Bridging Cultures - Connecting People


What’s Behind the Russian Character

I grew up during the Cold War and spent much of my life worried that the enormous rivalry between the two superpowers would destroy any appreciable sense of existence. My personal background is also somewhat unique in terms of being an Afro-American raised as an evangelical Christian but heavily influenced by the “Peace Trilogy” of the Quaker State (Quakers, Mennonites and Pa. Dutch).   It was my Pennsylvania peace orientation that prompted me to take advantage of the opportunity-at the end of the Cold War-to gain first-hand experience of what is really at the heart of the Russian character.   Initially my work in a former Soviet State was as a university instructor teaching principles of transition to democracy.  In the eighteen years I have been in Eastern Europe I have learned three things that stand out to me as basic characteristics of the Russian character and Russian culture: the cultural values frown on working with only self interest in mind, Tolstoy’s story of Ivan portrays the cultural value placed on having a good heart, and Mati Symlia depicts the importance of maintaining a respectful and harmonious relationship with “Mother Earth.”
In the early part of the last century it was believed by the intelligentsia of Russia that “Within the people-in terms of the still silent inarticulate masses-lay a great truth about life and the day would come when that secret would be revealed.”[1]
 Indeed any person with human sensitivity would be moved by reflecting over the plight of the Russian people throughout their history.  In fact the word slave has an etymology that can be traced back to the term designating Russian ethnicity-Slav or Slavic.  Following the long years of serfdom (being one of the last national groups to put an end to serfdom) Russian people moved through the  Muscovite period where Russians believed or hoped that the masses would be rescued by a real Messianic type eschatology, followed by the Slavophil period-which was dominated by the belief in a more practical socio-economic and political human Enlightenment. The Slavophil period was characterized as a period when the belief in the virtues of the ‘common folk’ and the uniqueness of Russia’s historical development was bound up with the stability of the Orthodox Church.  Together the influence of these two periods was what distinguished Russia-down to today-as being listed amongst the largest Christian nations of the world.
They then moved into the Bolshevik era still hoping or believing that they had found a way to put an end to the domination of the proletariat by oppressive forces.  The Bolshevik era was precipitated by the Russian intelligentsia. Spirited by Radishchev and the French popular movements for human rights Russia became attracted to the Rousseau type approach to social contract and establishing the common good.  It then attempted to enforce universally a “Grand Narrative” (a balance between Eastern and Western thought) that would serve as a counterbalance to the Western Grand Narrative.  However their hopes of a world devoted to the common good without violating the best interest of the individual has continued to be a hope or belief that has not yet fully come to fruition.
This belief or hope imbued Russian culture with a deep rooted value for pursuing the common good or the belief that the common good would be universalized. This is reflected in a proverb that refers to the collective interest as Mir. Simply put the proverb states that “Our united effort increases our collective security and ensures our obtaining mutual benefit.” The global community is most familiar with this word from its use as the name of the space station.  In connection with the space station it has implications of peace or united effort. 

