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Living in Russia and Dispelling Stereotypes

Children in traditional Russian dress
Children in 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 WWII.

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, Russia
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 honor.

Children in traditional Russian dress
My host family and I, Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia.

Russian Cuisine

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 hot tea.

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 an chak-chak Tatar food, Russia
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. 

Kul Sharif Mosque in Kazan, Russia
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.

Concluding Thoughts

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 culture.

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.”

Resources for Living in Russia

Visa / Immigration Services

Russian Embassy in Washington D.C.

Work and Research Opportunities

The Fulbright Program

English First

Study Opportunities

Critical Language Scholarship (Russian)

The School of Russian and Asian Studies

Boren Scholarships 

Russian News and Culture

Russia Beyond the Headlines

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.  

Related Topics
Living Abroad in Russia: Articles and Resources

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