The Russian Girl: Coping with my legacy

Assembling identity out of poems, history books and anecdotes

For around 2 years now I live as the only Russian around. It’s quite fun — people always have something to talk with me at international parties — and it brought me in the darkest hollows of identity crisis. It also made me do some rather questionable things, like drinking full glasses of vodka one by one in order to impress a guy. It’s complicated.

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Troubled relationships with own country and national inferiority complex live in Russia for centuries and are imposed right from the school: choose to agree, fight or ignore. Before I started my studies abroad, I was on ignoring stage — but it wasn’t possible in the international environment of the uni.

Despite of all the education and exposure to the Western culture, everything in me turned out to be not normal, but Russian.

I realized that the very way I speak, think, look at people, at what jokes I laugh — all could be traced back to the Motherland. Moreover, I felt I had to represent: people were calling me to answer about Putin, cold, nukes, bombings, hackers and if I am a KGB spy.

At first I tried to use it to get attention: with spy outfits, vodka glasses and tough stories. Pretending made me feel dead inside — yes, I was Russian till the bones, but not that one: no spy, no fighter. If anything, I was Natasha Rostova crying her heart out on the couch. So instead of denying, ignoring and pretending, I tried to hunt for the pieces of my own self in the culture, to see what exactly I had inherited.

And I’ve found some.

Casual survivorship

I have family members dead on battlefield as heroes, and in soviet concentration camps as enemies of the nation. My grandparents were raised in a damaged post-war country. My parents had me during the 90s revolution. I’m the first generation to whom nothing yet had happened.

I asked mom why on Earth they decided to have a baby in such a time. She responded — “Well, we didn’t know it will get better.” Casual survivorship is the trait that allows to neglect comfort and live in hardly bearable conditions — without noticing that something is wrong.

I know something about survival — and less about how to live. I know how to close myself from cold, to look away, wait through and get by, to agree on less, to up-cycle and reuse. I don’t know ambition, self-expression, negotiation and growth — so I’m learning it now.

Exercise: considering this behavioral pattern, think why the EU and US sanctions imposed on Russia aren’t working the way they were meant to.

Apparent emotional numbness

“The hardest job in my city is to love someone, but somebody has to do this job anyway” — sings a popular band from my hometown.

We don’t talk about feelings here. There are no go-to phrases to show compassion, condolences or support. When you love someone, you give them food, shelter and things, kick asses of those who try to harm them, and optionally sacrifice your life for them.

Voicing emotions often means making them fake, shallow — this idea is found both in classic literature and stories of common people.

Of course, it’s the older generations thing, and we youngsters are raised on Hollywood movies. But sometimes, when I need to show support and there are no things to give and no asses to kick, I feel kinda numb. So I google how to support people.

Love is here in abundance, it flows underground like oil and gas with no way out. It bursts out sometimes: in a sparkle of laughter, in a hug from a stranger when you’re cold.

Defended borders

Imagine people like buildings. In Europe everyone seems to have a nice green lawn with a white fence and open gates — here you can have some small talk. Someday you might be invited in the living room — and to talks with slightly more substance. As relationships develop, you will pass multiple doors to find the owner’s open heart. Or you will be always welcome on the lawn, no further.

I don’t have multiple doors. I just have one — but it’s damn Iron Curtain, and you’re either in or out. When I like someone, they may tell it by the cracking of giant rusty gate-opening mechanism: “Yay, come, adventure awaits.” It makes me very socially awkward abroad, even if in Russia I’m just a bit below average.

Foreigners in Russia all describe this threshold too. As you try to start some small talk with a neighbor, they blank you. But once you get friends, you’re covered in case of any trouble. In turn, Russian immigrants get very puzzled when upon opening one door they immediately stumble on another one.

The moment when you turn from a suspicious stranger to the dearest guest, to one of the kin, is subtle but magic everything becomes available and possible.

Idealism

This is not a meritocracy. All these work-hard-and-be-successful, rags-to-riches stories don’t sell that well here. The effort isn’t equal with result, opportunities aren’t equal, people aren’t equal, nothing equals anything.

So if you see a person who does the job well, it has little to do with fame or money. It means they have a developed value system to follow. It means they believe they are fixing the world, even if only in a small and subtle way.

This sort of idealism is the only engine that could build a nuclear state by following a book theory on social economics. It’s also the reason why free business lectures in Russian feel so profoundly, shamelessly fake.

If you’ve read “Atlas Shrugged”, you’d recognize the trait. It’s exactly what the author complains about in the course of a more than a thousand pages. Hey, Ayn Rand, I’m sorry for the experiences you had in 1917 Russia. Fuck you.

The Beauty and Despair

When I try to talk with my foreign friends about things that I feel are important, I typically get advice to stop being sad and depressed and quit complaining. “Russia is for sad ones” was a phrase to write on a wall to appear witty. The very word “sadness” has different nuances in Russian.

In this country you learn quickly that beauty and despair aren’t enemies, but lovers. We can’t skip, hide or ignore neither of these things. They find each other hands and hold them tightly, and your heart is right in between their palms.

And you feel like a child who is woken up by silence, who breathes on the frozen window to look outside, and trees and fields all stay still, shining, like silent movie actors in the final scene, — and all is in white, white, white, as far as eye can see.

Add Drama Button. Stories from another hemisphere. Russian in Milan, Italy. Get a letter from me: https://slidetosubscribe.com/adddramabutton/

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