However the term goes deeper into Russian culture where it refers to the system for facing the harsh challenges of the very difficult climate. 
Margret Mead refers to Mir as related to the Russian understanding of Christian values.  The church is seen as promoting egalitarian values, a strong sense of brotherly love and community fellowship.  For Mead this shifts the emphasis of the Eastern (Orthodox) Christian away from the solitary communicant to the congregational experience of Sobornost.[2] In addition to being a principle of how people relate to each other the word Mir has connotations that also refer to the world and to peace. In other words throughout history the people of Russia have held onto the belief or the hope that the forces effecting the populace would be shaped “By the people to work for the people, and be of the people!”  
The pursuit of the common good has such deep rooted value in the Russian culture that there are connotations connected with it that also define the Russian national character.  Russia has long seen itself as championing the effort to establish the common good by making the “good life” accessible to the masses.  These basic Russian principles that have shaped the Russian national character are referred to as Narodnost. It was Gavril Romanovich Derzhavin’s ability to express the idea of Narodnost in poetic verse that made him one of the first poetic giants of Russian history.  He captures the idea of the Russian desire to work for the common good in his words, “Who at the end of his exertions can see far beyond himself counts the hours with a smile.  He who enjoyed blessings saved others from poverty and need, hurried to be good to all and now at the twilight of his years is foreign to despair and sighs.”[3]
In other words the Russian masses indeed make their mark on the national character of Russia with their lifestyle assertion that humanness is more important than materialism. Dostoevsky believed that humanity’s inherent desire for freedom coupled with the Christian principle of Agape (Christian Love ethics) could resolve the tension between materialism and idealism.[4]
 Dostoevsky struggles to put this into literary expression with his attempt to describe something in the Russian psyche that promises to be a balance between Eastern and Christian ideals of equalitarianism and the Western idea of individuality.  He thought of his idea of “Pan Humanism” as an expression of the Russian potential to resolve this East-West dichotomy.  Let’s see how this plays out for Russia as the dominant economic theory continues to press forward in every corner of the world.  In the aftermath of the global financial crisis most analysts would assert that global economic interdependence heightens the necessity of greater global economic cooperation. China’s realization of this fact by joining WTO has been an amazing boost to their economy.   However, if what Berdyaev said is true then there is something in the Russian cultural character that will emerge to serve as a balance between Eastern communalism and Western individualism.

Ivan represents what Carl Jung calls a collective level of the Russian folk consciousness.  Ivan’s character lies beyond the individual ego thus is there as a deeper collective understanding of what brings the individual the good life.  Undergirding the individual ego is a value for displaying a character that is truly good hearted.  Good things come to this person (or the person is fortunate) because of the good heartedness.  Thus the individual gains the things of life that have real value by opening to the deeper self in a way that displays this goodhearted character trait. 

Ivan is good natured in terms of what is called “happy go lucky.” One of Ivan’s main character strengths is his sincerity.  Sincerity is an admired character trait universally but the further east one goes the more it is given the status of being one of the most important traits of character and culture.  This makes it worth gaining a more detailed understanding of what this could mean when interacting with Russians or in Russian culture.  As one goes further East sincerity implies acting in ways that are more intuitive, authentic, spontaneous and passionate thus, natural rather than rational.  The act is not based on conceptual calculations thus can seem to be an act reflecting an eccentric character. In Eastern thought sincerity is believed to be an expression that is closer to what it means to be a human being. 

