Russian Language Blog

Russia Cannot Be Understood by the Mind Alone… or Can It? Posted by on Sep 3, 2010 in Culture, History, Russian life


The infamous line “Russia cannot be understood by the mind alone” is one of those must-know Russian phrases that comes up pretty much constantly in many situations. It lends itself happily to a collection of jokes and funny images that, like the photo above, seem to confirm that Russia is indeed a land of unfathomable mystery where even the screw-ups cannot be fully comprehended by foreigners. 

Many people in Russia nowadays lament on the state of Russian language. They point to its general decline, especially amongst «молодёжь» [young people], to «деградация средств массовой информации» [degradation of the mass media] and abundance of foreign influences.

It is true to a point since in the last 10 years or so Russian language became inundated with all manner of foreign words even when there’s a well-known and commonly-used Russian alternative. But the changes seem to go deeper than that. If you follow Russian media and all things Russian, you might find it curious that Russians eagerly borrow so much from the West while simultaneously denouncing «гнилой Запад» [rotten West] and rejecting its influence.

The issue itself is not new as it dates back «к середине XIX века» [to the middle of the 19th century] (notice Russian practice of using Roman numerals to denote centuries)

The original conflict was between «славянофилы» and «западники».

«Славянофилы» [Slavophiles] believed that Russia was unique in its position in the world, its «предназначение» [mission] and its «судьба» [destiny]. The historical path along which the country was to develop was also unique and could not be molded according to European examples. «Ф. И. Тютчев» [F. I. Tyutchev], one of the most famous of «славянофилы», penned these undying lines that sum up this view:

«Умом Россию не понять,

Аршином общим не измерить:

У ней особенная стать –

В Россию можно только верить»

[Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique –
In Russia, one can only believe.]

Notice the use of the word «верить» [to believe] here. It is not here just «для рифмы» [for the sake rhyme]. Frequently overlooked, it is quite central to the Slavophiles theocentric views. Belief here echoes Orthodox Christian faith viewed by Slavophiles as a foundation, the uniting element and the cornerstone of their philosophical thought.

The opposing ideology was «западничество» and its adherents were «западники» from the word «Запад» [the West]. They believed that humanity followed essentially the same developmental path. So many of the things viewed as “uniquely Russian” by Slavophiles were considered developmental delays by «западники» [westernizers]. «И. А. Гончаров» [I. A. Goncharov], one of the prominent Westernizers, wrote his famous «Обломов» [Oblomov] largely as a critique of «славянофильство». The word «обломовщина» coined by him came to describe a state of societal and personal stagnation and apathy.

Much like most of the Western thought of the time, the ideology of Westernizers was anthropocentric with a belief that «человек есть мера всех вещей» [man is a measure of all things].

A century and a half later, these two «диаметрально противоположные» [opposing] ideologies continue to shape Russians’ thoughts on all manners of topics, including politics, economics and, of course, linguistics.

You’d think that Slavophiles enjoyed broad government support, at least until the Revolution of 1917. Interestingly the government historically seemed to be on the side of the Westernizes. Slavophiles, on the other hand, were traditionally the dissenters, the opposition. This was true before and especially after 1917.

Of course, in the last 150 years both views went through many revisions. Westernizers went out of favor with both the State and the general populace. More importantly, there are now extreme Slavophiles and extreme Westernizers that seem to have forgotten the central premises of both ways.

On the Slavophiles’ side the extreme is known as «квасной патриотизм» – a misguided, not rooted in facts, and in general overblown sense of one’s Russian-ness. It is frequently combined with an extreme «неприязнь» [antipathy] of all things Western.

Extreme Westernizers, on the other hand, believe that pretty much everything in the West is worth adopting and copying and that Russia’s inability or unwillingness to adopt Western values is a proof of a broken system and a broken people.

Unfortunately, representatives from these extremes tend to be the most active, the loudest and full of attention-getting claims and headlines. Read some of the discussions and comments on Russian Internet and you might get a very distorted picture. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between and requires a thorough understanding of Russian history.

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  1. John:

    I enjoy these type of posts greatly, thanks! I think this is my state motto…. “<> cannot be understood by the mind alone….” haha

  2. francesca:

    Hi there,
    After having lived in Russia for two years, I can say that sometimes you’re country just CANT be understood… Nor by one or two or three heads or more…
    I LOVE your country but sometimes there are aberations that no normal person can understand or accept or stand… Sorry…

  3. Galina:

    You are right! There’re many typical russian things. For example. Russians celebrate Old New Year. Do you can understand it? No? Russianc cannot, too. It’s funny, isn’t it? If you’d like to undestand russians you must be one.
    P.S: I speek English not very good, cuz I’m fron Russia.