Living in Russia and Dispelling Stereotypes
traditional Russian dress at an event for victory
day, a holiday which celebrates Russia's victory
in the great war, better known to Americans as
When people hear that I lived in Russia,
the same questions come up again and again. “Isn’t
it cold there?” “Did you eat lots of borsch?” “Is
everyone there depressed?” And accompanying all these
questions is a befuddled look in their eyes that conveys
the unsaid, “Of all places, why on earth did you decide
to go there!?” I’ll admit that
I held similar assumptions before I went to Russia for the
first time, a shudder of fear running up my spine at the
thought of gulags, religious oppression, and the Siberian
winter. But after I took that step and went to Russia in
2003, my narrow stereotypes were shattered. After six trips
to Russia, most recently teaching English on a Fulbright
Grant, I still find myself fascinated by this vast land.
Russia has surprised me time and time again, and I am passionate
about dispelling the negative stereotypes that discourage
so many from becoming acquainted with this vibrant, diverse,
and soulful country.
The Church of
the Intercession of the Holy Virgin in Bogolyubovo.
The Russian People
Negative stereotypes of the Russian
people have been perpetuated by the post-Cold War mentality
that still lingers in news and entertainment. There’s
the harsh Russian spy, the hardened KGB officer, or the
femme fatale named Natasha. It’s true, as soon as
you step off the plane and head to passport control, you
will quickly observe a different style of public behavior
than Westerners are used to. One common observation that
Americans make about Russians is that their faces are harsh
and unsmiling. For those who do not get the chance to know
Russians personally, this first impression can serve to
solidify the tropes that Western media have promoted.
Unlike their Western counterparts, Russians
don a very different public persona than they do at home.
This has to do with a simple, but profound fact: a smile
means something different to Russians than it does to Westerners.
Whereas in my own American culture, a smile often functions
as a sign of politeness, in Russia, the smile is reserved
for moments of genuine happiness. So while Americans might
view Russians as cold or rude for not smiling in public,
Russians might view Americans as phony for doing so when
they are not genuinely happy.
If you decide to go to Russia, it is
also important to know that Russians are typically more
direct and blunt in their speech than Americans are. However,
this directness is not a sign of rudeness. For example,
in Russian transportation, instead of saying “could
I get by please,” it is customary (and polite) to
say, “let me by.” This came across to me as
very rude first, but I quickly learned that in Russia, bluntness
and politeness are not mutually exclusive.
Despite their potentially rough exterior,
Russians are some of the most deep-hearted and hospitable
people you will ever meet. I once heard the proverb “Russians
are like a coconut; Americans are like a peach. It’s
hard to crack through the Russians’ shell, but once
you do, you find it soft inside. Americans though, are soft
on the outside, but they have a hard pit.” I have
found this proverb to be an accurate illustration of my
experience building relationships with Russians. Befriending
a Russian takes time and commitment on the front end, but
once trust is established, you will find that Russians can
become some of the most loyal friends. You can see even
see this reality expressed in the Russian lexicon. Whereas
Americans call many people “friends,” such
as coworkers, classmates, and those with whom they occasionally
spend time, Russians use the word friend, “drūg” very
sparingly. A drūg is defined by a deep-spirited
friendship and a long history of loyalty. Russians call
anyone outside of this “znakomiy,” or
acquaintance. If a Russian calls you a friend, it is an
My host family
and I, Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia.
Another common stereotype is that Russians
drink copious amounts of vodka and eat borscht every day.
As a general rule, most people do not have a very good impression
of Russian food. In fact, when I was in Russia, I did not
miss any American foods. Now that I am back in America,
I often find myself craving Russian cuisine.
Before I comment on the dishes themselves,
it is important to note that Russian food tastes good simply
because it is fresh and lacks the harmful chemicals and
preservatives that Westerners are used to. I laughed when
a former expat told me about her children’s excitement
at finding “American Sandwich Bread” at the
store after having lived in Russia for a year. When they
tried it though, they commented that it tasted like Windex!
Simple foods such as cheese and bread were so delicious
that I often found myself content making a meal out of them.
Yes, Russians do eat borsch sometimes,
there are far more options that vary by region. While living
in Vladimir, Russia, my host mom made the most scrumptious vareniki,
a type of pasta filled with cherries. She also made delicious piroshkiy,
deep fried bread dough filled with meat, potatoes, cabbage,
or fruit. In the warm months, berries are abundant, and
strawberry vareniye, or preserves, became a staple
of my summer diet. Tea is also a very important part of
Russian culture. Russians often drink tea multiple times
a day as a time for conversation and relaxation. Even in
the 90 degree summer heat, my host mom and I often drank
Also, it should be noted that cuisine
varies significantly by region. On my Fulbright Grant in
Tatarstan, I was privileged to enjoy various foods unique
to the Tatar culture. Some of my favorites were balyesh, a
pie filled with meat and potatoes, and gubadia,
a pie with layers of sweet cheese curd, rice, raisins, eggs,
and sometimes apricots. My favorite Tatar dessert was chak-chak,
an intricate pastry made from frying flour and eggs into
little puffs, then molding them together with honey.
Tea and chak-chak,
a traditional Tatar treat.