There are many depictions of Ivan’s character in Russian folklore but one that has gained some worldwide recognition is Leo Tolstoy account of this character. Tolstoy uses the classical three sons motif of Russian folklore to contrast the older two sons (both who are much more outstanding in typical social terms) with Ivan-who seems to be a simpleton.  One of Ivan’s brothers is a warrior who is granted land and granted a title because of his military service. The second son is noted for being fat with connotations that he has chosen the easy life of business and profit.  However neither of the older two brothers have a character that allows them to enjoy the good things in life and lasting happiness.  The story paints the two older brothers as bent on pursuing self interests while Ivan continuously is benevolent (even to the extent of self sacrifice). 
What makes Ivan particularly peculiar is that he has the distinction of doing everything in his own unique way which others don’t appreciate.  This is especially apparent to those who calculate rationally and rely on empirical evidence.  The fact that Ivan’s idiosyncratic character is a true reflection of the Russian character is substantiated in a New York Times magazine article.  The article quotes the popular celebrity and writer, Tatyana Tolstaya, where she claims that “Russian mentality is not based on common sense.  It has nothing to do with common sense. Our thinking is not orderly, logical. In Western culture, European culture maybe, emotion is considered to be on a lower level than reason. But in Russia, no. It is bad to be rational, to be smart, clever, intelligent, and so on. And to be emotional, warm, lovable, maybe spiritual, in the full meaning of that word &mdash that is good."[5]
Russians sincerely believe that the best things in life are not afforded by materialism (ne v dengah schastye-"money is not the key to happiness").  The best things in life are realized by those who simply possess a certain character that Aristotle referred to as a Virtuous character and Confucius referred to as person reflecting Jen.  Russians have the inclination to attempt reconciling the Western notion of the Enlightened individual-with his or her rational autonomy-with its own understanding of Christian, communal and folk ideals.  But this iswhy I say that any person with human sensitivity would be moved with some degree of compassion for a culture that aspired to apply such a “Grand Narrative” toward championing the cause of the world’s proletariat.
Where Russian Czarist and Soviet bureaucratic political schemes had won it prestige as a world superpower this has also resulted in its Christian character being depreciated and diminishing the beneficial impact of its cultural or folk values.  Thus Russia’s bureaucratic political schemes shape the impression that many people have of the Russian character. Many people probably have not recognized the side of a Russian personality that is so charming that it is heart-warming and behind such charm is sincerity.  
In my experience in former Soviet States most people tell me that they are not opposed to the rhetoric of working in behalf of the common good and working to secure collective interests.  What they oppose is the way this actually played out in reality (heavy bureaucracy and no apparent evidence that hard labor produced mass benefits).  I believe that the global common good (greater cooperation on environmental problems, global health concerns, and an approach to collective security that will help safeguard us against our common threats) continues to be a global value worth pursuing.  
Historically folkways or folk traditions were known to be especially popular amongst peasant people or rural people.  However there is also an aspect of folk culture that is connected with those still attempting to adhere to a more nature oriented perspective on life. In this respect people who are more closely connected with nature are seen as trying to hold on to folk culture.  It also seems apparent to me that cultures that maintain this strong regard for nature are slower with development. For much of Russian history the populace was known to be peasant people or people of the village and fields.  Mati Zemlya represented the degree of reverence that the people held for the earth.  They thought of Mati Zemlya (Mother Earth) as the primordial creative force which gives birth to life, the source for nourishing and sustaining all life, and the earth is where we all return after the bodily experience.
Although she was never given a human image she is however thought of as a dark woman (a woman whose complexion resembles that of the dark earth).  After the Russian conversion to (Orthodox) Christianity the church had trouble stomping out reverence for her so there were attempts to associate Mati Zemlya with a Christian saint.  And because of her association with dark skin some thought of her in Christian terms as the Black Madonna (or the Russian saint Theotokos of St. Theodore known as the Black Virgin of Russia).  The Black Virgin of Russia’s origin is obscure but she seems to be associated with Saint Paraskeva who was more clearly regarded as an effort to Christianize the reverence Russians held for mother earth (Mati Zemlya).
The Russian attraction to the spirit of freedom and the refreshment for the soul connected with nature is reflected in the words of recent Russian intelligentsia, “The virgin forest attracts us because of clean air, wide open spaces and freedom from the confines of everyday life. Nature is not something outside of us, but it forms together with us an integral whole.”[6]
 Nature is regarded as the source of the experience of peace, harmony and tranquility.  Thus, again in terms of Russian intelligentsia, nature can be regarded as a positive foundation for spiritual development, it aids in incorporating into the soul a powerful counterbalance to the narrow practical “I” and nature provides the possibility for developing creative sensitivity for having a type of epiphany that is known as the aesthetic awakening.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, famous for his literary expression of the Russian psyche, captures the love of nature in Russian culture with his words, “Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf and every plant. If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforth grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until thou come at last to live the whole world with love that will then be all-embracing and universal.”[7]
  In this case Dostoevsky is attempting to reflect the liberating power of Divine will as ordained in what is called by Rousseau “The Original Position.”  The original position, as intended by the creator, is a state where humans live in peace with other and in natural harmony with the environment.  In other words Dostoevsky’s depiction of the Russian spirit sees the Russian character as still attached to the soil, the earth and to mother-nature.  
Vladimir Putin himself states that environmentalism is not just about endangered species it is about a state-level of awareness of the significance of nature in our lives and in our culture. His comments also suggest that he recognizes that of all the means of accomplishing better cooperation between nations the common concern for the environment is the most promising.  Nations have joined together in greater alliances, treaties, agreements and cooperation over the environment (and related environmental concerns) than for any other cause. 
According to Putin “The only way civilization can develop sustainably, is by treating nature – our common heritage– responsibly:”[8]
 He seems to recognize that to be true to the heritage of Russian culture, to be in line with necessities for sustainable development and to gain more international credibility Russia must be true to its environmental values. But what is disturbing the West is the extent to which Russian environmental problems are resulting in dangerous cloud formation which are drifting toward the West (especially threatening Scandinavia and Eastern Europe).  Also in the last couple of decades increasing attention has been paid to the declining health of the populace (declining age expectancy-especially of men) and the connection this has with its socio-economic problems. Russia (like many countries deciding whether or not to fully commit to the dominate paradigm) is under stress due to its pressures for economic reform (more up-to-date approaches to economic development) and its understanding of its own identity and heritage. 
As a matter of fact to gain in international credibility Russian must develop and express its cultural values in a way this is not only true to its environmental values but is also true to its basic cultural values.  The Russian Foreign Ministry seems to recognize this very point and is now declaring the potential Russia has to draw from the Soft Power model of international relations as outlined by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye.  The network economy, the information economy, digitization, telecommunications, outer space operations, global health threats, our shared (or common security threats), as well as the environmental challenges we all face have increased the awareness that we exist in an interdependent global reality. 

