The Russian coat of arms is a double-headed eagle. Adopted by the Russian Empire in the 15th century, it proved to predict the future of the country with a surprising accuracy. There are in fact two Russias. One is the one we know from the media: an aggressive, anti-Western entity living off its natural resources; a political provocateur ready to do whatever it takes to achieve its goals; a mass blindly following its leader and a bunch of extravagant millionaires, drinking vodka with champagne, reading Tolstoy and snacking caviar. The other one, that I want to talk about here, is the mundane, everyday Russia that you can see outside of Moscow, in thousands of Russian towns and cities.
I spent my year abroad in Perm, located on the European side of the Ural mountains. I chose to go there because I wanted to see the real Russia, which, as the locals say, begins beyond MKAD (the ring road surrounding Moscow). The real Russia is not in fact the scary, aggressive place portrayed in the media. The sensational information about political events are often as distant pieces of TV news as they are here.
This is not to say that the stereotypical view of Russia does not contain a grain of truth. Most certainly, Russia is an aggressive empire, living by, to say the least, a looser political ethical framework than the rest of Europe. When it comes to people, however, things look very different. Even though Russians may seem rough at times, they welcome their visitors. It is much more difficult to leave Russia than it is to leave other European countries, and therefore many treat any encounters with foreigners as a substitute of foreign travel. On top of that, Russian hospitality is almost legendary. The maxim that friends of friends are also friends is alive and well. Once, I was invited to a samovar tea party by a friend of a friend. What I expected was some tea and biscuits, what I received was a multi-course dinner and a ride back home.
At first glance, Russia can be overwhelming and somewhat intimidating. The streets are very wide and the post-Soviet architecture can be depressingly grandiose. People are much more open and straightforward than much of Europe. However, on closer inspection, it turns out that Russia is full of nice, interesting, caring, people, feeding you all sorts of foods that you have never seen before.
What, then, is the other head of the eagle like? To begin with, it is much bigger than the other one. Russia is an immense country. Its territory cuts through nine time zones, compared to the mere three which stretch across the US. It is inhabited by over 140 million people, who belong to 185 different ethnic groups, most of whom speak their own language and have a strong sense of national identity. With such a mixture of different nations and cultures involved, no answers can be simple and straightforward. The ‘political’ head of the Russian eagle is an important one and should not be ignored. Its other, ‘mundane’ head, however, should not be overseen and forgotten, overwhelmed by the other one. Even though Russian politics can be terrifying, it should not influence the image of Russia, which is so much more.