Scene: a Russian Orthodox cathedral, sightseeing with the visiting German girl and two Russian babushki. The babushki were buying candles to place in front of the church's icons.
One babushka said: "Girls, are you going to buy candles too?"
The other said, "Of course not! They're Catholics!"
I automatically replied, "I'm not Catholic, I'm Protestant!"
She replied, "Pfft, what's the difference?"
At that, I got a little defensive and said, "There's a big difference!"
She dismissed that with a wave of her hand and the pronouncement, "Well, you're all Catholics to us!"
At first I wanted to write about how annoying that was, even though I know that expressing annoyance at things like that is counterproductive. But I let it sit for a few days and now I feel much less annoyed. However, I'm still a little confused by it.
I understand why the babushka, and Russians in general, go for religious pigeonholing; to most Russians, Orthodoxy is a heritage as much as a belief, and something like 90% of Russians identify as Orthodox even though only a few percent actually practice. So it's understood that giving someone a religious label isn't actually a comment on their personal belief.
I also understand why she, individually, labeled us as Catholics. The Russian popular conception of Christianity is that it's divided into two camps – Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I mentioned this earlier, when people kept referring to "Catholic Christmas." (The funniest thing to me is that Russians often refer to America as a Catholic country, which is pretty ironic when you consider the stigma and labeling of "otherness" historically attached to Catholicism in the U.S.) So her conception of us as "white girls = Christians; non-Russian white girls = Catholics" was reflective of the average Russian view. (Unfortunately, Russians, especially older ones, often seem to forget that not all European-looking people have Christian heritage; that, I think, is the fault of a long history of institutionalized anti-Semitism.)
So what confuses me is why Protestantism is missing from the picture in Russia. I mean, you could argue that very few Americans know anything about Russian Orthodoxy, but I'm not sure it's really a parallel; the Protestant Reformation was a pretty major event in European history. In fact (correct me if I'm wrong), it seems like you couldn't really study European history without learning about the Reformation. Plus, it's not exactly recent news. So how has Russian society apparently failed to notice that it ever happened? Why do Russians seem fuzzy on the idea of what a Protestant even is?
I'm sure this ignorance is partly an effect of Soviet atheism. But it's interesting to ponder why it's manifested itself in this particular way: not uncertainty, but absolute faith in a completely incorrect fact. Then again, maybe that's just human nature.
The last thing the woman said to me still seems kind of rude. That's not so much a Russia thing as a babushka thing, though; since babushki have lived longer than the rest of us, they get to say whatever they want. At least that gives the rest of us something to look forward to about being old!