Draw the curtain on Russian Freedom

During the troubles of the 20th century, and into our new millennium, major decisions have been made stemming from the belief that freedom is a universal value and that all men and women—in all places and in all times—have wanted freedom. But is this true? How exactly do Russians understand freedom? Why is freedom worlds apart for Europeans and Russians and why does this matter?

You’ve heard about the “mysterious Russian soul,” haven’t you? But how can it be uncovered? The first thing to do is to get rid of your preconceptions about “universal values.”

When we talk about universal values like freedom, love, and happiness, it is important to understand that the choices and decisions we make, and the emotions we feel, depend on the meanings we give to these abstract concepts. However, all too often, we can hardly trace this connection.

People from different cultures have different values and meanings when they talk about freedom, but the set of meanings within one culture is usually common for people belonging to that culture and is expressed in the principles and life rules of those individuals.

“People are scared of responsibility. Yeah, responsibility is something very difficult. There’s limitation to freedom, I believe that to be free you don’t need to be responsible. Like a baby, a baby is free.” (Evay Ongunlana, South Africa)

“Freedom is about not feeling outside pressure and being able to achieve what you dream about, making your own choices, and when nothing forces you to do something. It’s justice, every human is born equal. Everyone should have the same opportunities. Freedom is the best choice.” (Martin Pioch, Germany)

As for Russia, based on Russian proverbs, we may discover that people are afraid of freedom because they are unable to control themselves when they eventually get it, which, in the end, may have terrible consequences.

Воля к неволе приведет (A willful man will end up in captivity)

Вольного бьют больно (A willful man is hit the hardest)

Freedom is essentially the absence of external restrictions. Even plans can become limitations for a person who has freedom as their leading motivation. For Russians, you need to be spontaneous and trust yourself, your feelings and desires. That is why being spontaneous becomes a valuable quality. Since rules are seen as a limitation, they can be violated; hence the popular motto is «the rules exist to be broken.»

This meaning is confirmed by the definition that can be found in the Dictionary of the Russian Language (Ozhegov) and the dictionary of synonyms (also these conclusions are based on research about individual’s mentality which has a complex algorithm of analysing underlying meanings of people’s behavior and way of thinking):

Freedom – 1. In philosophy: an opportunity for a subject to display will on the basis of awareness of the laws of nature and society

  1. absence of any restrictions and limits that tie social-political life and activities of a particular class, of a whole society and its members
  2. total absence of any restrictions and limits
  3. the state of not being imprisoned (nevolya). To set free. Freedom of hands (metaphor) – discretion, unrestricted opportunity to act.

Synonyms of freedom with different meaning:

Synonyms with meaning related to wide open spaces: “privolnost” – wide scope, “prostor “- vastness, “volya” — liberty or willfulness, “volnost” — willfulness, “privolie”- expanse, “razdolie” – free rein, “volushka”( expressing gentle attitude to freedom through the suffix).

Synonyms with meaning related to spontaneity and unreliability: бесцеремонность — presumptuousness, непринужденность — easiness, естественность — disengagement, произвольность — arbitrariness, необязательность — irresponsibility, непосредственность — spontaneity, натуральность — naturalness, раскованность — relaxedness.

Synonyms with meaning related to absence of external restrictions: independence, unrestrictedness.

Synonyms with meaning related to simplicity: no impediment, simplicity, ease.

In fact, we can hardly find an appropriate translation for the Russian word “воля” (volya), because it has a specific meaning which is close to “freedom” but not quite the same. In Russian, this word has the emotional colouring of the absence of boundaries and means the potential for the fulfillment of one’s desires and an opportunity to act according to one’s personal will, unconstrained.

As we know, national history has a strong influence on our way of thinking. In the case of Russia, we may highlight some important historical and geographical phenomena which left “mental traces” in Russian thinking until modernity. Russian society was formed as family-communal in its core. This defined the main values of a person: hierarchy in the family and land holding, but not much room for personal qualities and achievements. Also. Russians had a long period of serfdom which lasted until 1861 when the greater part of society did not possess any individual rights, or freedoms, so, as a result, they did not have personal responsibility over their lives. Along with unpredictable and severe climatic conditions, which always interfered in their plans and destroyed them, these historical reasons lead Russians to the strong belief that “nothing depends on a human” and “we can’t change anything”. We can find reflections of these beliefs in Russian proverbs:

До царя далеко, до Бога высоко (it’s a long distance to the Tsar and to God — meaning that only they can help, but they are far away so there is no hope for change)

Не мы такие – жизнь такая (It’s not our fault, it’s just that life forces us to be this way)

But then what can freedom mean in a world where nothing depends on humans? This belief connects freedom with the unpredictable outer world, and freedom itself becomes something external (the absence of external restrictions or higher will) but desirable.

В неволи нет счастливой доли (In bonds, there is no happiness)

В неволе птице не поется, человеку не живется (A nightingale won’t sing in a cage, neither will  a man live happily)

Despite the fact that this understanding of freedom has its roots deep in the past, many Russians still stick firmly to its archaic meaning.

Turning to our experience in working with the Russian mentality, we may conclude that many of the declared values are not in fact conscious. To make a conscious choice, humans should understand why and how a particular phenomenon becomes valuable for him. We have a real chance to change our life only by changing our way of thinking about it.