Monday, August 26, 2013

Riddles and Enigmas

I once read that Winston Churchill said Russia was a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma.  Or something to that effect.  Unfortunately, as I sit here writing that, the wifi in this cafĂ© isn’t working so I can’t fact check it at the moment.  But, I would have to agree with the esteemed statesman.  Things are not always straight forward over here.  I say that having finished working with Dennis, a Russian guy from Ust-Kamenogorsk who studies medicine in Saint Petersburg (Or Petrograd if you want to avoid those damnable Germans—that other name is dead to me).

Dennis came to me earlier this month because he was looking for an English conversation partner, but the teacher he had felt he couldn’t really learn from her so she sent him to me.  He was a very thin guy, who never seemed to shave, but was one of those guys who have not been blessed with as much natural manliness that requires them to shave twice a day to keep a smooth face.  He probably hadn’t shaved since he left Saint Petersburg.

But I digress.  Working with Dennis was a lot of fun because I didn’t really have to prepare quite so much for his classes since they were essentially discussion and conversation.  That also meant we could talk about more interesting topics than just plain, boring English grammar.  I found Dennis a lot of fun because I discovered we shared many interests—science fiction in particular stood out.  Both of us had a healthy interest in Sci-fi and more interestingly, he also really liked the book Starship Troopers.
So it is pretty easy to see that we were able to get along.  But we also dealt with some heavier matters—ethical concerns related to technological developments, current events, biases in the news, more classical literature, and sundry other topics.

But what does this all have to do with Mr. Churchill’s famous quote?  Not particularly much, but in just a general sense, I have learned a lot more about modern Russia.  I learned a new word: Xeno-nationalists, who are people who think Russia stinks and should attempt to be more like other countries (or possibly people who are not loyal to Russia at all  and want to be citizens of other countries).  I also have learned that Russia, like any country has people with extremely divergent opinions—while that in and of itself is not new, what I have learned is to the extent they can vary.

If you look at this Dennis guy and my old boss Victor, you have two guys who have very similar backgrounds—ethnic Russians who are Kazakhstani citizens.  Victor wants to study outside of Kazakhstan to finish his education and Dennis is doing his education in another country.  But these details are pretty superficial and common among many people over here.  It is their view of history and interpretations that mark such a great difference between them.

I may or may not have talked about some of my debates with Victor regarding Stalin and the Soviet Union.  I’ll summarize—Victor doesn't think Stalin was a good man by any stretch of the imagination, but that he was “great” in the sense of his purpose and force of will and his contributions to the Soviet Union were necessary for its development and survival.  I completely disagree and to put out my own bias, I consider the Bolshevik putsch in 1917 one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, not just for the Russian people but the world.

On the other hand, Dennis appears to agree with me that Stalin was a devil who set up some of the worst atrocities in history as well as setting up the seeds for the near defeat of the Soviet Union in the dark days of 1941 and 1942 (to clarify, Dennis is not an Americaphile, he doesn't really buy the evidence of chemical attacks in Syria for example).  What is more interesting is that Victor completely views the White movement as a reactionary force that wanted to put people in chains, justifying the purges and repression, while Dennis told me that the term “White Guard” is used to remember heroes who were fighting a lost cause to preserve stability and order against a coming chaos and terror.  Dennis even said that some people used the term “Saints” to describe them.

Both views are present in modern CIS countries, both are polar opposites, and when I talked to both of these guys, they seemed to feel that most Russians agreed with their point of view.  So to me, this is one of those peculiarities that makes Russia such an enigma..