Deciphering the Russian soul

It is not easy to define the Russian soul. Source: Vladimir Vyatkin / RIA Novosti

It is not easy to define the Russian soul. Source: Vladimir Vyatkin / RIA Novosti

Great writers have written about it in detail, but it is not easy to pinpoint the main qualities that come with having a mystifying Russian soul.

For those who find it difficult to understand the complexity of Russia and Russians, the easy way out is to attribute what’s incomprehensible to the ‘Russian soul.’ “What is this Russian soul,” many of my non-Russian friends have asked me over the last 11 years. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nicholai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy all had their own way of interpreting the Russian soul, but how would one describe this mystifying soul in the 21st century?

Eleven years of living on and off in Russia has helped me blend in culturally with ease but I am not sure how much of a Russian soul I have acquired over this time.  There are probably scores of qualities that can be pinned to having one, but for me, there are hardcore qualities I value in my friends who I believe have a Russian soul.

A great sense of humour

Life in Russia is unpredictable and change seems to happen at a much more rapid pace than in many other parts of the world. One way that many people have come to terms with volatility is by developing a wonderful sense of humour. Even in the most serious of situations, there always seems to be a light and funny moment. I have even seen a police officer sharing a joke with a suspect and a victim in the middle of a session with lawyers and seeing everyone burst into laughter.

This legendary sense of humour is even reflected in funny moments in Russian horror films. Dark humour is also highly appreciated in the country, and can be commonly witnessed in day to day life.

Thick skin

In many circles thick skin is looked upon as a really positive attribute and a measure of strength. “Don’t kill your nerves,” a close friend, who is also a colleague, always says. Of course, experience has led him to become a mature person, but what I appreciate is the fact that he never loses his focus on the bigger picture. I’ve seen over the years how developing this kind of indifference to pettiness is very useful. 

In many Russian-Foreigner love stories, it’s often this “you’re not a strong man” card that Russian women play. Living in the Russian Far East helped me develop very thick skin and it wasn’t the long and freezing winters that did that for me.

Frankness

This is my favourite attribute of the Russian soul. It’s so easy to know where you stand with a Russian person. If he or she likes you or not, it is absolutely obvious! Russians don’t usually hide their thoughts behind a smile. It’s not that easy to get a smile out of stranger or a new acquaintance in the country but there’s something so comforting about this.  There are jokes about places like Japan and even Scandinavia that go on the lines of tourists being told the following: “Just because someone is nice to you doesn’t mean he or she likes you.”  Something like this would never happen in Russia. 

The Russian soul calls for directness. In fact, the frank responses that one gets in public places are so often misunderstood for rudeness, when there really are no bad intentions. This frankness also leads to a lot of political incorrectness in the country but then better this than fake smiles masking unpleasant thoughts.

Being in harmony with nature

Here comes the disclaimer:  A lot of modern-day Muscovites would not necessarily fit the bill here. But travel to the smaller towns and many of the regions and you will see a lot of people who swear by nature and are at their best in the great Russian outdoors.

The Russian soul calls for appreciating the wild and enjoying warm soup on a cool evening by a campfire, when bard music is being played under the stars.  It’s been a big part of the culture to tame the wild in a country that has some of the most stunning nature on earth.

Fierce loyalty

This is something that I have observed both in my personal and professional life in Russia. Friendships are taken very seriously and a friend is always looked upon as a friend for life. One of the most well known sayings about friendship is “an old friend is better than two new ones.” I have had some of the strongest, most vivid friendships I could possibly ever imagine thanks to this great sense of loyalty in Russia.

The concept of fair-weather friends is heavily frowned upon in the country. Of course, breaking the ice is not always easy but once it’s done, a lifelong friendship is usually on the cards. Employers also tend to be extremely loyal in Russia. Of course this may have a lot to do with the fact that the whole demand- supply equation is skewed in a country that is under-populated. 

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