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How Russians Think

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языковая картина мира
(Russian language view of the world)

The first time I was dispatched along with a group of other media professionals to the Soviet Union, it was via Kiev on Aeroflot.  Borispol was primarily a military airport as there wasn't much of a "tourist" trade back then and the stewardess' staff had collected our cameras and any writing tablets/portable tape recorders and then lowered the shades 30 minutes out so that no one could view the airport on final approach.

Much has changed since those days when our bus from the tarmac to the terminal also had drawn shades so that nobody could get much of a look at the Ukrainian Soviet Air Force activities on the field. 

But what hasn't changed is the way Russians think.  Armed with a boatload of preconceptions and excitement my Russian Ukrainian adventure was underway.  Our team had been given copies of the "The Russians" by Hedrick Smith, at that time considered the ultimate guide to understanding how Russians think and how to view life in the Soviet Union.

Hedrick Smith was Moscow Bureau Chief for The New York Times from 1971 to 1974-and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his coverage from the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe.  In the book Smith used his skills as a superb interviewer and writer to probe and painstakingly piece together an amazing jigsaw puzzle of habits, humor, and idiosyncrasies that present a Soviet reality that few in the West experience first hand.  It was a groundbreaking work and set the standard for journalism about Russia for the decades to come.

Later Smith published another important book, "The New Russians."

Both of these books by Hedrick Smith canonized the way the West looks at Russia.  And they are extraordinary, even monumentally masterful books. 

Then late in 2007 Professor Anna Pavlovskaya, Moscow State University Doctor of History, Lecturer in Russian, European and American Studies, and Head of the Department of Cross-Cultural Studies wrote her own thoughts on a Russian.

To say that I like Professor Pavlovskaya's book, "Culture Shock!  A Survival Guide" to (Russian) customs and etiquette" is an understatement.  Not only does it dovetail nicely with the important work of Hedrick Smith, but as a Russian, she takes readers further inside the Russian mind and soul.

It's not difficult or long reading, the paperback is 305 active and interesting pages which can be read quickly, then enjoyed long afterward.  In this thread I'll share some of her observations about what makes Russians....well, Russian. 

You can respond, debate and share your own experiences as we go along.

Chapter One of Pavlovskaya's book opens with a cartoon.  The cartoonist has drawn the interior of a plane and the passengers are clapping upon a safe landing.

The stewardess comes on the intercom with the announcement, "Please stop the clapping!  The Captain has a hang-over."

Have you experienced such applause on landing with your trips to the FSU?

Did applauding for a routine landing strike you as different or odd?

Winston Churchhill on Russia, "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Why do Russians find it so hard to leave?  And for those who leave, what creates the strong pull to return?

Prof Pavlovskaya describes it this way, (For Russians) "emigration is not simply a desire to leave and go somewhere, it is first and foremost a rejection of the motherland, an unwillingness to live there."

"In the past leaving the country meant that a citizen was unable to return.  People left not because they wanted to go somewhere else, but because they could no longer live in their homeland."

Are Russians always gloomy?  Why don't they smile in public?

Professor Pavlovskaya explains that "only idiots and fools smile for no reason."  The mindset is that you're mentally unstable or making fun of others when you smile at them for no cause.  In Russia laughter or levity without reason is a sign of stupidity.

A true American-Russian story about smiling:
When McDonalds first began opening restaurants in Russia the staff was taught to smile and warmly greet customers.  Needless to say, this was a disaster and the American McDonalds trainers had to quickly rethink that strategy.  Step into a McD today and your cashier will likely skip the smile and hello to look you straight in the eye and ask for your order.  Polite, but sans smile.

Okay, so when do I smile in Russia?
Smiling is reserved for those who know you.  It's okay to smile if someone you met smiled first, otherwise keep a calm and polite look until you've developed a relationship with that individual.


Nice polite look from a good family friend, but no open smile.  After all, she has no idea who will see this photo and it would be out of character to smile for no good reason. 


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