Editor’s note: This post is just in time for my Russian date night, which will happen tonight and be written about next week. However, unlike me, Madeleine has spent a ton of time in Russia, and can speak to the country much better than I can. I hope you enjoy her post, and check out her index for all of her work!
A cursory search online for Russian stereotypes will return a familiar list that no non-Russian in America will find surprising. While many have roots in the Cold War era, these outdated stereotypes stay fresh due largely to Hollywood, the internet, and of course, the American news industry’s portrayal of Russia as a country awash with crime and corruption (unlike us, obviously). Over 3 million American tourists visit France every year, compared to only about 300,000 visiting Russia (per Wikipedia’s tourism pages for France and Russia, respectively). With numbers this low, it’s hardly a shock that our perspective on Russian people and culture hasn’t progressed farther than that one viral video of a military tank blasting through a snowbank and crossing a highway.
So let’s take a look at some of the most common Russian stereotypes. How true are they?
All Russians drink vodka
In my one year in Russia, I met more Russians who don’t drink alcohol than I’ve ever met during all my years combined in the States. Countless times during my initial friend-making attempts, I would propose going out for drinks with a new acquaintance only to have the person suggest meeting for tea some afternoon instead. Most of the people I knew were associated with the university where I was teaching (either students or fellow teachers), so it was probably a better idea to have a nice, calm cup of tea instead of behaving like the wild 22-year old I wanted to be (and was). However, I will admit that I was surprised.
That isn’t to say that none of my Russian friends drank. I dined at a friend’s house one night and was introduced to the classic tradition of Russian toasts – something we don’t do in the States. Rather than a boring old ‘cheers!’, Russians often like to give small (or sometimes incredibly long) speeches before raising their glasses. At this particular dinner, the host had us clinking our glasses together so hard after each toast that we ended up shattering a glass. Vodka and shards of glass rained down over our chicken and vegetables. We picked out the glass and continued our meal.
At my corner grocery shop, there were several shelves of vodka available in an impressively wide range of flavors, qualities, and prices. The vodka was kept in the same section as the beer and wine, while all other liquors – tequila, gin, whiskey – were kept in a locked cabinet that the shopkeeper would open on request. The other liquor was comparatively very expensive. The one time I bought whiskey, the bottle was covered in dust.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
It’s always winter in Russia, and Russian winters are unbearably cold
Russia is the largest country in the world. With a maximum east to west span of 5,700 miles, and a maximum north to south span of 2,500 miles, that’s a tremendous amount of space to wrap up into one little seasonal stereotype. Yes, Russia has cities within the Arctic Circle, but it also has a southern border on the same latitudinal parallel as Long Island. With such an immense geographical range, it’s hardly fair to say something as vague as ‘Russian winter’.
With that in mind, I’ll now contradict myself by saying that yes, Russian winters are long, cold, and extreme. But no Russian person is shivering in the corner of their kitchen cursing the bitterness of the very particularly Russian cold they are experiencing, just like how nobody in Kansas is peeking out of their kitchen window thinking ‘Oh no, here comes another American tornado!’ The weather you grow up experiencing comes to be the weather you expect. People in Saint Petersburg might laugh about how cold it is in Chelyabinsk, while people in Chelyabinsk might be glad they don’t live in Khabarovsk. No matter how cold you are, you can always take comfort in knowing that someone out there is colder.
The town I lived in was situated about 400 miles southeast of Moscow, and it was the coldest and snowiest winter I’ve ever experienced. I arrived in September, and my train was delayed because of a blizzard. By mid-April, I was still walking to work through two feet of snow. Far from being horrible, it made the warm days feel that much warmer when they finally came. And they did come, because Russia does have summer. My town even had a beach where locals would spend sunny days swimming and tanning. The beach was a muddy, weedy riverbank behind a hospital, but still.
Shopping in -30 weather at the market in Penza.
Russians never smile
One of the most notable distinctions between American and Russian cultures is what we deem socially acceptable public etiquette. Americans smile at strangers and expect to be smiled at in return. Any absence of this throwaway nicety is considered rude, and this puts Russia in a tricky spot for the sensitive American judge. Americans assume they’re speaking from an objective place when they ask, “Why are Russians so severe? Why don’t they smile?”, failing to realize the unspoken end to their own question – “Why don’t Russians smile at strangers?” Great question.
