This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The New Brits Abroad?

Artwork: Diana Machulina
Us Brits are well known for our shameful reputation abroad. There’re the all-day drinking sessions, complete lack of cultural awareness, inability to muster up enough linguistic ability to pronounce a simple “merci” or “gracias”. Then there’s the peeling lobster red skin as we get our once-a-year exposure to the sun... It’s probably best not to even get started on our football supporters. However, as this article from the December issue of “Russian Reporter” magazine seems to indicate, the Russians may be trying to beat us at our own game. The shame of it!


A Cultural Break
Sasha Denisova

Like all Russians, I’m on the edge of a nervous breakdown by the time I take my yearly vacation. I head to Egypt, to a hotel where Italians and Russians along with a couple of Swedes and English are holidaying. However, the hotel staff know exactly who to say “buongiorno” and who to say “dobry dyen” to. I decided to master this art.

In the pool the men are playing water polo. Three of them are throwing themselves after the ball in a particularly violent manner, making the water overflow. During lulls in the game they manage to make a dash for the side of the pool, pour themselves some “Absolut” in plastic cups and with the cry “Vovka, you’re being marked!”, block the goal with their chests, all without spilling their precious liquid. One manages a one-handed save; this, of course, calls for another drink.

The Italian referees whistle and the Swedish players are frozen with shock. The Italians try to grab the vodka off the Russians and only then do they slither out of the pool on their own accord and set off to finish drinking on the sun beds, miffed. It’s midday.

You can tell a Russian a mile off from the glass in his hand and his outward appearance. Italians, without exception, are dressed like members of a golf club: summer jumpers, polo shirts and white sneakers. Italians are always well-groomed, even those on their pension.

A Russian man is noticeable from a distance. He’s sleeping with a cap on. He’s gloomily mooching along the edge of the surf with a pair of flippers hanging from his hand, like a dead fish. He throws himself like a deadweight from the jetty into the sea and swims three metres in a style that only he alone can identify as butterfly stroke. And afterwards, wheezing and panting, he lies on his back bobbing on the waves.

Russian women on holiday are a bit more active. At midday the zombies crawl out to the gym, to dance or do yoga - that is, to hopelessly drag their bluish legs up to their foreheads. Up comes an Italian and you can see straightaway that life is in full swing; she has a personal masseur, card club membership and her own vineyard. Up comes one of us; we have gastroduodenitis, thrombophlebitis, arthritis. Neither gold bracelets, nor self respect. All we do is violently wave our legs around whilst our grandchildren are sleeping and our husband is still out cold.

A Russian goes through two phases – self-destruction and self-realisation. In the city he smokes, drinks, and is completely immobile. On holiday he does his best to get back in shape. The personal trainer in the gym, having seen how I was dangerously teetering over a set of weights, darts over to catch them and, discovering that I was Russian, almost burst into tears; “You’re the very first Russian tourist we’ve had in here! They don’t come in the gym – only the sauna!” Out of a heartfelt pity he offered to let me use the gym for free.

In the sauna, the notices are displayed in Russian: “Dear guests, the sauna and jacuzzi may only be visited in swimming costumes.” They say that there were cases when a couple of stark naked Russians, sniggering, burst into the fitness club; the Swedes made a swift move out of there. A group of Italians sit in the jacuzzi merrily chattering about something or other. To the side – two men with stern expressions; you can just make out the words “payment” and “dispatched”.

The main thing that you don’t come across in a Russian’s face is relaxation. If he goes somewhere it’s on business. For example, going for a beer: he gets changed right there on the beach with a forbidding look on his face; the hotel is three metres away, but he wraps himself up in a towel anyway and gets tangled up in his underpants, hissing at his wife.

Soviet holidays have left us permanently damaged. Once upon a time our holiday-makers had to fight claw and nail to obtain their little piece of happiness from the state. A holiday permit, hotel voucher, canteen meals and a deckchair in the sun. That’s why to this day we still get up early in the morning to reserve the sun beds. It’s not so easy to get us out of that habit.

A Russian is an untrusting type. He doesn’t know any languages and that’s why he’s so sullen. He wants to get what he wants without beating around the bush. So arrogantly, in his great and powerful native tongue, shouts in the Egyptian chef’s face: “You worried I might get fat or something?” The chef doesn’t understand a word of course, but places another burger on the Russian’s plate just in case. A three-year-old boy with a threateningly barrelled tummy hides from his dad under the table. Dad wants to feed him kebab and fried aubergine. But the young organism is no fool – he’s trying to survive. “That’s the fourth day he’s not eaten anything,” complains the inhabitant of the Central Russian Upland to the Egyptian waitress, “only drinks that kefir of yours!”

In general, all hope lies with the children; it’s possible that they’ll manage to survive the aubergines and learn how to take a real holiday. They’ll take peaceful walks in Baden-Baden with dignity, just like Turgenev, Gogol’ and Russian aristocrats used to do.

Contemplating our national way of holiday-making, I look down at my compatriots with a feeling of superiority, and, in a fit of healthiness, jump into the sea and onto a rock hidden beneath the surface. Result: five stitches in my foot.

The rest of my holiday I sit off on the bank, sipping beer and pondering the fact that holidays are generally dangerous for Russians. In any case, in the form that they take at the moment.