20 April 2009

World Class Isolation in St Petersburg

Certainly... Russia could learn much from the West, and America would improve if it took some lessons from Russian culture.

Petersburg people would benefit by adapting American ways in overcoming individual isolation. There is an direct relationship between contact with people and happiness, sense of well-being, and health. Americans understand this instinctively and their history, upbringing, and society encourage interaction and support. Russians have not been led by their schools, church, or government to seek support from institutions and friends.

American children are expected to display good manners at home and in public, show traditional Judeo-Christian kindness, and learn in school to be good citizens.

HereRussian culture shows a general lack of manners towards strangers. Yesterday, by habit, I held the supermarket door for several men and women exiting after me. Not one smile, nod, or thank you. This is typical. My wife said not to bother, especially not for another man. Why not?
Last week we stopped for chicken блине¹ at a Teremok. A man came in and sat at the next table. It took a while for me to realize a little terrier was sitting on his lap between his outstretch arms. When we were leaving, I said, "That's a great dog" and "cute dog". Absolutely no reaction... no smile, no nod, no word. In Russia, people often do not acknowledge a stranger when spoken to. This is pathetic!

¹ pronounced bleen-A, a filled pancake much like the French quiche which is the cultural equivalent of the American cheeseburger, but I think much tastier!

I've explained to Larissa that in conversational English it's necessary and expected that sentences be peppered with please, excuse me, and thank you. When speaking Russian I understand not to use words that are too deferential as at best they are wasted, but also can be considered a sign of weakness.

Manners are a social lubricant that makes it easier to meet, get along, and like another person. Without good manners, you are isolating yourself. There are some outgoing, warm, and pleasant Russians in public but they are rare.

As you grow, your social life expands from family to community. The strongest feeling of community in the US is found in the churches, synagogues, and temples. Around 25% of Americans attend church regularly, but their influence ripples outward reminding us of our Christian or Jewish tradition.

Manners and friendly conduct are emphasized in church and given a scriptural basis. Sunday school, choir, and church casserole dinners help build sociability. Usually the church has play, youth and singles groups, as well as couples, women and men's activities. Often an Alcoholics Anonymous group meets at the church. A sense of community from church is similarly experienced in western Europe.

American are quick to start clubs, action groups to solve a community problem, and to volunteer many hours to help strangers. Americans expect to give some of their income to charity.

I was somewhat isolated during my unmarried years, and was happy there were restaurants and pizzerias where I could walk in the door and get a big hello. "Hey, Bob, How are you?" Big hellos just don't happen here.

In contrast, Russian attitudes, culture, and government generally point people toward more isolation. The Russian church has no greeters making you feel welcome, and no sign up cards in the pews (that's easy... there are no pews... you stand!) The Russian rite has the priest face towards the altar, away from the congregation. The Russian church does nothing that shows it wants you to come back.

The Soviet government didn't approve of organizations unless they were under the party or state umbrella. To actively disagree was considered unpatriotic and dangerous. Russians are used to a top down government and church and are apt to wait for things to get better, rather than try to make conditions better themselves.

True, Russians are not the only reserved people in Europe. Finns and Swedes have an open society but are not known as outgoing. Perhaps part of this behavior has to do with climate... but then how do you explain the friendly Canadians?

I believe much of the taciturn nature of Russians can be attributed to the history of serfdom under the tsars, and the despotic scrutiny, control, and oppression by the government after 1917. I can't think of another country or people that lost so many millions from starvation and then war as the Russians did in the 20's through 40's... sad events which are bound to have an effect on the outlook of the people.

Things slowly change, and sometimes for the better. Still, people in St Petersburg... and not just the occasional expatriate... are more estranged from each other than in westen Europe and America.

Why is a caring attitude towards strangers missing?
Why is volunteer such a rare word here?
Why do so many people abuse alcohol?
Why no Meals on Wheels for the old or disabled?
Why don't people call hi or wave in public?

Believe me, growing old and fairly isolated in a Russian city isn't a piece of cake. In America we used to wryly laugh about the phrase Golden Years , but I think that is better than старость не радость ( being old is so terrible) that you hear in Russia. It's life!

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