Why The West Doesn’t Get Russia: Context, Comprehension, Comparison, Culture

Russian Cultural icons: Symbols Everyone in Russia Understood

Symbols Everyone in Russia Understood

Minor glitches aside, Russia opened the XXII Winter Olympiad in Sochi in style.

For everyone caught up in the Schadenfreude as tweet after tweet exposed more issues with the journalist’s hotels, opening night was either a let down (that nothing caught fire or fell down) or a mysterious marvel of engineering (as in, how can these people suspend the equivalent of an Airbus and yet cannot get simple keys that match hotel room door locks- or better yet, employ modern methods of not using key locks at all?)

Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins yesterday called Russia “a heart-seizing place of deep complexities,” and Sochi, the home of these Olympic Games, a place where “the grim and the gorgeous coexist side by side…”

From the tweets I’m seeing, from the athletes to the journalists reports, it seems like the opening night spectacle pleased and puzzled most everyone. News stories today are trying to decipher just what it all meant, trying to understand the message being sent by Vladimir Putin.

They will be puzzled for a long time.

Winston Churchill: Deserve Victory PosterWhy? First, because they are using western logic to try to solve an eastern question. “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” said Winston Churchill.

And second, because the message is not for them, it’s primarily for the Russian people.

Being an expat, living in the former Soviet Union for ten years helped me to approach the Russian mindset, not as an American but as a global citizen, and not for the purpose of judging its culture, but first for reflecting, observing, and finally understanding.

Living side by side with people for a decade means you get more than a micro-slice of life. Things don’t stay hidden forever.  You may be able to act like someone else for a week or a month, but not for years at a time. It all comes through eventually.

Many of you have read an earlier post I’ve written about learning to understand the Soviet mindset and unravel the cultural touchstones in “What is Culture? Is it a matter of Perspective?”

“Culture is composed of layer upon layer of history. In trying to understand and evaluate another culture, it’s often necessary to examine the layers to find the gems that lie beneath the surface.

Many places in the world, including my own, have had great culture changed by the weight of politics… So how do we separate what is truly valuable from what is unfortunate? How do we learn to appreciate the gems and move on from the stones?”

When I taught in the university, I learned from my students. I heard the stories they told. I learned that they had been taught they were famous and that everyone envied them. Really??

For my students, it was quite a shock to hear that so few outside the former Soviet Union knew anything about them, simply because the system was closed to outside influence.

I told my International Business Management classes “It is far more important for you to learn to see problems and intuitively understand how to resolve them, than to memorize all the business rules of the world.”

Previous schooling methods had been strictly rote learning and regurgitation of information. What I saw when I gave an exam asking to resolve a basic theoretical management issue was a lot of answers that said, “I would do whatever my Manager said to do.”

The concept that they were the decision maker, the top manager, didn’t resonate. Independent thinking, critical problem solving and initiative had been rooted out long before that point in their education.  They had been taught by educators schooled in Moscow, if they were very fortunate (or not.) To then hear some less-prestigious foreigner implore, “Take initiative, see the problem and fix it,” was mind-blowing for some.

Bed Plug Photo:  A Little Independent Thinking May Have Been Useful Here...

A Little Independent Thinking May Have Been Useful Here…

When journalists take to social media questioning why problems have not been resolved prior to their arrival, I can understand their frustration. Yet, I can also see the other side.

Why such issues (like installing the plug in the middle of the bed’s headboard) ever occurred at all seems beyond question, but then again, not everyone has had international exposure, knows what international standards are, or has had an outsider challenge them (or, more likely, encourage them) to think more critically.

The Sochi hotels and restaurants apparently are staffed by workers who never had a teacher tell them to challenge the status quo or who have bosses warning them not to think, just do.

As I see it, there are a few fundamental reasons westerners don’t understand Russia very well, if at all (for any Americans who are being honest).


The west simply has no analog to or equivalent of Russia.

Journalists may be used to the outside world and global standards, but the average Russian citizen/ worker may still not have traveled internationally.

  • Despite the fact that the number of Russian billionaires increased by 50% in 2009 (no surprise there), only about 15% of Russia’s 142 million population have ever traveled abroad, and the vast majority of those being from Moscow proper. Not all average citizens outside Moscow have had the means or reasons to travel internationally.
  • Until the collapse 20 years ago Russians were banned from traveling abroad. Soviet citizens would holiday inside the eastern bloc – Crimea’s beaches; the Baltics; sanatoriums in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
  • When analyzing travel exposure, keep in mind that 72% of Russian tourists pay for their holiday in cash- even though the Sochi Games are Visa only, how many in Sochi actually have one?

