Russians Aren’t Amoral, We Just Have a Different Moral Code

wWe need to ban using terms such as ‘Russian soul.’ Unsplash/Azat Satlykov

On Dec. 22, The Wall Street Journal published an extremely offensive article titled “A Christmas Encounter With the Russian Soul,” written by a 70-year-old white American male who has published numerous books on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. He began by saying that “it may seem as if Americans have little in common with those living under Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship,” but he, like the kind narrator of a Christmas cartoon, has a story to tell, as one who has “witnessed the triumph of good over evil in Russia many times.”

Already, this article is problematic. First, we need to ban using terms such as “Russian soul.” It reinforces the notion that the spiritual inner workings of a Russian are fundamentally and, more importantly, incomprehensibly different, from that of any other human. That Russians don’t just crave love, fear death, go to the gym and binge-watch soap operas like most other humans on the planet. There’s something “strange” about those Russians, something we’ll never understand because they’ve got a different soul. To someone like me, who was born in Russia, it makes it seem as if your entire expertise on the country and its people is founded on books you read in a cozy, academic armchair, and that you probably have an unhealthy obsession with Dostoevsky.

There’s the cartoonish sentence “triumph of good over evil,” which is a childish phrase that belongs in a fable or fairy tale, not an essay attempting to dilute the spirit of an entire nation. And, of course, the generalization of all of the people who are living “under Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship,” as though they are Orcs under the hand of Saruman in Lord of the Rings, not 144.3 million people comprising 185 ethnic groups, all of whom have different backgrounds and beliefs.

The author continued his moralistic tale by setting the scene. It was Russia in 1992, when inflation plunged the country into an economic depression (by mid-1993, between 39 percent and 49 percent of the population lived in poverty, and by 1999, the total population fell by three-quarters of a million people). He painted a picture of a bitterly cold Moscow that had turned into a “giant bazaar as people sold anything—kitchen utensils, chewing gum, cigarettes, books, icons, heirlooms—to survive.”

He was very excited by the new public telephones that used prepaid cards, which only an out-of-touch American would, in this desperate climate, view as a “sign of progress.” After making a call in this magical steel harbinger of capitalism, he left his wallet in it, and upon returning, found it gone.

Two days later, he received a call from a man named Yuri, who said he found the writer’s wallet and asked to come over to his apartment so that the “problem” of it could be “discussed.” Presumably, Yuri was wearing a black hat and straightening his wiry, black mustache while making this call on his satellite phone.

The author explained that Yuri lived in a suburb of Moscow that happened to be the headquarters of a criminal gang, a historical aside that served no concrete purpose other than to instill the reader with a feeling of unnecessary dread.

Yuri, as it turned out, was actually an OK guy, but wily and, tut tut, completely lacking in basic ethics. Yuri said that he went through a lot of trouble trying to find him, and that he lost two days’ pay as a result.

Obviously, this was complete bullshit. But who cares? Judging Yuri for lying in order to weasel a little money from a wealthy foreigner was like judging Indian street urchins for pretending to cry over a crate of broken eggs in order to extract some change from a local billionaire. People don’t do things like that unless they’re desperate, and a little bit of compassion is in order, not a jingoistic lecture.

The author, reluctantly, gave him 50,000 rubles (at the official rate of exchange at the time, it was $120).

Yuri did what virtually anyone would do in his scenario, which was to try to get more money from a man who seemed to be awash in it. The tactics of this technique vary from one culture to another. In some, the individual might be more inclined to cry in an attempt to guilt the person into giving them more money. In others, the individual might attempt to do an unsolicited favor, then ask for a “tip.”

Russians tend to be a proud people, and the country at the time functioned predominantly on bribes and wink-wink exchanges. That doesn’t make them “bad people” in comparison to those who burst into tears in an attempt to get more money out of a rich Westerner. The scenario was the same, and in both cases, I personally consider it more moral for the wealthy individual to fork up whatever he would have spent on a pair of cashmere socks in order to help someone survive who was struggling from precarious economic circumstances.

