In this post we challenge more myths about what the Russians “are” or “are not”. We are swamped with stereotypes that catch our attention and become permanently associated with their subject, preceding any further information. The flip-side is that there is often a solid element of truth in there somewhere; as a pearl lost in the mud. We’ll also touch on some of those in an attempt to separate both sides.
Siberia (and/or Russia) is absolutely freezing!
Well: yes; but only in winter! The “cold” thing has particularly stuck with Siberia and is almost guaranteed to surface if you ask a westerner to tell you anything they know about the region. The temperature differential across Siberia as a whole is almost 100℃, with a range from -70℃ to +27℃ recorded at either extreme, although no single point experiences such a contrast.
Those misleading extremes are due to the sheer size of Siberia permitting many truths to be true in their own specific regions. For example, one of the most moderate locales; Petropavlovsk, typically experiences a modest fluctuation between -8℃ and +12℃. Ojmjakon however -which did achieve the -70℃ record- typically oscillates between -46℃ and +13℃ across the year, so location (as with the housing market) is a critical factor. The wild claim, “absolutely freezing!” solidifies into a more realistic, “much colder on average” – which isn’t such a punchy headline of course.
The other important factor to bear in mind is the weather pattern across the seasonal cycle. Whereas we are used to an evenly shifting climate that keeps pace with each 3 month season, the wintery weather in Russia seems disproportionately extended (by our standards), lasting about 6 months alone. Their “normal”, after all, is not ours and vice versa.
The alcohol/vodka thing
No the streets aren’t awash with raging drunks, despite what your consumption of YouTube clips appear to convey. There is a real chance that you’ll put your foot in your mouth over this (instead of the vodka) as it can be a sensitive subject. Would we like to be considered a nation of drunks? Probably not, so similarly, casual references to them getting tanked on vodka, may not be appreciated. One of the great loves of Russia is tea; they have a whole tradition of samovars to prove it. Coffee too.
Then there is Kvass of course, a summer favourite fermented from rye bread. The fermentation process gives the brew an alcohol content of around 1%, and it’s been drunk by adults and children alike for centuries. Mors is a berry-based drink, again fermented to around 1% and Kompot is a non-alcoholic, slow-boiled fruit/berry combination. There are more, but you get the idea, it’s not all vodka or even alcohol per se.
However, it’s fair to say that they do take their drink seriously when they do partake -and they drink more units on average than us too. Significantly, there is also a higher incidence of ‘binge’ drinking -considered the most damaging way to drink. Alcohol has always been a significant part of Russian culture though, with strong traditions associated with it; never leaving an opened bottle unfinished, always placing empties on the floor, the tradition of ‘toasting’ etc. It’s also fair to say that coming out of the Communist years, alcohol (along with cigarettes) was (and is) a primary contributor to male mortality, with 37% of men dying before the age of 55 as late as 2006. This figure then proceeded to shift to a less-appalling (but still dreadful) 25%, though the mortality varies according to the state of the country at any given time.
It’s a problem that still exists today although there has been a marked improvement. They -as a nation- still drink, but the last ten years has seen death rates due to alcohol (directly or otherwise) fall by a remarkable 50% -and that’s a conservative estimate, according to the WHO.
The BBC’s Reality Check site references their study, whilst contending a much higher stated reduction in mortality:-
“If you look at figure 3.9 in this publication you will see a downward trend but nothing like 80% over five years. The more dramatic fall has been in death rates from alcohol use among Russian men, which chart 3.10 suggests have been cut by about 50% in the last decade.”
Anecdotally; I didn’t see one drunk staggering around St. Petersburg, mind you: the police would have given them short shrift if they had dared to “let it all hang out” in public.