Another stereotype that needs to be
addressed is the image that all Russians have blonde hair
and blue eyes, and identify as Orthodox Christians. Russia
is a land of immense diversity, housing numerous people
groups with unique languages and traditions. The stereotype
of the blonde, blue-eyed Russia was not completely shattered
for me until my 6th time to Russia, when I taught English
in the Republic of Tatarstan on a Fulbright Grant. Tatarstan
is an Islamic Republic located in the western half of Russia.
The region was not considered part of Russia until 1552
when Ivan the Terrible conquered the city of Kazan, which
is now the capital of the republic. To this day, over 50%
of the inhabitants of Tatarstan are ethnic Tatars. Most
Tatars identify as Muslim, while most ethnic Russians identify
as Orthodox Christian. For every church you see, you will
most likely see a mosque. In fact, Kazan’s Kul Sharif
mosque is one of the largest in Europe. I am often asked
if there is significant religious tension between the two
groups, but in my experience, I have observed a peaceful
coexistence. Ethnic Tatars and ethnic Russians care about
keeping the traditions of their ancestors, but the groups
work, study, and live together peacefully.
The Kul Sharif
Mosque in Kazan, Russia.
Another stereotype I have heard is that
Russia is a land of chaos. There are certainly aspects of
Russian life that may feel chaotic to a Westerner. However,
newcomers may be pleasantly surprised by the ease and reliability
of Russian public transportation. Whereas many places in
America almost require a car, small Russian cities are outfitted
with marshrutki (route taxis) that come to designated
stops frequently. The fare is relatively cheap; when I was
there, it cost the equivalent of 50 cents per ride. It takes
some time to learn how to navigate the system, but once
you have the hang of it, you may be surprised at how independent
you feel in a foreign city. It is important to know, however,
that each city has its own unwritten rules of public transportation
etiquette. In some cities, the bus driver expects his money
when you get onboard. In others, you pay the driver when
you get off the bus. In some cities, the driver will only
stop if you shout the mouthful, na sleduyushei!
(at the next stop), while in other cities, the driver will
brake at every stop.
For longer travels, the Russian train
are an excellent choice. Not only is it inexpensive, but
riding a train is a wonderful way to get to know Russians.
This is a place where Russians often reveal their private
persona, and some of my most memorable conversations have
been on Russian trains. Riding in a platzkart is
the travel option most conducive to meeting Russians. Platzkarts are
essentially train cars that house 40 to 50 bunk beds. Sheets
and a blanket are provided as part of the ticket price,
and there is always hot water at the front of the car to
accommodate lengthy conversations over tea.
Another common stereotype is that Russians
do not know how to have fun. This could not be further from
the truth. Out of the many leisure activities I participated
in in Russia, the two that stand out in my mind as most
distinctly Russia are the banya and the progulka.
The closest thing that the banya can
be compared to is the American sauna. But whereas the sauna
is a quick sweat after a swim, the banya is a long,
invigorating experience. After entering the hot humidity
of the banya, you sweat, talk, and laugh while
your comrades beat you with venniki, branches with
fragrant leaves. After sweating and receiving the branch
massage, you go to the anteroom to wash off with cold water.
You repeat this as many times as you want, making sure to
keep hydrated. It is hard to describe the feelings of refreshment
and health after spending time in the banya.
Another of my favorite leisure activities
is the progulka. Americans sometimes go on walks,
but it is usually with a purpose. When you spend time with
a Russian, it is likely that he or she will ask you go on
a progulka. This type of walk is usually characterized
by good conversation and no apparent destination. Some of
my most memorable times have been when I have gone on a progulka with
no purpose other than to enjoy someone’s company.
Although I have only scratched the surface
of all that Russia has to offer, I hope that after reading
this you might already have a desire to venture to this
vast country that Winston Churchill described as “a
riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It’s
true, Russia is mysterious, but she is ready to open herself
up to those who have the grit and desire to delve into her
layers. If I had to give two pieces of advice for those
interested in going to Russia, the first would be to have
a thick skin. From a superficial point of view, it can be
easy to take certain behaviors from Russians as signs of
rudeness or displeasure. However, remember that with enough
time, open-mindedness, and effort, you will likely have
the chance to form lasting friendships. Secondly, have a
learner’s heart. As a foreigner, you will make mistakes.
However, I have found that when I have shown the desire
to see things from Russians’ perspective, they have
been more than willing to support me as I adjusted to Russian
The Russian poet Tyutchev famously wrote, “Umom
Rossiyu nye ponyat,” or “you can’t
understand Russia with your mind.” I believe this
is true: trying to understand Russia with our minds will
not yield the depth of understanding that Russia deserves.
No, you can’t understand Russia with your mind;
you can only understand Russia if you experience it.
And even then, each time you leave it will return to
tantalize you with another mystery, telling you, “come
back, I’ve got another surprise for you.”
Hope Johnson loves
hot tea, spontaneous adventures, and reading Dostoevsky.
She has been to Russia 6 times, most recently as a Fulbright
English Teaching Assistant. After returning from Russia
in the summer of 2014, she began
working toward her MA in TESOL and teaching international
college students in her home state of Maine.