Russian Soul

by Lena

15.elena levon photography moscow russia - 15

I’m a hot-blooded, métis woman of uncertain age.

Who is a nomadic, chaotic and at times dysfunctional home, to a fragile, Russian Soul ~ Full of flaws, absurdities, contradictions, insecurities and vulnerability. Brave, honest, compassionate and all or nothing. Often disagreeable, sometimes selfish and incredibly stubborn. But above all, it’s a soul that will never have a price and the one, a Foreigner will never fully understand.

In my opinion, the above paragraph summarizes The Great Russian Soul to a T. However, being Russian, myself, I would like to take you on a little journey…

A journey, into the core of this mysterious soul. One, that often hides, behind the curtains of obvious …

My heart was racing and my hands were trembling. I was sitting in my chair on a plane, looking out the window… Haven’t touched Russian soil in a very long time… I was a mess. A young guy sitting in the next row, saw the state I was in.

He came over and crashed in the empty seat next to me. Him; “So how long has it been?” Me; ” 9 years , You? “. Three years, was he’s answer. He gave me a hug and without a single word, pulled out a little bottle of Vodka, that he bought in Denmark and handed it to me… without a single word, I emptied half of it.

In USA this guy would be sued for sexual harassment by a woman, then, for drinking your own bottle of alcohol on a plane, by the airline company and I would probably be sent to rehab. However, when flight attendant passed by, this guy pointed in my direction and said “she hasn’t been home in 9 years”, the flight attendant smiled and walked away. This lad, also helped me carry my bags all the way to the arrivals area…

When I came out, the face of my friend Julia lit up and we run to each other, forgetting about bags, this guy and everything else…

9 years… like they never happened and at the same time, it felt much longer then 9 years. When I left in 2003  I was leaving from the same airport as a 19 year-old girl with 1 suitcase, 1000$ and a whole lot of dreams. But this airport was just a grey box back then… Now, it has countless terminals and had been completely renovated… Los Angeles airport is a total mess, compared to this high-tech giant. At that moment, I knew, I came back to a different country… different, but the same.

Welcome to Russia ~ the land of extremes.

My dear Jules greeted me with champagne and roses. My stomach was full of butterflies. She opened the bottle and we drunk it right there, on the street.


The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky


 Dostoevsky is right. Russia was founded in 862. Russian people have had so much trauma, turbulence and tragedies happen to them in all this time, that suffering became the norm, it became a part of their soul. It’s a part of our culture. You see suffering in films, literature, music, art and on rough stages of Russian Theatres.

If you go to see a Russian play, you will witness how unconditionally, an actor, will leave his whole heart and soul on that very stage. “If you ever need my life, come take it.” – The Seagull, by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

I'm showing with my hands how big the Russian soul is, by the Monument dedicated to Anton Pavlovish Chekhov.

I’m showing with my hands how big and open the Russian soul is, by the Monument dedicated to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.

We give everything we have to those we love and then more. Can one die for their love or because of it? Yes.

“And death, as the sole means of reviving love for herself in his heart, of punishing him, and of gaining the victory in that contest which an evil spirit in her heart was waging against him, presented itself clearly and vividly to her” – Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

“To love as the Russian soul loves, is to love not with the mind or anything else, but with all that God has given, all that is within you.” – Taras Bulba, by Nikolai Gogol

The reason Russian Ballet dancers are considered the best in the world, is not because we have the best technique, although that’s important too. As an ex ballerina, I can tell you, that the reason why you can never forget the performance of a Russian Ballet, is because they dance with their soul… not with their feet.

Last year, I went to see a stage debut performance of the most famous ballet icon – Mikhail Baryshnikov. “In Paris” is a wonderful play. But what I remember most, is how Baryshnikov lived on that stage for that hour or so. He didn’t “act”, he lived. Baryshnikov is 65 and he still gives his all. When Baryshnikov danced at the end of the play, as a way of showing “the swan song” of his character, you didn’t notice any moves, you saw his soul. He let it live there and for just one moment, die, right in front of you. I had tears in my eyes. 

Of course a true Russian, wouldn’t mind dancing on empty dance-floor to an American song either… In fact, we love it!…

When I mentioned, that I really miss The Russian Soul and that it’s one-of-kind, a couple of Mr. Bond’s Danish friends got pretty upset one night, when we all had dinner. I said that no other country has that kind of a soul. “But hey, we are also soulful! we have a soul! So don’t say that!” they objected. And that is true, agree with them. By no means did I say, that other cultures don’t have a soul. What I was trying to explain is that, in no other country in the world, does soul has such a big impact on a culture as a whole.

