When I first arrived, I was fascinated by the old buildings, by the size of the city, by Red Square (which I don’t see that much). I was open to experiencing new things (and still am) but my excitement mostly sheltered me from the actual Moscow and the differences between here and the U.S. (aside from the language). I didn’t yet realize how spoiled I was in the United States with a car, wide open spaces, not to mention the language, income, safety. I would like to say that three months in I understand Russia better than I did before, but I know there is quite a bit that I am still missing.
I realize that I have a skewed view of things because much of my communication and insight into the culture is coming from those who speak English. My progress with learning Russian is painfully slow – part of this is my own fault and lack of willingness to study. But there are, of course, cultural quirks of Russia that come through occasionally – the lack of tipping (10% is considered more than enough), the patience of the ladies in the shops putting up with my attempt to ask questions and decipher answers, decentralized shopping, a love for white, flavorless sauces (sour cream and mayo especially), a love for dill. Then there are the things that continue to fascinate me about Russian culture: the lack of motivation to talk openly about politics – the conversations are usually short and either full of praise or full of hate – and the perplexing lessons that come with common fairy tales.
While the West has often characterized Russians as having an enigmatic soul, I think it has more to do with the culture being vastly different from what we have in the West than the culture being enigmatic. Russia has a rich history of literature, music, art, and poetry that lends insight into the character of the nation – and it is difficult to come to a conclusion about what the messages mean. For instance there are many fairy tales that seem to end with the “moral” or conclusion that life isn’t fair, so you might have to cheat your way through things … or don’t ask for help, be tough and you will be rewarded. They are difficult lessons, and the Russian historical experience seems to have given “Russians” a very cynical outlook on life. It is possibly this surface layer cynicism is often seen as coldness.
But I think there is something deeper to Muscovites that these stories tell and that the faces of the people on the metro tell. Though people say Muscovites are cold, because they don’t often smile at strangers and the everyday person isn’t particularly interested in your well being as a tourist, they aren’t zombies. I have seen just about every human emotion on the metro. Most days everyone is in their own sphere, but occasionally I see emotions: laughter and gossip, fights (both physical and verbal), make-out sessions, drunk teens singing the Beatles. Even in the “blank” faces of the everyday person on the metro there Is life, depth, and humanity shown especially in the older women deep crow’s feet or frown lines. These people have lives that go far beyond their commute on the metro (perhaps that is the enigmatic part).
After three months do I feel like I know the “real” Russia … no, but I continue to enjoy and be fascinated by Moscow and its people.