Russian Etiquette Nowadays

A color photograph taken by photography pioneer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in 1905
showing an unknown Russian noblewoman sitting on a porch at her mansion in western Siberia.

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The last Russian Emperor Nicholas II wanted to return the Russian nobility title its historical significance, where a nobleman would be one who was conferred a land title in reward for state service merits, instead of simply inheriting the rank. A broad-scale state programme was conceived to recommend for new gentry representatives of the large-landowners, even from among the peasant class, who would become a pillar of the monarchy. A particular emphasis here was made on moral qualities of the candidates, their overall education and knowledge of etiquette norms, accepted in cultured society. This step was perceived as a furthering of the Russian national revival process, begun in the first half of the 19th century. However, this was not to be. The February bourgeois revolution and the ensuing bolshevist coup of 1917 dealt Russia a resounding blow shattering the monarchy, unleashing a succession of tragic events.

The bolshevist revolution of 1917 uprooted many-centuries old moral principles and traditions, which were subsequently supplanted with new, “proletarian forms”, with the slogan: “He who was nobody, shall become everything!” Religion, national history and culture, rank and title hierarchy, the patriarchal power structure and, of course, noble upbringing, based on a spiritual-moral foundation and etiquette – were all jettisoned blithely.

Such notions as “haut ton”, good form, refined manners the soviet authorities substituted with class intuition!

The revolution destroyed the gentry class, the custodian of culture traditions. “Its representatives were massacred, banished into emigration, stripped of electoral rights and relegated to the lowest of ranks. Their place was taken over by the communist party, the dictatorship, which underwent certain changes depending on the actual personality at the helm, but never lessened its grip in essence”.

Having wreaked the rich Russian culture and banished its custodians from the country, the soviet power nonetheless was unable to fully stamp out the people’s traditional moral foundations. The best cultural traditions still survived on a subconscious level – something that manifested itself in a striving for lofty esthetics and moral beauty.

The first wave of emigration consisted of nobility and representatives of the intelligentsia: scientists, writers, lawyers and philosophers. What Europe saw were no straggly bunch of emigrants, but the veritable “comme it faut Russian-style”: highly educated, boasting a refined upbringing, subtle taste and faultless manners; they also demonstrated sincerity and artlessness. And if we ask what exactly truck foreigners the most in these Russian emigrants – the answer would be refined manners that could only be inculcated on the basis of Orthodox ethics. It’s important to stress this, since etiquette and upbringing are not one and the same. Etiquette, or the outward behavioral manners, can be used to cover up vices and hidden agenda.

Russian etiquette is indivisible with high morals and overall culture level, and, consequently, the national roots. This is, most probably, a purely Russian phenomenon, when the behavioral form is indispensably linked with sincerity and dignity, but not with hypocrisy or double standard. So a remarkable spiritual fortitude and lofty level of culture and education, characteristic of the “first wave” of the Russian emigrants not only amazed peoples of Europe, Asia, America and Australia, but also impacted their culture.

And so, what was happening with the culture of Soviet Russia? The Bolsheviks, upon coming to power, initially destroyed and jettisoned everything that was in some way connected or associated with the detested monarchic regime. They branded cultured manners, etiquette, courtesy and good form nothing but vestiges of the past, since these were all rooted in Orthodox Christian virtues. Genteel manners were supplanted by coarseness and vulgarity, which were passed off as artless, unaffected relations between people, a sincerity and spontaneity.

However, there came a time when soviet leaders developed a need for etiquette: they needed it for conducting diplomatic relations, forging ties with foreign countries, concluding agreements and signing treaties. That is when the Bolsheviks began to engage representatives of the nobility (who had accepted bolshevik rule) in diplomatic work, drawing on the latter’s vast experience in the more refined modes of conduct. The more well-known of these were - People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Georgy Chicherin and Alexandra Kolontai – Russia’s first woman ambassador. These people saved the day, since besides an excellent education they also wielded the secrets of etiquette and high society decorum.

In the Red Army the situation was similar. They were actively engaging “military experts” from among the former officers of the Czar’s army, while at Military Academies soviet officers were being taught good manners and dancing.