Have you ever heard “American soul”?  Or “The Great Danish Soul” ?? However, “Russian Soul” even has its own Wikipedia page, just like the “American dream” does.

But what about the drinking? and Vodka? You guys are drunks!

And I am proud to say “Yes we are!”

We celebrate LIFE in all it’s forms! We drink when we are sad and we drink when we are happy! We sing when we go to war and cry when we go to a wedding.

Every year Russians have corporate parties before New Years. Corporate parties are thrown by companies you work for. They are famous for a lot of booze and total absence of common sense, political correctness and modesty. I went to one of those parties for the first time in my life. My gym company I belonged to, while I lived in Moscow for 3 months invited me… I became friends with great people, danced, drunk and came back home at 8 in the morning…

We also laugh in the face of so-called “The end of the world”. We dance, drink and toast to the predicted doom, like it really is our last day.

After living in 8 countries and visiting close to 30, I’m yet to witness this scenario in some other country –

It was an Orthodox Christmas Eve (night of 6th of January is the Christmas eve and 7th of January is the Christmas Day in Russia) Mr. Bond (who visited me in Moscow) and I were walking towards the Red Square for some ice skating. We were approached by a married couple. They offered to have a shot of Cognac with them right then and there.

Since it was Christmas eve and they thought I was very cool, they pulled out two extra shot glasses. Huh? right here, on a street, in front of police station?

Yep! They had everything with them. Well Mr. Bond was still recovering from the visit to my family and how my brother got him completely wasted. Mr. Bond was in shock. But, hey, It’s Normal, It’s Russia!! Mind you, the couple we are talking about is in their 40’s…

They were exited to find out that they were drinking with a Russian and an American. This chick and I jumped up and down, like we’re kids. If you would have seen us, you’d probably say that we were longtime friends, who haven’t seen each other in years.

Mr. Bond downed the whole shot glass thinking it was vodka or something, the couple got exited that American was drinking like a pro, they poured him another shot. I think Mr. Bond is still recovering from his trip to Moscow. However, I miss those kind of “only in Moscow” moments.

It’s also normal to send or give flowers to the one you love. Buying flowers and gifts is a huge part of our everyday life. We don’t come to your home or a date, empty-handed. That’s a bad tone. (well there are some exceptions of course, but they are, thankfully, in minority) We also hug more, than we shake hands. Shaking hands is strictly for business meetings. Russian people hug, kiss, laugh and cry with their whole soul.

Don’t ask a Russian person “so, what do ya do for living?!” when you first meet them.. you might hear them say “that’s none of your business” ..

Although I prefer to answer to this stupid question in a different manner “I LIVE”…


The Ritz-Carlton, Moscow.

Also, don’t ask, “so how r u?” and expect us to lie and always say “oh, I’m great! you?”, when we actually feel like shit. We don’t always smile in a metro like idiots, yes, the faces sometimes are very sad… but do you remember that “need of suffering” that I wrote about in the beginning?

But if you get sprayed by the nearby snow machine and you happen to stand in the middle of the street, covered from head to toe in dirty snow, a total stranger, will hand you his only handkerchief. – (true story, happened to Mr. Bond)

We laugh in the face of fear ~ We were smart enough to know, that French would never survive the cold Russian winter back in 1812. Napoleon demanded the “keys” of Moscow and we lure his army into the coldest of the coldest places. What Napoleon underestimated, was the fact, that we had a Russian Soul and a lot of vodka. He had a croissant. Russians rather see their whole damn city in flames, than giving it up to a guy with a big ego and not enough vodka.

In Russia, your friends have your back and your enemy, becomes their enemy. They will throw themselves “into fire and water” for you. (Russian saying)

As a young girl, I could always go to my neighbor and ask for bread and salt if I didn’t have any. Russian friendship lasts a lifetime, so does Russian envy. But envy is not a bad thing in Russia, it what drives us to do greater things. We embrace it!

Russians love Winter Fares. We love drinking our traditional drinks like ” Medovuha ” on a cold Moscow evening. “Medovuha” is a must try in Winter and “Kvas” is a must try in Summer. “Medovuha” is an ancient mildly alcoholic mead. A home-made honey beverage being very popular in before-vodka times…

When we screw up royally, we have 1 day in the year that we can call the person up and say “Forgive Me” and the person should answer “God Will Forgive” … that day is called “Forgiveness Sunday” is the Sunday that comes after the Pancake Week “Maslenitca” and before the beginning of Great Lent.

