Are Russians Hopeless Slobs?

PHOTO by «Le cauchemar russe: Abécédaire de clichés et fantasmes occidentaux»
In his new book, a Frenchman takes a fresh look at cliches about Russia and Russians

The publishing house of the French newspaper Courrier de Russie has released two new books: a compilation of essays on Russia by publicist Matthieu Buge and an collection of photographs taken by journalists on their trips around the country. Today, Afisha.Daily publishes excerpts from the two books side by side to give a more complete overview of how the French really perceive Russians.

Matthieu Buge

A french journalist and writer who has been living in Russia for more than four years. He studied at the Institute for Political Studies and the Sorbonne. He considers himself to be "a typical representative of the generation which absorbed the notion of human rights and freedoms and grew up witnessing the collapse of walls and ideologies."

"Bardak" chapter

"A Trans-Siberian journey is strongly recommended to all fans of Siberian nature and culture, but it wouldn't be sensible to travel this route without being accompanied by a Russian or a Russian-speaking person."

Dominik Fernandez, "The Trans-Siberian Railway"

Russia means carelessness, it has long been known as such. This country is a mess, it's a mess, and you can not put it any other way. Stereotypes are always based around a core of truth.

However, it is worth mentioning that the mess in Russia is not universal. For example, when the country adopted an anti-smoking law, similar to those that are in effect across Europe, Russians obediently, selflessly and with lightning speed set about implementing it. Plus, going out to smoke when it's -25ºC, is a different proposition to leisurely hanging out on the heated terraces of the Latin Quarter.

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Any foreigner who has already travelled around Russia by train will notice that in terms of punctuality, the local railways are only rivalled by those in Japan. The frenchman Dominique Fernandez, who wrote a guide on the Trans-Siberian Railway, came to the same conclusion. According to my experience, late passengers are either foreigners or drunk. Over the course of such long journeys, the American railways would have rusted, and the French train drivers would have certainly found an excuse to go on strike and delayed the train.

Anyone who's encountered Russian bureaucracy, knows that a missed comma is enough to completely disrupt the course of any procedure. This is not an exaggeration at all! Here, everyone knows that before you contact an official, you need to fill in every form three or four times first, just to be sure.

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A missed comma once cost me a whole day: I had to start all over again. As a part of my job, I had to apply not to two or three, but twelve different institutions just to sign a contract. Maybe one day I'll write a collection of stories about Russian bureaucracy. But I'm afraid that in the West, which is accustomed to even more hellish bureaucratic traditions, this wouldn't be of interest to anyone. In Russia, bureaucracy verges upon folklore, it's almost a religion.

And for people who were used to crowds outside stores during the seventy years of communism, Russians have absolutely no idea how to queue. Think, for example, how in the post office, a foreigner who's not familiar with the phrase "Who's last?" will have to endure a myriad of hardship before he finds himself before a teller's window. In short, the West would have had to try its best to bring the Russians to a decent standard of queuing.

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Although everyone here loves efficiency, productivity, effectiveness! But for the Russians, these indicators are not absolute. "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," says another Russian proverb. Here people often hope for luck, that everything will be fine and that fate will somehow be favourable. This is a piece of wisdom which does not fit well with materialism. The West in its impatience knows only the desired goal. The East is thinking about long term goals, concentrating on how to achieve them. A Russian would rather choose to look at the path which leads to their prized goal, drinking to their own good fortune from time to time.

This phenomenon has two partial explanations. Firstly, the Russians know that money does not guarantee security. Russian character, formed among the vicissitudes of history and the climate, is programmed to consider material as temporary and ephemeral. Russians are fairly honest with themselves and understand that anyone, depending on the circumstances, may turn out to be the best of people or the cruellest of villains.

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Based on that, the quality of effectiveness becomes important only in emergency situations. Russians are skilled chess players and experts in three cushion billiards. But it's in vain, as the result disturbs them occasionally, from time to time, because the absolute is out there. The world can wait.

In the 1960s, the diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski described America in the following words: "a society as highly rationalised as America's is dangerously boring". The Russians, in spite of half a century of progress, are still unable to adapt to the model of an absolutely predictable society.