In a large gathering in Red Square for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War (aka WWII) back in 1995 we listened to the National Symphony Orchestra from Washington D.C., conducted by Rostropovich. Of course there was the 1812 Overture, the bells of the Kremlin (really!) and cannon (really!), and then there was a “parade of the ages” that I have seen in Japan and elsewhere. Costumed heroes from the past ride in their carriages or on horseback. On this occasion they rode out of the Kremlin gates, including Alexander Nevsky, and then General Kutusov who chased Napoleon out of Moscow in 1812. And then that was all. I looked for more. Then I asked a policeman, “Is that all?” His answer had more meaning than he intended. He looked at me for a moment and then said, “Nothing of importance has happened since then.”
We normally learn, in time, to work toward and expect the best, but also, just in case, to maybe plan for the something less—a plan B. With Russians, it can be often the other way around. The heavy burdens of disappointment and historical failure precondition the Russian to assume the normality of chaos. And success? Well, what is that? One friend confessed, “We Russians are prone to mistrust and conjure up unsubstantiated fears in times of success. We trust sincere consolations for failures much more that sincere help and sharing of joy for our successes.” Witness a traffic jam in Moscow as an example.
On the Borodinsky Bridge at 9:30 one May morning, the traffic came to a halt. Four lanes approaching Smolensky Square quickly grew to five, then six, and finally seven as resourceful drivers invaded the opposite lanes in their zeal to get across the Moscow River. The one lane left going west was filled with a few cars speeding out of the chaos, some in reverse.
Cement trucks, tractor-trailers, and scores of cars from rusty Ladas to Mercedes 600s, were crammed into a halt extending as far as I could see. Some tried to make a U-turn, and the others let them. From the air it must have looked like an army of snails bumping and going nowhere. What was Russian about this was that no one seemed to care. “Normalno. What can you expect?” my driver said. “Everything eventually comes to a halt.”
In New York there would have been a furious interchange of names and honking of horns. In Italy, there would be rude gestures and yelling. In California, someone might have been shot in “road rage.” In Russia, they just inched along unconcerned. After all, it was not their fault or their responsibility. Maybe the Russians are right. In cases like this, it may be the best attitude to have. You will not be disappointed if you don’t expect success.
But one thing I do find disappointing is the occasional lack of trust in another’s good intentions. I called a Russian friend, and he said he couldn’t talk to me just then; he was trying to help a Russian. I laughed and he laughed at my laughing. “I see you understand,” he said.
So true, the saying—“Sometimes trying to help a Russian is like trying to save a drowning man who refuses to give you his hand.” One Russian friend on hearing that added that the drowning man probably doesn’t admit he is drowning. I have a Russian friend who is a film director and on his first trip to America, I offered to introduce him to a few I know in the Hollywood film business. With a strange look in his eyes he said, “Why would they want to help me?” It is the suspicion that anyone who helps will want something in return. They lose much through such distrust. They may even drown.
Let’s hope, no, let’s expect that these debilitating and unjustified attitudes will die out and the young will expect more of himself or herself and get on with a deserving and resourceful life.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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 Committee . 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.