This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Why I'll Never Understand Russia

Photograph: Aleksei Petrosian
There are many, many things that I don’t understand about Russia. Clichéd as it is, I still find it difficult to get away from Churchill’s old description of a ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ Nothing seems more apt to describe a country that is so inexplicable, so full of contrasts. A country that professes to hate US culture but glorifies McDonalds, that claims to have the most beautiful women in the world yet celebrates Western pinups; that pays lip service to democracy but, well… quite. Even beyond this, on a day-to-day basis there’s so much I don’t understand. Why, for example, do the hand runners on escalators in the metro go faster than the escalators themselves? Why the hysteria over an unpolished shoe? And just why will girls insist on matching their hair colour, boots and bag?

At first I thought my inability to understand Russia was just because I was a foreigner, an outsider. Just as I couldn’t understand Russia, nor could my Russian friends understand the UK. “Why do you have two taps instead of one”, I have often been asked. “What does the Queen actually do?” is another. Or just simply, “House of Lords?” To none of these questions could I give a proper answer. Maybe all countries and cultures are just totally incomprehensible to any other, anyone not born there.

Then I read an article entitled “Why we don’t understand our own country” by Igor Chubais, director of the Centre for Russian Studies. The article expresses the identity crisis that Russia is currently suffering and tries to answer those questions so often tackled by the good and great of Russian literature: ‘What is Russia?’; ‘What does it mean to be Russian?’ Somehow I find it difficult to imagine an English equivalent.

Chubais suggests that, since it’s generally not acknowledged that today’s Russian Federation is entirely different from its predecessor, the Soviet Union, (he argues that the two states are equally as contrasting as, say, the Third Reich and the Russian Federation), today’s Russian citizens find it difficult to construct a certain identity. When, in 1917, Old Russia ceased to exist to be replaced by the Soviets, propaganda and intellectuals took great pains to emphasise the novelty of the new regime – it was an entirely new system, with its own government, symbols, morals even. By contrast, no such line has been drawn between today and the not so distant Soviet past. It is this ambiguity, Chubais argues, that has deprived current Russians of reference points to construct a new identity: Who are our ancestors? Were we born under the salvo volley of the Aurora or does our history start with the VIII century? Who are our heroes, where are our ideals, which rules guide us? Between historical Russia and the USSR there have been armed seizures of power, a Civil War, tens of millions killed and repressed, 70 years of totalitarian censorship… What Russia does our army defend? Soviet or Anti-soviet?

Russia is left in limbo, uncertain of her direction, equally incomprehensible to her citizens as to visitors. Of course in Britain we have our own soul searching (since the fall of the Empire could anyone really say what we are? Part of Europe, stand alones or just America’s special friends) but our search for identity knows nothing compared to the anguish of Russia, and the situation described by Chubais. How is it possible to face up to the past, the litany of repression and change that the country has seen, and assimilate it into today’s history. In short, it doesn’t: We live by rules that are at the same time both Russian and anti-Russian, Soviet and anti-Soviet, Western and anti-Western. [A situation] that destroys any general rules.

The question of what Russia is today and how this relates to her past has obsessed academics ever since the tanks rolled on to Red Square in 1991. Even before that, the difficulties of acknowledging the repressions of the 1930s and other atrocities of the twentieth century taxed a host of Soviet leaders. It is only now that this question of how to relate to the past is coming to the forefront in public (public, here being a very narrow space – the readership of fairly marginal newspapers and websites) and political debate, as the ministry of education seeks to define broad guidelines of how Stalinism is to be remembered in school textbooks. It is only when Russia has decided on what its past is, that it will be able to know its present. And then, maybe, I might start making some headway on working out why so many Russian men feel the need to sport the unattractive-on-everyone mullet.


James said...

maybe you'll just have to mullet over some more katie?

Katie said...

That's terrible James, you should be ashamed of yourself! My new housemate has a mullet. Its just so sad!

Caroline said...

My bag matches my boots. Worse - I bought them both in England. Worse still - I just bought a cardi that matches the boots AND the bag. The disease hasn't reached my hair yet though.

Nichevo said...

Hi. Is there a link for the Igor Chubais article? Would love to read it. -- Kolya

Katie said...

Hope you enjoy the article.

Nichevo said...

Katie, thanks a lot! This will really date me: I remember the time when Igor was the better known of the Chubais brothers. -- Kolya

The Seargeant Major said...

Very interesting article, 3rd time I've tried to leave a comment and I was going to make some ?erudite observation but i've lost the plot now so hope you get this.

Mazhar Hussain Shah said...


I think your subject is very important about to the Russia.I really appreciate you,Thanks for sharing your such a nice feed back.In my point of view it is very interesting question that why did we don,t understand our own country. Plastic Cards.

Кынев said...

Hi, Katie
I've seen a part of this post in magazin. Did you know that?
It was in plane two weeks ago.

Sergei Kynev

Katie said...

Ha ha! Was it this article on aeroflot?
If not, then we are just being used as free columnists - the cheek!
Hope all is well in St Petersburg - I miss it :(

Кынев said...

Yes, That's right on aeroflot:)
I was struck when saw it. So funny:)

First snow has fallen here. St.Petersburg miss you as well :)

AJ said...

Nice article. Familiar stuff. I've been in Russia over 6 in Omsk, Siberia. =)

Used to blog too but been busy lately
(or just lazy!) -

Get in touch. =)