What truly is Russia, its controversial culture explained

Andrei Grigoriev
14 min readAug 31, 2022

I don’t think this civilisation has ever been more mislead than in this crisis of today. The land, the culture, the blood I belong to — Russia — is in the middle of this perverted nonsense.

I don’t want to comment on why does the world we call ‘western’ is in such a frenzy and rage towards Russia. There are people who belong to those respective cultures who will do it much better that I. I will comment on what is Russia. As I witness it through living here and being immersed in this fully with my body and open heart for nearly 5 decades.

Why do I dare to offer this to the world? My best teachers and mentors are obviously of Slavic, but then of German, Dutch, English and Swiss origin. The depth and clarity of their consciousness helped me mature and shape my life path. And now I witness this profound disconnect — the headlines in mass western media vs the true advance in civilisation that I so much respect and cared for.

For most part of my adult life I’ve worked for Anglo-Saxon, French and some Eastern corporations and had many professional and personal liaisons with Germany and the Netherlands. I then understand languages other than my native and therefore witness how much untruth is pouring out of media machines and speaking heads. I modestly offer this sincere outlook that would debunk many things, all from the inside of the country you hear so much about these days.

So, let’s begin with..

Russia is not a Soviet Union

I was born and raised in the former and now live in the latter. Yes, there is some cultural heritage but it’s not at all the same thing. Russia is democratic, there is freedom, it is religious (even spiritual to a great extent which is not the same thing), state is powerful and supports a great wise deal of various initiatives. One of those positive Soviet residues is that there are myriads of cultures and languages all across the country and they all coexist with each other in a remarkably friendly and harmonious manner. No, you can’t compare it with the West as there have never been any colonies even on this boundless territory. Yes, slavery until late 19th century, but no colonies. With so many ethnic groups one didn’t overhang the other. At least during last many centuries. Slavs mixed up with Tatars in the middle of the country, with Mogols in the East, with Caucasians in the South not counting all other smaller ethnic groups. And unless provoked from the outside it does work out well, all, together. Note separately that religiously it’s all as varied as the larger continent we all inhabit. The western part is predominantly Orthodox Christian, the big part in the middle and in the South it mostly Muslim, the land on the East of Baikal lake is Buddhist. The North and Far East is a mixture, predominantly Christian.

Screenshot of Buddhist center website to the East of Baikal

There were very turbulent times in early 90s and it went into the early 21th century but this is over. It’s a solid state now where you can do whatever you like, pray any god, do any business, travel anywhere, eat and drink whatever suits best, choose bread from Belarus or have Russian local, pick up darkening avocado from South America in any store, have premium Chinese tea delivered to your home like it would be, say, in south of England.

No wars, no major complaints but co-existence. The news you watch has nothing or very little to do with reality. Cause the entire land is friendly and hospitable. When the madness fades please come and witness. It’s worth it ‘cause..

Russia is extremely hospitable

This is very emotional and difficult to deliver as a concept. You have to come and live this through. I’ve been to many places in the world. Never seen anything like this. Russians don’t greet you with a smile as Americans artificially do (but except for reception people in international hotels nor does a French or a German). And this is worth it − be real. Russians don’t play with the smile like western world does. But if a Russian smiles this means you have an eternal connection and you can rely on it. Local folk tales reflect this. Even we, modern Russians baked in western sauce, barely handle the idea of giving up your bed in favour of any guest. But this is so persistent in those old stories that it can’t be a misunderstanding. And that’s the kind of attitude you still get when you go down to closer relationships with Russians. But when you plan a trip and pack you bags beware that..

Russia is mostly in the North and therefore is (very) cold

We don’t have bears walking in the streets as some still believe but overall the winter lasts 4–5 months of the year and the rest is shortened spring-summer-autumn. If you speak with a Russian and say “winter” for him it means “snow”.

If you take a closer look at the globe you’ll notice that the parallel where Russia starts to end on its South around 45 parallel — it is where the United States begins — Seattle in the West and Maine in the East. So we are nowhere comparable with the US and in fact with no other place on the planet.

Yes, you may say, Northern Europe is also at North. But both Oslo (Norway) and area around Stockholm (Sweden) — where people mostly live — rarely freeze in winter thanks to the influence of warm Gulfstream. It then begins to fade further to the East and Helsinki (Finland) freezes visibly more. Saint-Petersburg is even further to the right and the warm impact of African-born flow of water is barely noticeable there. Not to mention the rest of the country on 60 parallel. Look at the population of Northern Europe — it’s little over 20 mln combined — and the overwhelming majority lives in the south. Really few live in the North — 2 humans per square kilometre. Look at western side of Russia. 5 mln alone live in Saint-Petersburg + 2 mln in the area around it which makes this ambiguous land the coldest most inhabitable place on Earth. In then Leningrad where I grew up (which today is Saint-Petersburg) in 80s I recall us having -30 degrees Celsius (-22F) regularly and this didn’t surprise anyone. We put more clothes on and walked to school. We can spice it up with almost a million living in extreme north of Russia — Murmansk area alone — the place where the sun doesn’t rise for a month in December and never sets in June. Guess what’s the weather across the Polar Circle around Christmas? You better not know. Guess the temperature of northern seas? It’s minus 1,7 degrees. Doesn’t freeze because it’s very salty.

