Life in Russia: Myths VS. Reality
Moving to another country is always a challenge. But when it comes to moving to Russia, this challenge is particularly interesting. Teodora Delcheva, an exchange student from University College London explores eight myths about Russia and how they compare to reality.
'It has been four months now since I arrived in St Petersburg, and in addition to my big suitcase, I also arrived with a whole load of expectations and beliefs about what life would be like here. “A dangerous place with deadly cold winters and depressed people”, “Why are you even going there?”, “a WHOLE year in Russia – are you sure?” - these were some of the typical responses I got when I told my friends and family where I am embarking to. However, three months later the reality proved somewhat different.
There is no way to go around it: Russia is cold! If you choose to visit in the winter months (which by my current definition stretch from the end of October to mid-April), your first taste of the country will surely involve minus temperatures, slippery streets, falling “killer” icicles, short days and very little sunshine. In those chilly times your cheeks will surely go red and your mobile phone will stop working, but one thing about the Russian winter is that it’s truly beautiful. So with several layers of warm clothing and a positive attitude, the freezing cold can be easily managed. And, trust me, it will all be worth it in the end!
'Russians drink too much'
Rumour has it that one thing that goes hand in hand with the deadly cold is the vodka to warm oneself up in the winter. Nevertheless, this does not mean that all Russians are alcoholics. It is true that vodka is a tradition here, but tea is still the typical “medicine” against the cold. So in general, from what I have experienced so far, the vodka-drinking culture is not nearly as prevalent as most people think.
'Russians are gloomy'
As soon as I arrived in St Petersburg, the first thing that immediately struck me is that when you are on the streets, in the metro or in the stores, Russians do not ever smile. As I found out, showing a lot of emotion or giggling on the train is considered odd and even impolite. But truth be told, Russians are mostly warm, friendly and actually quite funny people once you break the ice! Someone wise once said that Russians are like walnuts — hard on the outside, but if you crack them, you get everything! This is definitely accurate, and once it happens, the sense of victory is incredibly satisfying!
'Keep away from the babushkas!'
The pervasive image of the babushka, or the Russian granny, is undoubtedly a reality! There are a lot, and I mean A LOT of older women in Russia who look exactly like the stereotypical babushka myth that you have heard of - small and short with scarves around their heads and stern looks on their faces. But even if at first sight they do not look very intimidating, they are often ready to shout at you for not giving up your seat immediately after they have entered the metro! So, you better behave when babushkas are near!
'Russians hate foreigners'
Here is another myth that is generally false! In fact, most people are actually very open-minded! And although on some occasions Russians may seem a bit harsh, their honesty should not be mistaken for maliciousness. Indeed, they are usually very curious about and eager to talk with people from other countries. What’s more, if you happen to know a few Russian words, they are sure to keep the conversation going!
'Russia is backward!'
Many people think that Russians cannot adapt to Western culture and generally life here is much different. But while it is true that on a daily basis you would probably not meet many English-speakers, in fact, European trends, movies, music and culture are outrageously popular. Furthermore, I was surprised to discover that St Petersburg actually looks a lot more like Paris than I had initially imagined. With Starbucks and Burger King on every other corner on Nevsky, it looks very much like any other major European city!
'There is nothing to see beyond Moscow'
Lots of people coming from oversees think there is not much to see in Russia apart from Red Square and the Kremlin. This is absolutely false! It would be a shame to go to Russia and not experience the breathtaking architecture and cultural sites of St Petersburg, the Siberian wildlife or the amazing scenery in the North. It would probably take months to just sample a fraction of the food, history and culture of this thousand-year-old land, the sheer size of which will keep you wanting to explore more and more.
'It is dangerous!'
'Russia is dangerous' – your concerned aunt must have warned you. Like many other large countries, it is probably not a good idea to walk down dark alleys late at night. But if you know where to stay, keep away from the “bad” places and go on with your normal daily life, there is absolutely nothing to stress about!
So, while all myths hold a grain of truth, it turns out that most things I expected about Russia either were not completely true or were very much exaggerated. Therefore, one thing for you to remember is that if most stereotypes are based on reality, there are many situations where this reality goes beyond clichés! As I was told by locals on my first day here, you need to be ready to expect the unexpected in Russia and you will definitely have a lot of fun.'
By Teodora Delcheva, an exchange student, University College London, UK