26 March 2020

To Russia with love

According to a joke circulating in Russia during the 1998 financial crisis, two bankers are conversing:

“How did you sleep last night?”
“Like a baby…”
“How could that be??!!”
“Every hour I woke up and cried!”


Judy and I were talking today about what's helping us personally get through the current worldwide public health emergency. I realized that one of the gifts Russia gave us in our years there (2007-17) was an appreciation for the value of humor in maintaining sanity. Not all crisis-related humor is benign, but at best it never minimizes suffering or belittles anyone; instead (as Tom Nicholson points out) its appeal depends on the ways we're all experiencing these challenges together.

People outside Russia might not realize that Russians are simultaneously dealing with at least three big realities. In addition to COVID-19, they're suffering from declines in the financial markets in connection with the fall of oil prices (a crisis which itself is exacerbated by the pandemic), and the brazen constitutional coup engineered by Vladimir Putin, by which he is in the process of awarding himself a fifth and sixth term as president. He would be the first to argue that, if the popular referendum approves his constitutional amendments, he would have to earn those terms by winning elections, but few doubt that he will win any election he contests.

In any case, all of these situations are dead serious, and at the same time, all of them present endless possibilities for humorists. You may recognize some of these examples as originally coming from outside Russia, but, home-grown or imported, here's how Russians presented them:

(Left) "Do you have any summer travel plans?" "In June and July we'll be home, but in August we want to go out to the store."
(Right) Going to work. Specialists recommend observing your daily rituals, even if you don't step out of your home because of the coronavirus.

(Left) In the USA, sales of weapons have gone up sharply. In Russia, sales of condoms have gone up sharply. In a nutshell, that sums up the differences in mentality of the two nations.
(Right) If the traffic cops stop you... [Sign] I have the coronavirus.

(Left) Doctor's advice: To prevent coronavirus infection, eat five garlic bulbs a day. Of course this isn't the least bit effective, but those around you will keep their distance.
(Right) Newscaster: "The ruble's value has fallen so that Russians can't travel abroad and get sick from the coronavirus." My dad: "Great -- a versatile approach."

"Are we going to be at this forever?"
"I don't know. I'm not interested in politics."

Another important thing we learned from Russians, to risk a stereotype: to live in the moment. This is not an argument against planning ahead and anticipating opportunities for change, but it does mean living attentively in the present, appreciating and enjoying what is right before our very eyes, cherishing our relationships and blessings. If we can't be present where we are (to borrow from the title of Douglas Steere's lecture On Being Present Where You Are), what will we be able to bring to the hypothetical future?

From Sarah Masen's "Carry Us Through"
At the beginning of one academic year, the leaders of our institute in Elektrostal gathered the faculty together and told us very plainly that the very existence of the institute continued to be threatened by unreasonable regulations and capricious enforcement, and that, among other things, we had to observe all record-keeping requirements minutely. Carelessness on the part of any of us could endanger everyone. I think we left that meeting discouraged and fearful of the tense months facing us. But as soon as I stepped into the classroom, wrote my first gap-fill exercise on the chalkboard, and greeted the students as they entered the classroom for our first meeting of the year, I was overwhelmed by gratitude for their trust, humor, curiosity, and boundless good will. We set to work.

I've written before about the Russian word normal'no and its enormous range, from "OK" to "the usual misery" -- and of course, like many Russian words, it can be used entirely ironically. In this pandemic season, the comforting power of the word (don't worry overmuch: sooner or later, everything will be normal'no) comes back to me.

If it were not for the pandemic, I would be in Russia this very day. Michael Eccles of Friends World Committee for Consultation and I had spent months planning a trip to visit Moscow Friends, only to have our plans thwarted by the novel coronavirus. I'm sad but not distracted -- there's much to do here, plenty to appreciate, plenty to be vigilant about in this moment. It's a comfort to notice that there's a big piece of Russia in my heart, helping me to cope.

Friends World Committee for Consultation provides a very partial list of online Quaker meetings for worship. Should yours be on the list? (This is not a rhetorical question -- churches and formats vary in their ability to absorb visitors not known to the worshipping community.) Contact information is in the introductory paragraphs.

The coronavirus in Russia ... the view from The Moscow Times.

A rich case study in Russian education and cross-cultural challenges: The demise of Moscow's Protestant university.

Faded records tell the story of school segregation in Virginia.

In his post, Without Assurance, Mike Farley quotes Jennifer Kavanagh: "... Faith is not about certainty, it is about trust...."

Another version of last week's song, "Needed Time."


Unknown said...

Dear Johan, thanks for the post! It sounds so terribly optimstic. I put down my name for every word of it!

Unknown said...

It is me, Anton)

Johan Maurer said...

Anton! Привет!