So I just home from hanging out with some friends at a bar and I decided to write a post about something I have been thinking about for a while. There exists the stereotype that Russians are either mean to each other on the street, that they don't care about anything outside of their own apartment, or that they just are not friendly to strangers. This stereotype has been mentioned to me by Russians and Americans alike and, as far as I can tell, pretty widespread. At first, I agreed with its existence and would have supported someone who said that, in public, Russians seem colder and not to care about people other than themselves. That being said, upon coming here, I was not ready to completely abandon my habits. Throughout my time here, every time I have seen a little old lady struggling with groceries, every time I have seen an old man drop a couple coins, or anything like that, I have immediately and instinctually jumped and asked the person if they needed help. According to the stereotype, the average Russian would not do the same on the street, however, my experience here has supports a somewhat different theory.
In public spaces there exist two types of people: those who are aware of what is happening around them, and those who are not. Amongst those who are aware, exist those people who actively help those in need. That last group of people exchange between themselves a certain nod, a speechless and silent nod that symbolizes either gratitude or acknowledgment. If a person recognizes that you have done some deliberately to benefit them, they may nod at you as if to say, "Thank you for doing that. You did not have to go out of your way to make my life easier, but you did, and I thank you for that" or, if you have done something deliberately to make someone else's life easier and they notice it, you may nod at them to say, "Here you go." This phenomenon, as I have learned from my time here in Saint Petersburg, is universal between our two cultures.
I was sitting near the back of the bus on the way home tonight when a couple got on. The man was carrying their sleeping child, and the woman was wheeling a suitcase and carrying her purse as well as some grocery bags. There was not enough space near the front, so they also approached the back of the bus. When they reached the last row of seats, the man juggled the child around to get his wallet out, which he handed to the woman. The woman put the grocery bags and her purse down in temporary positions as she got the bus fair out from her husbands wallet. She then walked to the front of the bus, paid the fair, and turned to return to our last row of seats. While walking back, she realized that there was nowhere to sit, although there was an empty seat next to me on the opposite side of them. I also noticed the discrepancy and, naturally, moved over to allow the woman to sit next to her bags and her husband, instead of having to stand or sit on the opposite side of me. I would say this instance is "nothing really" and was something so minuscule but when I changed seats and looked at the man, he gave me the nod and I knew, in that instant, what it meant. I nodded back.
Several days ago I was standing on the bus and the doors opened, revealing a young mom wish an enormous baby carriage. It was immediately obvious that there was no way she was going to get the baby carriage on the bus by herself and I, automatically, stepped forward and grabbed the front axel of the carriage and lifted it onto the bus. I am not sure whether she said anything or not, because I was wearing headphones, but I nodded at her and she nodded in acceptance.
As my final example: I was sitting at a bus stop once, zoning out thinking about the book I am reading, when an old man standing next to me dropped his cane. I was completely unaware that anything had happened and really just did not notice what had happened. Coincidentally, a young man was walking past the bus stop, noticed that the elderly man had dropped his can and picked it up and handed it to him. After helping the man, the young passerby came up to me, got my attention, and practically shouted, "What's your problem!? You don't feel like helping an old man who drops his cane!?" He scolded me for not picking up the mans cane... something I would have gladly done, had I only noticed! Not only did he care enough to help this random man on the street out, but he also felt it necessary to basically ask me what my problem was for not doing the same.
All-in-all, I have come to the conclusion that, regardless of what was or what may have been, today, in Saint Petersburg culture lives the concept of helping people on the street just as much as in any city I have ever lived in. Furthermore, this nod of the anonymous philanthropist is also alive and well and practiced regularly, as I see it on a day to day basis.