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Archive for the tag “Russian culture”

Bling bling, it’s bling they say

Blogger Clarissa recently wrote this account of the popularity of religious symbols among the Russian nouveau riche The Russian and His Gymnast | Clarissa’s Blog

So I’m snoozing on the beach, right? And I hear a man’s voice that says in Russian, “Come on, girls, stop climbing the railing. What will people think? That everybody walks on the footpath like normal people, and only the Russians have to act all weird? Remember that people see us as representatives of our country abroad.”

Obviously, I was eager to see this defender of the image of Russians, so I opened my eyes. I saw a family: a man, a woman, and two precious little girls who were, indeed, trying to climb the railing. The man was a huge, burly Russian in minuscule shiny speedos that were smaller than even those worn by aging Italian gentlemen. He was also wearing a gold chain that was as thick as my finger. I have very small, dainty fingers, but still just imagine a chain like that.

Hanging from this chain there was a huge gold gymnast. A gymnast is a big golden cross that the Russian nouveau riche used to wear to show off their recently acquired wealth.

You have to see it, though, to believe it.

I was aware that something was going on 20 years ago, when our parish in Johannesburg was visited by Bishop Viktor of Podolsk. He was brought to South Africa by the Russian Chamber of Commerce to bless their new office in Johannesburg. I was mildly surprised that they would bring a bishop all that way for such a thing, and attributed it to inexperience. They weren’t familiar with chambers of commerce after 70 years of Bolshevik rule, and were probably even less familiar with bishops. But they all seemed to be wearing securocrat suits just like their South African counterparts. The bling must have come later.

Hat-tip to my friend Plamen Sivov who provided the link the the picture, and also some more explanation:

The whole gymnast thing comes from a popular Russian joke about the “new Russians”, the low-culture nouvelle riche. The story goes like this: a “new Russian” goes to a jewelry store and asks for a golden cross that would fit his social status. The store keeper brings a big golden crucifix. The rich guy looks at it and says: Take down the gymnast, wrap up the rest.

…and the gymnast association is probably related to the finishing position of any gymnastic performance – with hands stretched out and all. Those mafia-type guys from the joke (we have them in Bulgaria too) were known to be closely related to the sports clubs in the early years of post-communist transition.

And here I was thinking that our tenderpreneurs were bad. They’ve got a long, long way to go to catch up with the Russians or the Bulgarians. Kitschy kitschy koo.

A quick introduction to Russian culture

This week I scanned some photos of my first trip to Russia in 1995 into my computer, and posted some on Facebook, and thought I’d post some here too.

IL-62I flew from Johannesburg to Moscow on an Aeroflot Ilyushin IL62, an interesting experience. When I’d spend two years studying in the UK I returned in 1968 on a Vickers VC 10, and the two aircraft looked very similar. Both had four engines in the tail, and I was delighted to be able to fly in both.[1]

The flight, via Togo and Malta, lasted 17 hours, and my friend Andrei Kashinski met me at the airport with his friend Maxim Zapalski, who had a car, and, since it was my first visit to Moscow, they took me straight to Red Square. Andrei had arranged accommodation for me in the guest house of the Danilov Monastery, where he was supervisor of the rebuilding programme. He insisted on feeding me, though I had just had a substantial breakfast on the plane. He phoned another contact, an online friend Sergei Chapnin, who arranged for me at attend a youth conference at a parish in Klin, about 80 km north-west of Moscow along the St Petersburg road. The priest, would be coming to Moscow, and could give me a lift to Klin.

Kurenkov HomecomingSo back in the car with Andrei and Maxim, and they took me to a flat in a block in north-west Moscow. Guests were expected, but I was the unexpected guest, and the first to arrive. The flat was tiny, but crammed with books on every wall It turned out to be a welcoming party for Alexei Kurenkov, who had just returned on the plane from New York, where he was studying at St Vladimir’s seminary. And there was a fantastic feast — my third of the day, and though I had lost track of the time it felt like mid-morning. It was July, and I’d flown from winter to summer, from short days and long nights to long days and short nights.

So my first practical lesson in Russian culture was within an a couple of hours of arriving. Russians eat a lot, and you can’t visit a friend without being fed. My fellow blogger Clarissa describes this and other aspects of Russian culture in her blog Clarissa’s Blog: What You Need to Know About Your Russian-Speaking Friend:

A Russian-speaking party is very different from the Anglo-Saxon party, for example. For one, nobody stands while trying to balance the plate and the glass. Everybody sits around a big table. Regardless of the economic situation of your Russian-speaking hosts, food will be abundant and will consist of several courses with many food choices. Nobody will ever ask you eat off a paper plate and drink out of plastic cups. The table will be beautifully and properly laid, there will be beautiful table linens and dinnerware.

And that’s the truth. The more people you visit, the more you eat. If you visit a lot, you can end up having six or seven meals a day.

In South African culture, or should I say South African white urban culture, if you are going to drop in to see someone unexpectedly, you try to avoid doing so at meal times, so that your hosts don’t feel obliged to feed you. In Russia, there is no avoiding meal times, because meal times are whenever guests arrive.

It took me a little while to get used to this. I once made the mistake of thinking I could pop in to say hello to someone before jumping on the Metro to go to a service at a Cathedral. No chance of that. Fortunately the Cathedral was full and anyway in Orthodox services people arrive late all the time.

Rural black culture in South Africa is still a bit like that. You can drop in to say hello to someone and then when you want to go they say you must wait, because someone has gone out to catch a chicken to slaughter for a meal. The amazing thing (to me) about Russia is that that kind of attitude has persisted in urban culture, even in big cities like Moscow.

Notes

[1] The VC 10 and IL 62 were my favourite passenger aircraft, and here is a comparison:

The Il-62M had a dispatch rate with Aeroflot of 97% with some examples logging as many as 17 flight hrs/day, and it was described as the most reliable type in the fleet at that time (Gordon et al., 2004). It set several international records in its class, mostly exemplifying a range capability far in excess of the conservative Aeroflot calculations applied in Soviet times. Some of these records were set by an all-woman crew of five captained by Iraida (“Inna”) Vertiprahova. With 10 tonnes of freight, the Il-62M had a maximum range of 10,300 km compared to 9,412 km for the VC10 carrying the same weight. With a 23 tonne payload, the Il-62M range was 8000 km, compared to 6,920 km for a Boeing 707 with maximum payload.

Reviving the Russian Soul

One of the most popular recent films in Russia is Ostrov (The Island) which indicates that despite the dominance of the communist and capitalist visions of materialism, interest in spiritual life continues to grow. As the authors of this review point out, “Ostrov’s story of repentance and faith in God hardly seems to be the stuff that blockbusters are made of” — at least not in the West. I noted my own response to the film here, but this article describes the effect on Russian culture, and the response of the actor who played the protagonist is also interesting, since he is apparently a hermit in real life.

Reviving the Russian Soul, by Mike Kauschke and Elizabeth Debold.:

The story of the film’s principal actor Pyotr Mamonov may offer some explanation. Back in the eighties and nineties, Mamonov was the lead singer in an avant garde Russian rock band that reached cult status. But these days, he lives as a religious hermit near Moscow, and apparently it took a great deal of effort to get him to commit to make the film. Ostrov director Pavel Lungin says: “In a certain sense, this is also a movie about Mamonov’s life. He transformed from being a rock star embroiled in scandals into a deeply religious man.” Lungin realizes that both Mamonov’s life and the life of the monk he plays are resonant for Russians today. “The times of perestroika are over and we need to think about things like eternity, sin, and conscience,” he observes. “These have disappeared from our lives in the rat race for success and money. But people can’t just live for material things alone.”

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