Understanding a little of the Russian mindset

I intend to expose Russia differently from what I usually see on TV, Youtube rather than vodka, freaking cold winters, beautiful girls (they’re beautiful and no more comments!) and Vladimir Putin. I’m not going to talk about the Russian politics as it’s complex due to its cultural and historical particularities, moreover the interest games and propaganda in the media — both international and Russian media.

Russia is a mix of Europe and Asia, established as a nation isolated from the rest of the world during centuries under the Mongolian domination, followed by more than 300 years of czarism and then the Soviet regime. As an ethnic group, Russian roots come from the territory where nowadays is Kiev, capital of Ukraine. With wars and migrations, Russians expanded to the current territory surrounding Moscow.

Such isolation contributed to the development of Russian culture as a particular one which isn’t comprehended by those who don’t speak Russian (including myself): literature, music, philosophy, movies, internet, etc. That’s what makes Russian culture interesting by a foreigner’s perception. And Russian territory — as well as other former Soviet republics — hosts more than 50 ethnic groups like Kazakhs, Tartars, Uzbekhs, Ossets, Mongolians, Chinese, etc.

It’s also important to comprehend that the extreme conditions where Russian culture spread were decisive to shape the way Russians mostly live and think, their mindsets: the tough way (especially among the men), straight to the point, the spirit of improvise, to find a solution under tough circumstances. I don’t have any doubt that the long and strict winters contributed decisively to shape their character. Just imagine yourself living under -20ºC, -30ºC, -40ºC! Nowadays there are electricity and heating by gas, I don’t even want to imagine how people used to live 150 years ago, for example. I got surprised to see how Russians and Ukrainians deal with the winter: “Ok, it’s cold and life goes on.”

A toy of Cheburashka, a cartoon from the Soviet time. Picture taken in Kiev, Ukraine

My first contact with Russian culture actually started during my journey in Ukraine and continued along my journey in the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia): people speaking Russian, Russian tourists everywhere, toys of the Soviet cartoon Cheburashka, Russian pop songs playing in the cars and at the clubs, Russian food.

Okroshka, a russian soup made by my host in Lviv, Ukraine!
A branch of McDonald’s in San Petersburg, Russia. Everything written in cyrillic alphabet

The reason why Russian culture isn’t comprehended yet worldwide is the language barrier. Not so many Russians (I mean the ethnically Russians) speak English and it’s common that mentality that you have to speak Russian, that’s all! That’s the reason why Russian is an official language in almost all the former Soviet republics. Anyway, Russian language is spoken all over Eastern Europe, wherever there are Russian tourists and companies selling to a Russian-speaking place. It’s interesting to note how Russians see themselves as an ethnic group regardless where they live, even when they’re minority impose their culture. I could meet persons who were born in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekhstan and… grew up speaking Russian, studied in Russian schools and their families live somewhere they can speak Russian.

Other mark of the Russian influence and one of the legacies of the Soviet times is the large train connection linking almost all the capitals and main cities of the Russian-speaking countries. If there’s no direct train connection from one city to another, it’s possible to go to a capital city and then get a train to the other cities. From Moscow, it’s possible to go by train to all the capitals and the main cities of neighboring countries: Kiev (Ukraine), Minsk (Belarus), Astana (Kazakhstan), even to Mongolia and to China.

One of the trains I got while crossing Ukraine. Pretty fine to relax during a long trip!

As travel by train is more affordable and comfortable for the long trips, it’s the transportation that many locals in the Russian-speaking zone travel either by leisure or to visit relatives living in other parts of Russia and neighboring countries. From Kiev to Moscow, for example, it takes some 27 hours by train. Then, it’s a nice way to be in touch with the local lifestyles.

Originally published at medium.com on May 13, 2015.