This extract from The Xenophobe's® Guide to the English is the copyright 2010 of Oval Projects Ltd and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. For more information on the Xenophobe's Guides please visit the publisher's website at: www.ovalbooks.com
Nationalism and Identity
The population of Russia is 149 million (124 million Russians + 25 million others); and there are 5 million Finns; 1½ million Estonians; 1¾ million Latvians (+ 1 million Russians); 3¾ million Lithuanians; 38 million Poles; 39 million Ukrainians (+ 13 million Russians); 7 million Kazakhs (+ 6 million Russians and 4 million others); 2 million Mongolians; 268 million Americans, and over a billion Chinese.
How They See Themselves
The Russian attitude to themselves is summed up in one of their many pithy, earthy proverbs: "My country may be a smelly dungheap - but it's my smelly dungheap."
Although they despair of anything ever turning out right, the Russians firmly believe that, as a nation, they are destined to save the world. This is nothing whatever to do with the Revolution. This is something they have believed since the 16th-century monk, Filofei, described Moscow as "the third Rome, and there will be no fourth".
The Russians would like to be seen above all as being capable of running things smoothly while keeping their personal dignity intact. "The trouble with us is that we all have a serf mentality," Moscow intellectuals frequently muse. The playwright Chekhov talked of his lifelong struggle to "squeeze the slave out of my soul". This is sometimes misread by people in a hurry as "squeeze the SLAV out of my soul" - impossible and undesirable, of course.
The Russians think of themselves as expansive, generous, open-minded, peace-loving and sincere. When the old Communist regime fell in August 1991 and the files were opened, they were genuinely amazed to discover that the Red Army really did have plans for invading Western Europe.
They will occasionally adopt a jocular, dismissive tone about themselves to test a stranger's attitude to them. One should not be taken in by this. They run themselves down but get angry if others criticise their shortcomings.
On the negative side, they recognise that they are lazy and not inclined to look ahead or foresee the consequences of their actions. Like Dickens' Mr. Micawber, there is a national inclination to rely on "something turning up". Their leaders were still boasting that not a single German jackboot would ever touch Russian soil when divisions of the German army were already hundreds of miles inside the Russian border, within striking distance of Minsk, Kiev and St.Petersburg.
How They See Others
The Russians claim to be passionately interested in the rest of the world. They secretly fear that to others they may seem somehow less than perfectly civilized.
They are relentlessly hospitable, for foreigners have to be humoured, above all in their extraordinary desire for such fads as time-keeping, sticking to agreements and doing things "by the book".
There has always been a tendency in Russia for foreigners to be treated differently from the natives. Foreign tourists have been allowed to queue-barge into museums ahead of a patient line of Russians who may have travelled just as far, or further, to be there. Many Russian cities have tourist hotels which were built only for the use of foreign visitors, and - notoriously - until the recent change of regime, Russians were not even allowed into the best hotels in Moscow or St.Petersburg unless a foreign friend met them at the door and escorted them in past the doorman.
Despite their apparently deferential treatment of them, deep down Russians do not think highly of other nationalities and their attitude to foreigners is both defensive and aggressive.
A telling anecdote concerns Tsar Alexander I who, while examining infinitely superior examples of English gun-making, fabrics, etc., observed to his General with a dismissive wave of the hand, "Of course, we have all this stuff at home."
Ordinary Russians travelling abroad adopt much the same attitude to the infinite variety of goods displayed in the delicatessens and boutiques of Paris and Berlin: "We don't need 200 different types of sausage." To a close friend, however, a Russian may admit: "We'll never have anything like this at home."
Despite the rather poor past record of the Germans (invading Russia, hanging men, women and children as "examples" on their way in, and so on) the Russians regard the Germans with pity mixed with a grudging admiration. They rather respect them, and think of them as dependable and reliable. Fancy getting up every day and getting to work on the dot and working right through to 5 p.m. Order, application, thoroughness, finishing things - these are all qualities that Russians admire like other people might admire a contortionist in a circus. It's all quite extraordinary, but of course one wouldn't want to behave like that oneself. Germans settled widely in Russia in the 18th century, and formed the backbone of the shopkeeping class in St.Petersburg.
The Russians make fun of Americans behind their backs. They cannot understand how such a naive, poorly-educated and stupid nation can be so rich. They regard the success of American industry as inexplicable and unjust.
The French are categorised as fickle, elusive, unreliable, strange and ludicrous. They are known as "frog-eaters" (lyagushedniki). Traditionally, ruined French aristocrats were hired as tutors and governesses by good Russian families.
With the English, the Russians have a sentimental affinity. They refer slightly ironically to "good old England". It is known that the English make good shoes and umbrellas, and they like to imagine that London is still populated by men in top hats strolling about the smog-ridden streets which all Russians know about through their reading of Dickens and Thackeray.
Apart from their pubs, the Russians admire the English capacity for drink. In a story by Gorki, a group of Russian and English merchants agree to stage a drinking match on board a barge floating down the Volga. The last message received from the barge before everyone has drunk themselves insensible reads admiringly: "The English ended up on Chartreuse".
The Russians regard most of their neighbours with the patronising eye of empire. The Poles are thought to be sly and unreliable - even treacherous, capable of selling their own grandmother. The dislike is mutual. Polish women, on the other hand, are acknowledged to be beautiful.
The Armenians, Georgians and Azeris are thought to have depended on a firm colonial hand to keep them in order: "Now look what a mess they are making of their own affairs."
The Ukrainians and the Russians have a legendary mistrust of each other, rather like the French and the English. In one typical anecdote an old Ukrainian peasant is told: "The Russians have gone into space." "All of them?" he enquires hopefully.
There are many Russian jokes about the Chukchis, a small tribe who live in the furthest part of the Far East of Russia. Typical examples are:
A Chukchi enrols for a course on Russian literature at Moscow University. His professor asks: "Have you read Pushkin?" "No." "Have you read Gogol?" "No." "Tolstoy? Dostoievsky?" The Chukchi shakes his head. "Chukchi going to be writer, not reader."
Another Chukchi is driving his car erratically from side to side, careering all over the road. An old woman manages several times miraculously to avoid being run over, but when the Chukchi opens his car door he inadvertently knocks her down and kills her. The Chukchi looks round proudly, and says: "If anyone but a Chukchi hunter had been driving this car, that old woman would have got clean away."
There is no word in Russian for privacy. Russians not only have no concept of the joys of being left alone, they regularly demonstrate their sense of solidarity with the rest of mankind by going up to complete strangers, and for instance, ticking them off for not wearing a warm enough coat (if it's cold), or damaging a new bathing suit by sitting on the concrete edge of a public swimming pool instead of the grass (if it's summer). In church little old ladies come up and smack your hands if you are standing with them clasped absent-mindedly behind you during prayers for this is taken as a sign, like having your fingers crossed, that you are excluding yourself from the proceedings.
Perhaps the key symbol of Russia is the runaway troika (a carriage or, in this instance, sleigh, drawn by three horses abreast.) at the end of Gogol's 19th-century novel Dead Souls:
"What Russian does not love fast driving? How could his soul, which is so eager to whirl round and round, to forget everything in a mad carousel, to exclaim sometimes "To hell with it all!" - how could his soul not love it? … Is it not like that, that you too, Russia, are speeding along like a spirited troika that nothing can overtake? Russia, where are you flying to? Answer! She gives no answer. The bells fill the air with their wonderful tinkling; the air is torn asunder, it thunders and is transformed into wind; everything on earth is flying past, and, looking askance, other nations and states draw aside and make way for her."
You have been warned.