Tradition and History in Russia

After almost two months in-country, my host mom has decided that I am a normal person. Imagine that! Me, normal? I, who come from an unimaginably large family (by current European standards), am studying Russian and Mathematics with a passion, am seriously considering flying to Mars as a career, doing “men’s work” without blinking unless someone stops me, don’t care a whit about fashion, and a steadfast church-going Christian besides, a part of that rare and mysterious group we call “normal”? Wow. And despite the apparent lack of interesting places in my home state, like galleries, theatres, museums, and centuries-old streets to walk along, my host mom does want to visit America…if only to see what kind of planet I come from.

Which is interesting, since I think Russia is almost normal. Well, understandable. Seeing those old streets and structures really helps one understand America’s past and where today’s world originated; interacting with others of a completely different mentality gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “mutual understanding.” Even the weather is differently capricious, and the three interact with each other in ways and on levels beyond my comprehension.

As for tradition and the church…My host family and I visited the small town of Suzdal, several hours from Moscow and a cool hundred years older. Its thousand-year anniversary is just around the bend, although it may have already come and gone: historians argue about whether the town existed in 999, because it was already a full-sized town in 1024. On our way home, we stopped at a church building just off the road. There a thin stream of water of its own accord trickled from a PVC pipe stuck into the hillside. The Russians call such a phenomenon “святая вода” (sacred water) and build a small shelter called a sel’ (сель) to mark the spot. I wanted to say that in my home state the mountains supply us with fresh water, but there is no comparing such vastly different lands. And it’s not a practice I can either condemn or fully agree with. Yes, clear, fresh, flowing water is something of a rarity in this part of Russia, but does it go too far to call it holy?

The strength of the past is so strong here that I am almost ashamed to invite Russians to my humble home. Very few Americans can trace their family lineage farther than a few generations or care enough to try. I know my dad’s side of the family has lived in Oregon for seven generations (since 1843), but that’s it: I know very little of my mother’s side, and in fact there is almost no history 200 years back from the present, and none at all written. On the West Coast known history ends like a cliff, partially because so many of the Native Americans there had died of European diseases years before the pioneers even arrived. Trading my background of dense but gentle, ageless fir trees for a millennium’s worth of inhabited history hardly seems a fair choice – but I suppose the allure of it was what drew people to Oregon – to America – from the very beginning.

The contrast of modernity and the past continues: for instance, despite the allowable emphasis on the venerable Russian church today, not long ago Communism was the mono-religion, and still only a tiny percentage of Russians regularly attend church, even if they profess that faith. I think the trauma of the 20th century was too much to ask of a people so used to relying on tradition for meaning: four cultural revolutions and two world wars destroyed much of the land’s sense of normality and peaceful, ordinary life. No wonder most Americans don’t really understand Russia, and vice versa!

What planet did I come from? One that praises and obeys the God who created laughter, makes sense of tragedy, and unequivocally does good no matter what we humans fling around. Call me crazy, but I know who I am.

By: Hannah Shipman

Program: Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program, Moscow, Russia

Term: Summer 2019

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