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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Personal reflections as an American in Russia: "Россия – любимая наша страна"

"The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths." -A. S. Pushkin

This blog has been quiet for a number of weeks, but not because I have lost interest in the topics. I recently returned from a month-long trip to Russia, where I was able to visit with my new family as well as see many sites within the country. Having settled back in to my home in the U.S., I hope to continue writing here about various geological wonders, but with a new sense of global awareness. Adjusting to the new culture was an exhausting experience, to be sure, but I don’t regret a moment of it. In fact, I look forward to returning to Russia in the future for a more permanent stay—that is, on a sort of “green-card equivalent” status as I develop a research project in paleoclimatology within continental Russia.

Before I arrived to the country, I was well aware of the decaying American image abroad, and thus I was cautious—almost petrified—to speak to anyone I didn’t know, whether in English or in Russian. “How will they treat me if they recognize me as a foreigner, let alone an American?” Months before trip, I had read about nationalism in Russia (Moscow in particular), in which the author advised against speaking English loudly or in public [note: the article was written by a Russian, toward prospective teachers of English abroad]. Hoping to error on the side of caution, I took the advice and accorded my perception of the general public in Russia.

Within a couple days, however, I realized that despite my “research”, the prejudgment was naïve and unfounded.

Whenever a Russian citizen discovered that I was from America, their persona immediately shifted, divulging an amenable eagerness to represent their country with honor and gain my respect. In a nutshell, I was treated as visiting royalty, and the experience was both humbling and encouraging. On the trip to Moscow, my wife and I were seated next to complete strangers from Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and Armenia—all of whom worked in Moscow but were meeting an American for the first time. Even when political topics arose—through which I was assured that the American economy would collapse when we lost our ability to make unlawful war against developing countries with no viable defenses—the outspoken strangers applied no guilt by association and welcomed me as a friend (even sharing their dinner with me). Notwithstanding any truth or error to their political assessments, my point is that they were able to distinguish in practice between America the geopolitical empire and the American individual, who, like themselves, cannot be reduced to caricatures.

For this alone, I discovered more nobility in an economy-class train car to Moscow than in the average American university.

But it didn’t end there. One day, I walked my brother-in-law to school (3rd grade). On the way home, I was alone and attempting to keep to myself. As I passed the bus stop, a man (some 30-years-old, with a lit cigarette in hand) tried to stop me with a question. Not anticipating the context, I was unable to put the sentence together at first—“Добратся... автовус... рублей...”—but later realized he was asking me to help with his bus fare. Taking my mother-in-law’s advice, I responded in English: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Unfortunately, the man didn’t recognize it as English and gave me a confused look. Not wanting to insult him, I responded in Russian: “I’m sorry, I am an American, I didn’t understand what you said. Could you please repeat yourself?” His countenance changed at once, as a warm smile appeared on his face. He dropped the question and said nothing more. Instead, he opened his arms and gave me a hug before proceeding to the bus stop.

What is the lesson? Perhaps I am not qualified to say, so I would encourage you to take my anecdotal reflection as you see fit. In concluding my thoughts, however, I cannot help but to mention how disturbed I was to hear the news of the bombing at Domodedovo, given my positive experience abroad. Though I would not have been directly affected by the explosion, I cannot escape the erie sense that I left the city less than 24 hours before such an unspeakable tragedy took place. I do not wish to engage in political discussion over the reasons behind the attack, or theological discussion over the ability of human arrogance to degrade into such grand delusion (which, in my opinion, is the psychological prerequisite for a suicide-bombing). Rather, I can only express my (seemingly trivial) condolences, while praying that justice would come to those responsible and comfort to those affected. I cannot imagine how America would have reacted to the same event, had it occurred in Dulles or Reagan, but I think it speaks volumes to the strength of the Russian spirit that officials were able to maintain control and order in the airport, which remained in service throughout the day.

Of course, even a brief historical synopsis of challenges to the Russian people (and their response) would sufficiently undermine any reasonable expectation to the contrary. I feel more blessed every day for my connection to this wonderful nation.

P.S. If anyone knows the source/original Russian for the quote I cited at the top, I would greatly appreciate it. Though I’ve enjoyed struggling through some of Pushkin’s work in his own language, I did not come across this one firsthand.

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