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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Those Russians are tough

There are subcultures of toughness in the US. Any criminal gang -- black, white, or Hispanic -- is going to esteem toughness. The military obviously does. And jailhouse culture is all about proving you're not a "punk."

Among whites, both Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans seem to have more than their share of self-proclaimed tough guys. In general, the Irish seem to pride themselves on being tougher than the English (both here and in the UK). It's a little the same way Norwegians pride themselves on being tougher than Swedes, both here and in Scandinavia. (Those Old World rivalries die hard.)

In today's America, though, much of the toughness is just Sylvester Stallone-ish posturing. (What is Stallone, after all, but a more intelligent and successful version of the Jersey Shore boys?) It's an ersatz, for-show version of toughness: take steroids, lift weights, strut around in a muscle shirt, try to look manly, and if you're lucky, have people film you. The Italian Mafia can be tough on other people -- but the ability to inflict pain on others is an altogether different quality than a willingness to undergo it yourself.

The Russians shine in both regards. They have a culture of toughness, and they seem to venerate the quality for its own sake.

It may have something to do with having being toughened by years of communism. But it goes beyond that. There are plenty of other places -- like most of Eastern Europe -- which suffered under years of communist rule, but which simply don't place the same premium upon stoicism and grit.

The prominence of combat sports can be a fair barometer of the character of a people (think tae kwon do in Korea), and Sambo (a form of grappling) is a popular sport in Russia. Fedor Emilianenko, considered by many to have been the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, was also a four time world sambo champion. He was known for his calm, businesslike demeanor while fighting. Here is a good example of that.

While Fedor was the greater MMA fighter, his brother Aleksandr Emilianenko, a three time world sambo champion, may be an even better embodiment of Russian toughness. Here is his brief fight against the pumped up, posturing James Thompson. Aleksandr somehow managed to look not only calm, but downright bored, not only before and after, but even during the fight. Aleksandr spent three and a half years in jail (in Russia, one doesn't get those kinds of tattoos, especially those stars on the front of the shoulders, without earning them). And Alexander reportedly goes bear hunting with just a pitchfork and a knife. (C'mon, it wouldn't be sporting if the bear didn't stand a chance.)

A man who had once visited some brothels in Prague told me that they employed Russian ex-military guys as security men there. He described these guys as "all muscle, arms covered with tattoos, probably in their thirties but with their crew cuts already going gray, with these incredibly hard faces which looked as if they hadn't smiled in about ten years."

A recent article in the NY Times about training Russian flight attendants explained that the biggest hurdle seemed to be to get them to smile. (A culture which venerates toughness does not engender smiley face, have-a-nice-day personalities.)

Prison shows are a staple on various cable channels these days. Most emphasize the harshness and brutality of life behind bars. There was a show about a Russian prison recently; it made even the American supermax jails look like summer camp.

Consider how the national character of our two countries is reflected by our leaders. There's no doubting Vladimir Putin's no-nonsense, realpolitik attitudes. Our President, on the other hand, is Barack Obama.

We could wish for a more formidable leader like Putin, but do we deserve one? As long as enough of us are willing to be brainwashed by the mainstream media, we probably deserve a President who is the embodiment of political correctness.

Others who've had firsthand experience with Russians tend to agree.

Last year my daughter was a freshman in college. She was assigned a roommate from Moscow, who came to stay with us over Thanksgiving. This girl was intelligent, well-mannered, good-natured, and extremely enamored of the US. At one point I asked her who she thought was tougher, Russians or Americans. I knew beforehand what her answer would be, but was curious as to exactly how she'd say it. She didn't hesitate: "Oh, Russians."

This past summer when I was in London, I chatted for a while with a South African woman, a former ballerina studying to be a midwife. She was a Boer, and back home she had helped her uncle illegally poach game. (She could still skin a sheep with a knife.) The Boers are a plain-spoken lot; she mentioned that her father had told her she was "pretty from far, but far from pretty," meaning that she wasn't good-looking up close -- not the kind of thing most American fathers would say. She herself had gotten her ten-year-old son over his fear of the ocean by forcing him to swim out alone beyond the breakers; this, too, is not the usual American way. In any case, at one point I asked her what the Russians in London were like. She immediately responded with a shudder, "Oh those Russians, they're tough."

(If you haven't clicked yet on the link to Aleksandr Emelianenko's fight, it's worth a look; he is the quintessential Russian.)


Anonymous said...

re: Putin vs Obama
Adam Carolla has said, that anyone who takes it up the pooper has to be, by definition, super super tough. So while Putin may beat trained kickboxers, swim the Arctic without a wetsuit, and hunt wild boars with a sharpened stick, you have to admit Obama may actually be a bit tougher than him.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Ha! Very good.

Anonymous said...

Hey I did not sign up for this. I do not deserve this joker. I deserve the constitutional gov't our founders designed. If our congress would live up to their oath of office much of the foolishness we must endure would not be happening. How can I change anything? Vote? Pfffft.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Not sure of the relevance of your comment to this post, but since I agree with your sentiment I'll post it anyway.

Anonymous said...

My comment @ 10:10 pm was in reference to ; "We could wish for a more formidable leader like Putin, but do we deserve one? As long as enough of us are willing to be brainwashed by the mainstream media, we probably deserve a President who is the embodiment of political correctness".

John Craig said...

Anon --
Ah, thank you, my mistake.

And yes, you're completely right. He tries to rule by executive order, and the media almost never calls him on it.

Baloo said...

Another great post! It has been reblogged and you have been quibcagged here:

Anonymous said...

If you grow up in prison...

Anonymous said...

