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Taking Photos In Russia

"Morshna ya vas snimoo". Kirill and I got that one sorted out before we even left Perth. By the time we arrived at Sheremetevo airport in Moscow (June or July 2011) I had already committed it to memory. It is polite Russian for "May I film you?"

Problem is it doesn't do any good. Dozens of times I have asked this question and the inevitable reply returns "nyet". No amount of explanation that we are trying to make a documentary does any good. Telling people that we are driving to Magadan in old soviet motorcycles just confirms the suspicion that we are crazy and possibly trouble makers and that they would do well to avoid contact with us altogether.

People here don't seem to like to have their picture taken. The twin brothers Silneki are men of the highest calibre with whom John and Kirill made friends on earlier adventures and they were awesome to us on our first week here in Russia. They are indeed serious men but they are not joyless. They can laugh and joke with gusto. Yet they refuse to smile in photographs. They seem to really dislike having their photo taken. Somehow a photo is a serious moment if it is even allowed to become a moment at all. Perhaps a moment for gravitas and certainly not a moment for something so frivolous as a smile. Let alone the stupid faces and poses we like to pull in our photos.

Which brings me to another thing I have learned about Russians. When I first got out amongst the people of Moscow I set about trying to make friends. In a country where I speak only a little of the language I tried in the best way I know how. I smiled at people. In just the same way I might walking down a street in Fremantle. I smiled at people in the hope that they might smile back and the channels of communication could be opened to be filled with my basic and halting Russian and a stream of words in the other direction that I do not understand. But my smile was never returned.

Just smiling gets you nowhere. It is not the right way to meet Russians. You have to start talking and after a few sentences you can crack a smile. I explained the problem I was having to Kirill. If I smile at people nobody will even give me the time of day. When I keep a straight face and lay on my very best (very bad) Russian people are friendly.

Kirill explained that Russians believe that only crazy people smile for no reason. If you smile at strangers they will assume that you are crazy and they will avoid you. That says less about the mentally Ill in Russia and more about the sane majority. I always thought that a smile indicated happiness. At the very least I thought that it indicated openness. An indication that you are easily approached or about to approach. A way of saying 'hi' without opening your mouth. In russia apparently the odds are much higher that you are mentally Ill. My guess would be that the incidence of mental illness is not higher in Russia than anywhere else. Merely that the incidence of happiness is lower.

In many ways Russia has thwarted my expectations. The weather in Moscow and here in Siberia is often a barmy 20 something degrees and I've barely had a sip of vodka. However in other ways Russians have been every bit the people I had read about and expected. They are serious people. Not prone to frivolous smiles. Aware of their heavy history and it's meaning. They learn their history not so they may avoid it's repetition but so as to know what to expect. Under Tzars, Bolsheviks and now the helicopter flying, horse riding, race car driving Vladimir Putin, they have learned that the security apparatus is watching at all times. They know only too well what a photograph can do. As John opined "No Russian wants to be on the front cover of National Geographic or Time Magazine when in lands on Putins desk."

Yet at other times a completely different Russia emerges. With some Russians we have become great friend after only days or hours. Russians are not quick to trust strangers yet that wariness of strangers makes the trust all the stronger when earned.

We always have friends waiting for us in the next town because they are the friends of our good friends in the last town.

Cute Russian Girl

Kirill Posing

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Ryan Albrey published on January 16, 2013 9:53 AM.

Some limited progress for Democracy in Indonesia was the previous entry in this blog.

Malaysia and Indonesia. You could be so good together is the next entry in this blog.

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