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Russians' Greatest Asset Is Their Powerful Inner Strength

While the contemporary West continually seeks out new ways to be offended, in Russia one of the most valued qualities is the ability to grin and bear it

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Paul Goncharoff is Chairman, Disciplinary Committee, National Association of Corporate Directors, Russia

Seated in my booth at a wintry Moscow diner breakfasting on coffee, bagel and leafing through the newspapers, on the second page an article caught my eye: “Three Uzbek transsexuals steal four Chihuahuas from a gay club in suburban Moscow”.

<figcaption>Russians don't roll over in adversity</figcaption>
Russians don't roll over in adversity

Was I reading the New York Post, the National Enquirer? Not unless it was now reporting in Cyrillic. It seems the proprietor of the gay club besides owning four matching Chihuahuas was withholding salaries and documents. Payback can be a bitch. In any event, the proprietor of the gay club called the police to complain; they quickly rescued his four Chihuahuas, recovered about half a million rubles worth of knick-knacks and arrested the three suspects who are now awaiting trial over the holidays.

Sitting in the booth next to mine was Valery, a breakfast regular who overheard me chuckling and asked if it was anything interesting. He also happened to be high up in the administration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) who knew from prior acquaintance that I was American. I read him the article and we started chatting about perceptions inside and outside of Russia. He said, “I really don’t understand why some westerners get their knickers in a twist over how we Russians live in our own country, after all we are the ones living in it, not them”. In sum, he went on to say that most everything in this life is relative.

For example the three transsexuals knew they could live their lifestyle in Moscow (which they truly could not in Uzbekistan, religion, society, etc.) as long as they respected societal norms by simply keeping what is private between consenting people private in their relations. The overwhelming majority of Russians do not bother about who does what with whom, live and gladly let live as long as they maintain decorum and not make it an issue for loud public dissection.

Living inside Russia over the years, I have seen more diversity than even in my native New York. Everything you can or cannot imagine happens here as well, but it is within a differently measured and perceived cultural context. Simply stated personal privacy is valued and respected between individuals. As in other cultures, the public persona and the private persona often are different, here that is not viewed as hypocrisy but respect for the greater good, common sense, manners and inner discipline.

National culture and language do play a role on how for example the “west” reads Russia. The idea that some languages are superior to others and that lesser languages maintained their speakers in intellectual poverty was widespread for centuries, which tends to taint objective understanding between peoples even today.

The renowned linguist Edward Sapir said that because language represented reality differently, it followed that the speakers of different languages would perceive reality differently. “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached”.

Since the winter season is associated with Russia, an old folk tale called “Morozko” (Father Frost) might be appropriate to enhance cultural appreciation, distinctions and further define Edward Sapir’s words:

Once upon a time, there lived an old widower and his daughter. In due course he remarried an older woman who herself had a daughter from a previous marriage. This woman doted on her own daughter, praising her constantly, but she despised her new stepdaughter. She found fault with everything the girl did and made her work long and hard from dawn to dusk. One day the old woman made up her mind that it would be best to get rid of the stepdaughter finally, terminally.

She ordered her husband, "Take her somewhere far away, alone. Take her into the biting cold of the forest and leave her there."

The old man grieved and wept but he knew that he could do nothing else; as his wife always had her way. Therefore, he took the girl into the forest and left her there. He turned back quickly so that he would not have to see his child freeze.

The poor girl sat there in the snow, with her body shivering, tushie freezing and teeth chattering! Suddenly Morozko, like a blasting wind howling through the trees came upon her.

"Are you warm, my dear?" he asked.

"Welcome, my dear Morozko. Yes, I am quite warm," she said, even though she was iced to the bone.

At first, Morozko as was his nature thought to freeze the life out of her with his icy grip. However, he admired the young girl's composed stoic grit and showed mercy. He gifted her with a warm fur coat and a downy quilt before he left.

After a while, Morozko returned to check up on the girl. "Are you warm, my dear?" he asked.

"Welcome again, my dear Morozko. Yes, I am warm," she said, as indeed she was a little bit warmer. On hearing this Morozko brought her a large box to sit on.

A little later, Morozko returned once more to ask how she was faring. She was doing quite well now, and this time Morozko gave her silver and gold jewelry to wear, with enough extra jewels to fill the box on which she was sitting!

Meanwhile, back at her father's hut, the old harridan told her husband to go back into the forest and fetch the corpse of his daughter. "Bring back what's left of her," she commanded. Joy overwhelmed him when he saw his daughter was still alive, wrapped in a sable coat and adorned with silver and gold!

When he arrived home with his daughter and the box of jewels, his wife looked on in amazement.

"Harness the horse, you old Lumpkin, and take my own daughter to that same spot in the forest and leave her there," she said with greed sparking in her eyes. The old man did as he was told.

Like the other girl at first, the old woman's daughter began to shiver and shake. In a little while, Morozko came by and asked her how she was doing.

"Are you both blind and stupid?" she screeched. "Can't you see that my hands and feet are numbed blue with cold? Curse you, you miserable cretin!"

The sun had hardly risen the next day when, back at the old man's hut, the old woman woke her husband and told him to bring back her daughter, adding, "Be careful with the box of jewels." The old man obeyed and went to get the girl.

A while later, hearing the gate creaking open, the old woman went outside and saw her husband standing next to the sleigh. She rushed forward and pulled aside the sleigh's cover. To her horror, she saw the body of her daughter, frozen solid by an angry Morozko. She began to scream and curse her husband, but it was all in vain.

Later, the old man's daughter married a neighbor, had children, and lived happily ever after. Her father would visit his grandchildren every now and then, and remind them always to have respect for Old Man Winter.

Some who are comfortable with western mystery and morality plays have a little difficulty with Morozko, after all the first girl lied about not being cold and was thereby rewarded, while the other girl was frozen for her honest yet rude response. Using the measure that honesty is the ultimate good does not apply here, nor was it the intention when the tales first evolved and were passed along verbally. Neither is the absurdity of the background characters actions.

The key message of the tale is the first girl’s inner strength and ability to rise above the cruel position she was in, her mastery of herself in conquering the cold, and her personal attitude in handling adversity. This and many other folk tales particular to Russia have for centuries passed on the subliminal message that the quality of being a woman or a man is enhanced through building an inner private strength. The discipline needed to quash and overcome often-unthinking animalistic responses to difficulties, mastering oneself is mastering one’s place and life in this world, and that is deserving of celebration and reward.

For Russians to take a real personal issue and air it in the forum of public opinion is anathema, it is considered to be weak and is simply not practiced in this culture. It is also considered by many here as giving up the valued responsibility and ownership of a very individual part of one’s private life.

As one Russian friend told me “the only thing we really can ever respect and love is that free person who lives inside ourselves, everything else at the end of the day is fluff”.

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