It would have been sacrilege to praise the Russian leader over the US president during the Cold War - but today I'm willing to state that I am enjoy Putin a lot more often than not – even if much of what is portrayed / photographed of his manly exploits are fabricated, I like the fact that he's overtly patriotic, recently declared a national holiday for people to stay home and have sex, is anti-gay, outmaneuvered Obama on Syria, is pro-Christian, etc.

Though the US might not deserve such a leader I hold hope that a charismatic, positive, tough man, who advocates US citizen and US nation first in all respects, who can ignite a fire of belief in a better tomorrow based on success and individual liberty at home, could become the next president.

On an aside - those Russian fighters look like they've never been near a steroid. Based on my limited exposure to ultimate fighting there seem to be a fair number of instances of ripped steroid-looking fighters who are beaten by more smooth muscled non-steroid physique fighters. If the smooth muscled fighter can survive the initial onslaught of the jacked fighter, the fight can go his way.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Ed --
Yes, we're now at the point where the formerly Soviet leader is essentially more conservative than our American President. And yes, he bases his political views on reality, whereas our president bases his on (leftist) idealism.

I'm afraid that giving our changing demographics the window of opportunity for such a President as you describe is closing fast.

Your observations about MMA fighters are correct; steroided fighters tend to "gas out," or get tired, quickly, and then the natural ones can do their job more easily. James Thompson was actually sort of a patsy for Aleksandr Emelianenko, he'd only been fighting a year and a half at that point. But still, the difference in demeanor was striking. The same sort of difference in demeanor was apparent in the Fedor fight I linked, though it was less extreme.

bluffcreek1967 said...

In Reply to Anonymous regarding those who take it up the pooper being super tough: Well, I suppose San Francisco has more super tough guys per square inch than any other place in the world!

Anonymous said...

That pooper joke was an "answer" to the supposition that gays are sissies and they'd be easy to lick in a fight. Wait, that didn't sound right.

Steven said...

In that video I linked of the Hugh Laurie interview, he said that in Russia the women were pleasant, hospitable and friendly while the men all have straight faces and this sopranos, survival of the fittest thing going on.

John Craig said...

Steven --
That sounds about right.

Steven said...

Russia has very harsh winters and for centuries had particularly harsh working conditions. Slavery was major institution in Russia up until 1723 when the slaves were converted to serfs. Given the climate and how hard labourers were forced to work, Russians must have been selected for toughness for centuries. (I didn't mean it to be but this could be an example of what I was saying yesterday about recent selection).

My observation of Poles in England and what I've seen of Russians has given me the impression that eastern Europeans may be physically tougher than western Europeans, on average. I've seen a lot of really tough, hardy looking Poles. Western Europe has much milder winters so I think there might be a connection.

John Craig said...

Steven --
It's hard to say what causes the toughness. If harsh winters were the answer, then Eskimos and Swedes would be the toughest people around, and that's not the case. (Though the Norwegians do pride themselves on their toughness, especially vis-a-vis the Swedes, and the Finns are known for being hardy as well.) Maybe it has something to do with having been under the yoke of communism for most of the last century. Maybe it IS physical, though most of the Russians I've seen are physically roughly the equivalent of Westerners. (In the West we tend to see their athletes and their strippers more, which gives a mistaken impression.) Maybe it did have something to do with the slavery, though if that were the case you'd expect every enslaved people to be tough, and that's not the case.

The Poles are closely related to the Germans, and the Germans do seem to be physically stronger as a group than the Anglos.

The answer is….I don't know.

Steven said...

There is definitely a gloominess that affects the people who lived in the Soviet Union. Culturally, they are not big on smiling. I've known numerous Poles who didn't smile much. There is an eastern European woman who works in a cafe near my dad's shop and she told my dad she often gets negative comments because she looks miserable and she said "I don't come here to smile, I come here to work".

re looking tough, maybe it was just the ones I knew. I made the acquaintance of some Polish builders once. I was impressed by how strong and tough they looked. Their faces had this strong look to a level you don't often see here from English and Irish men....that was the impression I got at the time in their company. And I've vaguely got a similar impression from sportsmen.

I don't know whether its true (its quite possibly not) but I have heard that working conditions for peasants and serfs (and slaves) in Russia was particularly hard, and this went on for a long time.

You have made me doubt what I said.

John Craig said...

Steven --
It's hard to say, and there are certainly different kinds of toughness. (Check out that post I wrote, "The toughest guy I ever met," from the summer of '09. At the outset I described some of the many different kinds of toughness.)

You're right about smiling. The NY Times ran an article about 9 months or so ago about training Russian flight attendants, and it said the hardest thing to do was get them to smile.

As far as looking tough, it's easy to confuse that with testosterone levels. The two are correlated, but certainly not perfectly. (There are some extremely tough women, even though they don't look it.)

My son told me once that there was a joke he heard in the Army, about being from one of those eastern European countries where the men are so manly that there's not even a word for impotence.

Steven said...


I've read the toughest guy. The superlative person i've ever met posts are among my favourite things on this blog. I might re-read.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Thank you.

PabloPicasso said...

just goes to show how racist and stupid you fuckheads really are...the real reason you hate obama is because he is black just as you have hated and punished black people for centuries in your country yet you claim to have claim Obama has not acted on syria...newsflash you assholes he has been bombing syria for years and how has that helped...toughness mixed with racism is all you are....

John Craig said...

PabloPicasso --
And where are you from?

kevy kev said...

Eastern europeans/russians are not particularly tougher/harder. They have stearn grumpy looking faces which may make them look tougher. Also there is a correlation between toughness and wealth. working class areas are always tougher. Back in victorian days the english street fighter was a match for anyone. Now times are easier and people not working get free lunches and become lazy. Not conducive to toughness.