You’re better than you think

The events of the the past year have convinced many that Russians have lost their capacity for empathy. As though we believe there’s nobody worse than us: cynically and ruthlessly indifferent. Русский

Polina Aronson
10 January 2017

The Berlin-based festival for refugees, “it’s good that you’re here”, in which the author took part. September 2016. Source: Schön, dass ihr da seid.

At the end of September, a tenant moved into our Berlin apartment (fourth-floor two bathrooms, central heating). A JavaScript manual in Arabic appeared on the bookshelf, next to double volume of Blok’s poetry. The internet began to slow down under the weight of live streamed Al-Jazeera football matches. The consumption of strawberry jam trebled: Ali, a 25-year old Syrian from Aleppo, would slather it, two centimetres thick, onto bread rolls. My three-year old son watched in near-ecstasy.

Ali lived with us for a month. Our apartment was his home for a while, in between a park bench and finding his own place. Having left the refugees’ dormitory in August, Ali was eligible for benefit payments to find a place of his own. However, somewhere, the system went wrong, and Ali never received them. The promise of a new place vanished, as did his place in the dormitory. Ali ended up on the streets. He didn’t have a sleeping bag. It had been swept into the Mediterranean Sea in the summer of 2015, along with his other possessions: his work laptop, office suit and a kimono with a black belt in mixed martial arts. 

As he wasn’t used to begging favours, Ali continued to sleep on that bench at night, using his boots as a pillow. By day he would cross the city to his former dormitory, where he snuck in to take a shower and get changed for job interviews. We found out that he was sleeping rough thanks to an American friend, who occasionally helped him with translations from Arabic. “He’s welcome to come”, I wrote back. “We have the space.” 

I hear the same question: how could you do it? You, as a mother of two children, how could you blithely let some unknown Arab guy into your home? 

To this day I still hear the same question, from Russians, Germans and everyone else who is not necessarily working for the UN refugee agency: how could you do it? You, as a mother of two children, with a husband who’s an expert on terrorism — how could you blithely let some unknown Arab guy from the streets into your home? Some people called us heroes. Some whisked their index finger around by their heads — “They must be crazy!”. But in both cases, the act of welcoming a refugee to one’s home was discussed as if it manifested some extraordinary personal characteristic: a particular bravery, generosity — or irresponsibility. As I saw it, I was just acting from habit.

This habit, perhaps, could be called a habit for good — call it empathy or an instinctive willingness to help. I suppose I was lucky: I grew up among people for whom this behaviour was taken for granted. If you ran out of something: salt, matches, time, money until payday others would find it for you.

 One of the most memorable episodes from my early childhood was the arrival of distant relatives to St. Petersburg in 1986, from the Gomel Region of Belarus (which lies only 170 km from Chernobyl). Once the news finally made mention of the radioactive “cloud,” my mother picked up the telephone and called them. Names of heavy metals and long-dead uncles and aunts were shouted into the receiver back and forth. but the cry “Come over here!” was the loudest. My parents had set up two folding beds with mattresses in the kitchen of our two-room Khrushchev-era flat. This is where my uncle, aunt, and their eight-year old son, lived that May.

Not only my family made a habit of doing good. That became very clear to me two years later, when a 30-second earthquake utterly devastated the Armenian city of Spitak. At school, our whole class collected donations — some brought boxes of biscuits, others sent woollen socks. Grandmothers who survived the siege of Leningrad brought matches or bread rusks. My parents packed boxes of children’s clothes and bed linen — it wasn’t new, but it was all they could find in their cupboards. The mountain of boxes in the school lobby grew steadily for a few days, then a postal van came and took them away.

“Why the hell are they treating us like poor people?” I cried, when I reached home and my mother opened the door. “Let them take their oranges!”

A few years later, in the winter of 1991, another mountain of boxes appeared in the school lobby — though this time with the emblems of the Red Cross and Salvation Army. All children in my class were given a kilogram of oranges,two German cakes each and a colourful rucksack. I was eleven years old, and ran across the schoolyard in tears. “Why the hell are they treating us like poor people?” I cried, when I reached home and my mother opened the door. “Let them take their oranges!”

My mother took the bag from my hands and put it on the windowsill, next to the cans of Chinese-made corned beef, which my father was being paid in, in lieu of a salary. “You mustn’t throw away presents”, she said. “When people want to help you, you say ‘thank you’.”

It turned out that to provide help, you should be able to accept it. Some Russian people still can’t learn this idea, as shown by their refusal to allow foreign emergency services to access the sinking Kursk submarine, and their decision that Russian orphans should not live with American families. 

To help people out of habit doesn’t mean you’ll never have doubts, or that you simply bask in your holiness. I understood this after a week of life with Ali, when due to my husband’s work trips I was left alone in the flat with my two children at night.

Lying in the darkness, it suddenly came to me that a complete stranger carried the keys to my flat in his jacket pocket, and that at any moment he could open the door, take off his shoes — and what next? Why isn’t he back home at such a late hour? Why didn’t he tell me that he wouldn’t be back for dinner?

Various scenarios played through my mind. What if right now he’s shopping in a drug store for cactus fertiliser, to make a bomb? What if he’s a psychopath? What if he slits my throat, steals my laptop, and then kidnaps my children? In horror, I ran into the corridor and closed the door on the latch. To hell with this Ali, to hell with his Syrian problems and to hell with it all — what the hell was I doing? 

