When I was a kid, it was the USSR. On my globe, there was this huge green blob that constituted a number of countries I never even heard of until later in my twenties. It was behind the Iron Curtain. It was a place I knew so little about that I took most of my knowledge from movies like “The Russians Are Coming!” (which is incredibly stupid and wonderful) and comedians like Yakov Smirnoff (“In Soviet Russia, party always finds you!”). It was vaguely ominous and maybe one day we would kill each other, but mostly I just wanted to learn more about it.
After the Collapse Of The Soviet Union, easily one of the most important events of my youth, Russia became a place we mostly cracked jokes about. There was gossip aplenty: Russia was selling tanks to anyone who wanted one, Russia was letting its nuclear-powered submarines rot in dry-dock, Russia’s economy was in tatters. But Russia has come a long way since then.
Russia is huge, and complicated. Russia is the biggest country in the world by land area, and it has over 140 million people (a little less than half the population of the United States) from dozens of different ethnic groups. There are 85 federal subjects (like states in the US), each with varying degrees of representation in the government, some more autonomous than others. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was founded as a place to pursue Jewish cultural heritage, one of only two official Jewish territories in the world (the other being Israel).
Here is something you might not know: In 1820, Antarctica was discovered by a Russian expedition, commanded by the cartographer Bellingshausen. Unlike other European expeditions, it is actually accurate to use the word “discovered” in this case, because (as far as we know) no humans had yet been to Antarctica when Bellingshausen laid eyes on it. And today there are Russians living and working in orbit around the Earth, aboard the International Space Station. You can follow the @Space_Station on twitter.
You probably know that Germany invaded Russia during World War II. But what I didn’t know was that they besieged the city of Leningrad for years. Over a million people died in Leningrad, but the city never surrendered. The Great Patriotic War killed a lot of people, but Russia lost more than most: almost 27 million people in all, and more after the war due to economic fallout. I can hardly imagine such desolation.
But I promised not to talk too much about history. So instead of history, how about a myth: The Language of the Birds (From Folk Tales From The Russian, published in 1903). This myth has some great elements: kindness to strangers repaid in kind, unworthy parents, listening to the wisdom of nature, a terrible challenge, a princess to be won, forgiveness, and a nightingale. You should read the story; it’s good.
Side bar: the nightingale is a common bird in Eurasia and North Africa, but it has an uncommonly beautiful song and features in many works of art and many old stories. It’s called a nightingale because it sings at night, and it has had this name (in recognizably similar forms) for at least a thousand years, which is pretty amazing.
The idea that birds have a secret language or secret wisdom is seen in myths from around the world. Why birds? Why not ants or fish or snails? What is it about birds that humans seem to admire and respect so much?
Anyway, back to Russia!
So, here are two modern-day stories from Russia. First, a maker revolution is on the uptick in Moscow. People are bringing back technologies like blacksmithing, book printing, and wood-working, in part as a backlash to consumer culture. That’s pretty cool. By the way, you can follow the Moscow Times on Twitter @moscowtimes.
On the other side of the country, twin brothers Alexey Ushnisky and Afanasiy Ushnisky founded a studio called MyTona with a hit game called “The Secret Society: Hidden Mystery.” Read about them here. The brothers grew up in Siberia, playing Mortal Kombat on their Nintendo. They taught themselves how to code and have been writing games for years. Nerds are everywhere! Nerds unite! If you like, you can check out some of their games here:
And finally, how Russians are born: