“Isn’t Russia just like Canada, but with meaner people?”
Well now that I’ve been, I thought I’d report back to you all on the accuracy of that hypothesis.
Russians Be All Like…
I did a lot of people watching in Russia. This tends to happen when you don’t speak the local language, and none of them speak yours. Even more, when your girlfriend (who does speak the language) leads all the discussions, and you just sit back and observe.
While I learned a lot about Russian culture from these interactions – and the multiple Russia-centred books I read during many long train rides – I’ll start by sharing the superficial differences I observed in how Russians look and dress compared to Australians.
I was immediately struck by how unique Russian (or perhaps slavic) facial features are. This is something I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t lived in Australia for the past 11 years, where one does not see many – only ~3% of the population have slavic heritage. Compare this to 10% in Canada, which include the world’s third largest Ukrainian population (only the Ukraine and Russia have more).
The features I noticed were: ‘heart shaped’ faces; fine blond hair, severe noses – some even hooked. Many men have shaved heads, often leaving short bangs cut harshly straight across. Men there also love to wear either camouflage, capri pants, or striped track suits. And a surprising number of them wear Korean sandals (ie one big, chunky strap), often with white socks. Men also love to carry man-bags (aka man-purse, aka ‘murse’). I really scratched my head over the coexistence of man-purses and capri pants with homophobic macho culture.
Women’s fashion seems to vary more than men’s, but one thing I couldn’t miss was the number of impressive 1980s perms – often in combination with mild mullets.
These observations are all obviously biased to what I saw where we went, especially at the start – that is, mostly Siberian towns and Ural cities. Moscow was far more international, and Saint Petersburg too full of tourists, to make generalisations.
Admittedly, all of the above is quite superficial. “How do they behave?”, you might ask. Well let me tell you.
Basically, I think the stereotype of the “unfriendly, suspicious, somewhat hostile Russian” is unfair. It only applies to… three-quarters of Russians.
Most Russians we met were exactly the opposite of tourist-loving Australians or Canadians (who are friendlier to tourists than their fellow citizens!). Most Russians appeared to be in a constant state of irritability, like everyone was having a really bad day, everyday.
When asked simple questions they either responded in exasperation, or stared blankly at us for an unreasonably long time (what I called “dead eyes”), before grunting unhelpful single word answers in a tone of exceeding indifference.
- Cashiers flatly declaring they don’t have change, without apology or offering a solution. Buy more – or your change be damned!
- A bus driver not opening the front doors for us, then yelling at us for entering the backdoors.
- A lonely street fruit vendor selling mostly rotten cherries. I was cherry-picking (literally) the edible ones to purchase. She aggressively approached me, and ripped the bag from my hands while yelling “The price is for hand fulls, not choosing the best ones!” (Needless to say, she didn’t get the sale)
- A second-class train (ie 4-berth) cabin, with a nice but stinky-footed economist. Our fourth member arrives – a Kazakh. Overhearing our English, he proclaims aloud, “Ugh! I don’t even have Russians in my cabin!”. Later, after we helped him move his heavy luggage, and he realised Anna spoke Russian, he shows no signs of regret about his comment.
- A hostel with a giant list of rules on the wall in Russian and English. The employee on duty tells us that as per The Rules, after check-out, we can remain in the common areas. However, for our baggage to stay within the hostel, we’d have to pay extra – something specifically not mentioned anywhere in The Rules. After a heated few minutes of discussion, she finally relents on her absurd fictitious surcharge, when I advise I’d be stacking our luggage outside the hostel’s front door.
We had a few other funny or weird incidents, and for your entertainment I’ll share just two in detail:
The Vasily Incident
We met a recently divorced 41-year old gold miner who clearly spent a lot of time in the gym. He was generous with food and drink, and heartfelt in his gratitude to be able to have a discussion with foreigners. He told us a hilarious story about missing the very train on which we sat (“Embarassing” he said, “Because I wasn’t even drunk.”) and jumping in a taxi to chase it down at the next city ($100, but still far cheaper than a new ticket).
A group of five of us (including Zac the Canberran: the only native-English speaking tourist we met in Russia, and Peter “the Great”: a Russian army paramedic who refused to answer a single question about Putin) spent an evening eating, drinking, and talking, during which two things became apparent:
Firstly, that Vasily had a frightening intensity to him – not helped by the veins popping from his arms and forehead. And secondly, that he was becoming increasingly ‘familiar’ in how he spoke to Anna.It started innocently with comments like “Mike, I hope you know how amazing Anna is, and you appreciate what you have.” (Why yes, I do thanks, I told him). Later becoming weirder with comments like: “Anna, I’ve never met anyone like you. I want to take you back to my village. Don’t translate this to Mike.”
I like to assume the best of people, and hoped he just had a particularly terrible sense of humour. He knew she was my girlfriend, and that nobody in the group was finding him funny. We all kept changing the subject, but he kept circling back to his feelings for Anna.
It reached peak-creepy when sometime after our second bottle of vodka, he narrowed his gaze at me and said:
“Mike, I would kill to have a girl like Anna.”
Full. Stop. Literally-deadly seriousness.
It was well after midnight, and our second bottle of vodka together when he got up to use the bathroom. Without hesitation the rest of us ran in the opposite direction. I’ve never been happier to have paid extra for second class, where you get a door on your sleeping compartment. I locked ours.
I had nightmares all night. In one, I awoke to find Anna missing – she’d been kidnapped. In another, our cabin was awoken by Vasily putting an axe through our locked door, poking his head in the hole, and asking “Wheerrre’s Anna?!”
Late the next morning, I awoke cheerful with the hope that we’d already passed Vasily’s destination station. Then a face appeared in our half-open doorway and turned to look inside. It was Vasily. He said good morning, and I replied half heartedly before staring awkwardly at him. He soon left.
We had to get up to say goodbye to Zac the Canberran, who was also departing at Vasily’s destination. I still retained a shred of hope that Vasily would reveal the whole event was just a joke lost in translation. We said our goodbyes, and I watched as he turned to Anna.
“So…” he asked her, “should we exchange numbers?”
The Drunken Footballer Incident
On our third-class train to Moscow we shared our six-berth sleeping area with a couple grannies (one young, one old), a football supporter, and his very patient wife. At midday when we boarded, the footballer man was already drunk, well in advance of the football matches he was planning to attend that weekend.
I need to pause, and tell you about a train rule in Russia. A very un-Russian rule. A rule that may shock you, given the stories you’ve heard from Russia:
Drinking on trains, though tolerated, is technically forbidden. The closer you get to Moscow, the more likely the enforcement of this rule – typically, by throwing drunken louts off the train.
So when the drunken footballer began emphatically offering me – the only other man in our berth – a beer (between drinking and spilling his own) I politely declined. He was incensed. To shut him up, I eventually agreed, but after handing me the beer he yelled “Pay!”. I was so annoyed at whatever joke he was pulling, I handed it back to him. (Turns out “Pey” means “Drink!”. Oopsy).
So he tried another avenue to achieve his generosity agenda. He opened a tupperware smashed full of a broken, soggy pizza, and offered it around. I was eating some dessert and wasn’t hungry, so I declined, but offered him some pastry in return. He accepted immediately, glaring firmly into my eyes while eating it, his angry eyes stating “Look, I accepted your offering.”
Immediately after gulping down my pastry he shoved the soggy pizza-salad towards me, and again demanded I eat. I delicately plucked one pepperoni off the top, thanked him, and ate it. Satisfied, he moved on to his next victim: the older Grandma. He cozied up on her bunk beside her.
Baba (as we called her) was a much better match for him. He asked her, “Grandma, can I be your grandson?”
“That might be a bit difficult for you.” She replied. “Because if you were my grandson, I’d have to kick your ass.”
And she was just getting started.
“Instead of going to the football all weekend,” she continued, “why don’t you pickup a tool and help in your garden?”
Defiantly, he replied, “Grandma, I’m a man. We hunt, we fish, and we watch football.”
“You know my husband bought a large garden plot for us,” Baba explained, “and right afterwards, he laid down and died. Now I’m taking care of it all by myself.”
A long silence. The footballer sat and blinked at her. Finally, he spoke.
“Grandma, this story is fucked.”
And stumbled back to his bunk. Before long, he was finally settling in for the nap we’d all been requesting him to take. The younger Grandma noticed him under the blanket, and turned to Baba.
“Hey Baba. Go rock your grandson to sleep.”
The train rides in Russia may be long, but they are never boring.<–> <–> <–> <–> <–> <–>
Check out the photo gallery below from all over Russia! Best viewed full-screen by clicking any one of them, and using arrow keys to navigate.