Russians are very tough. We all know it from movies and viral memes like, “Meanwhile in Russia.” But why is that? What makes them so gloomy and rough? In this post, I will give you the answer and show you how does this work on the personal story of my family and explain what Russians are afraid of.
Russians are so tough because of the totally different mentality unusual to Westerners. Russian brutal character was nurtured by very dramatic events of the 20th century and life in harsh climate conditions. This is why Russians are afraid of fewer things. However, Russian toughness is exaggerated by Western pop-culture, which overlooks the reverse side of the medal.
Modern Western movies picture a typical Russian as a perfect villain – an iron man without a soul. But let’s be objective, people are very different. Here is an example, would you ever say that the guy on the left (A. Vasiliev, a fashion historian) is a tough person? I think no. When a man on the right (Nikolai Valuev, a professional boxer) is one of the brightest examples of those who we call “tough Russian guy”.
However, in the movies, you will never see a lovely and smiling Russian like Mr. Vasiliev. For decades, Western cinematography drew us a classic portrait of a gloomy dangerous antagonist from Rosa Klebb (James Bond film “From Russia with Love”, 1963) to Ivan Drago (Rocky, since 1985) and famous Boris the Blade (Snatch, 2000). Western film-makers are focused on the “tough” qualities, overlooking the opposite side of a coin.
“There’s no smoke without fire” – you can say and be totally right. There are several reasons for Russians to be who they are from totally different mentality to historical events. Let me explain what I mean.
What Made Russians So Tough?
1. Unique mentality
Russian people are very unsmiling and this is 100% true. While the Westerner will smile to show respect and positive attitude to other people, an average Russian will consider such behavior as pretending and sham. They believe, that it’s important to be natural.
In reality, not many people can say that they feel happiness often. Most are deeply worried about their personal problems: how to feed a family, how to make a job well, how to provide children with better education and so on. This is exactly what you see on Russian’s faces, a reflection of what is going on inside.
Most of the ex-pats say that it’s difficult to get used to this feature. By the way, if you want to know about other difficulties that foreigners face, read my post “What is Russia Like to Live in”, where I gathered feedback from people who came to live in Russia for a long time.
Russians are champions in cutting corners, they always choose the fastest way to resolve the problem. What a nice quality, you might thought. Well… Not always.
Once I was told a story. Tow guys go in a car. Then one is asking to stop immediately, jumps out, comes to a passer-by, beats him and takes his laptop. “What’s up with you?” – asks another one in shock. “He owed me the money” was the reply. When a Westerner would call for the police and go to a court to restore rights, a Russian would resolve the problem as he or she can, for example by putting up a fight.
This necessity of immediate resolution partly explains the popularity of bribery and corruption. It’s far easier to give a bribe to a traffic officer than to drag to pay the fine. Imagine, what happens when it comes to agreeing on a big project?
For this need of immediate satisfaction of their needs, Russians have a reputation of tough people.
Russians are too straight-forward and you can see it from their speech and habits that often seem rude or disrespectful to Westerners.
It’s fine to say at the table “give me the salt” (подай мне соль), without any beautifying as “could you please…” (I need the salt, so I ask about it directly). In a cafe, it’s a casual situation when someone is rising a hand and says “Girl!” (девушка) to call for a waiter. “Why not? She is a female and I’m calling her” – that is how Russians see this.
I first felt this difference when I was in England. We were at our host’s house watching the movie in darkness and the host who liked some lightning came into the room and said: “Would you mind turning on the lights?”. By our Russian habit, my husband and I replied: “No, thank you, we’re fine”. And only meanwhile, I understood, that he actually meant: “I want to turn on the light”. The message I received from the host was not straight-forward and I got it wrong.
Here is another example: Have you ever seen how do Russians cross lawns? They always choose the fastest and the most direct way no matter what. If there is a one-meter fence, a Russian would rather jump, but never take a few extra steps. Here you can see one of the most beautiful examples.
For this habit to omit polite words and be overly-direct, Russians sometimes seem tough and rude, when in reality it’s just a part of their mentality.
Russian children are brought up tough. I was surprised when I learned that the law of some states in America prohibits you to leave children under 10 at home alone because in Russia, things are very different.
One American lady, who now lives in the Russian countryside, said that it was very difficult to get used to the fact that 7-year olds go to school to the next village with no adults. In cities, some children go to school and back by bus or metro and it’s not surprising.
At the age of four, I went to the shop to buy milk and bread. At six, I babysat my two-year-old sister, and of course, nobody watched me when I went to the forest to pick up mushrooms at the age of 7. At 8, I was allowed to take a boat to swim near a bank and all these things seemed very natural.
Generally, Russian kids are taught to do many things as if they were adults, they are very independent and basically can care of themselves. That’s why even little Russians look tough.
2. Farmer Heritage Makes Russians Really Tough
The vast majority of Russians come from the working class or farmers. My own family comes from those who lived and worked in the countryside. Most of my ancestors were peasants, who got used to a difficult life. They passed this on through the generations.
After the revolution, one of my great grandparents worked in the so-called “kolkhoz” (an obligatory union of farmers) on the North-West side of Russia.
When my granny who grew up there tells me about her childhood, there’s no need to ask myself why are Russians so harsh. In brief, there was endless hard work from early morning to late night. All the production was given to the state, and a worker received food depending on how many working days he had.
Luckily, they didn’t starve, but everyone worked since early ages: 10-year olds harrowed fields, 8-year olds babysat infants, while their mothers took in the harvest. No one could afford to miss a “labor day”, otherwise they would not be paid.
