Society

In Russia, The Suspicious Meaning Of A Simple Smile

Our correspondent dissects the famous lack of overt politeness in Russian society. But things may be getting a bit more pleasant, thank you very much.

Smiles are not universally appreciated
Smiles are not universally appreciated
Marie Jego

MOSCOW - Is it because it's so difficult to pronounce the Russian word for "hello," (zdravstvouite) that it does not come to mind easily? When said to a neighbor, the word usually receives no answer, not even a nod. Thus, the writer of this article, who has been living in the same Moscow building for more than five years, had to wait two whole years before she got a real hello, or a little shake of the head from her neighbors.

A smile is something even more unusual. In Russia, smiling is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, or even worse, as a sign of a possible request about to come. So something generally good to know: the already suspicious Muscovite will be all the more so is he sees you with a big smile on your face.

"I hate the way American people smile, they are like machines," says 45 year-old Macha, a psychologist for an NGO. "Those teeth appearing when they smile, it's both beastly and hypocritical."

Katia, an interpreter and seasoned traveller, points out that "Russian people smile mostly at the airport and when they come back from holidays abroad". A one-liner sums up this Russian attitude: "In the United States people's faces show false civility; in Russia, faces show honest hatred".

In Russia, it is better to remain stony-faced and to utter short sentences if you want to be taken seriously. One January night, I found a woman unable to enter the access code at the front door of my building in the Arbat district in Moscow. I opened the door and told her to come in. The woman rushes past me, rummaging through her bag. She wants to show me her ID. I say "Don't worry, I trust you" -- and it was too much. In a second, the cold silhouette turns into some kind of public prosecutor and points an accusing finger at me: "Unbelievable! You really would let anyone in? It's sheer madness!"

In his book "The Russian Language on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," etymologist Maxime Krongaouz sheds some light upon these different behaviors. "Two individuals who don't know each other happen to meet in a building or to take the elevator together. (…) If they are German, French or American, they will say hello to each other, something that two Russian individuals who don't know each other won't ever do."

To a Westerner, smiling or saying hello is a way of presenting oneself with the best of intentions. In Russia, it is a sign of a suspect attitude. The rule here is indifference. When meeting a total stranger, the best policy is to close yourself off to everything surrounding you and to keep an expressionless stare. According to Krongaouz, the message is that "you are nothing to me, therefore I am not a danger to you."

These past few years however, there's been a noticeable uptick in politeness. People do not throw the subway doors violently in your face anymore, drivers slow down or even stop at pedestrian crossings, and sales people in shops may even shout a loud "zdravstvouite."

But while supermarkets, pharmacies and airlines are now training staff how to smile when they greet customers, don't ever expect the same from custom officers, subway employees, bus drivers and many other public service employees. They remain as inalterably unpleasant – and unsmiling -- as ever.

Photo - alancleaver_2000

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.


The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