29 Apr The Myths and Realities of Modern Day Russia
Say the word ‘Russia,’ and you’re bound to conjure a string of stereotypical images: A bearskin hat, onion domes, the Hammer & Sickle emblem, bread lines, bare grocery store shelves…and a drunk holding a bottle of vodka. You might even view the Russian people themselves as you do the weather there: Cold, gray, and gloomy. Like many cultural stereotypes, these Russian ones – however exaggerated they might be – have at least some basis in reality. But they certainly don’t tell the whole story. Russia, after all, is the largest country in the world. An 800 page book could scarcely begin to detail all the regional varieties of life in Russia, much less an 800 word article. So let’s examine the most prevalent of these myths, and present the realities of life in Russia.
Myth: Russia is a country full of drunks.
Reality: Accurate, worldwide statistics on alcohol consumption and alcoholism are hard to come by. Yes, a large percentage of the population drinks vodka, but the streets aren’t filled with inebriated men clinging to bottles of ‘Russki Standart.’ Instead, when you travel to Russia, you encounter hardworking, goal-oriented individuals who are as apt as you are to unwind after a long day at the office with a beer or cocktail.
Myth: Russia is a land of scarcity and shortages.
Reality: It certainly was that way, but times have long since changed. Pop in to the G.U.M. mall in Moscow, or one of the shops on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, or visit any of the upscale malls in any decent-sized Russian city and you’ll find all the Gucci, Armani and Prada you could ever want. In fact, be prepared for too much choice, especially if you travel to Moscow. That city, due to its oil-based economy, is one of the wealthiest and most expensive cities in the world…there’s no shortage of anything there!
Myth: Russia is a run-down, third world country.
Reality: While Russia is definitely NOT a third world country, its infrastructure admittedly leaves much to be desired. Roads between cities, for example, are often little more than potholes strung together with patches of pavement. And buildings, while structurally sound, look like immense, worn concrete blocks. Thanks to nearly a century of Soviet rule, the architecture emphasizes only function, never form. Toss in roving packs of stray dogs, too much litter and not enough trash cans, and the result is that Russia unfortunately has less visual appeal than its European counterparts.
Myth: Russia is a cold, gloomy place…
Reality: Like any northern country, Russia definitely endures long, cold winters. But let’s not forget that winter is merely one season out of four. The other seasons can bring glorious weather. And due to its immense size, Russia spans numerous climatic zones, so to label the country’s climate in a few words is impossible. Think of all the different climates that exist in the U.S. — Seattle, Phoenix, San Diego, Miami, Minnesota, etc – and then bear in mind that Russia has twice the landmass that the U.S. does! [A footnote: Since most people include all the countries of the former Soviet Union, countries like Ukraine and Moldova, in their mental image of Russia, then it must be pointed out that the weather in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is pleasant year-round, especially in the Meditteranean-esque southern cities like Yalta and Sevastopol.]
Myth: …and Russia has cold, gloomy people.
Reality: That’s just wrong. It is true that Russian people smile less than Americans do in public, but that’s a deep rooted cultural norm in Slavic countries, and doesn’t reflect on any individual Russian’s outlook or disposition. Russian people are in fact fun loving, friendly and generous. In your dealings with Russian people, be prepared that they will display sincere concern for your comfort and well being, express intense interest in you as a person (and as a Westerner), and offer lasting friendship. And while the older generation might still dress in bleak, fashionless, Soviet-style garb, the younger generation – especially young women – dress in chic, sexy, modern outfits which catch the eye and turn the head.
So let’s try the experiment again: Say the word ‘Russia,’ but this time envision a land of mountains and lakes and seashores. Try to see well-dressed businessmen having a power lunch in a sidewalk café, and women in short skirts and high heels strolling through malls. It’s a bright, sunny day; a group of people are standing in a park, drinking beer and laughing. It’s warm… it’s friendly… it’s Russia.