But, no. The author, instead, got on his moral high horse. When Yuri asked for an “honorarium” for his troubles, the following exchange occurred:

“I was happy to pay you for your expenses,” I said, “but I can’t pay you an honorarium. You are obliged to give me my wallet.”

“Why is that?” Yuri said, looking at me incredulously. 

“Because,” I said. “It does not belong to you.”

Yuri hesitated for an odd moment, as if trying to assimilate what I had just said. He then stood up, reached over and opened a cabinet behind where I was sitting. A car backfired somewhere in the distance, and I suddenly became convinced he was reaching for his service pistol.

Yuri turned, and I saw that in one hand he was holding a bottle of vodka and in the other, two glasses. He put them on the table and poured out two drinks. “You know, you taught me something today.’” 

He concluded the article by saying that while he never saw Yuri again, and often wondered “if our brief encounter had a lasting effect on him,” like Mary Poppins did with Mr. Banks. He ended on a hopeful note, saying (and my eyes really popped out of my head when I read the following sentence) that the encounter showed that, “Russians can be reached if basic moral principles are made clear to them. Russians do not share the ethical heritage of the West, but moral intuition exists everywhere, and is able to be inspired.”

The fact that this man actually believed he managed to completely change another person’s moral compass because of one clichéd phrase is narcissistic to a pathological degree, as though all of life is basically just an episode of Boy Meets World, in which he, of course, is Mr. Feeny.

The fact that he believed that it never occurred to Yuri that he should give back the wallet because he had no concept of right and wrong, as though he were a small child, is unforgivably insulting. People don’t steal food because they’ve never been told it’s wrong. They do it, in many cases, because they’re hungry.

I know 6-year-olds who have a more complicated understanding of moral relativism than this man.

Of course, this story falls very easily into the much-hated trope of White Savior, and yet there has been no social media backlash whatsoever (on the contrary, the comments on the piece are all quite laudatory). The reasoning for this is simple: Americans believe that white privilege is something that cannot be inflicted upon other whites, which is simply untrue.

We do not know Yuri’s ethnicity, but in the absence of any other markers, we assume him to be Caucasian. But his socio-economic circumstances put him squarely into the same position experienced by nonwhites in third-world countries, which means that this tall tale was white privilege taken to the absolute max.

As a Russian, I’m sick and tired of hearing about the amoralistic nature of the “Russian soul.” There’s something obvious that never seems to occur to Americans, that this trope of a criminal, shady, chain-smoking, squinty-eyed Russian semi-gangster is a stereotype that rose in the ’90s, when you essentially had to be a criminal to survive.

If you watched films from the Soviet Union, the traditional morality they espoused made the Brady Bunch look edgy. My mother, born in a rural part of southeastern Russia in 1960, described a childhood that sounded like the Soviet version of Little House on the Prairie: all friendship, loyalty, honesty, love of land, God, pigtails and simple joys.

A young girl in Magadan, Russia. Unsplash/Artem Kovalev

There’s nothing fundamentally different about the Russian and American soul. Russia just went through a cataclysmic cultural shift that gave rise to a criminal culture at the same time when Americans were having sex on squeaky beds made out of money.

A lot of that is generational. Russian 21-year-olds today have more in common with American youths than perhaps ever before. Unlike their parents, they didn’t have to fight to survive and have traveled widely, and therefore tend to be more liberal and open-minded than their forebears. Unlike their parents, they get most of their news from the Internet, rather than state-run news. And, as photos from rallies show time and time again, many of them are anti-Putin and have an optimistic worldview—a dream of a just, egalitarian Russia free from autocracy and corruption.

I wonder what the author would make of their incomprehensible “Russian soul.”

But even with the generation he spoke of, the one which raised me, I am insulted by the implication that they are somehow inherently amoral. I grew up around a lot of people who had what I might call an uncomfortable relationship with the law. Most of them engaged in low-level crimes. They diluted gasoline with water. They made fake licenses for teens who wanted to get into bars. One guy went to prison so often for illegally importing cars that my friends and I dubbed him “Grand Theft Auto.”

They did things that would look bad on 7th Heaven because of the “survival of the fittest” society in which they came of age, but were by no means amoral. Like the gangsters in Goodfellas, they had a moral code they abided by to the utmost degree.

