The People

Perhaps you have heard someone mention the following stereotypes: “Russians are rude” and “Russians never smile”. Did you ever stop to think if that was true? Well, I did. Unfortunately, many foreigners do think so of Russians. I thought to myself, is that really who we are? What image are we sending to the Western world? Clearly, we must be doing something wrong.

I found a passage that went like this,

“Foreigners who come to Russia are often struck by the indifferent, closed, or even hostile looks from people on public transportation and in the streets. One widespread opinion is that Russians rarely smile. On the other hand, Russians are also well known for their hospitality, and have a reputation for being extremely generous friends.”

The hook to this is that it’s actually one hundred percent true. As I mentioned in my first post, I have spent many years living abroad, even more than I can remember. My family, however, despite the distance, always kept me tied to my roots. Well, not so long ago, I went for a nice casual visit to my home country, I guess I had already forgotten how shockingly contrasting Russians’ way of being was. Ever since I got out of my comfy airplane seat, I fell into a perpetual state of cultural shock. But what was it that had left me so wide-eyed? The people, perhaps? I definitely noticed the not so warm-hearted behavior of strangers…and I mean like random people on the streets, shops, supermarkets. You see, in Russia, there is no need for a reason to get into a quarrel while harmlessly waiting in line for the cashier; nor do you need a reason to dispute a parking spot; nor will you ever find out why the saleswoman tossed the product you were buying literally at your face, adding an insult somewhere in the middle, if for some reason, God knows which, you had annoyed her. The list could go on and on for pages and pages. Every time you take a step outside of your cave, you need to be ready for a hurricane of annoyed indifferent looks.

How about effortlessly strolling out of your apartment in order to meet cute guys and girls on the busy streets of Moscow? Forget about it. A’int happening. The probability that someone will have the time and wish to check you out is minimal. People are hopelessly busy, constantly running around in their business attire with a morose and concerned look on their face. That is the first impression foreigners may get about Russians. A bit sad, right? The excuse I find is that many of those people struggle on a daily basis, therefore some serious concern has become a constant expression of their faces. A smile in such circumstances is an exception meaning wealth and high spirits.

However, I figured out that smiling is simply a more intimate emotion for Russians. Smiling at strangers is simply absurd, so no one does it. A Russian smile is a symbol of friendship, love, and attraction. We are rather reserved in public – not letting most of our emotions emerge onto the surface. We just try to mind our own business. Why let people we don’t know into our innermost feelings? Deep inside every Russian has a big warm heart, and if you get to know a Russian closely, you will most likely agree with me.

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18 thoughts on “The People

  1. Culture – always a firm favourite of mine. I think it does depend where you are sometimes: southern France is a world away from Paris for example. And its true that our body language is different in different areas of the world. A Romanian once told me to stop smiling as it showed guilt, and Hungarians once glowered when I spoke happily during dinner when invited to their house, until one told me Hungarians did ”not speak at the table please” so we do commit faux-pas without realising it!
    But I want to tell you about ‘Karen’ (seemed to be his name) a Russian man I worked with in Eastern Europe, who’d spent years in the Russian military in the Gobi desert, and who used to walk with me in the evenings after work, doing sudden odd Korean martial art movements at odd times, such as when paying at the supermarket, Over a year after I left Eastern Europe he called me the morning after the birth of my first beautiful daughter in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I then lived. I didn’t even know my Aberdeen number when we’d said goodbye in Budapest. He didn’t even know I’d be in Aberdeen. How many people he had called to get to me, goodness knows. How even he knew I now had a daughter goodness knows, but I will never, never forget his call of congratulations in broken English from somewhere deep in Russia. What a man.

    • Yepirategunn! Thank you once again for your wonderful comments, they are always more than welcome. I love hearing other people’s stories brought back to life by my posts. It truly means a lot. What a man, indeed. That’s exactly the idea that I wanted to transmit when writing this. Sometimes we hear and see so many striking, odd and new things about Russia on TV or in newspapers or from the people we meet, that I think I’m missing something! It turns out my mother country is a dangerous place, inhabited by racists, ruled by an authoritarian regime, flooded with mafia, deadly cold winters, demolished economy, and depressed people… However, it is that same “depressed person” that will do goodness knows what in order to reach and congratulate an old friend on such an important day in his life.. Somewhere deep in Russia, somewhere deep in that soul, there lives a honest man. Simple and naive. Thank you.

      • Thanks Innamazing de Colonia…I always have to hold back as here is so much to discuss on your blog – but now and then I just can’t so write those long comments. Will shorten them but they’ll still appear – still welcomed so far is great!

  2. When our kids were young, one summer we hosted a young girl from Asipovičy, Mogilev Province, Belarus. She spoke no English. She was twelve years old. When she first arrived, she was scared I’m sure, shy, unsure. It didn’t take long at all for her to connect with us. At first she smiled only slightly, probably because I was totally failing at my attempt to properly speak Russian phrases asking if she was hungry, or if she’d brushed her teeth. By the end of her stay she was laughing, playing, rosy cheeked and she enjoyed watering flowers in my garden. She was a lovely child. Returning her to an orphanage broke my heart. We had no choice, we were strictly instructed that the program was not for adoption. She’s in her twenties now and I often wonder where she is and how her life is turning out. Her sweet smile touched our hearts and I know for certain she enriched our lives as much as we helped her. Maybe more.

    • Such a beautiful and touching story. If you made her happy, you can be absolutely sure that she remembers you – that’s what matters. Life is full of changes and transitions, but what pertains is the love and warm memories. Do you still remember any of those Russian phrases? It’s really sweet how you would attempt to communicate with her in Russian! Must’ve been quite a struggle… shows how much you cared for that little girl.

      • It really wasn’t a struggle at all. Smiles are universal, so, I understood what she liked and didn’t like as far as food and clothes went. It was a fun time, and whenever she wanted something, we could usually figure it out with a game charades. She drew smiley faces and she learned to say, video game please. My husband drew Russian characters on an old keyboard with a sharpie marker and we used the translator on the computer. I do remember a few of the phrases, but rarely get a chance to say them, unless we’re laughing at how bad my Russian is. :)

  3. I as an American am so sorry that you have not been able to forge intimate friendships here. Perhaps it is the sign of of the times. In the end we are all capable of deep feelings and relationships. You may also wish to reflect on the years when the Russian citizens were petrified to speak to or trust anyone lest they be reported to “higher Authorities” and incarcerated. I am delighted that you and my grandaughter were able to have a meaningful experince in Russia. I hope you will both in future years be able to see the similarities in people rather than the differences.

    • Thank you for your comment. I never said I haven’t been able to forge intimate friendships with Americans. In fact, I’ve never been to the States, I live in South America, but I have met a great number of Americans, and they were all super nice right from the start. Just wanted to clear that out! Have a nice day. Peace.

  4. Really insightful…I’ve never been to Russia, but I feel like the experience is similar in France. When I went to Paris, I found out that the Parisians do not tend to be a boisterous as I’m used to in the US, but that their friendships tend to run deeper and be more meaningful once you are invited into their social circles.

    Cheers to loving all different cultures,
    Courtney Hosny

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