With “Sochi problems” trending around the world, the conversation about Russia (and by extension the Slavic world as there seems to be a misconception that all Slavic cultures are Russian-esque) hasn’t moved much beyond stereotypes. Admittedly, the number of athletes that have flown off alpine courses is alarming and the Ring of Steel is imposing, but the one constant message throughout Western social media is this: we fail to understand the Slavic world.
It’s a vast world, millions of people, with a rich history dating back to the 500’s. It’s a swirling mess of migration, divisions, reshaping, and carving out a cultural identity. To think of it as uniform is foolish. Though the word Slavic stems from their term for “word” (“slovo” referring to people who speak the same language), there is great diversity within the Slavic world. From West Slavs to East Slavs to Southern Slavs (former Yugoslavia – Yug meaning “south” and “slavia”….the southern Slavs. You’re welcome for when that comes up on Jeopardy). Perhaps before re-tweeting the next missing curtain rod pic, we should Slav up!
30 years ago there were limited car options throughout the Soviet world. The biggest choice was between a duzy (big) or maly (small) Fiat. To get a car was a great and rare event. It was a privilege and an exciting one at that. Nowadays it would be nearly impossible to list all of the car options available. From big to small to crossover to brand to power features to power locks. The goal is to have a car that is uniquely your own. Alas, the moment someone has a comparable car, your dream wheels seem to lose their glamour. A friend of ours recounted her childhood when people were thrilled that the options were big and small but now are disgruntled when someone pulls up in a car the same colour as their own. Choice is an awesome thing, but it has opened up a door where special things have become less special the more common they’ve become. In a culture drowning in choices, we’re told that we deserve life to be custom-fit to us. It makes us feel special and there’s probably an app for that. Our little family has learned to enjoy the things we have and not get lost in the sea of always new, but these are vast waters that Slavic people are still charting.
“30 years ago everyone had a job”, boasted one of Matthew’s students. Sitting across from him at his rather large desk, he is now on the board of directors for one of the largest food manufacturers in the country – the same company where he once loaded trucks as a teenager. He speaks with fondness of the time when everyone went to work. You can see the gleam of nostalgia in his eyes. Admittedly, not always the sexiest or most meaningful employment, but there was work. Though he is doing incredibly well for himself, even by non-Polish standards, turning away job applicants takes its toll on him. This might seem trite, but where we lived in Central Poland, unemployment is over 25% and even higher if you’re in your mid-20’s. Any job, no more how mundane, starts to have its appeal when the job market is more of a job dessert. It’s taught us that even a little of something (that boring 6am – 3pm job at the factory) is preferable to nothing. The Western world has been inundated with the evils of Communism, and yet we’re under-versed in the growing pains of playing catch-up with Capitalism.
30 years ago, so our son’s nanny tells us as we sat smashed onto a couch, she had very little in her apartment. She worked in a bank and despite the prevailing poverty of the time, she had a life with perks. More importantly, she had income. With all the changes in Central Europe, her once secure pension is not enough to support her and so she helped us with our son. She sighed as she gazed around her apartment recalling how she had very little under Communism. Not because she lacked funds, but rather it was the stores which lacked supply. Completing her survey of the room, she concluded that she still has very little except now there is almost everything imaginable in the shops – it is she who lacks the funds to buy them. For her, nothing has changed.
30 years ago there was a richness in culture and art that flourished under oppression and scrutiny. Families didn’t disperse (to England mainly) for economic reasons. People were self-reliant.
30 years ago was a brutal time. Governments and ideologies overstepped into living rooms and exerted their horrible whims. People died. People went missing. People suffered.
30 years ago the world would never have been invited or welcomed into Russia, nor would the world have wanted to be. Before we go painting Russia with a rather broad brush, let’s look back. Think about their accomplishments. Their contributions to the global community. Think about what their own governments have done to them. How much change could your country handle? Or your greater cultural group? Or how about you personally? It doesn’t excuse the mishaps or the missing hotel floors, but with this perspective, Sochi looks like quite the achievement. There’s a long way to go, but before jumping on the stereotypes bandwagon, fire up the ol’ Googler and learn about the people being stereotyped.