itself, which is the point of this anecdote. Shooting from the hip (or “from the cunt” in the Russian vernacular) is the modus operandi, satirized in Radio Day and on clear display here as well. Construction on the then-sports complex began 10 years ago, but having not actually financed the expenditures, the government stopped construction and let the building sit for several years. A few years ago, a local millionaire decided to buy up the property and open it as a mall. Unfortunately, he didn’t calculate his finances either, and it seems that none of the small and mid-size business the space is aimed at can afford the prices. Two thirds of the space is empty, and even a number of those companies which have rented space aren’t moving in any time soon – no theaters or gyms are being set up:

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This is not intended to badmouth Russia, however. I’m more interested in the effect the system has on the way people think. If you imagine that you grew up in a place where the ideal of “a responsible adult” included people who would build multi-million dollar shopping malls without having figured out how to get a profit out of them, and in which there appeared to be multiple systems of organization haphazardly superimposed onto one another and the older ones clearly denoting the threadbare places of the modern system, how would you relate to planning? To government? To your own responsibilities? Affairs might proceed in a superficially similar manner, but if I imagine the exasperation I felt (and, I think, any Westerner would feel) upon encountering such a situation, I have to think that a Russian has developed some kind of coping mechanism to resolve the cognitive dissonance struck by the human need to impose order on the world and the pale success that need has realized in their immediate surroundings.

Have you ever noticed threadbare places in the systems you rely on that seem to work differently in other countries? Do these observations affect your dogmas about the way the world works?