The Face of Russia

It was Winston Churchill who said Russia is “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” After living here for over two years now I can attest to this more and more each day.

The question often arises in various circles, “Is Russia a Western country or an Eastern Country?” and the answer is “yes.” Russia’s massive landmass spans two continents. The country occupies a large portion of Europe and a massive amount of Asia. In fact the exact geographical center of Asia is located in the Russian Federation. While the majority of the population might live in the European side of the country over two-thirds of the country’s land is located in Asia. In this Asian part of Russia there are large population centers and numerous Slavic populations but there are also numerous indigenous people groups, whose roots are predominantly Turkic, not Slavic. These people groups are distinctly Asian. While these people groups still in many ways maintain many of their own traditions, even their own languages and practices, they are still part of the Russian Federation and they endured the rule of the Soviet Union along with everyone else. Currently, the unavoidable fact exists that the indigenous peoples of Russia have been greatly influenced by Russian culture.

But it goes both ways. Those who know history know that for about 250 years Russia was ruled and raided by the Tartars and Mongols. Many have blamed this period of Mongol and Tartar rule on what has been termed the “East-West Gap,” theorizing the occupation of Russia caused a “delay” in the development of the country. Thus many major social and political changes and reforms that occurred in Europe never took place in the Russia. This includes the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation and the development of a middle class in society.

So when it comes to understanding Russia on the whole, trying to figure out whether it is Western or Eastern, European or Asian, I think Frank Sinatra is helpful – “You can’t have one without the other.” European Russia cannot be understood outside of the context of Asian Russia, and Asian Russia cannot be understood outside of the context of European Russia. To various degrees the indigenous peoples of Russia have been “Russified.” Hence, the vast majority of them can speak Russian to various degrees of fluency. Various Russian and Slavic traditions have entered their culture. This has been unavoidable. At the same time, the vast majority of Slavic Russians have been influenced by Eastern thought and mysticism. Most are highly superstitious. They don’t shake hands over the threshold of a door, and they never give an even number of flowers. Many other superstitions exist.

Trying to understand Russia without looking at her through the lenses of both continents is like trying to watch a 3D movie with one of the lenses missing out of the glasses. One may still get the general picture, but things will be blurry.

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