Essay: Russian Culture

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Russian Culture

In a 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." This statement reflects a people whose vast nation has now stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific, enveloping hundreds of minority groups in the process. The Russian identity continues to mystify outsiders, and seems only know intuitively to Russians themselves. Yet, Russia has made substantial contributions to literature, art, ballet, music, architecture and language. The Russian people continue to hold influence over a vast section of the globe, ensuring the spread and survival of their distinct cultural heritage.

Ancient Russia consisted of a patchwork of feudal states. The most important cultural development in this period was the conversion of Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, to Orthodox Christianity in 989. The religion soon diffused across Kievan Rus. The next significant event was the Mongol invasion of Rus, which was finalized by Batu Khan between 1237-1240. The Mongol period is seen by Russians almost as a sacrifice they made, living under the "Tatar yoke" while the rest of Europe flourished. During the Mongol period, many political systems begun that were continued when Russians regained rule of their country. One of the major impacts of the Mongol era, as espoused by Russians, is the destructive of old codes of behavior and ethics that had governed daily life. These were replaced with systems of torture, capital punishment and a general disregard for human life.

The Mongols, known as the Golden Horde, were succeeded by a number of khanates and a renewed Muscovy. Following the Grand Duchy was the tsarist period, which saw a flourishing of Russian culture, especially literature and architecture. This period saw significant European influences, particularly with the building of St. Petersburg by major European architects. The fall of the Tsarist Empire brought about significant social upheaval. The Communists remain the most significant factor in Russian culture today. They disrupted the fabric of society with purges and resettlements. The gulag system and NKVD undermined Russians' trust in one another. Religion was nearly totally abolished. Life shifted from one based on subsistence agriculture and rural tradition to one based on industry and planned cities. The leaders of Russian culture at the time were the revolutionaries, rather than the artists, and it was seen almost as a cultural rite of passage to be imprisoned (Solzhenitsyn, 1973). When Communism fell, Russia experienced yet another seismic cultural shift, towards more openness and Western values. The unique nature of Russian culture is a complex distillation of all of these major historical events, each one contributing to the character of the modern Russian.

Social Group Interaction

Russians are generally sociable with close friends and family, if a little nervous about strangers. The latter derives from the Communist era, when it was difficult to trust anybody with whom a long-term relationship had not been forged. Outside of tightly-bonded relationships, Russians often do not trust one another. This attitude towards social interaction manifests itself even in business. Russians need to establish trust, often over years. Russians have little trust with regards to oral agreements, and often do not trust contracts either, as the rule of law can be questionable. Part of these stems from a core value that relations are more important than results, which in turn relates to a general view that the individual has little control over his or her circumstances (Bergelson, 2003).

Russians have a long-standing belief in egalitarianism. This was borne of necessity during feudal times, but also stems from the medieval mestnichestvo system and Tsarist times. Mestnichestvo was a social structure that emerged in the post-Mongol era and placed status on family history rather than on ability. Though this social practice waned, Tsarist rule was another example of birthrite being more important than ability. The Bolshevik Revolution reflected the distaste of the Russian people for such non-egalitarian systems, as for centuries they had relied on one another for survival. Today, the pendulum is beginning to swing away from egalitarianism, as capitalism's emphasis on individual success gains importance in Russian society.

Values

Russian values have proven difficult for scholars to pin down. In terms of gender, Russians generally value strength and boldness in men; intelligence and beauty in women. For example, the popularity ratings for Vladimir Putin improved when he cracked down on Chechen rebels (Zurcher, 2007), a move that was unpopular anywhere else in the world.

Other key Russian values include emotionality, judgmentalness, and a sense of lack of control (Bergelson, 2003). Emotionality is reflected in the Russian communication style. Russians value directness, in terms of expressing both positive and negative emotions. This is also reflected in Russia's use of nicknames to reduce social distance. Russians tend to rely on absolute judgment - they are quick to ascribe values to individuals and will often use one incident to establish a person's character. Lack of control over the world is another key Russian attribute, wherein Russians typically do not view themselves as having the ability to control their circumstances. This view has been built from the Golden Horde through mestnichestvo through the Communist dictatorship.

Yet, Russians also strongly value ethical evaluation. This is perhaps paradoxical given the judgmental nature of Russian people, but Russians feel free to develop their own ethical systems. At the core of this value is the Russian value of freedom. Russians typically prefer to live outside the boundaries of strict rules and regulations, believing that they are best equipped to handle their own affairs. The lawlessness found in the early post-Communist years is a manifestation of this belief. However, this view contrasts with the admiration of strong authority, adding a layer of complexity to the Russian character.

Family Life

In recent years, the concept of family has deteriorated in importance in Russia. This has been attributed to the increase in individualism and egoism. The family today is often considered an outdated institution among younger Russians. Evidence shows that Russians are marrying later. There was a shift in the 90s towards women as the main breadwinners, but many Russian women today have rebelled against that shift, one of the reasons why marriage is taking place later in life. Birthrates are also down, such that one child is common today. This has been guided by economic considerations, as the wage to cost-of-living ratio has worsened for many urban Russians. With the birth rate far below what is needed to sustain the population (1.25 births per woman as opposed to the 2.15 needed), the Russian government has been forced to offer incentives for starting families (Sobolevskaya, 2003).

In past, Russians had a stronger family unit. During both peasant times and Communist times, housing was in relatively short supply so family members not only lived in small residences but children stayed long into adulthood. Russian built a family culture based on dependence. Families were not particularly large, but they were forced by circumstance to be close throughout their entire lives. Furthermore, families were important for the development of social connections, particularly during the Soviet era when trust of outsiders was scarce.

Language

Russian is an eastern Slavic language, along with Ukrainian and Belarussian. It is related more distantly to the other Slavic languages found in Eastern Europe. The Russian alphabet is a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet. It was introduced to Russia when Vladimir the Great converted to Orthodox Christianity, in which it was the alphabet of choice. Pronunciation has never been guided by rules, it was always something the speaker "just knew." As such, standard pronunciation only appeared in the 20th century via mass entertainment and broadcast media (Comrie, et al., 1996).

Russian language has been influenced in several ways. One influence has been the contribution of structures from the Finno-Ugric language group. Many Finno-Ugric languages exist among groups native to Russia. Many European languages made significant contributions to Russian vocabulary during the Tsarist period, which saw a substantial influence of European culture on Russian high society.

The 20th century has seen significant changes to the Russian language. At the outset of the century, Russian replaced Church Slavonic as the main religious language and became the language of the courts and political debate. With these changes, the language increased in stature substantially and significant developments were made with respect to vocabulary. It also became the language of all forms of entertainment, which coupled with mass education allowed the use of the language by a more far diverse group of people (Comrie, et al., 1996). Essentially, this transition resulted in the full-scale maturation of the Russian language from a peasant tongue to the globally relevant language we see today.

One characteristic of Russian language is the abundance of active emotional verbs. This reflects the Russian trend to emotionality by providing a multitude of means for expressing ones present state of mean. Russian language also contains an abundance of nouns expressing absolute moral judgment. These nouns are used to describe a person as a moral type, rather than using adjectives to describe a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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