Sometimes close friends and my wife discuss the degree to which I (and our family) have become “russified.” We use the term in an informal, “loose” manner. In a more formal and academic sense it goes back to how those outside the boundaries of Russia (or Old Rus) changed—or were made to change—their manner of life and culture to be more “Russian.” In his latest book, The Romanovs: 1613-1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore stated that after the Romanovs came to power in 1613, the Russian Empire increased in size by 55 square miles (142 square km) per day. That is 20,000 square miles per year! By the end of the nineteenth century, when the era of the dynasty was drawing to a close, the Romanovs ruled over 1/6 of the earth’s surface. Obviously, a lot of “tribes, tongues, and people” had become Russian. Countries and cultures who were “russified” were less likely to rebel. Russification at that time focused on language and religion, but it included much more.
After the Romanov dynasty, Russia became the largest and most significant republic in the Soviet Union. In Autopsy of an Empire Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, states that in order to prevent the regions from cooperating with one another against Moscow, national groups—especially Russians and Ukrainians were “relocated” and scattered throughout the Republics. (Ukrainians were essentially regarded as Russian at that time.) This dispersion ensured a “Russian presence” throughout the USSR. It also helped in spreading Russian culture and language to the republics. While there was no law forcing the people of the other republics to learn the Russian language, at a practical level in order to advance professionally or educationally one had to know Russian. So both during the Romanov period and the Soviet period, one needed to be “russified,” i.e., adopt the ways of Russian culture—at least to some degree—for a more fulfilling life.
Now things are different. There is no Russian kingdom spreading further across Eurasia; there is no Soviet Empire forcing anyone to adopt Russian ways. So what about those of us who have willingly come here? How has our family life and how have I, an American living in Russia, consciously or subconsciously adopted to life here? What are factors in “russification” for a family like us who lives in a small Russian city? I emphasize that I am talking about life in a small town. This reflection is just one middle class family who moved from a small town in the US to a small town in Russia. I’m sure my counterparts in larger cities have different experiences.
Food. Of course, food is somewhat different in Russia than America, although not in an extreme way. Sometimes it is the same or similar food but prepared differently. This past week Oksana returned from shopping and had been able to purchase a variety of fruit. When Gabriel came in from school his face lit up when he saw the fruit. While eating it he commented about three times on how delicious it was. It is not that we never get fruit here in winter. But you cannot always get a big variety. While living in the warm climate of South Carolina Gabriel (and all of us) took fruit for granted. Then yesterday Oksana made a fresh salad and made homemade Italian dressing to go on it. We all thoroughly enjoyed it! Again, it is not that we seldom get fresh veggies here – just less variety in winter time. And, of course, anyone can make homemade Italian dressing in America just as easily as in Russia. (I’m aware there are many Americans who make their own dressing). But the motivation is not as strong when you have several shelves of all kinds of dressings at the local grocery store. Again our choices are more limited here. We have learned to appreciate these things in a way we did not appreciate in America. We took things for granted.
On the other hand, we live within easy walking distance of the open market, and we all love the fresh produce, dairy products, and meat we can buy there in the warmer months. Eating “all natural” or organic here is much easier (and cheaper!) during the warm months than in America. Further, Oksana is one of those people who can taste something and figure out how to prepare a dish of it. Her creativity flourishes here. The market is small, and I’ve gotten to know the vendors we buy from regularly. We had a farmers market in South Carolina, but it was large and most folks came in cars. Here most people walk to the market and buy from local folks and friends.
My own eating habits have changed since I’ve been living in Russia. I never ate sour cream much before Russia. I would put it on baked potato. That was it. Now, I eat it in soups, on pelmeni (pasta with meat inside), and various and sundry other foods. I eat it more than Oksana, who says I eat it on things most Russians don’t. (Russians do not put it in fish soup, but I do.) I also love kolbasa, a kind of Russian sausage, on a slice of Russian bread with cheese. The cheeses we get at the market are fresh, and I eat a lot more cheese than I ever have. Cheeses and breads are different from what I ate in America. Again, I’m not saying you can’t get really fresh and natural cheeses or fresh baked bread in America. I just didn’t have the motivation to search them out, and they always cost more. Here fresh cheeses and breads are “the norm.” I could not go back to eating Sunbeam or any of those processed breads now. And there is no way I could go back to Campbell’s canned soup. Salty and flavorless. My palate has become Russified.
Buying food is also different. Since we walk to and from the open market and grocery stores, we’ve become accustomed to carrying our groceries home. I never go to the grocery store or market without my backpack. In America we tried to carry as many of those plastic bags of groceries from the car into our house without having to return the 40 feet for a second trip. If we filled up the back of our Kia with food, then we had to sacrifice and make more than one trip from the driveway to the kitchen. Here we keep an eye on how much we buy because we must carry it home and walk up five flights of stairs to our apartment. Our refridgerator is smaller here, too, so we’ve just adjusted to more trips to the store during the week.
Space. Our storage space is also more limited. We do not have an attic or huge walk-in closet to store “off season” clothing, décor, etc. So we have fewer clothes and “stuff” in general. I think it is just a part of American life to accumulate a bunch of clothes and other things you don’t need. For us russification means we don’t live like that. You can’t. When winter was coming Oksana asked me what new clothes I needed. I said I didn’t NEED anything so we aren’t buying anything. You buy what you need. Nothing more.
