Russian culture: Keys to Understanding

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– There is a general emphasis on individual cognition. For Russians, the criterion of truth is experience and to learn means “to become familiar with something through personal realisation and empathy”[1]. This issue is aptly summarised in the works of N.A. Berdyaev (a Russian political and Christian religious philosopher): “For suchlike is the absolute spirit of Russia, in which everything has to transpire from within, and not externally”.

– In the minds of Russians, individuality and uniqueness is an important aspect of a “person”.[2] From the beginning of the 19th century, individuality as singularity and “unconsumability”[3] of the person (or of any “object”) was analysed and discussed by many Russian philosophers. For Russian religious and scientific thinkers, the notion of person as a unique individuality had a special meaning.[4] At the same time, individuality was perceived as being distinguished from the rest, rather than being separated from them. According to N. Berdyaev, individuality that achieved absolute separation and alienation from the universe would disappear completely, for a person was an “organic member of the global cosmic hierarchy” and could unlock its potential only in a “universal, cosmic existence”.[5] The thesis of individuality losing all its worth without any ties to the rest of the world is very characteristic of the Russian mindset.

openness to other opinions, people and cultures or universalism, e. the ability to see, understand and accept another as an equal person; the ability and willingness to be understood by others; the ability to incorporate something new from another, to assimilate it into their own culture.

This value is transparent in sayings of writers and philosophers about a Russian person, for example:

– the famous statement by F.M. Dostoyevsky about the “pan-European” and “universal” destiny of the Russian people.[6] When studying this issue at the end of the 20th century, V.V. Kozhinov, a journalist, literary critic and scholar, emphasised that the “all-humanity” of Russians was not a fictional trait found in literature, but an “organic” quality deeply rooted in the national character.
– quotations of N.O. Lossky (an Orthodox Christian theologian and a Russian philosopher) about “kindness” and the gentle soul of the Russian people, their search for the “absolute good” and their sympathy for misery of another. To prove his words, Lossky cites observations made by foreign travellers. It seems relevant to recall a saying by the British historian Bernard Pares on the simple kindness of Russian peasants[7]; or another one, made by Mackenzie Wallace, a British journalist, about amiable and peaceful nature of a Russian.[8]

[1] Frank S.L. Russkoe mirivozzrenie [Russian Worldview]. Electronic source:

[2] Ref.: Berdyaev N.A. Dusha Rossii [The Soul of Russia]. M.: Typography Association Sytin, 1915. 42 p. P. 41.

[3] Bakhtin M.M. Collected Works: in 7 vol. M.: Russian Dictionaries, Languages of the Slavic Culture, 1996–2012. Vol. 5. 732 p. P. 65.

[4] Plotnikov N. Ot “individualnosti” k “identichnosti” (istoria ponyati personalnosti v russkoi culture) [From “individuality” to “identity” (the history of the concept of “personality” in Russian culture)] // Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. 2008. № 91. Electronic source:

[5] Berdyaev N.A. Smysl tvorchestva (opyt opravdania cheloveka) [The Meaning of the Creative Act]. M.: G.A. Leman and S.I. Sakharov, 1916. P. 147.

[6] Dostoyevsky F.M. Pushkin (ocherk) [Pushkin Speech] // Dostoyevsky F.M. Dnevnik pisatelia [The Diary of a Writer]. Saint Petersburg.: Azbuka Publ., 2008. 462 p. P. 442–459. P. 459. N.A. Berdyaev wrote about the national “selflessness” and “self-sacrifice” of Russian people at the beginning of the 20th century. Ref.: Berdyaev N.A. The Soul of Russia. M.: Typography Association Sytin, 1915. 42 с. С. 12.

[7] Pares B. The Objectives of Russian Study in Britain // The Slavonic Review. Vol. 1, No. 1 (June, 1922). P. 72.

[8] Wallace D.M. Russia: in 2 vols. London: Cassell, 1905. Vol. 1. P. 5.

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