To Russia, with Love

I lived in Russia between 2006-2008. I was there for religious reasons; as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this is a voluntary (some would argue this, but I’m not going to get into that right now) service that sends young men and women all over the world.
I know that Russia is not a popular topic, especially in the U.S. I know that they’ve always been seen as a rough neighbor, and there are many historical facts to support the roles they’ve chosen in our world’s history.

I’m not here to talk about that. Honestly, not only am I not qualified to do so, I really don’t care. In the realm of politics, I believe that most of the world have positioned themselves on their own demise and will have to suffer the consequences. To be a world power is a heavy burden, and I don’t think anyone who has held that title has every worked hard at respecting it.

Anyway.

I have a lot to say about Russia.

My companion and I (the term “companion” refers to the partner we have with us at all times. There are religious reasons for this, as well as liability ones) had our lives threatened a couple of times, I was t-boned by a seagull while in a crowded area (that bird totally hit me and then flew off unfazed. Super bizarre.), pretty sure we met mobsters, got thrown in prison for half a day, and heard slanders and slurs quite often.
On the positive side, I witnessed heartwarming hospitality from a people I thought didn’t know how to smile, I met and spent time with immigrants of many nationalities, religions, and ethnicities who gave so much when they literally had nothing, I saw a country rich in history and pride, and I was able to discuss a subject that I care deeply about.

Today, though, I wish to share a little of my observation and living with the Russian citizens. Even after 14-16 years, I still carry a lot of love for them, a lot of respect and appreciation for the dedication they exude daily, and I do my best to reach out to them and stay in some form of contact as often as I can.

My language skills suck, though. Since being home, I definitely haven’t kept those up.

Anyway.

The most significant aspect I want to share centers around a survival technique they had to adopt under communism. And how—at least when I was there—was still prevalent in many cases.

Under the threat of their corrupt leaders, they had to show the world one side to survive. Literal life or death depended on this, and that’s a concept difficult for many people to understand. Hell, I saw the after-effects, and I still don’t understand it; but with direct access to those who did, I was able to learn a lot and see this foreign concept in a new way.

Out on the street, while walking around town with friends, or in the grocery store rummaging over which milk to buy (they have so many), or spending time in the open market perusing fresh loaves of bread (the best loaves of bread in the world!) or buying a new comforter for your bed, quite often you witness a complete absence of emotion.

Their faces give nothing away. Their body language gives nothing away. They choose their words carefully, or they adopt a strong defensive stance out of habit. It’s not that their meaning to act defensively; as I said, it’s a survival mechanism.

To help explain this, I once watched an episode of the Simpsons where Lisa gets lost and comes across an older gentleman, deciding to ask for help. Lisa approaches this man and asks if he knows how to get her home. The man nods and immediately starts talking in Russian, but he’s not just talking. The man is almost aggressively yelling at Lisa, and to all intents and purposes, it sounds like he’s angrier than sin and about to harm the poor girl.

However, the subtitles showing at the bottom of the screen depict an exceedingly polite man, using kind words and terms, providing Lisa a more than apt, step-by-step description on how to find her way. Sadly, all Lisa could discern was the physical display coming from this enthusiastic Russian man, and she runs away in terror.

This iteration from the Simpsons is dramatized (hopefully that goes without saying), but the core message of that particular scene is spot on.

While out on the streets, no one wanted to talk to us. They wanted to go about their business—even if it was out on a leisurely stroll—without any interruptions. But the longer I was there, I realized that they weren’t being rude (well, the majority weren’t), they were being curt.

My upbringing, in a happy little subdivision in South Jordan, Utah, was beyond polar opposite to the upbringing most of these people knew. Granted, when I was in Russia, communism had fallen something like 15 years prior, but the effects of harsh oppression don’t fade quickly. Especially for those old enough to have lived both sides. A lot of the youth didn’t have the same inhibitions their parents or grandparents did, and I completely understand that.

I mean, what is like to live day to day, wondering what’s going to change politically and socially? The “truth” changes split-second, and if you’ve missed the update, then your life is in danger. And you haven’t done anything to deserve it. So now, when a form of democracy is introduced, initially, what do you do?

I can’t imagine.

I know that so much of Russia is still in a state of corruption and extreme economic turmoil. As an example, I personally witnessed bribes and heard multiple cases of bribes being taken by police officers during routine stops. For many, that was their only means of providing for their families or surviving a corrupt regime.

Can you imagine that?

For all these rough explanations and attempting to present my observations, I now come to the incredible “flip side:” Getting to experience Russia and her people’s real character and personality.

This was in their homes. The one place they could live in some form of safety, individualism, and as a family.

A unique opportunity to be themselves.

It happened to us so many times.

Those few people who we met on the street that showed any interest in our message (which were few, and who gave very little confirmation that they actually were interested while on the street), and who invited us to their home, did a complete one-eighty on us. Suddenly they were smiling! They were cheerful and happy, and ever so gracious.

They’d ask us if we were hungry or thirsty. They’d sit us down on their couches or at their kitchen tables. We’d share stories about each other, where we were from, what we loved to do, and they’d laugh and clap their hands at learning what our lives were like.

Then they’d tell us about theirs, and I can’t tell you how many times it revolved around hardship and insane requirements just to put food on the tables. But they knew how to find their happiness, and how to bring light into their lives. Even if it was just for them, and only for brief moments.
Not everyone was interested in our religious messages, but I quickly realized that that was only a part of what we could do there. We brought with us something different, potentially exotic and life-altering, and even if our purpose wasn’t appealing to them, our words were.

We learned to listen to them. To share in their triumphs and hardships because they allowed us in. It’s not easy for a Russian to allow someone into their lives. And until you’ve seen the reasons why, it’s easy to take a loud, “American” stance and justify it.

They still live with an insane amount of hardship. They’re also, in my opinion, the proudest people on the planet. They love their country, their people, and their resilience to life’s difficulties, and in a lot of ways, they deserve to be proud.

But it’s beyond challenging to live there. A lot of my friends and acquaintances have moved out of that country for various reasons. And there are a lot who would do so but lack the means. Russia is not a country for the faint of heart.

For all the genuine acts I witnessed, there was always that time we were chased, or threatened, or assaulted, or whatever-else.
But the part of Russia I miss the most is the warm smiles, the big hugs, the excitement they have around what they love, and their passion for sharing it with you. Russians know how to live life, and they fill it as full as they can.

When we learn that life doesn’t revolve around us, and should we take a step back and live in another’s shoes, we’re always amazed. When we relinquish the idea of control, instead, allowing life’s currents to move through us and direct our focus and efforts in meaningful ways, we applaud the wealth we encounter.

Improving life happens in numerous, excruciating amount of ways. There is beauty lying in places we often never think to find. And life will always go on with or without us.

The control we have and the influence we possess is how we choose to participate in life. And we’re not alone. How we can know this but fight it so ignorantly, is absolutely beyond me.

Aren’t we tired of it? It seems to me we are. Again, how we choose to behave in the moments of development defines us. We all play a part, and those parts are inevitably varied. When you have your peace, you’ll know what part you’re purposed and want to play.

I miss my Russian friends. I miss hearing your voices. I miss listening to your stories. I do my best to carry them with me, but like with all things, they fade without consistency. Luckily I have many of them written down.

But most of them are in Russian. I’m not sure if that was insightful or wishful forethought on my part. Either way, You’re not forgotten. I promise.

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