Another impact of living in a small apartment is that not everyone has their own “space.” The boys do not have separate bedrooms. They adjusted with no problems. That was a surprise. You don’t get the space for “alone” time. Family life is—to say it in a good way–”togetherness.” Really together. All the time! I miss the small study I had in America. I could close that door and read in quiet. Now, I get up really early and go read in our living room. With a nine year old and a three year old, if I don’t read before they get up it will be very difficult to read at all. I have adapted. I read very early. Then I do things that don’t require total quiet, like practicing my Russian, later in the day.
Social. Social relationships are also different. As I have indicated before, I take long brisk walks around town. Last week I had to stop at the crosswalk for the light to change. I was standing next to a gentlemen about my age. We had just had a nice snow. My Russian is good enough for small talk, so I had this strong urge to say something about the weather or the traffic or anything! We stood there and said nothing while waiting for the long light to change. That would not happen in small town America. Americans chat. We can chat for quite a while about nothing significant. That’s how we get to know each other. Russians are comfortable with quiet. Even when we are with people we know, we don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes Americans visiting Russia think Russians are unfriendly. That is not it. It is a simple cultural difference. If there’s a need to say something, then they do. Otherwise, enjoy the quiet.
Holidays and Holy Days. As we approach Christmas we are aware of other cultural and religious differences. The main difference is that we are Russian Orthodox so our Christmas Eve is January 6. Russian Orthodox Christians follow the Julian, not Gregorian, calendar, since it was the calendar used at the time of Christ. On December 25 I’ll be teaching a class. But the difference in date is not the biggest difference. We shop for gifts for close friends here just like in America. (I’m using “we” in the traditional male “collective” sense. I am one of those men who has to wait till my friends open their presents to know what “I” bought them. Oksana enjoys shopping, and I enjoy not shoppng. It works out.) There are socials and parties, but in Russia New Years is the really, really big holiday. The giving of gifts, etc., is about New Years. Christmas is specifically Christian. It is not a cultural holiday like in America. We loved our parties and friends at Christmas in America. Nothing like it! But every American knows you have to fight to keep your focus on what Christmas is about. In another sense, I like the Russian holiday better. The “secular” stuff is for New Years. Christmas is about faith and the celebration of the Incarnation.
So we have more time for family readings and activities that focus on that. As Orthodox, we observe the “ascetic fast” for 40 days leading up to it. We change our diet; we change our daily schedule. We don’t sit in front of the TV in the evenings. Oksana belongs to a group of Orthodox women who do a “nativity marathon,” which gives ideas for families to focus on in preparation for the holy day. It has nothing to do with entertaining.
Language and History. In addition to these necessary changes, our language is changing of course. I study Russian almost every day. As I’ve mentioned before I’ve never had a class in Russian, so I’ve had to study it on my own. I still have a long way to go, but now that both boys can speak Russian we are speaking Russian in the home more. That is helping my listening skills. I don’ t think one can become “Russified” without at least being in the process of learning the language. It’s more than learning what this or that word means. It is the process of thinking and communicating in this country’s language. If one wants to learn a culture you have to study the language of that culture. When I taught in the University about the writings of the period around the New Testament I knew I had to learn the Koine Greek language as well as I could. Whether it is an ancient culture or a modern one, language is essential.
In addition to the language I continue to study Russian history and contemporary politics. Fortunately, I like reading about such things. I realized a few years ago that much of what I knew about Russian history was what I had been told by American TV and movies. So I have kept reading about Russia’s past and present. I finished the book on the Romanovs I mentioned above and am now almost through with yet another biography of Vladimir Putin. Russification is not just something that happens in daily life. Understanding the history and the bigger political developments helps one to know how things and people are the way they are. In this era with so much misinformation about Russia being spread in the West, I feel an even greater responsibility to familiarize myself as much as possible with the truth about Russia (past and present) and pass on what I have come to understand through living and learning here.
So do Russians think I’m “russified”? It probably varies depending on who you ask. The Director at our school and my doctor seem to think so. Oddly enough, they were both in the Soviet Navy for many years. So the two people who praise my “russification” the most were part of the Soviet military against whom I was told as a young man we might have to make war one day. Part of their positive appraisal is because I try to speak Russian with them, and the other part seems to be their amazement at and even professed admiration for an American who would come and live in Russia because he wanted to. My perspective on life seems to have convinced them I’m russified. I’m glad for that. Of course, I can see ways my own process of russification has become clear to me. But I do not think of myself in any sense as Russian. I’m an American, and I don’t try to be one of those people who “identifies” as anything other than who I am. Life here has changed me for sure. There are perspectives and ideas about things that are very different from what I once thought. I have learned to appreciate the positive things about this country and culture and endure those things I find terribly inconvenient and or just plain crazy. It’s Russia. Russification means you don’t try to make it like your own country. When I lived in America I believed learning and accepting our culture and language ought to be a part of anyone’s experience who immigrated to America. I was amazed at people who came to America and then constantly ranted about how great life was where they came from. We’re here. We have our times of missing our family, friends and aspects of our lives in America. But then we move on again with an appreciation for our lives here.