This trip is mostly about me being in the children’s classroom. Native English speakers are rare, especially in Siberia and just having me work with the children (and teachers) is extremely helpful for their learning. However a huge part of my trip is about culture exchange, so I am writing now with a few quick takeaways. Some of them are just interesting tidbits; others are important for me to remember when reading about Russia, as it relates to our political relationship.
One thing I notice immediately is how much closer people stand when conversing. In the U.S. we generally stand about arms length away. In Russia (at least Chita) it is common to be only foot away. Even less if the person is someone close to you.
Emotions have a much more honored place than back home. In general Americans pride themselves on being logical and level-headed. In Russia, however, emotions are seen as a high level of honesty. Children and adults alike show affection more openly, and there is quite a bit more hugging.
Hospitality is king. Even good friends are treated like honored guests in another’s home. At any point in my trip when I was without something, if it couldn’t immediately be provided, my host would give me theirs. If I even suggested something, it was treated as an obligation.
Russians are a lot more frank. Of course this varies between people but just in general I noticed a lack of euphemism. They did not add words to soften their language. For example if someone was fat, they would not say “wider around the mid section” they’d just say fat. At first I thought this to be just a lack of vocabulary, but even with those who I spoke with who were fluent in English had this direct, unfiltered way of speaking.
This is not to say they aren’t polite. I would say their manners might even be better than ours back home, if not less casual.
Putin. Ah, yes, the infamous Putin. I will not talk about specific policies, because there is too much variance in opinion. But in general, our media is quick to demonize him, while their media is quick to make him out as a hero.
In Chita, when Putin was brought up, people often responded with “Long live Putin!” some sarcastically, some genuinely. This was curious to me and when I asked, the opinions were very split. Some believe he is corrupt and along with the Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, use their power to remain in their positions. They criticize it as a step backwards toward a tsar-like dynasty. The phrase “Long live Putin” from their mouths sounds very critical.
But in general, the reaction is positive. Most praise him for exemplifying the directness I spoke of earlier. Many people told me he says what he thinks bad or good and the Russian people respect that honesty. He also holds annual press conferences where anyone can ask him questions. Together these things have helped him build a very close relationship with his people. They feel heard and also, more importantly, responded to.
It is also important to note, from the conversations I had, most feel he isn’t an aggressive politician. Most believe he is civil and very rarely reactionary. I was told he only stands up to bullies, he does not instigate. Of course no country was named but the implication was very clear: Russians feel America to be the aggressor. This disconnect between our countries is reminiscent of the Red Scare era. But regardless of policies or personal opinion it is important to understand both sides. People here are passionate about their leader. You can buy Putin t-shirts and I saw quite a few of them. We must consider that love. When I even mentioned that he was strongly disliked back home people reacted as if I had personally criticized them. Kind of like when someone says they don’t like the Beatles and everyone’s immediate reaction is, “What’s wrong with you?!”