Russian / American Cultural Contrasts


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America and Russia Similarities

Both countries are multi-ethnic, continental, great powers, expansionist, tamed a wilderness, and settled by a variety of diverse groups. Both regard themselves as chosen nations with a messianic mission, destined to bring their own versions of enlightenment to less fortunate people, They are both Nuclear powers. The countries both think BIG, are energetic and inventive. The people appreciate casual, direct, and an often blunt way of speaking, and both show heartfelt hospitality to visitors from abroad.

Historical America and Russia Contrasts

America Russia
Authority Diffused from people, flows up Centralized, flows down
Change From below, individual Imposed from above, society
Rights Celebrated, protected Subordinated for communal good
Diverse Views Tolerance, pluralism Consensus, single truth
Economy Private free market Government-centered
Cultural roots Western Europe Europe, Asia
Warfare Wars fought mostly abroad, little/no devastation Constant cruelties, wars, devastation, hardships

Geography and Culture

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Russia has part of its roots in European culture where the ideas of goodness, honor, and freedom are understood as in the West. The Viking raiders came from the North. Traders from Scandinavia also settled. They became the rulers of Rus, the city principality of Kiev and forerunner of the Russian state. The other part of Russia has Asian roots. The Mongols, [Tartars] conquered Moscow in 1234 and Kiev in 1240, and ruled with despotism, invaders unstoppable, making Russians their slaves. Russian blood is a mixture of Slavic, Finnish, and Tatar. Kievan Rus had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988. When Moscow liberated itself from the Tartar yoke in 1480, the modern Russian state was born. Distant from Europe, the new state was cut off from Constantinople which in 1453 had fallen to the Muslim Ottoman Turks. The Russian Orthodox Church, isolated from the rest of Christianity, developed independently as a national church. Russia regarded itself as the third and Last Rome, successor to Rome and Constantinople, the two capitals of the Roman Empire which had fallen to barbarians and infidels. It’s mission as the new center of Christianity was to unite the people of the East and West. The rulers of Russia began to use the title tsar, derived from Caesar. Remote from the West, Russia experienced none of the major developments which shaped modern Europe. The Renaissance happened in the West, with its revival of classical influence and the flowering of the arts, development of modern agriculture and commerce, the scientific revolution, economic liberalism and recognition of individual rights, the beginnings of political liberty, and the growth of a strong middle class. In the West, the middle class was in the forefront of reform. Russia’s failure to develop a strong middle class delayed reform. Russia remained a vast, backward, largely agriculture empire, regimented and ruled by an autocratic dynasty with a holy mission to defend its faith against the barbarians of the East and the heresies and pluralism of the West. Thus, to remote Russia, many things “Western” have come late – manufacturing, higher education, science, etc.

The Cold North

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Living for centuries in a very harsh climate explains the Russians’ strength, their ability to endure extreme hardship, and their bleak outlook on life. It also explains their patience and submission. Climate has also contributed to a cautiousness they exhibit.

Distance and Isolation

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Russia is a great distance from other centers of civilizations; for example, 3,000 miles from Paris, a month’s journey before railroads. It has only limited access to the sea, deterring development of a mercantile tradition. Geography also has made Russia vulnerable to wars, due to her lengthy borders which had no natural defenses. The Russian people see Russian expansion as a consequence of victories over foreign invaders. America’s commercial experience and Russia’s lack of a mercantile tradition have given the two countries different world outlooks. Commerce is by its very nature conducive to compromise. Nations raised on it instinctively seek a common ground for agreement, that exact point at which the other side might be ready to make a deal. Compromise is native to America, but not to Russia. The oceans, moreover, have been bridges to America for cultures and ideas. The new has been welcomed in America; the old has been revered in Russia.

Communalism

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Communal spirit and togetherness distinguishes Russians from Westerners. Individualism and competitiveness are more common in the West; they are esteemed characteristics. Russia has a history of the agricultural village commune, with the land held in common and decision-making determined by the assembly of heads of households. The goal was to find the collective will, which after discussion and opposition ceased, a consensus evolved which became binding on all households. This system endured until 1930 when it was brutally replaced by force into collective farms. The immediate result was famine and the death of millions in the countryside. The affinity for the group can still be seen today in everyday life, in group dating, and physical contact with strangers. Pushing and shoving in crowds bring no hard feelings. In restaurants Russians will not hesitate to join a table with strangers rather than dine alone. Men kiss men and show affection, women hold hands while strolling. Recreation is often arranged in groups, often with colleagues they work with. They prefer organized sports with set teams. Russians feel free to tell you if you or your child is not dressed warm enough. In general, in a collective society, everybody’s business is also everyone else’s.

Nationality

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With a population of 290 million in 1990, the former Soviet Union was the world’s third most populous country – after China and India. The three Slavic groups – Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians – made up about 70 percent of the total Union. Nations with an Islāmic or Turk heritage constituted another 20 percent of the population. And in the far north are many Arctic Peoples with distinct cultures, similar to those of their North American cousins. To complicate this ethnic mosaic, some 65 million citizens live outside their republics or places of origin. There is a strong determination to keep their distinct languages and cultures, despite 70 years of Soviet attempts to force Russian language and culture on everyone under their control. (The war in Chechnya is an example.) Americans may find it hard to comprehend the complexity of the Soviet nationality problems and their political importance. This is because America’s immigrants largely assimilated into the American culture, and we prided ourselves on our ability to create unity in diversity.

Russian Orthodoxy

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Russian ethnicity, culture, and nationalism are identified with Russian Orthodoxy, the state religion in Russia for almost a thousand years. In every ethnic Russian there is an Orthodox heritage. It can emerge when least expected., even among convinced Communists. Russian Orthodoxy believed that it had solved all the basic problems of belief and worship, DEFINED for ALL TIME, by its councils. Changes in dogma or even sacred phraseology could not be tolerated. The Russian sense of community end egalitarianism also has roots in Orthodoxy. The consensus of the Orthodox congregation was seen as the truth – a singularity of truth in which there was no room for a pluralism of opinion. In this idea lie the roots of Russia’s traditional disdain for dissidents – political as well as religious. Under the Soviets, atheism became the official doctrine, and the Orthodox Church, with its tradition of submission to state authority, proved easy to suppress and vulnerable to Communist control. Since 1985, the severe anti-religious policies of the Stalin years have been reversed. In 1990 a law on religious freedom was passed, and militant atheism was dropped from the Communist Party platform. Churches have begun to open. America, by contrast, has had neither a state church, an official ideology, nor a single truth. Rather America has known a pluralism of beliefs and truths and has tolerated, if not encouraged, dissenters from these beliefs. Church and state have been kept separate. Religion and ideology have been kept separate from state affairs. Diverse views have often been welcomed. The very right to be different has been respected. If Americans have to have an ideology, it is probably pragmatism – if it works, do it.

Although the 1990 law on religious freedom was passed, the Russian Orthodox Church has often tried to interpret the freedom as related to the Russian Orthodox only. Originally other Christian groups were welcomed by the Orthodox Church to help make religious material and training available. In recent years the feelings have shifted. The other “sects” are not seen as legitimate religions. Recent laws have been passed in the Duma to restrict other religious groups from meeting publicly. Since the Orthodox Church does have clout with the government, the potential for excluding other religious groups could become a reality.

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