The Enigmatic Russian Soul

Story and Photo by Rintaro Nishimura, Dialogue of Civilizations

Exploration comes with surprises and discovery. My summer escapade to explore a new culture led me to discover the enigmatic Russian soul. Culture is the values, beliefs, and traditions of a group of people. We delved into the enigma through four main topics: architecture, food, society, and life. Before arriving in Russia, I imagined I would find cold people that didn’t smile and preferred a lot of personal space. I expected angry people that are impatient, diversity, and a high number of English speakers. All these assumptions are stereotypical thoughts that most foreigners would most likely have. But what I actually experienced was a surprising amount of smiling, especially in big cities like St. Petersburg who receive millions of tourists a year. I saw a collectivist society that thinks of common goals first and at the same time is modernizing at a faster pace in big cities like Moscow. Russian society has low personal space, showing public affection to a great extent. They like to show off their wealth due to the high power distance, dressing and using expensive goods.

Regarding lifestyle, a high drinking culture was expected, as Russia is known for their vodka. An oppressed society was expected due to government control that is shown in international media. A lower cost of living and a lot of winter clothes were anticipated due to the harsh Russian weather.In reality, we saw a slow-paced society where services take a substantial amount of time. There is a high smoking and drinking culture, whether it is alcoholic beverages or tea. There is an unpredictable lifestyle, where anything can happen. This society is quite westernized and has a lot of potential for trade as they like to shop western brands which are seen as luxury goods. A sign of Russian identity is knowing art, paintings, or ballets. There was high control by the government and a lot of security as the World Cup was coming shortly. Additionally, the cost of living is lower compared to the US or Tokyo while bigger cities can be a little more expensive than rural areas.

As a Japanese citizen who has never been to Russia, the expectations in terms of architecture were mainly religious and Soviet-style buildings. The reality was that architecture is a way Russians preserve and glorify their past. It tells us what Russians in general, and in particular regions feel proud of. It is part of their identity. There was also a general perception that Moscow and St. Petersburg were modern, while other cities weren’t. We saw that despite the discrepancy in speed, all regions were modernizing one way or the other.

Wooden architecture like in Tomsk were symbols of wealth for merchants. Constructivist architecture in Yekaterinburg were symbols of success of the factories in the Stalin era. Fountains in St. Petersburg were products of the charismatic Peter the Great. Cathedrals were distinct from each other in design and central to the lives of the people. The Kremlin in Moscow is a symbol of victory and power for Russian citizens.

Food is defined as how people live off the land. It is central to the lives of people in a particular region. We expected regional variety, high vodka consumption, and local vegetables and fruits. Famous Russian gourmet for me was borscht and beef stroganoff, which were very much influenced by guidebooks found in Japan.

However, there was much more, such as a fusion of European and Asian culture, fast food popularity, and unexpected tea culture. There were also many dishes that were dough-based, such as pelmeni and blinis, which were methods to preserve products for the long winter season. There were also many berry types, which became mors and jam. Again, the idea was that Russian traditional food is geared toward preservation.

The Russian soul is like a matryoshka doll, which happens to originate in Japan. This seems to encapsulate our journey to understand the complex Russian soul. The soul is deeply intertwined with the land. Russia is a vast country with regional variations, and appearances can deceive you. On one hand, you have the architecture and food that have come to symbolize Russia in the world. On the other hand, you have the people, who are not as stereotypes suggest they are. What ties them together is the fact that the people’s identity relies heavily on the past, which is preserved by these artifacts.

Exploration always comes with new discoveries. Why not take the chance to learn outside of the traditional classroom setting when there are a plethora of opportunities served on a silver platter (courtesy of Northeastern’s DoC program!)?