Approaching Russia: A Beginners Guide

Trying to understand Russia and the famously nebulous “Russian soul” may seem like a daunting task at first. I am by no means an expert but I find it absolutely necessary to undertake this seemingly herculean challenge. I refuse to accept the notion that Russia and the Russian government are irrational. Is a Cyrillic alphabet intimidating? Absolutely. Do Russians have different values and habits than what one in the west might consider “normal”? Certainly! However this is no excuse to not attempt to understand other nations and their culture.

I fear that for many it is far simpler to merely write off Russia (or any other nation for that matter) as “irrational” and wallow in blissful ignorance. If one truly seeks to negotiate, cooperate and work towards peace, one must attempt to understand one’s counter parts on the other side of the negotiating table.
This post is meant to serve as a suggestion of where and how to start if one seeks to begin to understand Russia and its people.

In order to understand the culture of the Russian people and government on must first understand their history, how they came to be where they are today. One cannot regard the past 100 years of history alone and make definitive conclusions. In order to gain a solid understanding of Russian history I highly recommend Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, by Martin Sixsmith. I feel it ought serve as the cornerstone of any approach to Russian history. Sixsmith not only covers the major events in history and culture but expertly outlines trends and presents it all from a refreshingly objective point of view.

I feel that one must of the most important aspects of Russian history that is often overlooked is the harsh realities of the 1990’s in Russia. For many people the KGB is often one of the first words that springs to mind when discussing the Soviet Government. Investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan illuminate the evolution of the state security services in their book: The New Nobility. Beginning in the early 1990’s with how the FSB (Federal Security Service) grew out of the boots of the KGB after the collapse of USSR, and how the FSB grew and evolved. This book may not appeal to most people and is certainly a heavy read. But it is a necessary exploration of how the security apparatus in modern Russia came to be and its role in Russian society.

On of the best bits of advice I have ever received concerning the study of Russia and its people is this:
“Leave of your western understanding of liberalism, democracy and freedom at the door.” These terms are used in Russia, however they often have a different meaning. For example, the recent presidential election in Russia was by all means “democratic” in the most basic definition of the term. However in the West we wouldn’t consider it the same level or type of democracy as that which is prevalent in North America and western Europe. Peter Pomerantsev has a particular knack for exploring these differences in Russian culture. His book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is his account of living in Russia in the 2000’s working in television and media. It is a unique perspective into the state run media apparatus and the difficulties faced by journalists who work in it. Pomerantsev also explores how Russia changed and the effects these changes had on Russian society during the decade he spent working in Russia.

The one of the toughest but most effective methods of approaching Russia is learning the Russian language. Russian is a difficult but very rewarding language to learn. I feel much of the “Russian Soul” can be found within the Russian language itself. One of the most fascinating things about the Russian language is the institution of “Pogovorki” or proverbs. Naturally every language has a collection of sayings, proverbs and phrases, but in Russian they are a societal institution. I find it makes for an interesting and diverse exploration of the Russian mentality and “soul” by asking all the Russians I meet for the first time what their favorite Pogovroka is. There are many, often funny Pogovorki but my personal favorite is: “War is War, but lunch happens on schedule”. For anyone looking to learn the Russian language, I found the following resources very useful:
Russia’s biggest state run media organization Russia Today has free online language lessons on their website. Furthermore the mobile app Memrise is a great tool for beginning to learn Russian, especially handy everyday phrases and the alphabet.

Although music, language and culture are important in approaching Russia and its people, one of the hottest topics is of course Russian politics. Here my former professor Dr. Jenny Mathers underlined the two of the cornerstones of understanding Russian politics. The first of these is strength. For most Russians being strong, or even merely being perceived as strong is a very important part of their cultural and political identity. Throughout their long and bloody history the strongest leaders have been the ones to leave a lasting mark on the Russian soul, for better or for worse. The second cornerstone is unity. Due to a history of occupation, foreign invasions and long borders, an image of unity has gained importance in Russian politics. When viewed in this light, an election result in which 70% of the nation voted for one candidate isn’t suspicious but instead is emblematic of a strong leader that has been able to unify the electorate.

There are many sources through which one can observe and analyze Russian politics. One of the most eminent scholars on Russian politics and security is Dr. Mark Galeotti, whose blog In Moscow’s Shadows covers a range of Russian security and political topics. Furthermore Sean’s Russia Blog, by Sean Guillory, provides good analysis and summary of Russian politics and the wider context. Although the name is a remnant of the Cold War era, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty provide good coverage of the political happenings in Russia and the other former states of the Soviet Union.
Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that every source has a bias, and that these biases need to be taken into account when considering content.

Finally, it must be said that the Russian soul and culture is vast and the journey to understanding is never ending. The above sources however ought form a reliable platform from which to begin that journey. It must be said that the very best way to understand Russia is to visit Russia, to make one’s own experiences and discoveries.

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