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“No happiness in life”: a very Russian outlook

How endless optimism can make it difficult when confronted with unpleasant choices

“There is no happiness in life,” Vladimir Putin optimistically told journalists after speaking to President Biden recently, “only a mirage of it on the horizon, so cherish that.”

A sense of fatalism pervades the Russian character to such an extent that is hard for Westerners to get their heads round

Apparently, it is a quote from Tolstoy. In deploying it, according to the Daily Mail, Putin was channelling his “inner Bond villain”. It’s certainly a shift in tone from what you’d expect from most Western politicians and a far cry from Boris Johnson, who even in his most despairing moments still manages to throw in a few positive exhortations before fleeing behind the cover of a pair upped thumbs. 

As the bete noire of the West, special importance will be place on Putin’s choice of quotation. However, having spent the last year getting to know Russia and the Russians, it struck me as nothing particularly out of the ordinary. 

Indeed, a sense of fatalism pervades the Russian character to such an extent that is hard for Westerners to get their heads round. Spend any time here and you’ll run into it soon enough.

The day the UK’s vaccination programme started I was at my babushka-in-law’s. “So, I hear you have started vaccinating 90-year-olds,” she said, before asking, “what exactly is the point of that?” In a country where at the turn of the millennium life expectancy for men was under 60, going to such lengths to protect those of such advanced age is apparently difficult to comprehend. Soon to turn 70, she is resolutely against taking any vaccine. 

And it’s not just my babushka who harbours such seemingly alien attitudes. My sports coach is a never-ending source of such Russia-isms. Going through a personal “rough patch” recently, he castigated my resulting sadness as “un-Russian”, before reminding me that whereas in English we say “do or die”, the Russian equivalent is “do and die”. Just the kind of cheery notion to lift one’s spirits. His recommendation to “drink more vodka” a moment later was the perfect chaser. 

It’s not idle advice. Although Russians aren’t Europe’s biggest boozers – the French imbibe more – they’re certainly drinkers to be reckoned with. It can lead to some improbably raucous parties, particularly when combined with the somewhat manic Slavic spirit.

Attending a wedding recently, by about 3pm the groom and ten of his friends were dancing shirtless in the middle of the room to the tune of “Slavic Sky” – a patriotic ditty whose lyrics declare: “Here under the cover of heaven/ We were born […] All of this is our land!” Not only did their performance scarcely raised an eyebrow, it won them a handsome round of applause.

As I watched slightly gawp-mouthed, a fellow party goer came up and asked me: “Weddings must be very serious and boring in England, yes?” Until that moment I hadn’t particularly thought so, but I suddenly found myself reconsidering the point. 

Nor was anybody worrying about Covid-19 regulations. In contrast to the constant discussions about the number of attendees permitted at weddings in the UK, such occasions continue completely as normal here. No doubt there is something right in Rod Liddle’s recent observation that the further east one heads in Europe, the less they care about coronavirus. 

As I type out this article on my phone on the St Petersburg metro on a Sunday evening, hardly anyone is wearing a mask. Those who are, have it pulled down across their chin. A lone LED panel at the end of the train scrolls struggles in vain, pleading with passengers to wear bits of PPE. 

Most will have entered the metro station wearing a mask, only to take it off the moment they get past the turnstile. It’s the same in shopping malls too. The face mask has become an entry ticket, with security guards and punters saving each other a great deal of trouble by going through the ritual of pretending to wear one for a few fleeting seconds.

It’s hard to say where the scepticism comes from. Is it the fatalism of the Russian character, or the scepticism Russians have towards the “official message”?

People are, clearly, just not that bothered. “If it gets me, it gets me,” is the attitude. I don’t know anyone who has taken the Sputnik vaccine – that is apart from a pair of Americans I bumped into. Babushka certainly doesn’t want it. There are reports of a black market in false vaccine certificates developing, something which may only become more common amid increasingly stringent Covid-19 regulations: it was recently announced that from 1 August the unvaccinated will not be able to visit some of Russia’s most popular tourist destinations. As one of the most sceptical nations in the world regarding Covid-19 vaccination, we shall wait and see whether this top-down attempt will run into roadblocks rendered of Russian reluctance.

It’s hard to say where the scepticism comes from. Is it the fatalism of the Russian character, or the scepticism Russians have towards the “official message”? Having spent so many decades bombarded with constant Soviet propaganda, there is a reluctance to take too seriously the words of any politician. I can’t help feel that there is something healthy in this. 

Heaven knows this country has its problems. Step outside the main metropolises and you’ll be confronted with a vast country that is still struggling to recover from decades of communist rule and subsequent unequal growth. No one is more acutely aware of Russia’s problems than the Russians, though they blame vastly different underlying causes.

Nevertheless, I think there is much to be admired in the Russian character. For an Englishman’s taste they are slightly on the overly-animated side; I still find it near impossible to tell when people are having a full-blown argument or jovial discussion, or when babushka‘s imperatives (“eat!”, “drink!”) are borne of grandmotherly concern or irritation. 

But in refusing to take politicians at face value and in forever remaining sceptical of those in positions of power, Russian society has proven a lot more adept over recent months at staying open while much of the world shuts down amid a slew of new health diktats.

After all, life isn’t always sunshine and roses anyway, so you just have to get on with things. Perhaps we would be better off if we borrowed some of that fatalism: endless optimism can make it difficult when confronted with unpleasant choices. Sometimes there is no sugar coating to be done. 

Ultimately the only thing remarkable to me in the reaction to Putin’s quoting Tolstoy was it showing quite how little we understand Russians and their mindset. Given the ever-worsening relationship between our two countries, perhaps we would do well in getting to know them a little bit better.

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