I walked up to the cafeteria in Perm, Russia. It was the mid-nineties and Russia was bursting with optimism for the future. I was bursting with desire for lunch. Unfortunately, the cafeteria in Perm was closed… for lunch.
That’s when I learned some important words of wisdom: “You can not understand Russia with your mind…” There are different endings to that proverb, such as “you just need to love her” or “you just need to observe”. Both of those endings are pretty good, I think.
And so, now after more than 18 years of living in Russia, there are many things I don’t understand, but I still love and observe.
For example, it’s still difficult for me to understand how the short version of the name “Aleksandr” in Russian can be “Shurik”. Also, the short name for Evdokiya can be “Dusya”, but I digress. Because in English, we can call Margaret “Peggy”. So, get over it.
Also, I don’t always understand my wife, but that doesn’t mean I can’t love, observe, and still build relationship with her. But that’s a different story… right?
I was asked to go on a political talk show on Russia’s NTV channel. I had received some invitations before and never thought I would go on a political talk show. Some people think that NTV is a government controlled propaganda channel. Some people frown upon those people who go on political talk shows in Russia. Other folks have their views of Fox or CNN. But I went anyway.
We should look for any opportunity for dialog, even if it doesn’t fit our personal concept of an ideal conversational format.
The political talk show seemed surprised when I shared my view that America has made many mistakes in foreign affairs. The audience also seemed to like my point that sanctions are pointless and will not change Russia’s politics.
I then explained that Russia is speaking in a language that the American people don’t understand.
A security guard in Russia asked for my paperwork so that he could fill out the forms for my car to be parked in his jurisdiction. At the time, I didn’t have my Russian license, so I offered to help him fill out his papers. He said that this would not be necessary since he was studying English to which I could only reply, “Great!” There was then a long pause, and he asked, so your name is “Driver’s License”?
It’s hard to understand each other when we don’t speak the same language. Although perhaps the misunderstanding is on a level deeper than Russian or English.
This is what a Russian political talk show looks like:
By the way, America, you also are not speaking to Russia in a language that it understands. But I haven’t been invited to any American talk shows to explain that important point. In this instance, my task was to explain how the Russian people could speak to the American people in a way that would be understood.
“Why not form a group of volunteers and show the goodness and might of Russia by sending them to Houston to assist with hurricane relief?”
That’s what I suggested on the Russian political talk show. I must have explained myself poorly because I think I was completely misunderstood. They thought I was talking about a government relief program. I was thinking of Russian businessmen supporting a project, because I think Russian businessmen are interested in improved relations with America. I was picturing personal initiative not a government committee.
But the fact that I was misunderstood shows that we don’t understand each other. Will we ever understand each other? I honestly don’t know. I was raised, for example, to never expect money from the government, so it didn’t cross my mind to explain that my idea was not a government project.
My dear Russian friends, you live in a great country. Your cultural history and education are beyond anything that I have seen or experienced in America. You don’t need to have a complex about your nation.
And I have seen many examples of the might of Russia over the past 18 years. I remember in 1999, I was in a remote village in the Urals and hungry. There was no store in the small village. A local village woman pulled a large sack of potatoes out of her underground winter storage. These weren’t potatoes that she had bought, of course. These were potatoes that she had grown for her family during the short summer months. She handed me the sack. When I started to hand her some rubles she shook her head and said, “Have you lost your mind?” That’s power, and that’s Russia.
It seems I’m asked almost every day why I chose to live in Russia. Usually, I just say, “America has smooth roads and everybody is always smiling. Totally boring”.
Dear Russian Patriots, I would remind you that you live in Russia because you were born here. I live here because I love it here.
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked if my wife is Russian I could move from Mytischi to Rublevka (if you know what I mean). No she is not. The next question (or comment) is always, “Well then, you must be a spy?”
I then say, “Is Russia a great nation?” The answer is always, “Yes.” To which I reply, “…well if you believe Russia is a great nation, why don’t you believe that someone would want to come and live here?”
Speaking of drivers’ licenses, I have no idea why the American driving test is so easy and the Russian test is so difficult. For example, in Russia, you need to know what is the correct color of a rear anti-fog light in a motorcycle (and in what conditions you may turn it on). And then you get a driver’s license that gives you the right to drive a car but not a motorcycle. These are some of the things that I do not understand.
The sanctions aren’t working, but the USA seems to be following the principle “of doing the same thing and expecting a different result”.
To which I can only suggest that my Russian friends remember that “You can’t understand America with your mind… just love and observe”. Maybe the American cafeteria is closed for lunch. Just shrug your shoulders, smile, and don’t take it personally. And who knows, maybe you will get a new idea, like sending a group of volunteers to America.
Because like with my wife, you don’t have to always understand in order to find new ways to build relations.