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.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

A Year in Russia

Artwork: Viktor Pivovarov, "Bread roll to have with tea"
I’m back in England for a short while and it has given me the chance to reflect on the past year spent living in Moscow. Russia itself has certainly changed in this time, but I was wondering – how has it changed me?

The automatic reflex to put on my seatbelt as soon as I sit in the car has been completely lost. Not only do I no longer feel uneasy not wearing one, but when I do buckle up I feel my personal freedom is being compromised and worry that the driver may interpret such an action as a snub to his driving skills.

If the car I am in does not weave its way through traffic or drive flat out whenever possible I get impatient. The idea of undertaking or cutting someone up has faded from memory. For this same reason I now never attempt to cross the road without using the underground pedestrian crossing.

Although I still adamantly refuse to believe in “cross draughts” and their supposedly illness-inducing qualities I do now think twice before sitting with my back to an open window.

I only now realise why when I first started learning Russian the main thing we learnt all year was how to say “Russians like going to the forest and collecting mushrooms in their spare time.” And I like it.

Not only can I name all the countries in Central Asia but I can now tell an Uzbek from a Tadjik and a Kazakh from a Kyrgyz.

The pub has been replaced as my favourite hobby by going for a walk (“pogulyat”) and taking photos of myself and friends (“fotografirovatsa”).

Consequently, although I still find it amusing I no longer find it bizarre to walk through a park and for it to be full of girls in miniskirts and stilettos taking photos of themselves in compromising positions next to a tree or, say, writhing on the grass near some flowers.

In the same way, I never, ever have to ask myself the question: “Am I overdressed?”

I am no longer shocked or surprised to see fellow students at university with cheat notes up their skirts/sleeves/blatantly lying on the desk or shoving 1000 rouble notes in between the pages of their coursework before it is handed in (more on this in a separate post soon).

It now seems perfectly normal that my university professor’s mobile rings during a lecture… and he answers it… several times in one lesson... sometimes proceeding to have a conversation right there in front of the class. Although it’s still distracting, I no longer pay much attention to the fact that students also receive several phone calls during class and will get up to answer every time.

“Going for an Indian” has been replaced by “going for a Georgian” in my Saturday night out vocabulary.

My skin has become extremely thick against any type of abuse coming from a middle aged woman in a position of “authority”. My ears are deaf to her rants.

I cannot be sure that a rule exists unless I try breaking it. Even if I am ranted at by the above-mentioned middle aged woman in a position of “authority” whilst breaking this “rule” I still cannot be sure that there is a rule or whether she just wants something to rant about and thus I will continue doing whatever I am told I am not allowed to do in the expectation that she will quickly get bored and give up.

My English attitude towards queue etiquette has taken a rattling. Although I still often feel that my personal space is being invaded, I am no longer shocked when someone pushes right in front of me. I certain situations I find that it’s even me doing the pushing in.

I feel uneasy and self-conscious when my shoes are unclean. I feel like everyone on the metro is staring at the dirtiness and judging me.

I am not surprised to see policemen smoking, buying hotdogs, eating sweets and flirting with girls when they are in uniform and on duty.


Michelle said...

ROFL! Great post! :)

The Expatresse said...

"Not only can I name all the countries in Central Asia but I can now tell an Uzbek from a Tadjik and a Kazakh from a Kyrgyz."

Please! Come comment on this on my post:

We've been having QUITE the chat about this.

I did get a chuckle out of your post. Spot on.

After a year living in Taiwan, I flinched at the sight of young men in white shirts and ties (I assumed all dressed this way were Mormons)and I thought nothing of sitting on the back of a motorcycle sidesaddle is flagrant disregard of local laws.

Caroline said...

Interesting post, in English obviously we approach the Russkie / Rossiyane problem differently. On questionnaires we will have "Black British, Irish British" and so on. But at the end of the day if someone who looks Indian says they are "British" no-one will bat an eyelid. I wonder how far back you have to look into family history in order to qualify as a real Russky? What percentage non-Russky is acceptable? And has anyone ever argued over the right to be called Russky as opposed to Rossiyane?

A.R.G said...

Reading your blog I feel like you are living (when in Russia) in some kind of experiment.
And in like any experiment, you are learning as much as you can about it. Besides your observations of Russia(n), what is your purpose of being in Russia? It doesn't sound like you're Russophile.

solnushka said...

He he he. I spent months walking around thinking OMG British people are so SCRUFFY! when I first got back. And my shoes are still immaculate.

Caroline said...

A.R.G. - I have just finished the first year of my postgrad at MGIMO in Moscow. Katie, who also writes the blog, is working in St. Petersburg. I love Russia and its people (except, obviously, middle-aged women with orange perms and bones to pick with me). That is why Katie and I started the blog (the love, not the perms). The blog is indeed meant to be an exploration into what we have seen and discovered in Russia. It is not meant to be overly negative, nor anti-Russian and I do not believe that it is. We generally try to take life here with a good dash of humour and inquisitiveness, both difficult to get by without over here, I think. I hope you like the blog and keep reading!

Katie said...

To add to what Caroline just said:

I really hope that the blog doesn't suggest that we have a uniquely negative attitude to Russia. We've discussed before about how we want to show what Russia is really like - both the good sides and the bad.

I would say that I'm definitely a Russophile, but an open-eyed one: there's so much here to love (and I will certainly miss a lot about St Petersburg when I leave) but there's also quite a lot about Russia that's not so great. Moreover, some of the greatest things about Russia are great because they're so peculiar to this country and describing that can be difficult without sounding a little like an experiment. I hope we've managed to express this in some small degree. Because I do heart Russia... and I hope you can enjoy our blog!

Katie said...

And by the way Caroline, great post! Enjoy London!

A.R.G said...

Okay, thank you ladies for explanation.
I know Skvoznyak is a bit silly thing in Russia. But remember during a winter, really warm flat combined with cold wind could make you sick. So we are not like 'that' paranoid. :)

A.R.G said...

I don't know if it is good or bad news but posting from your blog has been used by infamous russophobic blogger "Le Russophobe".

Dave said...

I have to say, that as an American who lived in Russia for five years, you have completely nailed the Russian experience in this post. Молодец!

jenny said...

Great story! But make sure you put your seat belt on while you're in London....

And while you're there,go see Josh
he still loves you!

Caroline Morris said...

Great post. I certainly recognise the views on clean shoes and babushkas "rants" from Katie's stories! I grew up when Russians were "baddies" and as a teenager I was horrifyingly fascinated by The Cold War and the stories that came out of Russia from Dr.Zhivago to Cancer Ward. Having now visited Russia 3 times I am no less intrigued and really hope to visit again.
Its been great reading the blog and you both appear to have had such a great time and learn't a lot about another culture, such a wonderful opportunity that you have both taken every advantage of. Bravo!

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