2010 December 08 Wednesday
Life In Siberia

On Dmitri Orlov's blog an ex-pat living in Siberian with his wife finds that the Siberians are very considerate and quiet with people in close quarters such as on small crowded buses. This is appealing.

The first time I climbed aboard a “gazelle” with my wife Anna, I suddenly found myself in very close quarters with about a dozen complete strangers. Keeping our heads down to avoid bashing them into the low ceiling, we took off like a shot through traffic barely before the door was closed. The other passengers took no notice of our assault on their space as we stumbled across their legs and packages to split between us the last remaining seat in the back of the van. Here, the phrase “public intimacy” takes on a new meaning: clearly, close physical proximity or bodily contact is not something Siberians shy away from—not in the gazelle, or the tram, or the bus, or the theatre. Our fellow riders seemed unfazed by their close quarters during this galloping ride through town, maintaining a stoic and formal outward appearance in the midst of this forced intimacy.

I imagined this to be a hold-over from the Soviet era when there was little expectation of privacy. People seemed to understand the importance of keeping up a dispassionate public appearance, especially in close quarters. They were unruffled by the physical proximity. But their complete lack of emotional closeness or openness in such circumstances was a bit of a surprise. As an American, my first thought upon entering the womb of the gazelle was to introduce myself, and then to apologize for interrupting their ride, but luckily Anna stopped me before I had a chance to embarrass myself. The silence was deafening, with not a word exchanged among any of the accidental traveling companions. Even speaking with the person seated on your lap is kept to a minimum because others would be forced to listen to your conversation. The erupting blast of a cell phone’s ring tone made everyone reach for their purse or pocket. The unlucky recipient answered, trying to speak softly and to end the conversation quickly.

I hate hearing the erupting blasts of cell phones ringing at work. The desk phones have less intrusive rings by comparison. Fancy cute cell phone ring tones are more distracting.

On the other hand, other aspects of Siberian culture seem thoroughly repugnant. People should respect queues.

Not only was such waiting an assault on my patience, but on my sense of personal space as well. People stand literally breathing down one another’s necks, in such close physical proximity to each other that they are very often touching. When it is finally your turn to approach the service window, other people often flank you on either side, watching everything that transpires. They might even interrupt your transaction, finding any opportunity to make contact with the person on the other side of the window before their turn. This seeming impatience, or perhaps a lack of concern for others, seemed at odds with the general disinterestedness in time’s passage that I witnessed daily, but it turns out to be another thing entirely: it's just that your time at the counter is not strictly delineated as yours exclusively but overlaps with that of others around you.

Russia is a tragedy. The central government is thoroughly corrupt. Going from the Tsarist era to the communist era even more thoroughly undermined the formation of social capital. Concern for others is an essential element of a civilized people. People must be willing to sacrifice for order or society will not work well.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 December 08 11:08 PM  Culture Compared


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