But there was also another reason why etiquette was in such demand back then: it became a means for the new soviet elite - from among the party leadership - to set itself apart from the ‘popular masses’. It became all the rage for them to provide their offspring not only with diversified education, but also a classical upbringing. A very interesting historical parallel emerged: having charged the Russian aristocracy with using an elitist education to fence themselves off from the other classes, soviet party establishment was doing exactly the same thing. They, too, wanted their children and grandchildren to resemble the aristocracy. Only now etiquette was required exclusively for providing outward polish, without its inherent spiritual-moral content.

It became common practice for the high-ranked functionaries to engage ‘former’ princes and princesses, counts and countesses to teacher their wives and offspring genteel manners. The descendants of noble family lines became teachers, tutors, nannies. Many of them had to face adversity, daily hardships remaining in daily fear of reprisals, so they had no choice other than to accept these conditions.

At the end of the 1950-ies – early 1960-ies soviet authorities finally deigned to turn their attention to the common soviet citizens. The country’s contacts with foreign countries were broadening, an ever increasing number of foreigners were arriving in the USSR… It became evident that it was unseemly and not in the best interests of soviet propaganda to behave like the communist leader Nikita Khruschiov, with his shoe-banging incident at the UN. Diverse publications started to publish columns on manners and comportment, and a while later the actual word etiquette gained a foothold. There was no denying the obvious fact that all of Russian culture in essence was of noble stock: the great Russian writers, poets, composers, whose works the world had long acknowledged as classics, were predominantly from among the nobility. In literature – Vasiliy Zhukovsky, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Ivan Turgenev; in music – Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergey Rachmaninov, and others. All of them were of noble birth, aristocrats in spirit, - something that was naturally reflected in their art. Their classical art and literature refine the soul, enlighten the mind and enrich one’s palette of emotions.

Finally, the invisible link between art, literature and comportment aesthetics became evident. The Soviet land developed a renewed interest in etiquette. However, a return to original cultural values takes time. 70 years of atheism had left their mark. A major part of the soviet people felt that etiquette was but an anachronism. The soviet doctrine had painted a rosy picture of an ideal builder of a communist future. Christian values were substituted by a communist utopia. The worker-peasant characters in soviet films and literature blatantly despised “bourgeois” etiquette, believing it to be a show of prudery and affectation.

At the end of the 1980s our country showed promising signs of a return to original values and a much-anticipated spiritual resurrection: churches were reopened, people were starting to re-embrace the faith. An interest was stirring towards national roots, forgotten nobiliary culture and traditions of comportment.

The break-up of the USSR in 1991 brought about a change in the country’s political formation. The new Russia embarked on a road towards democracy. Translated from Greek, “democracy” means popular power. But without profound, centuries-old traditions people are nothing more than a rabble, without spiritual ideals or developed cultural values. At this point one recalls the words of great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin: “Savagery, infamy and ignorance have no respect for the past, groveling only in the face of the present”.

Power had been seized by people far removed from national traditions, readily embracing foreign modes of behavior. In the sphere of business relations they often showed deplorable lack of traditional moral concepts regarding ethics, etiquette and protocol. For a majority of Russian business people, quick financial gain at any cost became the priority.

However, if the soviet «elite» still had an opportunity to learn from the remnants of Russia’s noble descendents, contemporary representatives of power structures and big business were not so fortunate. In our day and age one would be at a loss to find genuine samples of civility and refined manners. The life of a greater part of the new Russian “elite” boils down to a succession of swanky parties and mindless money-spending at lush western resorts. Alas, these people have done anything but improve the image of Russians as seen through the eyes of Europeans.

Russia boasts a truly amazing history, a powerful spiritual potential and remarkable culture. The country’s revival must begin with a return to one’s roots. When all superfluous and alien, trite and redundant is peeled away. And once again this country will face the world in all of its profound spiritual harmony and purity, nourished by remarkably beautiful and vastly rich Russian culture. A new generation of people will subsequently emerge, with respect for Russian traditions, a deep love for their native country, boasting excellent upbringing and education, faultless taste and refined manners. In a word, “comme it faultRussian- style». One would certainly like to believe this will happen…

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
4 February, 2012