Of course we should try to ask forgiveness and forgive all the time, but it’s useful to have this day… that way, there’s no excuse for you.

Russians are a very superstitious folk. If we catch ourselves say “oh, thank goodness I have great health!” we then spit 3 times on the left shoulder (where the devil lives) followed by the knock on the wood 3 times. It’s what we do in order to keep the “bad eye” or “bad luck” away from our words, in this particular example, from our health.

Our Santa “Granddad  Frost” (Dedushka/Ded Moroz) and his helper “Snegurochka”, are almost always drunk out of their mind on New Years… Still can’t figure out how all the presents, actually get to kids in Russia. They probably speed dial Santa Claus.


me (not sober) with not so sober Ded Moroz (Granddad Frost) and Snegurochka ( “the helper” )

After our souls live a great and full life they go to rest. I visited my dad’s grave for the first time in 9 years.

I brought him red roses and 1 blue.. 1 blue rose is my tear and sadness surrounded by red roses – my love for him.

I also brought him sand from Sahara. It is so peaceful in Sahara and I wanted to bring this peacefulness to his soul. I told him that I always take him with me on my journeys.

I lit a candle and had a first in my life, truly intimate and a very quiet mother/daughter moment. We didn’t say anything. My mom just hugged me and we cried. The last time we were here together was 10 years ago, when we buried my dad.

Till this day, when someone dies, the whole apartment building will pay their respects to the departed and even help with money for funeral expenses. In small towns, people of the whole town will flock onto the streets, to say goodbye.

Back in 2000, I had the honor of saying goodbye to a famous Russian Actor/Director and Theatre icon, Oleg Nikolayevich Yefremov. He’s casket was placed on the wooden stage of the most famous Theatre in Russia – MHAT (MXAT). A Theatre that was co-founded by the famous Konstantin Stanislavsky.

The whole Moscow came to pay their respects. When casket was finally closed and being carried outside so it could be placed in the car, it rained. And then all those people began to clap. Everyone walked behind the casket, clapping. I had goosebumps. This was a final standing ovation for the maestro. This is a common tradition among actors and people of stage.

Our cemeteries are peaceful, beautiful, full of gorgeous marble chests and statues of the departed.

However, sometimes amongst all the flowers, marble, names, wishes and photographs, your eye catches these simple, yet very powerful three words, engraved with gold letters – This is it…


I know, that sometimes I make mistakes writing. English is my second language. I have no idea how to write, in fact, I’m a terrible “writer”! My scribbles have no structure, it’s too long, I get carried away. Will never be able to write because “I have to” or in a way, that will please everyone.

But every time my fingers hit the keyboard or pen touches the paper, “I bleed”…

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

Do know how to suffer, therefore, know how to bleed…

Of course I do…

 I have a Russian Soul…



You sit there watching me — you’re so clean, yet incredibly dirty and irritating to my eyes — you’re in white shirt and expensive tie, which you think makes you so special and important. What r u doing here? What do u want?

I’m looking in your eyes – nothing — the only thing I can see is the lonely echo of your broken dreams, to which you are so desperately trying to hold on. I hate you so much right now and at the same time I feel sorry for you — the fact that every single day you walk on your pathetic thin and dull line, the idea of knowing that the next step is going to be the same as the last one is choking you.

With my eyes I ask you; – “So, to whom did u sell it? I bet u don’t even know the person that well. Is he or she as clean on the outside as you are? And I bet your nice suit, your big house, your warm pool (that u never use) is more than enough prize for it!?!”

…Oh!…where is your ring?! — Put it back on would you Mr.!

Are you ashamed that I’ll find out or you scared to death to face the truth?
I’m demanding — “I want my innocence back!” , forgive me, I meant my hand..” You scream out – “Can I buy your soul?!…Oh…I mean, may I buy you a drink?”

You know, we’re so alike and at the same time from two different worlds. I’m hurt too –don’t get me wrong — I too have the lonely, desperate sound in my heart, but I’d rather walk on the path of broken glass, fire and razors, which leads to greatness, then yours — secure, comfortable and “clean”.


…Tomorrow I’ll be here again and I’ll see another guy, actually strike that!

I’ll see only a blurry shadow of a guy, looking for his soul…

© Elena Levon 2006


 The woman behind the soul …

” Memories “

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