Things to Know Before You Travel to Russia
This section is written primarily for folks who intend to travel to Russia. I’ll try to relate some things about Russian people, traditions and superstitions. Remember though, there are no absolutes in cultures. If I tried to describe the average Russian person, I would fail miserably because as in every place; people are all different and don’t necessarily stick to our stereotypes.
For my Russian readers, don’t interpret anything as an insult; bear in mind the stereotypes that you hold dear about Americans and also my disclaimer above. Remember, I’ve been here for ten years already; if I found things overly offensive, I’d have left already.
Well, now that that is out of the way, let me share some of my observations.
A question that I’m often asked here by people, particularly those Russian that are planning on traveling to the U.S. is; what do Americans think of Russian people? The honest answer that I give them to this question is, “they really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Russian people” and “they are not really aware of what life is like in modern Russia”.
I have to clarify the above after I give these answers. America exports its culture all over the world and has found ways to market it. Even anti-American countries typically enjoy American culture. What does Russia do to make others in the world aware of their presence? I hate to offend my Russian friends, but most headlines about Russia are negative and this is not due to some inherent need that the world has to find fault in Russia, but because the things that are known are true. My point is; if you want the world to know your positive side, it’s up to you to tell them or otherwise let it be known. I personally don’t buy this “everyone is against us and wants to keep us down” argument and not believing it is a key for Russians also to move beyond it. This argument is pretty pathetic, but unfortunately prevalent here.
Here are some stereotypes and also my observations.
Russian people are cold and unfriendly and rather unhappy.
As a rule, this is not true, but let’s look at the reasons why people might state this and believe this. My theory for why people say this is as follows;
When someone travels to Russia, a foreigner, it’s often for either tourism or business. The main contact that they will have with Russian people is when they are on the streets. On the street, the above perceived observations do seem to hold true. But, an understanding of Russian culture is needed here in order to understand the situation properly.
In Russia, particularly in a city, where most people live, if a person is walking down the street smiling, they are thought to be “a few cards short of a deck”, “soft in the head” and to have “toys in the attic”, well you get the picture. I don’t know why this is, but neither do I know reasons for some American particularities, it’s just simply so. This explains the lack of a smile on the street, but what about the downcast eyes? Are they that unhappy?
In many cities in Russia there are all sorts of “traps” to catch the unwary pedestrian. Among these; missing manhole covers, broken pavement and also rebar sticking up from where some concrete curb used to be before it disintegrated. If you don’t walk with your eyes downcast a certain percentage of the time; you will get hurt.
None of this is to say that there are no cold, unfriendly and unhappy people here, but no more than you would find in any city in the world.
Before rushing to judgment concerning Russians, it’s also important to remember that the vast majority of Russians live in cities; exactly the opposite of the situation in the States, and therefore in addition to Russian characteristics, they also exhibit “city dweller” characteristics found elsewhere in the world.
A business person will quickly pick up on the errors in stereotypes because even the exit from the street to the workplace sheds the “non-smiling” nature of Russians. I would advise that if you are ever invited to a Russian persons home; accept without reservation. Out of perceived politeness, we Americans would sometimes turn down such an invitation; don’t do this because it may be the most educational thing on your trip here. In this environment you will see the true Russian character, and as an American, see also that our similarities outweigh our differences.