Arduous Love: A Study of Pain and Passion in Russian Culture
Love with a Russian is a love like no other. It is not for the weak of heart—it’s more emotional, more turbulent, and more passionate. You dive. You drown. You are not led by reason or rational thought, but by an intense longing and sensational need for this person. You risk it all, bare your insides, and bask in love’s insufferable, insatiable tragedy.
From my 18 cumulative months living in Russia, I’ve observed that pain is an integral component of contemporary love in Russian-speaking cultures. This pain is manifested through three socially supported tenants that I’ve gathered through informal conversation, personal experience, contextual historical knowledge, and recent state-mandated policies. These tenants explain why and how pain has become important in the expression of love in contemporary Russia.
Note: In the interest of brevity, Russian-speaking populations will be referred to as “Russians” for the duration of the article. The general term describes those who live in Russia and speak Russian regardless of ethnicity.
Tenant One: Emotions Over Reason
“If you don’t have emotions, you’re not really living.”
In Russia, self-expression is important. Emotions are not things you hide. People bare themselves to the world and value sincerity in doing so. These ideas run in direct contrast to the U.S., where happiness alone is the drug of choice, and other emotion—of any type, especially for men—is a sign of weakness. Americans pride themselves on their ability to control feelings and smile through tears. Look no farther for support of this theory than the current “who can care less” phenomenon in contemporary American dating culture in the U.S., which supposes the self above all and shames those who develop feelings.
Alternatively, many Russians believe that if you don’t express emotions, then you’re not really living. This leads people to develop deep friendships that are vulnerable, open, and meaningful. It also leads people to develop hot tempers. People get irrationally upset over the smallest things only to recover just as quickly. Dozens of times, I’ve seen men relax in a cafe or bar, when suddenly, their discussion escalates into a heated argument. Hands bang on tables, voices are raised, and jackets are grabbed. Ten minutes later, the men are toasting their beers only to tightly embrace before heading outside for a cigarette together.
In this way, Russians perceive arguments not as something that will make or break the relationship, but as a sign (or even test) that determines the strength of the bond. Here, arguments signal the development of a connection, and by extension, the potential for growth. In this holistic sense, both negative and positive emotions carry equal weights, and emotions are valued as a necessary part of life.
Tenant Two: Normalization of Pain
“Suffering is a part of life.”
Although Russians have a unique ability to listen to and interpret pain, there is a delicate balance between accepting negative emotion in an informative way and enduring negative emotion out of fear. While people in the U.S. effectively ignore pain, people in Russia tend to dwell in it. There is a pervasive idea that suffering is a part of life, which emerges from both classic Russian literature and history.
Unlike the U.S., which was born from those who achieved certain realities out of successful activism and rebellion, Russia was not created from a revolution. The Russian Federation emerged from the 1991 collapse of the USSR; from the ashes of the Russian Empire; from the graves of the Tsars; and from the beds of the Mongols, Kievan Rus’, Turks, and Tatars. Kazan, the city I currently reside in, celebrated its millennial anniversary in 2005. When Russians talk about history, they talk about the ability to go on in the face of tragedy.
While in Kazan, I’ve thought often about why this country is able to endure the things it endures. The first theory was apathy—a disregard to making things better, or an attitude of not wanting to get involved. For example, while many Russians articulate their discontent with the political climate or with their education, they rarely take action. I’ve since realized that Russians tolerate dissatisfaction because of the belief that events happen beyond human control. Fatalism provides the perfect reason to endure pain and the perfect excuse to do nothing about it. In this way, people endure suffering not because they don’t care, but because it’s quite literally a force of nature.
Tenant Three: Conflation of Pain and Pleasure
“If a man beats a woman, it means he loves her.”
Ultimately, the fatalistic notion that people must endure suffering influences modern perceptions of love and pain. There is a fine line between enduring pain and letting pain immobilize you, but in Russia this line is even fuzzier. People in relationships endure emotional pain because of the belief that intense emotion—even if hurtful—is better than nothing. It doesn’t take a genius to see that letting these ideas run too far helps to breed things like manipulation, emotional exploitation, and domestic violence.
A prime example is the recent law approved by the Russian State Duma in January 2017, which decriminalizes first-time offenders of domestic abuse. Senator Yelena Mizulina, known for her authorship on the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law, was a leader in passing the new legislation, stating that "a man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man.” The new law allegedly aims to ease the penalty for parents who wish to discipline their children physically (e.g. spanking). In reality, this law symbolizes the concession and trivialization of domestic abuse, which has historically been viewed by the Russian government as a non-issue. This is despite the fact that one in three Russian women suffer physical abuse by their partner and 40% of all violence in Russia happens in the home.
Furthermore, not only does this law blatantly avow domestic violence, but it also perpetuates the notion that if a man beats a woman it means he loves her. The societal trend that mistakes violence for love has been cultivated by hundreds of years of literature. In fact, the phrase itself (“if he beats you it means he loves you”) first appeared in the 16th century manual “Domostroy,” (literally homemaking) which lists instructions for a proper family and household.
Additionally, literature from the 18th and 19th centuries supports the conflation of pain and pleasure by purporting that love should be tragic. Authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol, who not only articulated the Russian soul but ultimately canonized it, live on in the hearts of contemporary Russians, who substantiate their ideas about love through their classic novels. Even among young people, there is a certain romantic nostalgia that longs for tragedy over a happy ending, hurt over boredom, and eternal unfulfilled love over rational thought.
Obviously, classic Russian literature has not directly created the recent Duma legislature. But it is foolish to think that literature and history are immune from cultivating Russianness; inspiring the ability to endure; and influencing modern perceptions of love, emotion, and pain. Ultimately, there is a delicate balance between accepting negative experience and enduring negative experience. Pain is a way for the body to perceive physiological and emotional sensations from the external world. Constantly pushing pain away—the U.S. tactic—is not effective because we deny ourselves useful information. Alternatively, habitually tolerating pain—the Russian tactic—is also ineffective because people begin to expect unhealthy experiences.
I hope there is a middle ground somewhere. I don’t know if the U.S. or Russia will ever find this place on a collective, cultural level; in order for ideas about love to change, general concepts such as emotion and expression, which are crafted and followed by the society that creates them, will need to change as well. Given the current cultural climate towards pain and love, I don’t expect to see that happen anytime soon.
"The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself."
Photo: "Open your eyes - against women being abused" by Denitza Tchacarova (CC0 Public Domain) for Flickr. Use of this photo is not endorsement from its creator.