It is an ancient observation that people who live in port cities or in portions of a country bordering others are often very different than those who live in the interior of the country, often simultaneously more aware of their own identity but also profoundly affected by the culture and style of those they come into contact with.
But this pattern is seldom discussed by Russians not only because until recently few of them lived in places where they could actually cross the borders and thus be affected by others and because many are clearly reluctant to point to yet another way in which Russian identity, supposedly so strong in the Kremlin’s telling, is actually weak and fissiparous.
In an article in Novaya gazeta, Leningrad oblast resident Anatasiya Mironova says that nowhere do Russians take more pride in putting their appearance in order than when crossing the border into European countries. They don’t want to be put to shame by the quality of life of the Europeans or worse not allowed in.
But this behavior doesn’t stop when they cross or recross the borders, she continues. Russians who return from visiting the Baltic countries take better care of their yards, clean up the trash, and make sure that their houses are painted well. Moreover, the closer they are to the border, the more they are inclined to behave that way.[quote]“Perhaps, therefore, the most well-appointed Russian regions are those at the border. There where people often go to Europe.” Even between the northern part of Leningrad oblast and its southern section there is a huge difference in how Russians behave. Even in impoverished Pskov oblast, those near the border dress better.[/quote]
And in Kaliningrad, even the homeless appear well-dressed, she adds.
Until recently, almost two million Petersburg residents visited Finland at least once a year – that is “about half of the working-age population.” Now, they don’t have the money to do so because of the economic crisis; but they still are affected by their image of what is appropriate in Finland – and that guides their actions even when they don’t travel.
Mironova says she would not be surprised to find out that “in fact in Finland there exists a secret program for bringing Russians up to snuff. Who wants to live alongside a neighbor who isn’t concerned with his own home? Nobody.” And the Finns have played a huge role in transforming Russians in the northwestern part of the country.
“Finland has trained us to eat better foods! In Petersburg as in Kaliningrad and Pskov, there is a lot less bad food being sold than in central Russia.” People know what fresh milk is and expect it, and these expectations affect what is sold even in parts of the city where people travel compared to those where they don’t.
[quote]“What would Petersburg be like if it weren’t 200 kilometers from Finland? And what would be our entire country which now is ruled by people from Petersburg be like as well? There are few who have done as much for Russia as today’s Finns. For thanks to Finland, we have federal officials who from their youth know European cleanliness, manners, and quality.”[/quote]
If those in power in Moscow had come not from Petersburg but from Yaroslavl or Kirov, she concludes, “I fear we would all have to begin to weep.”
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