Russia: the notorious, unusual, legendary, unpopular and infamously hard-nosed country saturated with stereotypes and anti-capitalist customs. Western culture ends at its border, and a new world with a new worldview begins. My plans to visit Russia were met with bewilderment and scepticism by almost everyone I knew.
As one of the western world’s “frenemies”, hot topics of the century and the 2018 World Cup host, there is no reason not to visit Russia. Little Salisbury is more dangerous than the Kremlin Kingdom.
Russia is like stepping into another dimension. Everything looks like the rest of Europe except there are a few differences that make it feel like another planet. Cyrillic, of course. There are no vegetables (except the ones rotting on the half metre sized shelf at the back of the supermarket), there are communist symbols and Lenin statues everywhere and also fantastically cheap vodka for less than 70p for a small bottle – and you can get it through with your carry-on luggage, which is what really counts. Being an alcoholic has never been so cost-effective and travel-friendly.
The most exciting discovery was the dissolution of every stereotype I’ve ever had about Russia and its people. The news paints a damning picture of widespread hostility, xenophobia and riotous barbarism, which is inaccurate and unfair. Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow were pristine clean and unthreatening. Russia does not guarantee safety and security: every country is a dangerous place to visit when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Russia may not be the new Norway, but it’s got its own version of excellence.
Myth 1: Russians are hostile
Russians appear to be unfriendly because they don’t do smiling. It’s just not a thing. If you smile at strangers, they will assume you’re stupid or mentally unstable. Genuine happiness and friendly facial expressions are, in Russia’s opinion, for life’s simpletons. Facial expressions displaying stern misery and fatigue is readily welcomed – with the same glum facial rhetoric of course. Fortunately, a career in law has enabled me to perfect the resting bitch face, so I remembered to express my excitement and cheeriness with a scowl. My new Russian friends thought that westerners smiled because they have lots of “e” sounds in words. Partially correct, aside from it being a social norm with a feel-good factor. Despite first impressions, Russians were possibly the kindest and most helpful people I’ve come across. Apart from the Irish, of course. Even if they didn’t speak English, they would try and help me, just with a very stern face.
Too often, I came across budget toilet paper that was actually just brown crepe paper. A life burdened with crepe paper instead of two-ply loo roll would be sure to leave everyone with a permanently deep frown.
Myth 2: Russians are racist
Geographically, Russia spans over two continents. It is not a surprise that Russians don’t all look the same. There is racial and ethnic tolerance, despite the media’s take on affairs. The Republic of Dagestan in south-west Russia is the most multi-ethnic republic in Russia: there are 14 peoples and 16 ethnic groups within its compact territory. Russia has several best friends including China, Mongolia and Khazistan. Racism exists in every country, selectively or more generally – but my observations concluded the existence of long-standing racial tolerance.
Myth 3: Westerners are not welcome
Admittedly, getting a visa is the non-fictional version of the Hunger Games. It is a case of booking all your accommodation, obtaining confirmation from your hotel who must then cross-check all bookings. Next, completing a visa application which requires listing every country you’ve been to in the last 10 years including all the reasons you went there and the exact arrival and departure dates. And then, of course, confirming you’ve never been a terrorist, verifying you’ve never burned a Russian flag; establishing you’ve never worked for secret services, or that you’re not a spy. And finally, providing all your fingerprints. It’s practically the same as going to the Isle of Wight for the day. Interestingly, visa challenges are reciprocal, and it’s possibly harder for Russians to enter the rest of Europe than it is for EU countries to visit them.
Russians were genuinely intrigued as to why I wanted to visit Russia. They all asked me, “I thought Westerners hated Russia?” I have never danced around such a contentious topic in all my life. That said, I thought the Russian stereotypes about England were reasonably accurate: They drink tea with milk all the time, London is rainy and grey, and they love fish and chips. The English are generally scared to come to Russia and are the snobbiest westerners. Those are hard to dispute. Perhaps they were sensitive enough to avoid sharing the more damaging stereotypes, just as I avoided sharing anything too condemning – such as talking about the Salisbury incident. It turns out that our version of events and their version of events don’t precisely align… The people I met were excited to show me Russia, to help me and to go out of their way to make my trip as enjoyable as possible.
The food was the tricky part. Russians love a Domino’s meat lovers pizza, without the pizza part and extra meat instead. If you don’t eat meat, expect few weeks of sunflower seeds, grechka (Russian rice that tastes like microwaved cardboard if you eat it twice a day for an extended period of time), more grechka and lots of porridge. I also munched on a few sheets of pasta, mistaking them for crackers. I would have stayed longer in Russia, only I was genuinely concerned that I’d develop scurvy or Ricketts from the severe lack of fruit and vegetables.
Understanding what, how and why in Russia is no simple task – I do not pretend to comprehend its cantankerous intricacies and “quirks”. After taking the time to acquaint myself with Russia and a few of its people, my preliminary conclusion was unexpected: there is mass propaganda on both sides of the border and we’re all as guilty as each other. Can’t we all just hold hands and sing Kumbaya? Whether you decide to go to Russia or other foreign lands, the pursuit of clarity and your own opinion in an age of deception and Chinese whispers is a trip worth taking.