The people of Sochi similarly have no context for understanding what a mega-event like these Olympics entails.  Mega-events like these are a fairly recent phenomenon, made possible by ease of global transport.

The New York Times.com described these Games saying, the “combination is singular — an enterprise that is epic, pristine and in many places bewilderingly flawed.

“Start with the public accommodations near what is called the Coastal Cluster, home to five ice sports arenas and the stadium for the opening ceremony. To appreciate the hotels in this area, it is probably a good idea to think of them not as hotels but rather as a rare opportunity to experience life in a centrally planned, Soviet-style dystopia.”

I’m reminded of the tweet from a journalist at a restaurant where the waitress said they had “no idea there would be this many people,” when slammed with journalists days before the games began… Oops!


At the risk of oversimplifying Russia’s story, unless we’ve lived it, it’s hard to truly comprehend it.

  • Canada can understand how people survive in extreme weather, but they have never had war visited upon it like Russia has.
  • France has survived war from Germany like Russia, but has never had the vastness of territory to deal with and to govern.
  • England has had territory to govern but it was long after the internal political upheavals were settled and a stable government was fashioned and functioning.
  • The United States is large, but we didn’t have so large a territory until the period of industrial tools like the train and communications like the telegraph made it possible to govern in something that seemed almost like real-time.

In America we have a hard time comprehending and identifying with a country whose populace is resigned to not being heard.

This puzzles westerners, and in many cases causes us to want to shake people to wake them up- “you don’t have to stand for this!” we say. And yet they do.

Their system isn’t our system. Our indignation doesn’t help them.


Westerners have no concept of just how truly vast the distances are out there, how far, for example, the easternmost district city of Yuzhno Sakhalinsk is from its government so far west in Moscow.

Think about this: From far east Russia, its people are closer to Honolulu, Hawaii USA out across the Pacific Ocean than they are to their own capital in Moscow to the west.

In between, is the Siberian tundra. People weren’t kidding about being sentenced to a life of hardship- its miles and miles of expansive steppes contain vast stretches with few to no people. Who could rely on Moscow out there? Make your own way, or die trying.

This isn’t a Nike commercial where you can ,”Just Do It!”

The most common joke I heard when I was in the former Soviet Union, was that Capitalism was the only thing that made Communism look like the “good old days.”


My friends told me, “Before, we had money, but nothing on the shelves to buy. Now everyone wants to sell us something (at 10 times the old price), but we have no money- no one pays us for our work.”

Indeed, as a PhD in science, working for the State, my friend told me his salary was the equivalent at that time of $50… when he got paid. He had not been paid in 5 months at that time.

For places like Sochi, if President Putin wants to put $51 billion into the “economy”, what should they do? Say no, please don’t modernize our transportation infrastructure because you and your cronies are getting rich(er) off the project? Please don’t give us jobs in the hotels and restaurants?

What would you do?

Think back to their recent leaders. Has anyone but Putin been able to deliver, on anything?

He is the only one who has managed the Duma, managed to make the USA look foolish and managed to regain some measure of respect for the Russian Federation. He may yet give Russia its pride back. If he says it will be ok, who’s to say it won’t?

So western journalists come along and criticize small issues like hotels that aren’t complete. If you were living in a derelict concrete block, wouldn’t that incomplete Potemkin Village look a far sight better to you? It’s a culture people understand.

It’s also a matter of perspective. When you haven’t had reason for real pride for so long, maybe it doesn’t matter the cost.

These Games are perhaps perceived as the antidote to the Russian toska, a concept of not sadness or depression exactly, more like a resignation that this is life, a life that will never change. I don’t know that we have an equivalent, other than John Steinbeck’s Joad family.

(Vladimir Nabokov said, “No single word in English renders all the shades of “toska”. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”)

Imagine living your life in such state. And then, imagine a chance to visit the Coastal Cluster… wouldn’t you want that to be your reality too?

Despite all the issues, this can yet be a huge accomplishment in moving conditions forward.

Once these Sochi Olympic Games are over, the real challenge won’t be finishing the hotels. It will be in keeping the conversation focused on the people issues, the real people whose lives have been affected by these Games.

Maybe westerners can “get” that part of Russia.


http://www.eventica.co.uk/files/The_Russian_Outbound_Travel_Market.pdf (statistics)

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