Saint-Petersburg in December

The further you go into the East of the country the more it freezes. Follow this parallel to North America and you’ll be surprised to see that people just don’t inhabit this latitude over there. Too uncomfortable? Not for Russians.

In most of Siberian cities you have snowfalls so strong that unless you have the beeping alarm you won’t locate your car in the morning. And then you’ll spend some 30 min digging it out of the snowdrift. And often this appears to be your neighbours car, shit. But even then it’s not a big issue ‘cause..

Old local car after the snowfall

Russians are very inventive and very tenacious

I won’t elaborate much on this. Just think on what it takes to live in extreme cold for 6 months in a row and it becomes self explanatory.

One of many hand-made helicopters

Russian language reflects the culture

The language I now use to write this turned out to be one of easiest and simplest grammatically and in syntax, hence to learn. It might have been more complex but it lost this complexity. There are no genders (masculine and feminine), no cases, forms of participles and adverbs are all very simple, almost never change, only the third person address changes the verb by adding ’s’ at the end − “runs” vs “run”.

Russian instead has three genders, six cases, all of them and all 1–2–3 person forms changes the verb + plural form has another syntax impact. This concerns not only nouns but adjectives as well. We use comma sign 10 times as much and the rules are pretty strict. If you happen to speak French or German you know that the former has two genders and the latter − three, like Russian. But it’s nowhere comparable in the all other aspects — particularly the endings of nouns and adjectives based on cases.

Ukrainian, Belorussian and Russian use Cyrillic alphabet which roots mostly into Ancient Greek, little Latin but also into very ancient Slavic script. But the latter is still not the part of official story, even today. Other Slavic languages towards the Balkans, although very common grammatically, use Latin letters (except for Bulgaria).

Russian is very descriptive, some say. While English is the language of action. Yep, we and other Slavic languages only have three tenses: Past, Present, Future. And it’s always difficult to explain to Russian kids why do you need to have 14 or 12 tenses to deliver you idea. But I agree that Russian is reflective and should add that this world really lacks a bit of reflection and it’s probably too much in action, often missing the depth and the reason other than money.

If you happen to learn Russian and try reading the original of some of the local classics it would be like drinking the 150 euro wine from the crystal glass after having a sip from a plastic cup.

But Russian as language is not unique in this sense which brings me to..

The major crisis of the Slavic world

Well, sensitive topic. How do you think we truly interrelate with people most of you would have had difficulty finding on the map, say, 10 years ago? Russians en mass treat those we call Ukrainians as brothers. In fact closer than anyone on the planet except Belorussians who are felt at the same degree of closeness, culturally and ethnically. If you look into sociodemographic data like life expectancy you’ll still find three counties in the group closer than any other on Earth.

“u-krai” literally means “by the side” or “at the edge”. So you can’t outflank it. It’s the land at the side of our common land.

You would hardly find an ethnic Russian who wouldn’t have direct blood relatives in Ukraine or Belarus. I tried. Never worked. 3–4 generations ago we have all been rooted in those geographies. Quarter of my blood line originates from what today is Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine. Other 3 quarters feed from the border with Ukraine, the North of Russia and the border with Kazakhstan. Thanks to 20th century we are so mixed up here that it’s again like no any other nation on the planet.

I had a spine injury last year and spent few months traveling across the country from one rehabilitation center to the other. So I met many new people outside of my usual circles. First month I spent in Crimea. The national identity of staff in local hospital is obvious: few Tatar, some Ukrainians and mostly Russians. You can always distinguish a Tatar by his face, peculiar name, often difficult to pronounce. It’s impossible to distinguish Ukrainian from a Russian, nor by the look, nor by the name. Surnames of Ukrainians often end with an “o”. But it’s so common across Russia to see those names that you don’t react at all. You can only guess by the somewhat peculiar accent, by how Ukrainians pronounce the letter “g” in “go” — they tend to say something like “ho”. This is common in both western and eastern Ukraine, even where they don’t speak Ukrainian at all.

I then traveled to a place in Moscow area. Out of, say, 12 people who worked with me directly four were Ukrainians, one from Belarus, one Tatar lady, two Uzbek that leaves me with what, four Russians including one who grew up in Moldova right on the border with Ukraine. Any difference between Russian and Ukrainian? Again, the “o” in the surname and the “h” in conversation. People and cultures are so interrelated that, well, good luck with a grin to those who try to untie this.

I recall myself being around 8 years of age, in mid 80s, visiting Kiev (capital of Ukraine) with my mother. That was the same cradling feeling of motherhood as I felt in my home town — Leningrad, even more at home than in Moscow at that age.

