The Russian Soul

I don’t mean to keep picking on Natalia Antonova, but this is a bizarre rant:

Is it me, or is this journalist struggling with the concept of an abstract noun?

I too have heard Russians use the term “Russian soul”, and seen it referenced in non-fiction books. I’ve always understood the term to loosely describe the connection Russians have with the country itself – the land, culture, and people – which draws them towards it even after they leave, or cause them to love Russia even when they’ve suffered so much by living there. I know Russians who left as soon as they got the chance, but still retain this longing for their homeland which never quite goes away. When they go back they are conflicted, and a lot of Russians have this love-hate relationship with the mother country. The term “Russian soul”, as I understand it, is a shorthand way to describe all this.

Of course, this is not unique to Russia. Most people retain strong cultural and emotional ties to their homeland, although the Brits are spectacularly good at not doing this. Meet an American, Frenchman, or Australian abroad and they all have plans to go back home one day. Meet a Brit and he’ll tell you he only goes back when there’s a death in the family. I blame the weather.

Where was I? That’s right, the term “Russian soul” describes a concept not unique to Russia by a long shot, but is perhaps darker and more fatalistic than that of other nations. I’ve certainly never seen the term used as described below:

Nope, never. Perhaps my readers more familiar with Russia can enlighten me? This is spot on, though:

So much of the mentality and culture in Russia stems from its geography and climate (much as it does in the USA). I’ve always thought the best way to start understanding Russia (or the USA) is to cross it: it’s sheer size will overwhelm you. Now imagine living there. But what I don’t understand is Antonova’s hostility to a term which, as far as I know, is used to loosely describe the mentality and emotions that come from living in Russia and influenced, in large part, by the geography she describes.

Then again, she grew up in the United States. Perhaps that explains it? I’m sure it explains the profanity.

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37 thoughts on “The Russian Soul

  1. …the Brits are spectacularly good at not doing this. […] Meet a Brit and he’ll tell you he only goes back when there’s a death in the family.

    Ah, but that’s because the Brits don’t need to go back. They never really leave: they take England with them in their heads, and make sure to build a new one wherever they land. Perhaps one of the reasons we were so good at colonising.

    Also worth pointing out is that ex-pats are way more romantic about Britain than those who actually still live there. I suppose it’s easier to be patriotic when the sun is shining and no-one’s broke into your car lately.

  2. The issue with Russia’s geography isn’t just the size: it’s that it has no natural defences. No mountains, no lakes, no serious rivers: getting an invading army to Moscow is a simple flat march. And the only thing Russia can put in the invaders’ way is hundreds of thousands of Russians: an ablative armour of the country’s young men.

    Which is why they are so obsessed with territory: the only way to defend their capital has always been to push the border so far away that that march takes the invading army so long that they can’t do it before winter sets in. Preferably, put another couple of entire countries between you and any possible enemies; that was the point of the iron curtain.

    This puts them in total contrast to the British, who have the best natural defence in the world, and therefore never felt the constant anxiety which haunts the Russian; However, they have had the opposite problem and have often fallen into a sort of complacency: ‘Why do we need to bother about having proper defences / diplomatic relations / etc? The channel will save us!’ And thanks to that complacency they tend to enter every war, and address every other challenge, criminally unprepared.

  3. Also worth pointing out is that ex-pats are way more romantic about Britain than those who actually still live there. I suppose it’s easier to be patriotic when the sun is shining and no-one’s broke into your car lately.

    Which is why I’m an immigrant and not an ex-pat. I detest the prison island and only go back when I absolutely have to. The general state of the place upsets me when I have to see it first-hand.

  4. Swedish émigrés have a kind of love-hate thing too – you can talk totally rationally with them and they recognise many of the problems of the place, but then will suddenly go all defensive and defend what they’d just criticised when an outsider criticises it.

  5. Then again, she grew up in the United States. Perhaps that explains it? I’m sure it explains the profanity.

    And also inserting the word “like” in between commas in a sentence where it really doesn’t belong.

  6. abacab – ah, but if you didn’t love it, it wouldn’t upset you

  7. abacab – ah, but if you didn’t love it, it wouldn’t upset you

    Not quite. I would like to be able to like my homeland, but I can’t. Perhaps that’s what’s upsetting and what turned me into the “rootless cosmopolitan” (to use the Soviet terminology) I am.