As an English teacher, I taught classes of all levels and ages at multiple schools and language camps around my town in Russia. Presented with the opportunity to ask me any questions they wanted about American culture, my students always wanted to know, “Why do Americans act so fake? Why do they smile at people they don’t know?” Great question.
While Russians’ ability to remain emotionally neutral in public doesn’t mean they’re all emotionless robots, neither does Americans’ apparent need to smile and nod at random strangers inherently make us more open or caring. I wish I could say that during my time in Russia, the public poker face had rubbed off on me. Alas, I’m as American as the day I was born, and I still smile at people while secretly hoping they won’t try to talk to me.
All Russians are spies/in the mafia
This one is really too stupid to address, but I felt obligated to include it since it seems to be the longest running and most hackneyed stereotype Americans hold of Russians. To put an end to this once and for all: Yes, all Russians are both spies and in the mafia. Just like how all Americans are cowboys.
Russian food is all beets
Russia is famous for borsch (beet soup, which Ukraine also claims as its own), but for some unclear reason, borsch became the joke food of Hollywood at some point and never made a comeback. Any mention of Eastern European cuisine in a sitcom, and the actors theatrically gag and scrunch up their beautiful faces in disgust – anything but borsch! This is bad and lazy writing, because borsch is delicious. What gives this away? Probably the very ubiquity we make fun of it for – it’s literally everywhere. Cafes, restaurants, bistros, dirty hole-in-the-wall cafeterias, shiny business center cafeterias – everyone is serving borsch. Because borsch rules.
In Russia, I bought and cooked beets nearly every week. They were cheap, abundant, and delicious. When I came back home, I realized that my local grocery store in Virginia was selling them for $4.99 per beet. No wonder we hate beets in America, they’re a total 1% food.
But just because borsch is everywhere doesn’t mean Russia is all beets (or, all beets and vodka, apparently). There are classic staples that you’ll find all over the country, but Russia has over 100 native ethnic groups, so a typical selection in a Moscow cafeteria might not be the same as in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. Remember Chechnya? And Dagestan? Those are republics inside Russia, and they each have their own language, culture, and food. To give yourself an accurate sense of the scope of Russian cuisine, make sure you try foods outside of the borsch and stroganoff scene.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow
So, are the stereotypes true? I don’t know. If they are – does that mean we accept the knowledge of them and stop looking for more information? If we disregard them as false, are we dismissing important elements of Russian culture along with them?
A doctor won’t diagnose you with a runny nose, because a runny nose isn’t an illness – it’s a symptom. Stereotypes are the same; they’re things we interact with on the surface level and therefore notice easily. But those stereotypes are just indicators of something else happening, and it’s our job to make sure we take a closer look. If we ask why, we might get answers. Why is Russian drinking culture the way it is? Why don’t Russians find it appropriate to display emotions in public? Why did I choose symptoms of an illness as a comparison for stereotypes of a culture? We may never know, but asking why is always the first step to finding out. I can ask the same questions about my own culture’s stereotypes to try to understand the extent to which my American perspective informs the way I view other cultures. Why is everyone a gun owner, and in prison, and fat? Why is the customer always right? Why is everything bigger in Texas?
The easiest things to notice are the ones that have already been pointed out to us. This makes stereotypes easy to latch onto; they require no work on our part. But, like with a disease, if we only notice the symptoms and never ask what causes them, we won’t ever figure out what’s really going on.
So go to Russia (after COVID, I guess), and take advantage of all the amazing stereotypical things Russia has to offer, but do other stuff too. Go to Russia and drink the vodka, but also try the beer. Go to Russia and eat the borsch, but also try the okroshka. Go to Russia for the summer solstice, but bring a jacket because it might snow. Go to Russia and do not smile at strangers on the street, honestly it’s not worth it and I got scolded on multiple occasions.
Note: I’m so honored to have writers like Madeleine contribute their talents to The Royal Tour. If you enjoy content like this, help us to keep it ad-free and available by becoming a patron through our Patreon site. We appreciate your support!
Like it? Pin it!