I had been there, in Kiev, many times since and recall how sharply this have all changed around 2013–2014. I landed in Kiev later in 2015 and while walking through the passport control the local officer took me out of the line, brought me into the room to start interrogating. He used Ukrainian language only, which we mostly understand if spoken slowly. But he intentionally didn’t want me to understand. He tried to humiliate me which didn’t work as I never lost this feeling of brotherhood in my heart. I honestly shared this with him, he went puzzled, paused and had nothing to do but to just let me go.

That moment though had shown me that something went really wrong. The place — Kiev — that for 400 years had been a capital for what we call Russia today is under a big threat. Go figure out for yourself who did this, why and how it’s been done. CIA archives of 1940s and 1950s are now open for the most part. Just look for Ukraine as keyword — you’ll be surprised if you haven’t figured out the rules of the game already.

There’s now a whole generation of my blood brothers brought up in hate and rage towards me. It’s painful. But it’s not first time we witness this. Ghandi and his people paid similar price with Pakistan back in 40s. Painful. Yugoslavian people paid the bloody price in 90s. Painful.

In Slavic world we are kind of used to have those challenges and then wounds healed, although this time it may take a couple of generations. But it’s all feasible. And the healing is worth. We always healed otherwise there would be no Russia today and, consequently, no Ukraine “at the edge” etc.

My big discovery over last years is that the big crisis like this is always provoked from the outside. And please note that I don’t blame anyone and encourage readers to reflect and not to blame neither. To me it feels like this époque of artificial dominance of one nation over the other is coming to its final dead end. The new era will be driven by something else, in fact by what the western world already has written in Constitutions or other books of Supreme Law. It’s just the matter of attending to this honestly and with an open heart.

The controversial century and the role of Russia

Looking back at last 100 years I, we all, must admit that this land went through so much suffering, so much pain, so much blood was spilled that one may think that we kind of redeemed the debts for the entire planet. Cause the planet had never seen anything like that before, at least since the last Ice Age. And I pray that it won’t see anything like that in the future.

To be honest I wrote a lot of text on how and why so many Slavic lives were lost in first half of 20s century. But I finally don’t want to share this. If you insist Wikipedia will do it with more detail and will be more factual. What I want to shift to is a positive side, what are lessons to learn and move on from that.

There’s a beautiful book by a renown soviet historian who researched last 1000 years and detailed all wars this land has suffered. I remember this feeling in a plane heading to Vladivostok from Moscow. All those 9 hours (that’s one hour more than the flight to New York) with book in my hands and I have trembling in my knees realising the scale of never ending tension.

Russia is definitely unkillable. So many tried, never worked. This may mean that it has a big role to play in a global game of awakening. Some philosophers tried to foresee this already in late 19th century both in Russia and in Germany. But there is no single secular point that I could share to put things in order — what’s the role of Russia in all that? I think if we had one it would already be spoken out. So I’ll leave it here: Russia with its tiny 2% of contribution to the world population has a dimensionally bigger role to play globally. Relative to the size of its landmass. I’ll be looking further into what it is — this role. And will share if I figure it out.

Dmitrov Sobor in Vladimir

Alcohol is not a true local culture

The best way to check if a particular cultural aspect has true roots is to look into the folk stories and fairy tales. Well, you won’t find any mention of strong alcohol in any of them. Although there are multiple mentions of light beers and similar types of drinks. But not 40+ degree concentrations. This deciphers the story in a pretty straightforward manner − the alcohol culture is young and does not belong here. It all started with “westernisation” in early 18th century in times of Peter the Great, that’s when Saint-Petersburg was founded and later became capital.

Russians seem to physiologically not being able to handle strong alcohol. Most of other eastern ethnic group have similar body reactions. And this is in sharp contrast to Caucasian ethnic groups, particularly those across the mountains to the south — Georgians, Armenians — who happen to easily handle both light and strong alcohol concentrations.

The culture around drinks seems to be very sensitive to what the head of the state tends to feel and how he acts. Vladimir Putin is a fit athletic man for whom alcohol is an alien. Hence the decline in consumption across the country despite all marketing efforts from the industry.

I expect the drinking story to fade away sooner or later. As do all artificial culture inventions.

Russians happen to have the best sense of humour

This is the consequence of struggle to survive. After what those people been through how else would you keep the chin high. You laugh. So we do. We laugh at ourselves first and carefully at the others.

One of Russian best comics, Yury Nikulin, at the end of his life the head of Moscow circus, used to tell jokes even at the highest state assemblies in 80s and 90s. This is one of them:

Two nuclear missiles meet up in the stratosphere.

– Where are you headed?

– To your land of course. And what’s your target?

– Your land obviously.

– Good thing we met, let’s have a glass.

So they have a first drink.

– Look, if I explode, it’s suicidal, I won’t fly anymore..

– Yep, me too then. Let’s have a drink for the repose.

Another glass.

– Well, I have to go, finally says the American.

– Let’s then have a glass of goodbye.

And they have a third glass.

– Oh, I feel blurred.

– Don’t worry, says the Russian picking the new friend up under the arm, I’ll follow you home.

I’ll end or maybe pause here. Let’s see what the world thinks of my heartfelt confession. Maybe there are some other roads to explore so that we smile and virtually hug to ease the mind blowing tension we happen to witness.

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