Provide for your children. Respect your wife. Sacrifice yourself for the people you love. Take care of your elders. Go out of your way for your friends. Help strangers. Give up your seat for pregnant women and the elderly. Never make a promise you can’t keep. Pour wine for the women at the table, and walk them home to make sure they are safe. Buy bouquets, big ones. Take your shoes off when entering another person’s house. And when someone comes over, offer them some food and drink, even if it means going hungry that day.

I have a lot of respect for American values, for their staunch beliefs, growing up as I did on a healthy diet of American sitcoms. But I also recognize the morality espoused by my parents’ generation, and the easiest way I can describe the difference is macro vs micro.

American morality is macro, obsessed with abstract values: truth, honesty, justice, etc.

Russian morality is micro, focused on gestures that are smaller but more tangible: driving someone to the airport, letting a friend crash at your house for months, weathering a snowstorm to get your mom some Advil in the middle of the night.

We in America think we always have the moral high ground. But just as there are ways in which Russians fall ethically short to Americans, so do Americans sometimes fall short to Russians. My mother always said I’m acting like “such an American,” in order to describe when I’m doing something selfish or individualistic. Because American morality is, in some ways, very self-centered, its rules of conduct revolving around ways to make the do-gooder seem noble, as opposed to making someone else’s life better.

My classic example is this: When I lived in Russia in 2011, it was still the kind of place where you walked into the shop ready to argue with the lady at the counter because you knew she would try to scam you over how many sausage links you bought. But it was also the kind of place where if you dropped your groceries, everyone on the street would immediately scramble in an effort to help you collect the apples and oranges rolling away on the ground.

It was the kind of place where if you lost your shoes in the train station because they happened to bounce into the gap between the train and the platform, like I did, you weren’t surprised when a woman appeared out of nowhere and offered you her spare pair, refusing any remuneration in return. It was the kind of place where if you left your trenchcoat at the dry cleaner on a chilly day, every other person on the street would offer you their coat or scarf on the way home. And it was the kind of place where you knew your uncle would come and pick you and your mom up in the dead of night, in the bleak midwinter, from the train terminal without having to ask.

It was a place where people felt they were responsible to sacrifice their well-being for that of another, in onerous, unglamorous ways. Picking up someone from the station in the middle of the night is not nearly as Instaworthy as building a house in a village in Uruguay.

I always compare that to an American friend of mine in college, who like, the Journal author, had a lofty sense of moral superiority. He carried a bust of Beethoven with him around campus, and loved to go on about the summer he spent volunteering in Ecuador or educating you about the bad drinking water in Bhutan. But when his roommate got the flu and asked him to buy some medicine, he said he was too busy, dragging his stone bust to the library, probably to read up on the war crimes of Myanmar.

As someone who grew up in a Russian house, I find that kind of self-centered hypocrisy revolting. But other people, like the Journal author perhaps, would see him as a very morally upstanding citizen because he’d never cheat anyone out of a buck and spends a lot of time worrying about orphans.

What often never seems to occur to those who don’t realize different cultures can sometimes see things differently is that morality is not an absolute. Just as Russians can sometimes appear amoral to Americans, America’s moral grandstanding appears selfish, hypocritical and downright phony to Russians.

This author’s article played right into the type of faux morality that Russians abhor, because his article wasn’t about helping people; it’s about making himself look good.

While he’s patting himself on the back for showing the light to these Siberian savages, he’s demonizing an entire nation of people and promoting insulting Russian stereotypes, which only serves to inflame Russians, further the tension between the two countries and aid Putin. And there’s nothing moral about that.

Diana Bruk has written extensively about dating, travel, Russia-American relations, and women’s lifestyle for Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Elle, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Salon, Vice, The Paris Review, and many more publications. As the former Viral Content Editor at Hearst Digital media and fellow at Buzzfeed, she also has a special understanding of the Internet and vast experience in human interest stories. You can learn more about Diana on her website (http://www.dianabruk.com) or Twitter @BrukDiana

Russians Aren’t Amoral, We Just Have a Different Moral Code