It’s time to end this brief excursion into some of the persistent myths that are still assumed about Russian culture. Some ‘mud’ sticks and is difficult to shake off -even in our ongoing age of information. Whilst our technologies change, it often appears that the weak link is still “us”; keen to spread our lazy myths and half truths faster and more efficiently via new, super-charged means rather than disseminate a “truer” version of the truth. As ever we are the weak link in the chain of communication! -but let’s continue.
“Russians: are gloomy, never laugh, aren’t friendly”
We’ve covered this subject relatively recently in the All Smiles and Laughter article, so there’s no need to reproduce it here. These perceptions have a place though as they are still some of the most persistent and misguided “go to” assessments of Russian people.
I’m in frequent contact with a few of them, and have also dealt superficially with others. Logically this means I should know something rather than nothing. The key factor is the invisible barrier that separates those who are “in” (friends, family, colleagues, close acquaintances etc) with those who are “out” (essentially: strangers). I think it’s fair to say that they don’t “do” superficiality, so a disposable “have a nice day” culture doesn’t exist in Russia at all, in fact it’s bizarre to them. So, as a stranger, expect something akin to the coldness of the Russian winter. As a friend, expect all the shared warmth of the traditional Russian hearth. Transcending the wall between the two is the problem.
Paradoxically though; if, as stranger, you approach a Russian on the street for directions in St.Petersburgh (for example), it’s very likely that you will receive considered and useful assistance. So it’s not an issue of hostility, just the requirement of something ‘solid’ at the heart of the exchange. Finally, you may of course meet an unpleasant individual; we’ve all got them – have you been to England?
White, towering and Slavic
Yes, whilst you will find this phenotype whilst travelling through Russia, particularly on the European side, all Russian and Siberian inhabitants are not all cut from the same cloth. With 160 to 190+ separate peoples dwelling within the collosal Russian federation, you will find a wide diversity of looks, beliefs and traditions: even if you are of a mind that “they all look the same to me”. Expect Asiatic features, those resembling first-nation Americans, the aforementioned towering Slavs and more.
Boiled meat, potatoes and vegetarians
“But what am I going to eat in Russia?”. No, Russians don’t survive on boiled cabbage and gruel, slabs of boiled meat, or other barely processed chunks of rudimentary nutrition. The image of pre-revolution peasant food still prevails in some quarters but the reality is a lot more sophisticated, accommodating and frankly: delicious. Oh, and you won’t have to stand in a bread queue either.
Incidentally, as To Discover Russia points out: peasant and courtier food did not necessarily differ as wildly as we might assume:-
“In Russia, the difference between peasant and the prince’s food was not particularly noticeable. It was rather expressed in the amount and availability of food on a table rather than its form. With the emergence of privileged classes, on which a prince could rely, Russian food culture became different for different classes.”
If you haven’t tried Russian food, then you really should; the available range and quality is enticing to say the least, whatever your budget. I arrived in St. Petersburg expecting to buy and cook my own food, but then I discovered Stolovaya No 1; a chain of canteens where the food is so cheap (as in price not quality), varied and tasty that I didn’t have to touch the cooker for the entire stay. Expect salads, meat and fish dishes, soups, desserts, drinks (alcoholic and otherwise), snacks, vegetarian dishes, breads – anything in fact that you could reasonably want.
As you move up the financial scale then expect more of the same, perhaps with nicer wallpaper. To be honest I didn’t patronise the more upmarket establishments – except for an inflated price-tag coffee that left me feeling even more detached than usual. Ok, I prefer venues that are a little more ‘real’, but each to their own.