When I first went to the Soviet Union in 1984, I expected to meet a hospitable people, if not outgoing. The first thing I learned was that Russians never smile. They look grim. They stare. The women especially would often stare at me and then turn away abruptly. In U.S. culture, this could be interpreted as distancing, judgmental, even hostile. It was definitely uncomfortable.
I had a decision to make. I could endure the trip, endure the judgmental and hostile stares without response, or I could communicate that I understood that I was indeed an odd specimen and make a joke of it. I decided on the latter.
The next time I encountered that piercing stare, I said, in my best Russian, which is not good, “I am from the USA – California. I am a schoolteacher.” The first time I said this, it was with smiles, laughter, and as much good humor as I could muster. That is when I learned the full truth: Russians never smile first.
As soon as the words left my mouth, the person who had just been staring grimly at me walked up to me, all smiles, jabbering away, touching my clothing, my jewelry, laughing at the fanny pack I wore, and obviously asking me many questions. All I could do was smile and laugh with them and use my other good sentences: “I don’t speak Russian. I don’t understand.” When we parted ways, it was with a sense of joy, having shared a brief but meaningful moment of being neighbors on this huge planet, united in curiosity about and acceptance of the “other.”
After an entire history of suppression and oppression, the culture that has developed in Russia includes a reasonable set of survival skills: secrecy, suspicion, self-protection, and well-guarded privacy. The stares I received were not hostile. Instead, they revealed intense curiosity about someone who was different, and they also showed an effort to not intrude on my privacy with any eye contact.
In the thirty-five intervening years, much has changed in cultures throughout the world. In Russia, many clerks and waiters have now been trained by western businesses; they now smile at customers and wish them good day – behaviors unheard of and considered very suspicious in by-gone days. Even so, the cultural fears run very deep.
Just two years ago, on a bus in Moscow, I sat facing a woman. Next to her was her husband (I assumed), and across from him was an older woman, probably the mother of one of them. They carried on a quiet conversation, barely audible, and to me, completely unintelligible. My Russian is still limited to introductions and asking directions.
I know better than to stare or even make eye contact. However, even with that knowledge and my best efforts, at some point my eyes crossed the face of the man and our eyes met for an instant. I did what I would do at home; I smiled and dipped my head in a nod.
Big mistake. He responded with a whole-body lurch, suddenly sitting bolt upright, eyes open in astonishment and doubt. He looked at his wife as if to say, “Did you see what she did?” His wife obviously had not noticed. He looked at the older woman – no reaction. He looked back at me as if for explanation and finally tried to disappear back into the seat and the conversation.
I had learned my lesson – again. Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. It is seen as an intrusion. It will not be interpreted as a friendly gesture. Don’t do it again.
Then I did it again. A few minutes later, my eyes crossed the face of the woman sitting opposite me, our eyes met for an instant and I, yes, even knowing better, I smiled and nodded. She lurched in shock, just as her husband had. She went back into conversation more quickly than the man had, but I soon realized that she was talking to me or about me. I could only make out a few words, but I was pretty sure she was wondering why I was listening to their conversation.
I said in my very bad Russian, “I am sorry. I do not understand Russian. I am from the United States, from California.” Then, in English, I said, “To smile and nod is the custom in my country. I was not listening to your conversation. I don’t understand what you are saying. I am very sorry I disturbed you.”
A woman standing behind her said that she spoke English, and she would interpret for me. And so, the conversation went into a three-way exchange.
“What are you doing in Moscow?”
“I help a small charity that supports Russian efforts to help orphans and disabled children, that teaches non-violence and translates books about peace.”
The woman across from me shrugged as if to indicate, “That would be good if it were true.” She did not look at all convinced. We spoke a bit more about my travels, where else I have been, what I do exactly in Moscow. Her expression of suspicion and scrutiny never changed. She nodded when I got off the bus. She never smiled.
Hers was the face of the fear in Russian culture, the fear that responds to the common wisdom: “Someone can get you in trouble if they want to. Be guarded all the time. Trust no one.”
And here is the secret: Ever cautious, always leery of an approaching stranger, suspicious of a casual smile or nod, that same Russian is overwhelmingly generous and outgoing to anyone who needs help and to anyone who manages to break through the barrier with humor.
That second face, generous and outgoing, is the one I have more often met than the face that sustains hostility. The woman on the metro who, at first, gave me the cold, hostile stare, but after I broke the ice, invited me home with her to meet her family and have dinner with them. The young woman waiting for a bus at the end of the work day, loaded with obviously heavy bags of groceries, who carried them a block out of her way to help me find the correct bus for my destination and then had to carry them back to her own bus stop to go home. The nurse in the park charging five kopeks to weigh a person, who, after she weighed me on her scales, decided that I was too skinny and left her post to buy an ice cream bar for me. The men and women on the bus in Ukraine, who stared at me hostilely when I boarded (I had not known that I should have bought the ticket beforehand), and who, when I held up some rubles and said the word for “ticket,” understood that I was willing to pay, that I was a foreigner, and suddenly began handing me tickets and would not accept any money. The man from whom I bought a hand-painted brooch, paying with dollars – illegal at that time in the USSR – who chased me down two blocks to give me the brooch, because I had walked off without it.
The tiny group of Quakers in Moscow hold two small meetings for worship. Getting together across a city of 13 million people is no small feat, so they make it worthwhile. Unprogrammed worship is begun only after all the usual participants have arrived. In the meantime, conversation is casual, quiet, almost preparatory to worship – sometimes Friends talk about Quaker concepts, sometimes about the news of the day or personal events. During worship, there may be ministry or all profound silence. After worship and introductions, there is lively conversation, sometimes debate, about particular concepts or their applications to real life.
Participants include a few who also attend Russian Orthodox services regularly. One such attender told her priest about these very interesting conversations. He was curious and began attending. He sees Quakerism as a way to connect to Spirit directly and in an attitude of openness and curiosity. He has become so convinced that his flock is looking for this direct connection that he stocks Quaker writings in the bookshop at his church and has even donated funds for the translation of two new books.
The secret face of openness, curiosity, and deep spirituality is there to be discovered if we reach out.
My first trip to the Soviet Union was inspired by a photo display by Gene Knudson-Hoffman: simple black and white photos of people of the USSR above a caption that said, “If you can see their faces, you can imagine being friends.” Now, when I imagine the people of Russia – or Iran, or Syria, or a different political party – I see two faces: I see the outer, protective face of fear and doubt, but I also see the secret face of warmth, curiosity, and love underneath that fear. I know in my heart that we are neighbors, that we can be friends. And I know that it is my job to find a way. ~~~
Julie Harlow is a founder of Friends House Moscow and has been the clerk of the International Board for several years. She is a member of Davis Friends Meeting (PYM).