Ten minutes later, I went back into the corridor and unlocked the latch. You can’t stop halfway and play around with trust: either it’s there, or it’s not. And it needs to be instinctive; displays of gratitude needn’t matter.

You can’t stop halfway and play around with trust: either it’s there, or it’s not

These musts and must nots didn’t occur to me over those ten minutes — others had taught them to me much earlier. Namely, the family who had sheltered by grandfather during the Siege of Leningrad — or my schoolteacher friend, who at the age of 25 adopted an orphaned pupil. Or my own homeroom teacher who gave her son’s old pram to a girl in a class above us who got knocked up at the age of 16. . I realised that I hadn’t let Ali into my house alone; at my side stood those with whom I’d lived and grown up. By what they have done and how they have lived, they have ensured that, when Ali came along, I couldn’t have done anything else.

It takes years for habits of goodwill to form, and to be passed down from generation to generation. It’s almost impossible for an individual to cultivate them alone. Once somebody has dropped out of a system of mutual assistance, it’s very difficult to return to it — first and foremost because good deeds almost never bring instant rewards, and because the effectiveness of individual acts seems doubtful at first glance.


Spitak, 1988. (c) Morten Hvaal AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Did the children of Cuba really need the toys which Soviet schoolchildren sent them? Did the single mother with a drinking problem really need that washing machine for which the whole house chipped in? Did refugees like Ali, who had crept through Balkan villages for days, really need all those bottles of water and boxes of apples which (as social media hurried to remind us) lay unused, strewn across Hungarian roads?

Personally, I’m convinced that they did. They were needed not only by those for whom they were intended, but by those who collected the money, dispatched aid and wrapped up food parcels. They were needed to preserve this same capacity for kindness.

Just as athletes need more than showing up to the Olympic Games to win a gold medal, but also many hours of monotonous exercises and training, so society needs its everyday, routine instances of mutual help — good deeds which may nevertheless bring unclear results. By definition, these exchanges are discredited once they become the conscious basis for a political ideology. 

We, the people of a Soviet or post-Soviet upbringing, know all too well how easily some can prey on the kindness of others. Those lorries laden with humanitarian aid didn’t always reach Armenia. Paper for recycling, dutifully collected by Soviet-era Pioneers, went soggy in the rain. Medical equipment donated by the Americans and Germans to children’s hospitals ended up in private clinics. 

Society needs its everyday, routine instances of mutual help — good deeds which may nevertheless bring unclear results

We don’t believe appeals to kindness, since all too often, these calls come from the lips of swindlers of all kinds. To us, all too often small acts of kindness smack of a bureaucrat’s office.

When faced with mass (or at least public) drives for charity, Russians to ask: “On whose behalf are we supposed to be struggling now?” or “What grand feat do they expect us to perform this time?” Calls for kindness cast a long, dark shadow behind them — a shadow of pathos.

We’re justifiably afraid of being used. No surprise that columnists and coaches with psychology degrees assure us that nurturing suspicion is the key to mental health (link in Russian). For example, if you, despite being exhausted at the end of the day, give up your seat to an old woman on the metro, then you’re told that you have a neurosis — some kind of inferiority complex.

The debate on the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, which arose under Queen Victoria, could be continued for decades. But that time could be better spent: by familiarising oneself with other people’s woes and embracing them, the better to make an impact. Many Germans take the latter approach. 


Source: Jason Krüger / Ekvidi.

Fiercely critical of the state, with its overflowing dormitories, frozen computer systems and lack of schools, Germans are trying to tackle the humanitarian crisis themselves — they teach German after work, organise theatre performances in the dormitories for refugees, and translate for judges and lawyers.

 The bravest of them even give Syrians jobs, by-passing the chicanery of laws, rules and regulations — but not to exploit the refugees, but to allow them to stand on their own two feet. Officially employed as a ‘trainee’ in a Berlin event-managing start-up Ali is working for cash-in-hand salary of a qualified computer programmer he really is.

Not long ago, Ali rented a flat and bought himself a new cashmere coat. We’re unlikely to ever become friends — our views on life’s important things are radically different, whether it’s bringing up children, pre-marital sex, the right way to make hummus, or Bashar Al-Assad.

 But if we ever end up on opposite sides of the barricades, then we’ll look each other in the eyes, as equals. 

Vasily Grossman wrote that this instinctive thirst to help our fellow humans — often contrary to all reason — can overcome the wildest hatred

Vasily Grossman wrote that this instinctive thirst to help our fellow humans — often contrary to all reason — can overcome the wildest hatred. I believe him more than I believe experts who claim that Russia is inhabited by existentially cold-hearted people (link in Russian), whose capacity for empathy, readiness to help and ability to share has frozen over. 
I believe in the power of habitual kindness, and know that it’s impossible to uproot completely — it’s the essence of human nature. The only presidential address to the people I’d like to hear one day would simply be: “Dear Russians! You’re better than you think!”. 

As it’s unlikely we’ll hear these words from our televisions, we should say them to each other. Sooner or later we will start to live in a way which will awaken not our readiness to exploit, but our habit for kindness. Gradually. And without any pathos.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData