If you travel to Russia for a week or two, you’ll certainly be aware of how different it is from your home country. Spending three months in Russia gave me a lot of time to notice things – big and small, good and bad. I personally tend to notice (and sometimes get amused by) the little things. So while I am not promising that any of these are super deep and insightful – and they certainly shouldn’t be taken as a commentary on the entire country or population – these are the things that I noticed the most while I was in Russia.
Things I Liked:
1. Repair shops on every corner. If the zipper on your coat breaks (like mine), if you need to replace the heel on your boot (I did) or if you need to repair your camera (yep, me again), you don’t have to look far in Russia. In every city from St. Petersburg to Moscow to Irkutsk, the streets seemed to be lined with repair shops staffed by people just itching to fix whatever you have that is broken, whatever that may be.
2. Respect for the elderly.While it may be a fading art in the United States, Russians still seem very apt to give up their seats on the Metro and the bus to women with children and the elderly.
3. Electric water pots. I am told these are commonplace throughout Europe, but I saw them for the first time in Russia. Sure, they are necessary to boil water before drinking it there (a pain), but they are awesome for boiling water to make tea. I want one when I get home!
4. Safety. I don’t know if this was because of the police presence (see below) or in spite of it (or neither), but I felt incredibly safe the entire time I was in Russia. While I had heard horror stories about pickpockets in the Metro and scams in Red Square, I never felt insecure or threatened in any way.
5. Public transportation. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, a single ride on the Metro was less than $1.00 and the trains ran like clockwork. I don’t think I waited longer than 3 minutes for a train the entire time I was there. Bus, tram or trolley rides cost as little as sixty cents in the capital and even less when I got out east to places like Vladivostok and Krasnoyarsk. In Irkutsk, a marshrutka (mini-van) to take me the six-hour journey to Olkhon Island was only 700 rubles – less than $25!
6. Friendliness. This was especially true of those in mine and my parents’ generations – the couple who walked me to my hostel in Moscow when I was lost; the woman who took me by the arm in Vladivostok to show me where my bus stop was; the man who gave me a ride back to Irkutsk from Taltsy in a snowstorm for free; the woman who helped me practice Russian on the Trans-Siberian; the man in Kazan who not only showed me to my bus but rode it with me to make sure I got off at the right stop; and the café owner who was so excited to meet an American that he gave me a free cup of tea and a candlestick holder as a souvenir. These folks all put a smile on my face.
7. The food. I don’t mean Russian cuisine, but rather the ingredients. I spent several weeks cooking for myself and I swear everything I prepared – eggs, chicken, rice, potatoes, etc. – tasted better than it usually does at home. And I really don’t think it’s because I became a better cook.
8. The plethora of kiosks and street vendors. If you need to buy something in Russia, chances are you don’t need to go far to find it. Kiosks lined the streets, selling everything from snacks and newspapers to mobile phones and remote controls. Below the streets, in the pedestrian walkways, more vendors hawked their goods – umbrellas, souvenirs, hosiery, jewelry, watches, batteries, clothing – you name it, someone was likely selling it somewhere.
Things I Didn’t Like:
9. Constant police presence. They seemed to be everywhere in Moscow, slightly less in St. Petersburg and much less elsewhere. It was not uncommon to see them stopping people and asking for their “documents.” As a tourist, this made me nervous, even though their targets seemed to be a bit more race-related. I would have to say a much higher proportion of those I saw being questioned were dark-skinned.
10. Rudeness of young people. I don’t want to generalize, but every negative interaction I had in Russia involved someone in their early twenties. On one occasion, a girl snapped at me for getting on the wrong bus. Another time, a guy scolded me to speak English instead of Russian and then when I repeated my question in English, he flatly said he didn’t understand and walked away. And don’t even get me started about how rude and inconsiderate the Russians in my Moscow hostels were.
11. Sleeping habits. I lived with two different families, shared a flat with a few twenty-somethings for two weeks and spent 9 nights on overnight trains. I have never seen people sleep so much. As a morning person, this was hard to get used to – I was up and ready to go by 8 or 9 and everyone else was still sound asleep at 11.
12. Chip on shoulders. People seemed to have a bit of a chip on their shoulders. In conversations with dozens of Russians over the course of three months, it seemed that most were convinced they have it worse than everyone else with respect to nearly everything – their weather is worse, their traffic is worse, their Colgate toothpaste is worse than the Colgate toothpaste in the United States.
13. Not flushing toilet paper. I know, this is the case in a lot of developing countries, where the plumbing system allegedly just can’t handle it. And it probably wouldn’t be so bothersome if bins were emptied on a regular basis, but when they aren’t, the stench just grows and grows….
14. Smoking everywhere. This was definitely a shock to the system coming from the United States, where it has become almost taboo to smoke in many situations. In Russia, it felt like those who weren’t smoking were the exception. It was everywhere – I even saw people light up on the “electrichiski” (suburban) trains in St. Petersburg before they pulled into the station.
Things I Simply Found Interesting:
15. Flower shops are everywhere. And most seem to be open 24 hours. Just in case you need flowers at 3 a.m. (this would be a “like” but for the fact that I never really had the urge to run out and buy flowers).
16. Rap is huge. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect rap music to be as popular in Russia as it seems to be. The school kids I met in St. Petersburg all seemed enthralled with it, listening to both American and Russian rappers. I heard it playing constantly in shopping malls, including an Eminem song with all the f-bombs intact. And the crowd at a Moscow nightclub I visited went absolutely crazy when rapper (and host of MTV’s Pimp My Ride) Xzibit performed.
17. No one seems to use pot holders. It wasn’t until I shared a flat in Irkutsk over two months into my trip that I saw pot holders being used for the first time.
18. Russians love their tea. Everyone talks about how much vodka Russians drink, but I really didn’t see that at all. On the other hand, just about every interaction involved a cup of tea.
19. Russia is extremely proud of its military history. Judging by the number of memorials and monuments and museum displays I saw, the two most important moments in the history of the country were the victory over Napoleon in 1812 and their victory in the Great Patriotic War (better known to the rest of the world as World War II).
20. Everyone thought I was crazy. Nearly every Russian I met thought I was absolutely crazy for wanting to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway. For those in St. Petersburg and Moscow, visiting Siberia and far eastern Russia simply held no appeal. I was even told that all the cities were ugly and there was nothing to do (not true!!). On the other hand, those I met along the Trans-Siberian route found it odd that I would be so interested in riding a train that they simply take as a matter of course, whether to visit family, go away to school or travel for work.
21. Fur is everywhere. Lots of fur and very big fur.
22. Every conversation tends to sound like an argument. There is something about the intonation of the Russian language that just sounds a little whiny to the foreign ear. Hence, nearly every conversation I overheard sounded to me like someone was complaining about something to the other person and often ended up sounding like a full on disagreement.
23. People still go to banks. When is the last time you actually went to your local bank branch to conduct any kind of transaction? Yep, me neither. Maybe it’s because Russians know the ATM machines are shady (i.e., eating my card not once, but twice!), but every time I passed a bank in Russia, there seemed to be a large line.
24. Public displays of affection. Russians may have a reputation for being stern or grumpy, but with each other they can be incredibly affectionate. I witnessed PDA, including a few lusty make-out sessions, everywhere – on the escalator to the Metro (on many occasions!), on the Metro platform, in the supermarket, on the street corner in the middle of the afternoon, on the bus and even at the table next to me in the café at my language school in St. Petersburg.
25. Lenin is still the man. I think it may be a requirement for every city in Russia to have least one statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin (or in the case of Ulan Ude, a giant bust).
26. Open windows. Even in the heart of winter, Russians seem to like leaving their windows open. My hosts in Moscow left a window open a crack whenever they left for the day and I often returned to the flat in Irkutsk to find my roommate had propped the window open. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact the heat in buildings is turned up incredibly high during the late fall and winter.
27. High heels and short skirts. These seem to be a requirement for Russian women everywhere. I was expecting it in Moscow and wasn’t surprised to see it in St. Petersburg. But I was surprised to see women traversing the icy sidewalks of Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk in four-inch heels and skirts barely covering their butts – especially when it was well below freezing!
28. Exact change. Russian store clerks seem to love exact change. For example, if I bought something in the market and my total was 155 rubles and I tried to give the clerk 200 rubles, she would ask for an additional 5 so she could give me back an even 50 rubles. They also tended to round up or down to avoid giving ridiculously small amounts of change back – thus if my change due included 46 kopecks (the Russian version of cents), the clerk often just gave me a 50 kopeck coin.
29. After Lenin, Pushkin is man number two. Like Lenin, poet and founder of modern Russian literature Alexander Pushkin seems to have a presence almost everywhere.
30. I want to go back. Yes, three months was a long time, but considering that Russia is the size of the United States and Australia combined, I feel like I barely scratched the surface. I will likely hit St. Petersburg again, ideally in the summer months, but I will probably skip Moscow. I want to visit more of the small towns around the Golden Ring, spend time exploring off the beaten path places like Tuva and Khakassia, volunteer with the Great Baikal Trail (this time actually helping to build the trail around the lake) and hit the wild outdoors in the Kamchatka Peninsula.
I don’t know when, but I will return someday. And I’m sure the good, the bad and everything in between will be right there waiting for me.