Умом Россию не понять, Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone
Аршином общим не измерить: No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness
У ней осбенная стать — She stands alone, unique
В Россию можно только верить In Russia, one can only believe.
— Fyodor Tyutchev
Fyodor wasn’t kidding. The Russian soul is one of the world’s greatest enigmas. Russia’s mysteriousness is the stuff of poetry. It has provided fodder for centuries of flaming philosophical debate filled with circular but profound thoughts and conversation. It has baffled the minds of scholarly academics and carefree passers-by alike—not to mention at least one pensive, Russia-obsessed blogger.
It’s not something that can be defined or learned. As far as I can tell, it’s a feeling—perhaps one that I will never feel or even be able to put my finger on. But the ghost is there—and every time my Russia sense tingles (since developing mutant superpowers seems farther and farther out of reach, this Russia sense doesn’t seem like such a bad trade-off, really), and every time I find myself unable to answer a “how” or “why” question, I figure it must be this Russia-ghost.
This week, though, I believe I may have been treated to a rare glimpse into the Russian soul.
I wasn’t looking for it. I was in class. I was just trying to get my students (all two of them) to string together some coherent English words. We weren’t following my instructions. We weren’t even speaking in complete sentences. Here’s a word: please describe it.
The word was “bread.” I had randomly thrown it in there, thinking it was a word that could easily be described and that all two of my students would know (wrong on both counts). Bread. Back home, the description would almost definitely include the word “sandwich.” Maybe if you’re feeling whimsical, you’ll bring up feeding the ducks. But only after sandwich.
I have a distinct memory of a certain professor in St. Petersburg telling me this: “In Russia, bread is more than bread.” Something about ancient traditions and symbols of hospitality and the remnants of poverty and backwardness and knowledge of true want… But that lecture was years ago and worlds away. I was not prepared for what happened next.
Guys, in Russia bread really is more than bread. The surge of pure, unadulterated Russianness and душевность that spewed out of these two 20-something guys at the sight of the word “bread” scrawled on a scrap of paper can only be described as a miraculous revelation of the enigmatic Russian soul. It began with “It is food. Eat,” as expected. But then…
But then! All two of my students were contributing at this point. Entirely in Russian—but can you blame them? “Tradition.” “Bread-salt” (a Russian word for hospitality). “Babushka.” “Pechka” (oven. Also the focal point of ancient Russian houses. People used to sleep on ovens). “Jam.” “Smetana” (sour cream). “Russian soul…” The list went on. For a brief moment, the great void of the Russian Soul opened up before me and came pouring out at me from the mouths of these previously (and post-iously) apathetic college students. So much history, passion, love—and all from the simplest of words, from a scrap of bread.
Of course the void quickly closed back up. The Russian Soul is like the sun—you look straight at it, and you go blind, and you still don’t know what it really looks like. But I’ll tell you this: deep down, at the bottom of the Russian soul, there is a piping-hot loaf of fresh-baked bread