19 March 2009

Ten things I love about Russia

I've only been in Newberg, Oregon, for five days and already I'm impatient to return home. As therapy, I decided on an exercise: to list ten reasons I want to be in Russia instead of back in new-visa limbo. Maybe this exercise is also a good rehearsal for my responses to a question we get all the time from both Americans and Russians--although their reasons for asking may differ): why do I want to live in Russia?

(When Americans ask, there may be a slight tinge of cold-war memories behind the question, or perhaps they reflect the conventional wisdom in the USA that xenophobia and anti-Americanism are on the rise in Russia. Or they may simply be aware that the Moscow region is a LOT colder than Oregon. On the other hand, when Russians ask, sometimes there's a frank implication that we must live more comfortably in the USA than they do in Russia, at least by the standards we seem to regard as important, so what motive could we have for relocating?)

Russia is not heaven on earth any more than the USA is, so as I present the following modest and woefully incomplete list, I assure you that I'm aware that every positive point has its shadow side. I may be romantic, but I'm also a political scientist by training, and the cynic within me gets his fair share of attention. In any case, the Web is full of essays on Russia's faults and problems; I'd like to grab a few electrons' worth of space for a more positive viewpoint.

10. Sheer diversity!! Russia is a multinational, multilingual, multicultural federation. The peoples of the Soviet Union moved about and intermarried, and post-Soviet Russia still reflects that variety.

9. Scale. Russia is a seventh of the world's surface and includes eleven time zones. This is a country which is not afraid to think big--something it has in common with the USA.

8. Public transportation. From our apartment in Elektrostal we can go anywhere in the city on frequent buses and microbuses. A bus for Moscow leaves from our street every twenty minutes; if we prefer to go by train, the nearest suburban train station is ten minutes away by bus, and trains depart every ten to 30 minutes during most times of the day.

7. Urban layout. Some of the city blocks (in Elektrostal and many other places), as defined by the area bounded by four city streets, actually form discrete microdistricts with an attractive village feel. crisscrossed by small traffic lanes and walking paths, with courtyards, schools, apartment buildings, parks, playgrounds, and little green spaces. Buildings in the interior are numbered according to the boundary streets, so sometimes this arrangement is difficult for a newcomer to navigate, but it results in human-scale communities within the larger city.

6. Chocolate!--Krasny Oktyabr, Babayevsky (in Russian, but a fun site to explore), A. Korkunov. Bread. Pelmeni. Golubtsi. Even the simple kasha. In fact, Russian cuisine in general.

5. Culture--OMG, this is the land of Rachmaninov, Akhmatova, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Chekhov, Gogol, Tsvetaeva, Tarkovsky, Galich, Zemfira.... Need I say more? (Because I certainly could!)

4. Humor. The Russian capacity for humor, all the way from wicked satire to all-out hilarity, may be the country's best-kept secret, in view of the Western stereotype of the stolid, taciturn Russian. One expression of Russian humor that I really love is the KVN tradition of team competition in humorous skits and songs.

3. Spirituality. Russian Christianity, for example, emphasizes growth in God rather than our separation from God. "The true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit," said St Seraphim of Sarov; the Holy Spirit plays a far greater role in Russian theology and spirituality than in many Western expressions. My formation as a Quaker Christian owes a huge amount to such Russian Christian thinkers as Anthony Bloom, Alexander Men', Nikolai Berdyaev, and Catherine Doherty--and to the amazing experience of Russian Orthodox worship.

2. Hospitality. Anyone who has visited a Russian home already knows what I'm referring to. Home hospitality is generous, frequent, and unanxious, unlike some of our Western patterns.

1. Capacity for friendship. To risk a stereotype, this is one of the most endearing and humbling qualities that I've encountered in Russian people. Most Russians take friendship and loyalty very seriously. Genuine friendships are not undertaken casually, and once they are established, they feature amazing generosity and care--both given and expected. If this list of "ten things" were pared down to just the present item, that would be enough of an attraction for me.

One thing that does not appear on my list is the "mysterious Russian soul." I think I know what it refers to--a special blend of passion, pragmatism, a whole complex of opposites (passivity and impetuous energy, sentimentality and ruthlessness, binge and remorse--in fact a mystical ability to accept paradox)--and I agree that it is a fascinating quality. However, probably every nation has a national conceit of some kind, and I resist honoring any such conceit that reinforces a sense of superiority. I don't know why I fell in love with Russia all those years ago, but it was NOT because Russians are superior to others. They are humans, with all the clutter of gifts and defects that the rest of us have. (As I've said before: Russians have fierce pride but are also their own strictest critics!) I don't need to think that the peculiar Russian combinations and proportions of these elements are better than others to feel grateful and blessed that they have enriched my life.

In the meantime ... Demand accountability for torture. ~~ For that matter, what would John Calvin say to Dick Cheney? ~~ And Bill Richardson signs repeal of New Mexico's death penalty. ~~ Mark Galli on "soul care" in a narcissistic culture. ~~ Swedish peace activists (including one with ties to Christian Peacemakers) get four months imprisonment. ~~ Epistle from the recent Quaker Volunteer Service Consultation at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. ~~ And in the consumer fantasy department: The news of the successful flying car test flight reminded me of my own secret desire since childhood: a personal submarine of my very own. (An ideal gift for terminal introverts!) Do submarines have carbon footprints? Anyway, at $20 million, I guess I might be waiting for a while. ~~ Friday PS: Tony Blair visits At-Tuwani, long-term site of Christian Peacemakers' ministry of accompaniment and documentation in Palestine.

Carolyn Wonderland shall not be moved.

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