What makes a people “tick?” Anyone? I have written a lot about the Russians, obviously from this foreigner’s perspective. But what about the vision of Americans from the Russian point of view?
A Russian friend and his pretty wife visit me in California every once in a while, usually for three weeks. They drive their rented car about Southern California to Las Vegas on the back roads and of course down some of the six- to ten-lane freeways having a delightful time.
He is a young businessman and politician from a major Russian regional city. We have good talks around the fireplace and discuss various Russian and American relations and life in general. So at the end of their last visit I asked him: “What one word would you use to describe your impression of America?” He thought about his answer for a moment, then he said: “Discipline!”
That was a surprise to me. I never thought of Americans particularly as a disciplined people. Certainly we are not aware of this. When I mention this story to my American friends, they are equally surprised. “What? Americans? Disciplined?” they laugh. But, then if I think of his answer from a Russian perspective, I see what he means. Take the yellow stripe down the middle of a road for example. The stripe is there for our safety and best interest. “We” put it there ourselves, through our elected representatives. It was not imposed “from the top.” That is democracy. The traffic of a Russian street or road is something completely different. And this street chaos is typical in many other countries as well.
In Russia, where I had a telecom company, the girls would say during a coffee break that they were looking for “a clever man.” By that they meant a man who could succeed in getting around Russian laws, those laws and rules imposed from the top down and enforced by the ever present police willing to leniently excuse the offender for a price.
Once visiting Russians asked me: “Where are the police?” Of course I knew what they meant, so I answered naively: “What police?” Then I explained the police are there waiting to respond to emergencies and they come in a second when called. They are public servants and are there to protect and keep order, when needed. And never a bribe.
Once an engineer from my Moscow company was here for training. I went to pick him up and he was sitting on the street curb and I asked, “What are you thinking about, Sergei?” He said, “I was just thinking—it works.” He meant the U.S. system of government. It is a system where we have the minimum of government, only enough to assure order and safety. Most of the day is for the free exercise of individual initiative. “It works.” But the “discipline” factor was a surprise. But that is true.
It’s not that we don’t have disorder in America. Of those thousands of cars flying down the freeway, 97% are obeying the law and common sense, signaling their lane changes, etc. Bu there is 3% who think they are above the law and drive recklessly. But that is the exception to the law and we just avoid him.
I had a young Russian teenager visit me. He was commenting about the relatively orderly traffic. When I mentioned the law, he reminded me that laws were there to challenge us how to get around them. I quickly countered with the common opinion here that laws are to protect, and thereby to obey. I hope he remembers that.
We take our freedom and democracy for granted in America. We should not. We should be grateful for every day of it.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.