Foreigners and Russians alike often ask me why I have been living in Russia for such a long time. ‘Is it the money or the adventure that keeps you here? If not, then it must be the enchanting Russian ladies’. All valid reasons for staying here of course, but the actual answer is different.
In 1993, in a train in Switzerland, I met a Russian family from Irkutsk – Yuriy, a Russian scientist, his wife Galya and their two young sons Mitya and Lonya. As I was a mere law student from Holland, meeting Russians rather impressed me and we struck up a conversation. Before I got off the train, we exchanged telephone numbers and that was the end of it.
I had forgotten all about them until one year later; in the summer of 1994, early in the morning, I arrived by train to the city of Irkutsk in order to visit the Lake Baikal. Hesitantly, I called the telephone number I had been given one year ago and when I heard the ‘allo-a’ on the other side of the line I said: ‘Yuriy, this is Jeroen. Do you still rememb….’. Before I could finish my sentence, I heard a mighty roar from the other side of the line: ‘JEROEN, it is you! We have been waiting for you the entire year!’.
Before I knew it, I found myself sitting in their apartment, with their entire family around the kitchen table loaded with food and drinks. It was unthinkable that I would stay in a hotel, so a place was found for me in their two-room apartment. I stayed for a week. Yuriy took some days off from work and showed me all around Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. He and his family have been great friends ever since.
It is now 16 years later and I have been fortunate to befriend many more extraordinary Russians. Only after making Russian friends did I understand that the grumpy, cold and harsh impression Russians often give in public, is more than offset by the warmth and emotion they display in their private lives. My Russian friends have taught me what it really means to be human, to be sincere and generous. Unconditional friendship is something I first encountered in Russia.
In Europe, agendas, expectations and conditions dominate friendships. In Russia, there are no bounds to the depth or width of friendship. More often than not, when you make a friend, you practically become a member of the entire family of that friend. During my 16 years in Russia, by making a couple of friends, I have acquired a great number of mothers, cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents! You happen to turn up while your friend happens to have a dinner party? No problem; an extra chair, plate and glass are easily provided and food is loaded on to your plate from the plates of the other guests. You just want to have some company after a hard day’s work? No problem; you can always crash on your friends’ couch without saying a word.
It took me a long time to understand that there is a very specific Russian expression for the feeling that has kept me bound to Russia for all this time. It is the word ‘radnoy’. Literally, it means something like ‘a relative’ or ‘native’, but the exact Russian meaning of the word cannot be translated into one specific English word. In a wider sense, it means feeling at home with a person or with a country. A ‘radnoy’ person is like ‘one of our own’.
When you get to know Russian people, you will unavoidably come to understand what I am talking about. And when you do, you will blink an eye, and realise that you have been here much longer than you ever imagined or planned to stay, and that Russia has become a part of you.