St. Petersburg, Russia — As a guy who’s been around Russians and Russian-speakers pretty much all his life, I should be pretty comfortable living in Russia. But after living here for several months, “comfortable” is certainly not the first word that comes to mind when describing the experience.
There’s no problem communicating; I have no problem understanding or speaking the language. I also have no problems getting around. I don’t feel unsafe. It’s just instead of feeling like a local, I feel like an outsider. And for the longest time I couldn’t nail down the culprit.
Russia is different from pretty much any other country I’ve gotten to know over the recent years. It’s radically different from places like Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Denmark, Bulgaria, Spain, Romania and, of course, America. Even some of Russia’s western neighbors, the Baltics, consisting of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, where I’ve spent about a year traveling and living, feel like a world apart. There’s just no comparison: compared to any of those countries, Russia’s culture is downright direct, blunt and unapologetic.
The land of “figure it out yourself”
Consider an experience I recently had while trying to purchase a public transportation recharge card (similar to London’s Oyster or New York’s MetroCard) in one of St. Petersburg’s metro stations. Buying one of these cards is an extremely confusing process; there isn’t a single card to buy, but actually 5-10 different cards, each with its own set of benefits. The metro card machine only sold a specific kind of card. I wasn’t sure which one of the ten cards it was selling; all I knew is that it would work with the metro. I purchased it. On the platform, I came up to a guy and asked him if I can use this card on all forms of transport or just certain ones. “If it’s a universal card, then yes,” was his curt reply.
It’s certainly a given that when something is “universal” it has multiple uses. I know what the term “universal” means, and I didn’t need to be told the word’s definition. Instead, what I wanted him to tell me is whether the card that I was holding in my hand can be also used on buses or trams. I wanted him to look at my card and explain how the card works. If I would’ve presented the same question to someone on a New York City subway, I’m pretty sure the person answering might go to great lengths to explain to me in greater detail how the system works. Not in Russia.
The same thing continued to happen in other settings. While ordering food at one of many “stolovayas” (self-serve restaurants), I pointed to a meat dish and asked what it is. The guy said that it’s meat, and looked at me as though I asked the dumbest question in the world. I replied that I knew it was meat, but wanted to know what kind of meat, how it was prepared, etc. His curt reply: “boiled meat.” In America, a dish like that might be described with twenty adjectives, but in Russia it’s simply called “boiled meat.”
Moreover, it’s one thing when someone understands your question, but expect a different reaction when someone doesn’t. In the latter case, the reply would almost always be, “I didn’t understand the question.” Period. No request for clarification or additional information. No hand holding. Unlike in America, where they’ll work hard at trying to infer or guess what you’re saying, in Russia the burden will always be on you to reformulate the question and try again.
The land of hand holding
There are two ways to look at the cultural divide. The first is that Russians are a bunch of inconsiderate assholes who don’t want to help people. But that’s a mere justification for your inability to understand and connect with the culture.
For the longest time I was confused why the cultures are so radically different until it hit me that Western culture is all about hand holding and Russian culture is about figuring out everything yourself.
I realized this when my Russian roommate, the same one who rented me the room, began telling me how she’s flabbergasted at all the things that prospective renters ask and request of her. She noted that Westerners usually wanted to check every little thing and love to inquire about additional services. They would endlessly confirm whether the apartment had beds and towels. They would ask a million things about the city, things that can be easily researched online. Then, they would ask for “additional services” like airport pickup. As far as my roommate was concerned, she was simply offering a room and a bed and how you get from the airport is your business—not hers. Russians don’t ask these kind of questions. They simply rent a place with a bed and find a way to get there from the airport.
It’s no accident that in America things are usually much smoother and more predictable. The reason is there are various people whose exact job is to make sure that you’re always helped every step of any process. When you go shopping, there’s always a friendly store assistant nearby, that, if, he or she is not following you around, will come running to you the moment you solicit their help. When you’re a booking an accommodation, there are always extra services available such as airport pickup, late check-in, etc. If you’re feeling bad because your girlfriend dumped you and ran away from the milkman, don’t despair: there are dating coaches who you can always contact and talk to. There are also motivational “master classes” for building confidence and drive.
