Please support us and make a donation!

An American-Russian Dialogue

Get the materials in PDF Need a photocopiable PDF with materials from this article? CLICK HERE to purchase it in our shop!


In this article you'll find some thoughts on Russian mentality by Elena who works as an executive in an international company. After asking her I forwarded her message to James K., an American Professor I'm aquainted with and below you can read his response which I find very interesting. If you want to share your opinion on cross-cultural issues with us, please visit our forum.

Elena from Novorossysk, Russia:
A few things on Russia and mentality -- what I really think about Russia and what annoys me very much is a lot of weight is put on suffering and moaning rather than achieving goals and being happy. It is a little bit bad taste to show that you're happy, that you prosper, and that you succeed. Like you do not deserve good things if you have not suffered enough. It ranges from nice manners to real moaning: when someone compliments you on your achievements and you say no it's nothing, or else you tell your friend that you're financially going from bad to worse etc.

Then it's really quite fashionable now to blame all the problems on somebody else, like all problems that Russia has are caused by USA and NATO, this is a kind of conspiracy theory already. I think I'm different, I try to tell myself and other people that quite a lot depends upon you and that you have to find ways to work better to achieve your goals, and I don't like moaning about some misfortunes. And it's sometimes irritating that people are blaming problems or mistakes on our Russian mentality, like it can't be done in a proper way, it's our mentality. What I really think is that a national character is something of a starting point rather than some rigid capsule that you have to squeeze in. Meaning you can be Russian, proud of you great culture but still you can learn not to be always late :-) In fact in my industry this is not true that Russians are always late, we're usually on time...

What I think is a main thing that changes us, especially the younger people is the access to the outside world and the modern technologies and internet and of course it all eventually happened after a break-up of Soviet Union and the demolition of the iron curtain. Of course, a lot of bad things happened as well and are still happening, like weak bank structure, messy legislature, bribery, red tape, but I feel that for me and for many people as well the future is full of hope and there's no return to the guaranteed and easy existence during the communist times... Well I'll dwell on this question a bit more and I will come back to you with more thoughts. I'll probably convert it to a Word file and send you a neat one. And maybe you will revert with more questions.

Yes, I did wanted to work as a translator, but at some stage I was lucky to find a much better job in the shipping industry and learn many things on the job. I can use my language skills, which I enjoy, but still this is real industry I'm involved in. I may not like some present assignments, but the industry on the whole is quite versatile and in its many fields I presently know much more than it is normally required of a translator, so I'm thinking about changing the departments in this company at some stage. It was really crazy at the beginning: as a rank-and-file-employee I sometimes had to work 30-40 hours without sleep, and that happened quite a few times, I even set a record of 53 hours once. I view it as a kind of graduating from a second university and even getting paid for that -- this in-house training:-) But that stage is over now anyway, I value my health and my free time much more.

James K., USA:
I think Elena is describing a mentality that exists to some degree among all Slavic cultures, but the farther east you go, the worse it tends to get. In my opinion, it's no accident that communism was first tried in Russia.

There's a Russian joke that fits it perfectly: An American, a Frenchman and a Russian found an antique bottle on a beach and took out the stopper. A genie came out and said, "I'm so grateful to you for releasing me that I will grant you each a wish!" The American wished for a big mansion on the coast of California, with cars, beautiful women and all the money he could ever want. Poof! He had it. The Frenchman wished for the same thing, but on the French Riviera. It was immediately granted. Then it was the Russian's turn. "My neighbor has a goat, and I don't have one," he said. "Kill my neighbor's goat".

There is a saying about the French, too. "If an American sees a rich man ride by in a limousine, he dreams of the day when he too will be able to ride in a limousine. If a Frenchman sees a rich man ride by in a limousine, he dreams of the day he can pull the rich man out of it and force him to wait for the bus."

But mainly it's the Slavs. If they don't like their lives, they don't seem to think about making them better, but of trying to make the lives of others as miserable as their own. This plays itself out in various ways:
  1. Wishing evil on people. I once saw a happy wedding procession going down the main street of Marianske Lazne, Czech Republic, and as I moved up the street, an old lady next to me raged to her husband, "They're causing that traffic jam and all that noise, and next year they'll be DIVORCED!" I tried to imagine an American grandmother saying this, or a Canadian, or a German or a French one, and I just couldn't. This was peculiar to Slavs, and I began to see where all those witches in fairy tales came from that put hexes on beautiful girls.
  2. Accusing prosperous people of stealing. I know that there were a lot of people who got rich from embezzling state property when communism turned into a kleptocracy for a while, but that doesn't mean that every prosperous person is a crook. However, an honest person who gets rich in a Slavic country is very quickly accused of stealing, even if other people could SEE how he made his money! This mentality can prevent people from prospering, because if they think that the only way to get rich is by cheating people, they will cheat people in various large or small ways, and they can never build up a trusting clientele. Since word-of-mouth is the most effective advertising, being dishonest with customers is the best way to prevent one's clientele from growing.
  3. Accusing prosperous people of having been communists. After some time living in the Czech Republic, I decided that, "He's an old communist", or, "He's an old comrade", merely meant, "He's richer than me, and I resent it."
Author: Torsten Daerr