*** The topic of multiculturalism in Russia will provide me with material for many future posts. So as I encounter amusing/interesting anecdotal situations, I will post on it. My first installment is "Religion". I will do future posts on "racial minorities", "alternative lifestyles", and "foreigners". If you have any other ideas for a post, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thanks!
Russians are not "multiculturalists". That is not to say that they are "racist" (though many Americans would likely label most Russians as such). Russians simply don't encounter many folks that aren't Russian in their day-to-day lives.
I am from the Washington DC area. And I attend George Mason University (the most diverse campus in America; according to the Princeton Review http://www.gmu.edu/alumni/spirit/fall04/diverse.html). So my outlook/knowledge on "others" is a good deal different than that of the average Russian.
When first arrived in Russia, my host lady (hozaika) asked me if I was of any particular religious background. When I indicated that I was a practicing Catholic, she stated that she would not make any pork based dishes for me. When I asked her what her reasoning was, she said that she had had a student a few years ago who also was "Catholic".
I asked my host, "Maybe, the student you had before was Jewish... Which is not exactly the same as Catholic."
Her immediate response was, "Whichever, she wasn't Pravoslavnie (Orthodox)."
*If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know what my hozaika feeds me instead of pork....
Another time, I was with an "Orthodox" friend who asked something about the American ecumenical movement. I said something to the effect of, "Since the 1960s, the Catholics have been working to heal past wounds with the Orthodox, the protestants, the Jews..." She interrupted me to ask why I distinguished between "Jews and protestants."
My friend (and apparently her friends) were all under the impression that the Jews were something like Baptists (which they had an equally interesting understanding of).
Russia is not like DC. On no city block in Russia will you encounter a Methodist church and a Lutheran church that are separated only by a Starbucks.
In fact, I would be surprised if you found a single Methodist and a single Lutheran on the same city block.
Most people in Russia are "Orthodox". Which typically translates into showing up to church a couple of times a year (likely Christmas and Easter), standing around and lighting a couple of candles... If you think that I am oversimplifying, spend some time with Russians under 70 years old.
The second largest religion in Russia is Islam. I am under the impression that it is most prevalent in southern Russia (near the -stans).
The Uzbek guys who I hang-out with are apparently (in their own words) Russian Muslims. That means that they say prayer every time that they eat/drink... Though they drink. And Ramadan (a Muslim period of fasting) is no excuse to not drink vodka.
There are two or three protestant churches in Vladimir. The Lutherans use the Catholic church once a month for their services.
The Jews apparently have some kind of meeting place, but I do not have any concrete information on it.
The Mormons also have a church, I think.
The Jehovah's Witnesses have stopped me on the street to give me literature a couple of times, so I know that they are around.
There are more Orthodox churches than I can describe. They are on every street. I can see 1 monastery, 1 church and 1 cathedral from my bedroom window.
When I was in Kyiv, I spent an evening with two Fulbright Fellows there. They both study/speak Ukranian... They don't study Russian, just Ukranian!
Well, we were in a restaurant talking, when a drunken Ukranian stumbled up and started ranting that, "All of these foreigners now live in Kyiv, and none of them bother to learn Ukranian!"
I thought, "Wow! This drunk managed to find the only two Americans who actually speak Ukranian!"
Sure enough, my two American friends engaged the drunk in a short dialogue that went something like, "Well, we do speak Ukranian."
To which the Ukrainian replied, "Well, damn!"
The drunk when to the bathroom. When he came back out, (I have no idea why, it was January) he said the traditional Orthodox Easter greeting, "Christ has risen!"
To which the one Fulbright scholar replied, the traditional response, (in Ukranian), "And let us glorify him!"
While the other Fulbright scholar stated, "I'm a Jew."
The Ukranian drunk was puzzled. So in a tremendous act of Ukranian ecumenism, he asked, "Well, how do I say 'Merry Christmas' to your people?"
The Fulbright scholars (and I) were amazed by his ignorance, and the drunk stumbled off.
So, I would say that Russians simply don't encounter the same sort of multiculturalism that Americans are used to. I would also say that (religous) minority students in Russia need not fear. Russians seem to greet "others" (i.e. non-Orhtodox and not atheistic) foreigners with more of a sense of curiousity.
Their ignorance should not be taken as a slight, it is simply that the are not used to many folks that are not like themselves.