More and more it is apparent that our common threats, our common concerns and our common interests have the power of drawing us back into our pre Cold War alliance that was a powerful means of safeguarding the world against tyranny while protecting peace and freedom.  This was made clear when the world witnessed the Western allies (including the United States) marching in Red Square and saluting Russian authorities on this last years’ Victory’s Day celebration.  It is certainly true that it is time to press the 'reset' button of US relationship with Russia.  But this is achieved more easily as Russia uses its heritage and culture as a soft power approach to increasing its international credibility.
In conclusion I would like to explain one of the things that touched me most when trying to learn Russian words.  When trying to pass the language requirements for the university degree back in the States I realized that it helped me to remember words by making word associations.  When trying to remember a word in the new language the word association would provide a mental link to the new word.  I was rather moved when trying to do this in an effort to remember the word for family in Russian.  The word for family in Russian has to syllables: the first is a syllable that sounds very much like the word same in English.  The second syllable sounds very much like “ya.”  However the point is that the sound Ya comes from the letter Я (which means I or me).  So the Russian word for family is “same-” the first syllable and the word “ya” which means I or me!  In other words it helped me to remember the Russian word for family by making the mental note “You are the same as I so you are family!”


About the author: Leon Miller is an American instructor of Intercultural Relations at Tallinn University of Technology in EstoniaI. Working in the former Soviet Union for almost 20 years, has given him vivid impressions of the Russian cultural character. This arcticle describing these impressions. 


  1. Berdyaev, Nicolas. (1937) The Origins of Russian Communism. Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Michigan Press (Reprinted by the University of Michigan Press in 1960), 17.
  2. Mead, Margaret, Rickman, John. & Gorer, Geoffrey. (2002) Russian Culture.  Oxford, UK., Berghahn Books, 96.
  3. Hokanson, Katya. (2008) Writing at Russia’s Border.  Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 143.
  4. Frank, Joseph. (2010) Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 283.
  5. Smith, Hedrick. The Russian Character.  The New York Times Magazine. October 28, 1990.
  6. Weiner, Douglas. (1999) A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev.Berkeley, University of California Press, 399
  7. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Brothers Karamazov.
  8. Putin, Vladimir. Civilizational Development Based on a Responsible Attitude toward Nature. Government of Russia (January 2011)., 1.

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