In fact, a huge chunk of America’s revenue is from such services. What is a service? It’s another word for holding your hand, while gently guiding you into achieving a certain task. The more someone else has to do, the less you have to do, and the less you have to do, the less capable you become. That’s why we, as Americans, are conditioned from an early age to seek assistance and help instead of independently figuring things out ourselves.
If you’re someone who grew up in the West, you may naturally not realize this and take all this for granted. That’s understandable; I was completely oblivious to this until I started traveling and living abroad.
In this light, I view Russian culture as void of all harmful additives that have, over the years, seeped into Western cultures. Russian culture is a perfect example what happens when you leave people alone to fend for themselves instead of guiding and training them every micro step of the way.
And what you get are direct and unapologetic people. Russia is alpha. Everything about it is. The men are alpha. The women are alpha. Strangely enough, when I first wrote about Russian culture, some of the responses alluded to the fact that Russian men are beta. That’s something I could never understand. Russian men are completely anti-beta. They’re as far away as possible from beta. Of course, there are guys who are needy and desperate, but the percentage of such guys in Russia is much lower than in the West; you simply can’t survive in Russia if you’re needy and desperate. You either go out and carve your piece of the pie, or you die of starvation. Betas, lazy sheeple, and others like them don’t survive here.
The questions that I’ve been constantly asking myself: What shapes the people to be this way? Why are Russians so blunt and direct? Why are they so unapologetic? Why don’t they smile? A simplistic answer is that it’s the environment. But that’s too easy; the answer is usually a complex concoction of different things.
One reason I believe Russians are this way is because of their constant struggle. Most of the 20th century they lived under brutal totalitarianism—and even things before then weren’t much easier. Even now, they are still living in a difficult environment. And the government, instead of duly helping its citizens, is busy lining their own pockets.
Combine all that together and what you get is a dog-eat-dog, cutthroat society where everyone is on their own, trying to carve out their piece of the pie. The really successful ones (the oligarchs, etc) are the true alpha males (not to be confused with guys who call themselves that because they picked up a drunk slut at a club) who got there because they had the guts and balls to grab what was duly theirs. In that sense it’s more capitalistic than the beacon of capitalism itself: United States of America.
Having experienced both sides of the fence, I ask myself which side is truly better: the carefree life full of constant hand-holding or the stressful life when you’re on your own. I think each side has its advantages and disadvantages. Adversity is always the best teacher, so if you learn to work for something instead of obtaining it for free, you’ll always appreciate the struggle more. The bitter the struggle, the sweeter the reward; in fact, living in Russia is already forcing me to become more resourceful and capable because I simply cannot rely and expect others to come out and help me.
I can’t fathom how different my life would have been if I had actually grown up and lived all my life in Russia. Everything would turn upside down; for instance, instead of Russia feeling foreign, America would feel foreign. Maybe I wouldn’t even be as introspective as I’m now: everything would simply be an action, everything would be second nature. As far as I know, there’s no such thing as the “manosphere” in Russia (although that may change as the culture becomes more Westernized and starts absorbing more “services” in the future).
Hand-holding is like eating sweets; initially you may like the taste, but you can certainly live without them. But after doing it for some time you become addicted to them, and gradually, it even becomes difficult to continue living without them. Instead of getting diabetes or cavities, you develop something else that’s just as grave: a severe case of helplessness.
A man must be left alone. He should experiment, try new things, figure out what works and what doesn’t. But he can’t do that if he’s constantly being helped, assisted, trained, guided and told what to do or what not to do. He’ll become fragile, helpless and powerless. He’ll cease to be a man. That’s what the West has become.
What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Because Russians have lived and continue to live in such an unforgiving environment, they’re are nothing but survivors. Charles Darwin would be proud.
Since my arrival to St. Petersburg coincided with economic sanctions from European Union, I couldn’t help but inject this topic into various conversations with the locals. And the tone of their responses was almost always defiant: “We have many more problems than not being able to buy some fancy French cheese in the supermarket,” was the typical reply. After spending time living here, I really can’t disagree.