Along with this, people had to collect food for the winter: pick up berries, mushrooms, salt down fish and so on. And of course, nobody freed you from other daily duties.
My granny was never afraid of hard labor. She brought up my father who inherited this quality, and I guess I have a bit of it too. This is a very typical story for many Russian people, which partially explains the tough character of Russians.
3. How did the Revolution Changed Russians Forever?
“But what about city dwellers and rich people?” – you may ask. The revolution of 1917 and the Civil War whipped off almost all noblemen and those who owed more or less significant property.
For instance, my granny’s parents who I mentioned earlier lived in a small village, but by 1917 they had a good wooden house, a cow, and a horse. If the revolution didn’t happen, I guess their life could have been more easy and prosperous. But after 1917, the house was replaced with a smaller house and all the animals were taken to the kolkhoz.
Entrepreneurs and the noble class that consisted of educated people either immigrated or were dead. By 1923, about 1.5 million people left the country. So, the tough character of modern Russian is a heritage of a low-class community.
4. What Made Russian Women so Brutal?
A stereotypical Russian girl is a lovely lady, but when it comes to more adult women, the portrait is changing. Russian women are hard-working. It’s natural for them to take care of kids and home apart from their usual 8-hour working day. The reason for this behavior also lies in history. Let me show you this with a personal example.
In 1941, the Second World War came to Russia. At that time, my granny was 10 years old. Her dad volunteered and in a couple of months went missing. The mother stayed alone in the kolkhoz with five children. Since that time, except for her usual duties such as cooking for five, she did all the masculine work herself: repaired house, made fishing nets, and went fishing.
These days we would consider these obstacles exceptionally difficult but at that time it was so common for Russian families. In just 4 years, the USSR has lost 20 million men. Those who came back were deeply traumatized physically and psychologically by fights.
That’s how Russian women had to be mothers and fathers to their children. This masculine and brutal type of behavior was adopted by their daughters and repeated again in the next generations. That’s why Russian women can look tough.
5. How did Perestroika Affect Russian’s Character?
Almost 50 years after the end of WWII, another catastrophe shook the country and made Russians even tougher. This was the collapse of the Soviet Union. When it happened I was a little child, but my parents went through it from the very beginning to its end.
In fact, my family was lucky to own a piece of land where we could grow potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Granny and grandpa had a cow. This was massive support for a family of six.
At that time, in the country, salaries were not paid and people got food by food stamps. From my early childhood, I remember shops with absolutely empty shelves, which was not a bright atmosphere.
I remember my parents working really hard to provide us with all we need. I wouldn’t say that some of the adults were exceptionally smiling people. Everyone was focused on surviving.
For this reason, for many years as an adult, I refused myself in many things I could easily afford. There was an irrational fear, an idea that I need to be ready for a new catastrophe. These days things are different but I think the shadow of perestroika is following many Russians in different forms: some are distrustful, some are suspicious.
Other people were brought up in a dysfunctional atmosphere when you need to fight for things you need. As a result, we have really tough men and women who are ready to take what they want no matter what.
6. Does Climate Make Russians Tougher?
The weather conditions play an important role in the character of a person. Can you quickly imagine a cheerful Viking? Neither do I. And a naturally gloomy Italian?
Russia is mostly covered with snow and no doubt, it makes its people’s characters tougher. In harsh weather conditions, people have to overcome more difficulties. In spite of frosts and winds, people still need to go to work, organize tuition for their kids, hang out with friends, go to the cinemas, and so on.
I have a friend who lived far close to the Pole, and she got used to severe conditions. So when people of St. Petersburg are moaning about short daylight, she’s laughing, as they had a polar night without any sun at all during a month.
Climate puts a huge imprint on people’s behavior and makes Russians tough.
Are Russians Fearless?
Certainly not, but due to the events I described above, they are afraid of fewer things and for this reason seem very tough. I can’t talk for all Russian people, but I will share a couple of real-life examples.
“If only there wasn’t war and people are healthy” – my granny often repeats. This phrase depicts two basic fears: war and incurable disease – something that you can not change, you can not resist. The other things such as unemployment, poverty, loneliness don’t bother her at all.
She will not fall into depression because of unpopular pension reform, the rise of products’ prices, long queues in a hospital. You can imagine how would she look at me if I tell her that I worry that the number of subscribers on my Instagram account is decreasing. Her fears are much more real. War and diseases – which are truly scary.
“So what? Nobody died!” – a good friend of mine often says when something bad happens. This is an example of another great fear – death. You can’t do anything about it, you can’t fix the situation when someone has died. All the rest may be changed. Agree, it’s far easier to live your life when you are afraid of not of million things, but of only one.
“We all die one day” – sadly said my friend’s colleague when an insane customer pulled a traumatic gun right on his face in a repairing shop. Once a hooligan heard this, he decided not to shoot and ran away. The story could have ended very badly, but this humility before fate really shocked me.
Things may vary from person to person, but generally, Russians are afraid of significant negative life changes such as war, disease, and death.
The stereotypical Russian is a tough iron man with no soul. This reputation was earned due to mentality, which is in many aspects opposite to what Westerns used to see. Russians don’t hide their emotions even if they are negative, and they always try to find an immediate solution to their problems and they are very straight-forward.
Russians have become tough people due to terrible historical events, the memory of which is still in their vines. All of them, from the Revolution to WWII and Perestroika, made Russian people who they are today.
Russians often seem fearless, but it’s wrong. They have fears as any other people on the Earth, but their fears are much more basic and they seem not to concern with trivia.
What do you think about the stereotypical portrait of Russian people? Why do you think, Russians are tough? Share in comments below!