  8. they tend to enter every war, and address every other challenge, criminally unprepared

    But….we always play away! Our national defense, that has seen Brits at home unmolested by foreign troops since 1066, has been the Royal Navy. Rule Britannia, castles of oak and all that. And the RN has been fantastically modern, large, disciplined and violent for much of our history since Tudor times. Taking it on was not a winning proposition for centuries.
    The army was a side show. Fun for toffs playing away with no risk to Blighty.
    If you want to know if we were deadly serious about our defence go and google HMS Dreadnought, HMS Temeraire, HMS Warspite, HMS Ark Royal, the Mary Rose, Chatham naval dockyard, Admiral Byng, etc.
    Shame the RN today is such a shadow of its once mighty self.

  9. that has seen Brits at home unmolested by foreign troops since 1066,

    One of the great myths. We’ve not been successfully invaded and overtaken since 1066, but there’s been plenty of other landings of foreign troops on numerous occasions. Including a small landing that installed a new monarch (Dutch IIRC).

  10. You refer to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Whereby a protestant Dutch king was invited over to become king and rid us of a Catholic.
    And there’s been the odd landing party. But no serious invasion attempt in 1000 years.

  11. S – I’m not surprised. Wherever you go, you usually find that Chesterton got there first.

    abacab – if you could only step outside yourself and read what you wrote with fresh eyes, you’d see that it’s plain as day that you love sweet Albion with all your heart :p

    Look at it this way: I hear North Korea is a shithole. I’d like to be able to like it, but I can’t – and that doesn’t upset me in the slightest. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand…

  12. Wherever you go, you usually find that Chesterton got there first.

    Especially if where you go to is Market Harborough.

  13. I think the Glorious revolution is one of those episodes where the history was written by the victors.

    It pretty much was an invasion, although one that much of the population and parliament backed.

    I have no idea why we teach the Tudors, slave trade and WW2 in our schools and pretty much nothing else

    As for the Russian soul, I’d never heard the phrase but I recognise the concept instantly from all my Russian emigre friends.

  14. The issue with Russia’s geography isn’t just the size: it’s that it has no natural defences. No mountains, no lakes, no serious rivers: getting an invading army to Moscow is a simple flat march. And the only thing Russia can put in the invaders’ way is hundreds of thousands of Russians: an ablative armour of the country’s young men.

    Russia has serious, serious lakes, vast, beautiful lakes, and many of them. It also has mountains in the South East. I believe the flat march to Moscow has defeated more than one army. Am I wrong? It has vast coniferous marshlands and the Tundra. Also, who can take seriously anyone who does not love their homeland with a longing that eats deep into their “soul”.

  15. If Russia’s immense geographical size is an excuse for its perpetually poor governance, how do you explain the generally competent governance of Canada and Australia?

  16. The issue with Russia’s geography isn’t just the size: it’s that it has no natural defences. No mountains, no lakes, no serious rivers:

    Russian rivers are serious and then some. So are those in Ukraine. Read the accounts of the Germans trying to cross the Dnieper and Dniestr during their retreat with the Red Army up their arses. And Stalingrad only held because the Germans couldn’t cross the Volga.

    I’ve seen the Neva, Moskva, Volga, Kama, and Amur rivers. They make European rivers look like garden streams. Apparently the Ob, Lena, and Yenisei make the ones I’ve listed look small (except for the Amur).

  17. If Russia’s immense geographical size is an excuse for its perpetually poor governance, how do you explain the generally competent governance of Canada and Australia?

    Australia’s population is mostly around the coast, and until recently only in a few places. In Canada, it’s mostly squashed into a few areas or recently settled. You haven’t had hundreds of years of entire towns and cities being cut off from the rest of the country like in Russia, all centrally governed. Plus, geography is only one factor. Russians are another.

  18. So much of the mentality and culture in Russia stems from its geography and climate (much as it does in the USA).

    Geographical determinism is a well-established sociological theory and has much to recommend it.

  19. Geographical determinism is a well-established sociological theory and has much to recommend it.

    Indeed. It’s certainly not a new idea.

  20. Opportunity for a Tweet to Natalia, surely?

    “Hi Natalia, you may not have understood the Russian soul but you ARE soul.”

