“I just want people to be nice and polite, to smile and grant me a few words of civility, even though I don’t know them, even though it’s the first and the last time I see them”, he complained. At the time, I did not really understand the meaning of his words. I was adamant in the belief that all those phoney smiles and politeness don’t serve any use. Now, that I have returned from a long holiday in Europe, I’m absolutely all for it. I felt this shock of being badly treated upon my arrival to the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. The middle-aged woman at passport control, her face absolutely indifferent, didn’t welcome me at all. I don’t mean that I expected her to greet me with flowers, but just a nice “Hello!” with a quick smile was all that I expected.
Just that morning, I had been in the Paris airport with lots of luggage, and the airport staff ran to my assistance when they noticed I was having trouble with my juggling act. They didn’t even charge me for the extra weight of my luggage. It seemed that everybody smiled and greeted me at every gate. These are just a few examples of their politeness and kindness. I was a foreigner in France, but, soon I got easily accustomed to be treated this way all day long, in shops, boutiques, restaurants, pharmacies, and so on…
Coming back to Moscow I didn’t expect to notice the difference quite so soon. Approaching the passport-control lady, I said in a loud voice, “Hello!” in an effort to greet the lady and my Motherland at the same time. But, the lady’s indifferent expression said, “Leave me in peace, I’m working!” I tried again, thanking her in the same enthusiastic way, and said goodbye. She remained poker-faced and replied nothing. Yes, I was certainly back home.
For whatever reason, it seems to be a typically Russian feature to be indifferent, even preferring to avoid any contact with people. Once, I got lost in Paris and I decided to ask one woman for directions. The reply was immediate, “No!” Just as hastily, I understood she was Russian. Any other foreigner, I think, would have tried to explain to me that he was a foreigner, too, and he was unable to help me due to being every bit as lost as I was. Why are Russian people so closed and even hostile even when they are on holidays and abroad? I can find lots of excuses for such behaviour, for example, feeling unsafe in a big city or simply being in a hurry. But, when one is abroad and taking pleasure in relaxation, there is really no excuse.
The only reason for this social blockade that comes to my mind is the effects of the Soviet period. The country was closed, the nation was used to being a “thing in itself”, and people had no other model of behaviour. A mark was left on the Russian people, and unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a trait easily forgotten. But, today, we are more akin to Europeans, we travel extensively; we have a chance to see the world, to understand the habits and cultures of other nations, and to adopt the best examples of their behaviour. I hope all these facts are brought in and that soon the indifferent mentality of the Russian people will change. Still, I have grave doubts that the next time I’ll go through passport control, the attendant will smile. This transformation is bound to take a long time.
21 August 2008
A Russian Briefer
This article reminds me of conversations I have had with Russian friends from the rodina. “You Whites are nicer than we are! You are polite like the English!” Of course, the major factor in the coarsening of Russian public behaviour was the communists. Remember, they were not peasants or workers, for working-class people have dignity and are often more “conventional” than those in the middle- and upper-classes.
The communists were middle-class haute bourgeois pseudo-intellectual poseurs in the main. They thought that coarse and boorish behaviour made them “closer to the people”. Nothing could be further from the truth. They attacked politeness and refinement in the name of the “Revolution”. There was 75 years for this poison to eat its way into Russian society. As for indifference, that is a result of the repressions of the Reds, and that is going to take some doing (and no small amount of time) to dissipate.
When public civility returns, it shall not be on the Western model, but, it would be a social lubrication so often lacking in contemporary Russia, as some of my friends have lamented. Perhaps, it would not be a “greeting”, but, a bow or nod of the head, and a meeting of the eyes. No phoney smile would be involved, but, there would be human interaction instead of lacklustre indifference and ennui.
This is a warning to us in the West. We have leftist PC advocates who call for the coarsening of our public standards. Language is heard on the street nowadays that wasn’t heard in the gutters forty years ago. I was alive then, I should know. Of course, profanity has invaded public discourse to the extent that one finds it just about everywhere except for church. If the PC commandoes follow the communists in their affectation of boorish behaviour, then it follows that they would follow the communists in other things. GULag redux, anyone?
Russians tell me that it is freer in Russia, that there are no PC “speech codes” and that people can pray openly in school. Indeed… just who is free and who is enslaved? I fear that it is we that are shackled and held in irons… if you doubt that, try testing free speech on a local college campus of your choice. You would be thrown out within the hour for “hate speech”. May God forgive us for what we are doing…