Storytelling in Russia from Tolstoy To Modern Days

Russians love to tell stories. Narrative styles do show intercultural differences in the most vivid way. So, how do Russian stories differ from stories from other countries? Let’s explore!

Fairy-tales And Fables

Fairy-tales shape our storytelling skills

Fairy-tales shape our storytelling skills

These are the stories that shape our thinking and way we see the world. I already wrote about peculiarities of Russian fairy-tales. Main learnings from this post is that Russians are quite superficial and believe in fate and luck, are more motivated by challenging projects rather than everyday hard work and that country’s turbulent history made a huge influence on the folklore.

Personal Life Stories

As I learned from the class of Understanding Russians: Contexts of Intercultural Communications, personal life stories are not only shaped by a stories people listened to as kids, but also are greatly influenced by the historic period everyone lived in over the course of his/her life and country specifics.

Most Russian personal life stories of people, who witnesses World War II will name it as the main event of their life. People, who were born after the war will name Perestroika and the challenges of the 90s as the main events that shaped their life. In addition to that, all people living in Russia are influenced by the geographic location (cold and big country), the multi-ethnicity of the country and other factors.

Stories Of Daily Events – Russian And The US Way

However, the topic I am most interested in – how does storytelling differs among cultures when it comes to stories, which describe everyday events. I have not found any significant research papers on that subject, so here is my completely unscientific view of the insider in Russian culture and the frequent visitor to the Western culture.

I will use US for comparison for two reasons – I have been immersed in this environment for almost 3 years and I think that Russian and US ways of telling stories are on the polar side of the scale in so many aspects, such as length of stories, logic used, level of details, magnitude of emotions, presence of sidelines etc.

In general – stories told by Russians are perceived to be often long and intertwined from a Western standpoint, but in the same time entertaining in their unique way. (think of “War and Peace” – a famous Russian novel with thousands of characters and details (which only one of my American friends has read as far as I am aware. And very few Russians read every single page as girls usually read the Peace&Love chapters and boys read War&Battles chapters)

Dissecting Storytelling On Different Dimensions

Connecting the dots is the storytelling American way

Connecting the dots is the main idea in the American storytelling

I once read an article by an American teacher, who had explained the differences of Russian and Western storytelling style very well (unfortunately lost the link to it). She said that the American way of telling the story is in connecting A and B in the most logical and direct way. Russian way of storytelling is very different. A may lead to B, but the way is not necessarily direct. There could be side stories and side-characters on the way. And the entire story may lead to C or D in the end.

Also – the “elevator speech”, a concise 30 seconds speech about yourself is something Russians do not know how to do. Telling about yourself is a long story and telling any story is usually a long story!

Narrative always has some structure and different cultures structure narratives according to their views of the world. We have a sequence of occurred events and we have to match them with a sequence of clauses and sentences. It is not the events themselves, it is how we perceive them, based on our culture and experience, that makes the story. Such matching can be done in various ways and stories always show personal values.

Russian Stories Are Emotional

We do not just give a sequence of events, we also give how we felt about these events and what we thought of these events. Showing emotions is culturally ok in Russia, people will rather be surprised if you hide emotions.

Russian Stories Are Almost Never Concise

Yes, we have a saying “Being concise is a sister of talent”, but most of our stories are long and we expect some listening skills from you. What we tell is important, we put our soul in it and want you to appreciate that.

Russian Stories Have Multiple Sidelines

Storytelling and sidelines

Sideline stories are one of the key features of Russian storytelling

Because if we think of something related, be it another story or a joke – we are going to enhance your experience with it. Storyteller usually improvises a lot, in the course of narrative.

Russian Stories Are High Context

Many Russian stories are high context. To be fair – many American stories are high-context as well. One needs to have a similar cultural background (as we say – “watch the same cartoons as kids”) to get some of the references. I have saw that when I moved to Chicago and for the first year often had no clue which sitcoms my friends refer to.

Cartoon characters provide context in storytelling

Do not say you understand Russians until you can name all these guys and know their stories

Maybe Russians Do Not Smile, But We Do Have A Sense Of Humor

And this humor does enhance the day-to-day stories. Russian humor is worth a separate post. Some aspects of it were touched upon in the post about Russian smiles (or their absence), but it is a very rich topic. We often use “black humor” in situations when other cultures do not joke at all. To the large extent this is our way to deal with problem situations and we are really good at that.

Example Of The Same Day-to-day Event Story Told Russian And American Way

Let’s say we got in the following situation – we ran out of gas on a highway. Far from the next gas station. How would American and Russian describe that event:

Empty tank

American way: Here is what happened to me today. I ran out of gas on the Highway M40, 10 miles from the gas station. I managed to call a friend, who helped me, but was 2 hours late for work. Next time I will make sure I have enough gas in my car.

Russian way: You would not believe, what happened to me today. I am driving along this highway, weather is nice, I am thinking about similarly nice day ages ago, when I met my future wife (emotional sideline story about meeting the girl). Suddenly, my car stops. At first I thought it broke down (emotional sideline story 2 about car mechanics in general and his service guy in particular). But then I noticed that I just have no gas (emotional sideline story 3 about gas level indication system in this particular car and in general). Candid assessment of the situation (PG 18+). Fantastic story of solving the problem in an innovative way (stopped 3 cars – one had a gas tank from which you can suck gas (most modern cars prevent that procedure), one had a pipe, the third one happened to be driven by a long-lost classmate from elementary school (side story 4), In the end – the problem was successfully solved and being a bit late to work under such constraints was not an issue at all, rather it was a miracle I got to work today. I have managed to overcome that stupid obstacle! If the audience is also Russian – they will also share their stories – describing similar or not so similar, but relevant events happened to the listeners.

How To Learn From Differences

Listening skillsTo me personally, spending 3 years in the US made me at least try to tell more concise stories. Sometimes I even succeed at that, sometimes I do exploit the fact that my friends are extremely polite and nice people and do not interrupt long speeches. But at least now I am aware of that issue and for work, I have mastered the elevator speech.

If you want to do business in Russia and build working relationships here – develop your listening skills – that is the most important skill to have here. Meditate, work on your patience. And enjoy the stories – may of them are too long to your taste, but fun.

And let me know if you read War and Peace from the first to the last page! 



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  • Anonymous - 6 years ago

    I read “Vayna i mir”, from the first page to the last. And it was an amazing experience, loved it.