Jacana Bresson, a French, Spanish, and Russian student, is spending her third year living in St. Petersburg, Russia. Below she discusses the stereotypes she expected about Russia, and the reality of what she’s actually experienced.
Russian people aren’t friendly.
Before I came to Russia I was fully preparing myself for a life devoid of positive human interaction because of the absurd warnings people had given me. The stereotype that scared me the most – even more so than racism – was “Russians don’t smile”. Even though this statement is usually followed by the caveat “in public” or “at strangers”, it really does paint a picture of a nation of stern faced scrooges. I grew up in London, the city where a smile from an unknown neighbour on the train sends chills down your spine, so it’s all relative. No, in Russia people do not beam at each other across the escalators on the metro, but I would say that is a trait common amongst most inhabitants of large cities.
Russians are racist.
As a person of colour living and studying in St. Petersburg I have had some experiences that my white classmates have not, but I wouldn’t attribute them to racism. Many people I meet do unexpectedly ask for an explanation of my “un-English” skin colour but subsequently lose interest or actually become friendlier because I am not exclusively British.
Russians drink vodka all day err’day.
Russians love their vodka the same way that the French love their wine and the Czechs love their beer. It is most definitely a part of their cultural identity but not in the sense that most of us in the West imagine it to be. Russians are rightfully proud of their extremely popular export but this pride is expressed in a much subtler way than the stereotype would suggest. I feel I can say this with some certainty after consuming an extremely vast amount of the stuff myself.
The Kind of True:
Hazdarovya is how Russians say cheers.
That expression actually has a completely different meaning in Russian. Russians do, however, have a much more prevalent toasting tradition than we do in the UK. Toasts are mandatory and can be extremely lengthy.
Russians love garlic and onions.
Yes, Russian people do eat of onions and garlic. My hozyaika (Russian mum) informs me that this is because of the benefits to your immune system. However, there is a vegetable much more important to the Russian diet than these: the mushroom. Get on any train that may pass through dacha populated areas on a weekend and you will see many a mushroom-filled basket. Mushroom picking is an enormously popular Russian past time, meaning that your average Russian knows a heck of a lot about mushrooms.
Russians are homophobic.
I cannot claim to be an authority on this subject, as I have not had much interaction with the LGBT community here, but what I can do is point out the disparity between our media’s portrayal of the situation and what I have seen. I have seen many gay bars and clubs in St. Petersburg; in fact, I was invited to an after party in one two weeks ago at 6am, but that’s another story. I am in no way minimizing the discrimination put in law in the recent past by the Russian government, but I believe the British media’s portrayal of LGBT life in here must be inaccurate because it led me to believe that such establishments would be hard to find, if they were allowed to exist at all. Next time I am invited I shall have to go along so that I can report back.
Photo credit: Polina Mityaeva &