Pre-trip reading

If you are heading here with intentions more involved that  a few business meetings or doing the Red-Square-Bolshoi-Lenin’s-Tomb-Novodevichy-Sergiev-Posad routine it may be worth it to try to understand how and what we Russians are made of.

May I once again recommend Painted in Blood: Understanding Europeans by Stuart Miller. Although he muses about Europeans from the American viewpoint his observations can be easily applied to understand Russians.

The book’s been on my “essential reading” shelf for some time, thanks to Fred W. who procured it for me, among with Brodsky’s Less Than One, and The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering by Rancour-Laferriere, and Leaving Katia by Paul Greenberg.

(One of Leaving Katya’s chapter was written when the author was staying at my place about 2001-2002, when it was still $40/night.)

What triggered me to add Painted in Blood to this guide was an encounter with a Russian bride seeker from France who displayed the style of an inhabitant of a castle surrounded by enemies. A string of superlatives to describe himself (the modern equivalent of flags), unthinkably crude even by Russian standards putdowns towards me (again, an echo of the medieval pre-fight ritual), an offer of a remarkably small amount called “good money” for a nearly-undoable task (whatever the lord throws to the servant is by definition “good”), and an offence at my issuing advice (another vestige of rigidly stratified society).

I recall another Frenchman who made me a “generous proposal” that consisted of a $50 job (whatever coins the lord throws to a servant, it is “generous” because the servant is meant to serve, and being paid is a bonus, totally at master’s discretion). And yet another one who went out of his way to collect evidence to add “Sir” to his name, and already made this title part of his e-mail address. The latter did pay in full (generosity again) for 3-4 days of archive work but then disappeared without providing any clues. I should look him up and remind him that I’m still ready to travel to St. Peters to do the job but need names, addresses, and years..

To understand Russia, make a correction for the fact that there were no castles here as a universal part of landscape, physical and cultural, and the enemy could come from anywhere, including from within your family. A European – and French and Germans perhaps embody the essence of European character – has his castle, his guild, his family, his church, his tiny plot of land, his neighbourhood tavern, or at least his person that can’t be touched except through a long and involved legal process.  For a Russian this safe territory is much smaller and less stable. If war of all against all is what shaped the European character, then Russians are the most sensu malo European of them all. A Russian can expect a friend or an enemy from anywhere, thus the notorious “instability”. From a large pendulum’s point of view the small one is indeed unstable although both behave according to one law.

I’d better stop or else my personal censor Alexandra will tell me that I’m chasing clients away. “Vyyebyvayeshsya” is the verb she’s use. Still, make a note of Painted in Blood by Stuart Miller. Another edition, possibly abridged, is in circulation as Understanding Europeans. It’s to the point and reads easily. Those who don’t mind “real” literature should consider Brodsky’s essays but these certainly are not “easy”. Events that shaped Russia are not as remote as those that made Europe what it is..


Something to add?