Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Learning to Fish for Yourself

     "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime". This well known quote by Lao Tzu (6th Century BC) expresses the reality of life in the countries which made up the Soviet Union quite nicely.  It has been twenty years since the breakup of the Soviet Union and many people are still looking to the government to do things for them.

      A Russian physician in his forties expresses the frustration of many when he says, "The Soviet system deliberately kept us as dependent children," he said. "They told us when to sit, when to stand, what to say, what to think, what to do — we were punished severely if we ever tried to think for ourselves or to show any initiative. Then when the Soviet system fell in 1991, we were like 3-year-olds who someone had thrown out into the snow, saying, 'Here, now you go take care of yourselves!'"

      His right arm thrust upward with flexed muscles and clenched fist as he declared: "We are not stupid! We are not lazy! We just don't know how!" Both his arm and his voice dropped as he softly said, "Please help us. Please teach us how to be good husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, friends and lovers, employers and employees. No one has ever role-modeled to us how to become these people in a healthy, balanced way." 1
      Most Americans would be astonished to read this, especially since we were raised to be very independent, self-reliant, and taught not to rely upon the government for assistance unless absolutely necessary.  The United States is more of a "left-brained culture" that respects and encourages: logical and analytical thinking, rationality, objectivity, responsibility, initiative, independence, honesty, dependability, trustworthiness and punctuality; and an active work ethic that emphasizes quality workmanship and accomplishing objectives in a timely manner. While there are many people in the United States who are innately more right-brained, the country as a whole still remains a left-brained culture in education, business and government. Emphasis is placed on "doing."

    Russia is more of a "right-brained culture" that respects and encourages: communication, connections, spirituality, philosophy, subjectivity, adaptability, flexibility, survival, communal concepts, formality, and tradition; and emotions that are deep and passionate. Relationships with friends and family are a high priority, and most Russians have a wide knowledge and love of the arts and culture. They are more reactive than active. While there also are many people in Russia who have left-brained personalities, the country as a whole still remains a right-brained culture, and this affects all aspects of life. Emphasis is placed upon "being." 2

    What is true of people in Russia is also true of people from the other nations that comprised the Soviet Union.  There are some individuals in these countries who have taken personal initiative to improve their own personal surroundings, but the number of people who have done so is very limited. There are also cases where people get together with the intention of improving their surroundings, but they lack the necessary funds to accomplish this goal. 

     Overall, the people are very kind, but they feel helpless because they lack the necessary resources to bring about the changes that they want and need.  Public roads and buildings are the responsibility of the government, but taking pride in one’s neighborhood or home is a matter of personal initiative.  

    One of the major differences between the American and Russian people is the influence of the Orthodox Church on Russia.  The Russian soul has been described as: sensitive, imaginative, compassionate, patient, strong (well-known for survival in unbearable circumstances), poetic, mystical, fatalistic, introspective, mistrusting of rational thought, trusting intuition, fascinating, having ability to feel a wide array of extreme human emotions (from absolute joy and peace to the darkest despair) — the list goes on. Russians maintain their integrity in a way that conforms to their inner notion of what a human being should be, with a blatant honesty and integrity seldom seen elsewhere in the world. Above all they have an appreciation for wholeness or complete commitment and faith, no matter what that faith might be related to.3  
    The Russian soul evolved and entered into Western consciousness in the 1860s and 1870s, most famously through the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his novels and stories, Dostoevsky often exhibited an anti-European nationalism and frequently suggested a “people’s spirit” held together by “unexpressed, unconscious ideas which are merely strongly felt.” By the time of Dostoevsky's death in 1881, the “Russian soul” had completed its evolution in Russia.4  

     From about 1880 to 1930, largely thanks to Dostoevsky, the “Russian soul” concept spread to other countries and began to affect foreign perception of the Russian people. For many Europeans the idea offered a positive alternative to the typical view of Russians as backward, instead depicting the Russian people as an example of the innocence the West had lost. The popularity of the “Russian soul” continued into the 20th century but faded as Soviet power increased. By the 1930s the concept was slipping into obscurity, but it would survive in the work of the numerous writers who devised it.5

     The concept of the “Russian soul” may have gone out of fashion as Soviet power increased; however, now that the Soviet Union is no longer a reality, it is my contention that this concept is returning.  Even among those who do not profess a faith in the Orthodox Church, the ethos of Orthodox spirituality is very much a part of the daily life of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian people.      

   Since the fall of the Soviet Union, life has been very challenging in these various countries; however, there is hope that things will improve over time. What has helped the people to deal with these major changes is their Russian soul which is their source of inner strength allowing them to cope with so many things that would have probably destroyed them, had it not been for their soul.

   The impact that men such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and others have had on Russian culture has been profound.  These men were certainly products of their generation, but they also influenced and continue to influence countless generations that have come after them. 

    As long as the spirit of these men remains alive in the East the “Russian soul” will also remain alive.  Suffering for its own sake makes no sense, but since suffering is a part of human life it is easier to suffer knowing that one’s suffering is united to the suffering of Jesus than believing that it has no point at all.  This is one of the aspects of a Russian soul.  It is an indication of the resilience of the human spirit and confirmation of the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who said, “Anything which does not kill you, will only make you stronger.” 6

     Hopefully, the younger generation of people from the former USSR will be able to learn to fish for themselves so they will not be so dependent upon the government.  This is necessary for the survival of the nation and the culture.  Imposing Western ideas on the Slavic people is not the answer because their thought process is different from the West; however, it is important to introduce such ideas so that they can be understood and adapted into an Orthodox mindset.

                                                   End Notes

2)    “Left Brained Americans, Right Brained Russians”

3)    “Russian Soul”

4)    Robert C. Williams, "The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism," Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 573-588, accessed November 28, 2012.

5)    Robert C. Williams, “The Russian Soul…”

6)    “The Beauty of the Russian Soul”


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