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Response to JRL #77/ Why Russians Don't Smile

Crowd of Russians Including One Waving a FlagDate: Tue, 3 May 2011
From: Robert Bridge <robertvbridge@yahoo.com>
Subject: response to JRL #77/ Why Russians Don't Smile

I am writing in response to Michael Bohm's opinion piece in The Moscow Times (featured in JRL #77), entitled "Why Russians Don't Smile".

Although I found this to be an interesting attempt at explaining why Russians don't bare their teeth in public as much as their western counterparts, it seems to be way off the mark.

The problem with Bohm's thesis is that he attempts to draw a straight line between the lack of smiles that he sees in Russia to what appears to be an incorrect conclusion: that the Russian people are world-weary and depressed due to their sociopolitical situation.

Thus, when we enter the Moscow Metro at crush hour, for example, and are not greeted by rows of sparkling teeth, we might be tempted to begrudgingly conclude, along with Mr. Bohm, that Russians are downbeat and depressed because they "are not free from government abuse, corruption and lawlessness," and "simple things -­ such as finding a spot for your child in kindergarten, getting basic documents from a government agency or receiving medical care ­- can't be done without paying bribes."

My own anecdotal evidence, however, based on a recent trip to New York suggested a similar conclusion. During a recent trip to the Big Apple, I was hard-pressed to find a single smile on the New York Subway. And it should be fairly noted that New Yorkers rank as some of the friendlier and more helpful people in the world. Yet not a single commuter in my wagon seemed overly enthusiastic about the prospects of starting another working day. In other words, not a smile was to be found.

Now, based upon that empirical evidence, would it be fair for a visitor to the US to conclude from this brief sampling of New York subway behavior that Americans are a depressed lot because "the job market is tough, healthcare is expensive and I can't get my kids into the best kindergarten?" After all, things are not a bed of roses in post-crisis America right now, either. In fact, unemployment levels in some sectors of the economy are still stuck in the double-digits, while wages have been stagnant for years. So would it be correct to explain all those smiles on the streets as nothing more than a healthy dependency on anti-depressant medication? No, that would not be fair.

Bohm goes on to say that there "is a large political component that ultimately decides whether a nation's society is smiling or grim. One key factor is how democratic and open a country is."

Although that may sound logical and irrefutable, real life experience does not support this argument.

Norway, for example, regularly leads the UN list of best places in the world to live. The Scandinavian nation, which is also dripping wet in oil reserves like Russia, has a life expectancy of 81 years and a per-capita income of $58,810. Meanwhile, although the political landscape is heating up due to the immigration issue, Norwegians still have tremendous trust in their democratic institutions.

In other words, it would seem that the Norwegian people have everything in the world to smile about. Yet on a recent trip to Oslo, I discovered that smiles are about as hard to come by as polar bears on Red Square. The same thing could be said for the other Scandinavian paradises, as well as Germany: great places to live, but this is not causing the people to break out and flex their cheek muscles.

Finally, Bohm's argument ignores the fact that Russia passed through a 70-year sociopolitical experiment with communism, a system that imposed its own set of traditions that would be altogether impossible for anybody who did not experience life in the Soviet Union to understand.

As one native of Azerbaijan explained it to me, "The Soviet people smiled in their kitchens, but not on the street, whereas the Americans frown in their kitchens and smile on the street." But even that little piece of folksy wisdom tells us little.

Just as it may seem phony or "capitalistic" for Russians to see an American break out in a toothy grin over the smallest event, we also may be too quick to say that the Russian people are morose and gloomy when they do not smile at the same things we normally do.

Thus, it might be better if we all avoid trying to figure out these maddening cultural nuances, otherwise the only smile we will wear is the vacant kind normally found in mental asylums.

Thank You.

Robert Bridge
Russia Today
Moscow, Russia

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