Church on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

If you’ve had the news on for as long as five minutes recently (and managed to skip the endless US presidential election coverage), you noticed that the Big Bear (Russia) is once again making headlines for inserting its aggressive bulk into neighboring Georgia.

It’s no wonder the world has such a love-hate relationship with Russia. The country never seems to grow up, stuck in permanent insecure adolescence. It bullies its neighbors and, its wealth temporarily secured by lashings of oil money, likes to thumb its nose at the rest of the world.

Yet despite its bullying, its swaggering, despite its constant infatuation with making money at the expense of the environment (not to mention any sort of stable social and financial future), despite Russians’ determination to frequently act as stupid as possible, I still love the place.

While I can’t excuse the Russians for their love of strong, authoritarian leaders like Putin, I understand it. Russia has never had a chance to grow up. It lurched from suppression under the tsars directly to a bizarre kind of depressing, unimaginative dictatorship after the first throes of communism.

And then, after decades of doublethink existence and long lines for sausages and bread, Russia got rich and free at the same time. It went to the country’s head and it made itself ridiculous in many ways, and then someone came along who promised to make their beloved country the envy of the world.

Like a kid thrown around the social welfare system, beaten down by abusive foster parents and despised by all, only to finally find security and some sense of purpose in the charismatic leader of a criminal gang.

Russia has never yet had a chance to discover what — or who — it really is. It has an abiding spirituality that outsiders rarely see. The complex messianic mission of its religious and self-belief is almost mythic in its proportion and ancientness.

Its people are just as easily brainwashed as the rest of the world. When condemning its almost universal love of Putin, remember how many Americans still believe wholeheartedly in the way George Bush runs things, or how many French people supported the xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen.

But if you want to see the real Russia, you aren’t going to get it from the news, nor from the stories of mafia and glitzy nightclubs so many writers are fascinated with. As with so many cultures, you have to go there. You have to spend time with these fiercely private people, get invited to an apartment, walk around in floppy, worn house slippers, drink tea and eat blini and potatoes. What you’ll hear is confusion and kindness, passion and prejudice. Underneath the surface chaos, what you’ll find is a country desperately trying to remember what it believes in.