    (With apologies to Alien Sex Fiend)

  21. Russian rivers are serious and then some. So are those in Ukraine.

    Not to mention the way that features like the Pripet Marshes mess up your lateral mobility, and make for a haven like the Water Margin of Liangshan Po – anyone else remember that series – for bandits, guerillas and/or partisans)

    However, while actually conqueringRussia is a cast-iron bastard, its big open spaces have tempted many to try and been expensive for the Russians to kick them back out… hence their enthusiasm for having a “buffer zone” where someone else’s territory gets the first shock of the war.

  22. Maybe an off-the-wall question, Tim, but did your computer intrusion issues start after you first encountered these defenders of Russian whoredom?

  23. As an ex-pat Brit, I will not return* to the UK because the country I was born into no longer exists. Geographically, it is still there as an island off the coast of France but it is not “England” in the same way that the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul is no longer the St. Sophia Christian church of Constantinople.

    But England, its tolerance, freedoms and culture is gone. It would be like returning to a house that you lived in, sold and the new occupants have changed it irrevocably.

    *Not even when I am dead, burnt to ashes and in a little jar.

  24. @Jason Lynch – yes, I remember Tales from the Water Margin. It is based on a Chinese book that was translated by Pearl Buck and published under that title. The outlaws were the Robin Hood of China and looked on in the same way.

    Pearl Buck was an interesting China expert that lived there during the 1930’s. During WW2, she delivered lectures to the US Military about the Japanese mindset to help them understand how they would fight and their motivation. She compiled her lectures into a book called The Chrysanthemum and the Sword which is still relevant if you want to understand Japan.

    Oddly enough, Tales from the Water Margin was taken up by the Japanese and published there under the title Suikoden which means “Lakeside” – i.e. Water Margin. I have a downloaded copy of the book and dip into it occasionally.

    I will have to print it out and bind it up into a proper book some time as the commercially produced copies are horrendously expensive and I prefer a paper book to reading a computer screen.

    Yep – I’m a boring bar steward that needs to get out a bit more at night. >};o(

  25. Oops! Pearl Buck published Tales from the Water Margin as “All Men are Brothers”. It is more familiarly known as Tales from the Water Margin.

    And it was Ruth Benedict that wrote the Chrysanthemum and the Sword based on her lectures to the US Military …

    I’m going senile … >};o(

  26. Who could forget Ho soon Yang? I certainly haven’t.

    Phil B
    Same here, sadly. Going “home” would require a time machine.

  27. +1 to what PhilB said – the Britain of my youth (which wasn’t that long ago) has disappeared in a puff of micromanaged “you can’t do/say that, it’s against the law!” priggishness.

    I described it to a Dutchman once as the Blair government foisting a continental every-little-thing-has-its-rules culture on a common law culture. When you’ve got a legal and moral culture that has few laws but they’re mostly Really Important and then make Blair’s legal “innovations”, you end up with France but without the gallic “je m’en fous” shrug. A bazillion stupid little rules enacted in a culture where Rules Are Important And Must Be Enforced can’t end well, and hasn’t.

  28. abacab,

    That’s very well put. The damage Blair did to Britain is still being counted, and will be long into the future.

  29. Wouldn’t “despite its geography” also be a description of Russia. I’ve two Russian friends. One’s from Arkhangelsk in the far north – near Finland. The other from Novosibursk – way over near Mongolia. Yet they seem to me to be to be the same culture. The accents are the same. Their attitude to life’s similar. That distinctive Russian humour & resilience. They even look the same. Could be sisters.
    There’s a lot less difference than I’ve seen between people from the east & west of the USA. NY & LA are distinctly different cultures

  30. BiS,

    Indeed, there isn’t a lot of variation in ethnic Russians from one place to another. I’m not sure if this is because of the population transfers which took place in the Soviet times, or because it wasn’t settled in the same way the US and Canada was.

  31. @TimN – I expect that the various Russification programmes deliberately sending ethnic Russians to the various corners of empire had a lot to do with it.

  32. Phil B and abacab:

    If you think England / UK has been ruined, take a look at what Ireland’s elite has in store for the country. Straight up social engineering, because, apparently, the Irish aren’t yet happy enough, or equally happy enough.

    http://www.gov.ie/en/project-ireland-2040/

    I went to Cork in 1976, and am going back for a visit in a few days. Then it was distinctly Irish, but from what I’ve seen, it’s a bit like a little Brum now.

  33. Maybe an off-the-wall question, Tim, but did your computer intrusion issues start after you first encountered these defenders of Russian whoredom?

    That is interesting and I thought about it once you mentioned it; but no, it happened a few days before.

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