In the previous post I dealt with “russification,” or the ways in which we as a family have become more a part of our Russian culture and surroundings. Unfortunately, I ran out of time and my own self-imposed space limitations for a conclusion. So I wanted to write a brief “wrap-up,” summarizing what russification looks like personally here in our world of small town Russia.
First, in the simple practical aspects of life it means watching my little boy’s eyes light up when he sees a big bowl of fresh fruit in the winter, and being truly grateful for it as he picks one variety and then another. It’s the simple pleasure of putting cold sour cream over a smoking hot plate of pelmeni. On the other hand, it is walking up five flights of stairs with two large containers of water with a backpack filled with four bottles of milk on your back, determined not to show weakness by stopping and resting. It is distracting yourself on the ascent by thinking and wondering about the person who built those steps. What was life like then? Did they believe that as they finished those steps they were helping build a better industrialized and communal life? Did they see the labor of their hands as contributing to the realization of Lenin’s dream? Or were they just trying to get through the day and get home safely?
In relationships and social settings russification is learning to talk about things that matter. It’s forgoing the small talk until you know a person well enough to talk about the things that are truly meaningful. It’s reading Russian history and of those who suffered in this country for “opening up” to the wrong person—and paying the price. Then when you want to chat casually with Russian people you do not really know, you understand the “history of their silence” and you are far less likely to dismiss them simply as “unfriendly.” And that makes you all the more appreciative of Russian friends who honor you—an AMERICAN—by telling you about their lives, their personal histories and aspirations. They have “verified,” and now they trust you.
You also find yourself both defending and cursing Russia. So many reports, articles, and news clips day after day portraying life here in such a negative way. And you know from the content the authors are completely ignorant of what life really is like here. The political reports on this place—the place you and your family live—demonize Putin, Russia, the whole society here in order to achieve a political goal in America. Russia is just a political football in their “more significant” Western world. They aren’t trying to understand Russia; their villification is from a darker place. Strangely, you feel offended by their lies, like they have attacked you and your family. One of “my worlds” wants to destroy the other. But then you have to walk to the market on a sheet of ice, and being from South Carolina, it is not your finest hour. You fear the shame of being the American whose feet went flying. You now feel Russia itself is against you, and “the Russians” are all waiting for your moment of humiliation. Reading of the experiences of Napoleon’s army or the Nazis I should’ve realized – Russia is not always hospitable to foreigners in winter. Foolhardy perhaps, but I continue to press—or slide—on.
In matters of faith russification is standing in a Russian Orthodox Church in a small village, which has a beauty that defies its drab, cold, grey surroundings outside. Standing there (never sitting!), listening to beautiful singing with no instruments to guide the melody. There is no hype, no drama, no performances. It is worship stripped bare of the barnacles of modernity. Then we say the “Symbol of Faith.” All the voices expressing the historic confession of faith from hundreds of years ago. All of those voices are in Church Slavonic—except yours. You quietly say the English, under your breath, while you are listening carefully to the Slavonic so you are speaking with them. You want to say what they are saying, but of necessity “in a foreign tongue.” It means a lot of pauses. Slavonic takes longer than English. In the “mystery of faith,” you realize what is going on here is not about me; and it’s not limited to any people or country or any language. It is worship. Russification means you don’t feel so much like an outsider in those moments.