Before arriving in Russia for my year abroad, I had made a fair few assumptions about what the country would be like: a dreary landscape filled with stern, unforgiving faces, stuck in the Soviet bubble and resistant to foreign influence. Pictures of a cold, industrial place whirled around in my mind. I was terrified about living and interacting with actual Russian people after years of anticipation.
Now, a month into living in Kazan (Russia’s ‘third city’), I’m realising how naïve and ignorant I was about this country. From the surprising discovery of British shops like Lush and Next to finding out about the various cultural traditions just within Tatarstan (Russia is made up of 22 republics, each with its own culture, ethnicities and president and Tatarstan is the republic in which I’m living), I have learned a huge amount about Russia within my first month here. Whilst some of the Western perceptions of Russia do ring true, they don’t accurately represent the everyday life of a Russian person.
Russians generally enjoy plain food and a lot of their traditional dishes include some combination of potatoes, meat and dill.
One of the first cultural differences I noticed after coming to Russia was the food. Before I arrived, I thought I didn’t know much about Russian eating habits but it turns out that my expectations of lots of soups, pastries (pirozhki) and meat were spot on. The soups are extremely popular, especially now that winter is coming. Borscht, solyanka and a seemingly infinite number of other soups and broths are consumed here on a daily basis, often accompanied by a dollop of smetana (sour cream) and some black bread.
Russians generally enjoy plain food and a lot of their traditional dishes include some combination of potatoes, meat and dill. Dill is everywhere in Russia and you’ll struggle to find a dish that doesn’t have at least a sprinkle on it, whether it be pizza, pasta or soup. When asked about the ubiquity of this herb in Russia, my teacher replied that “dill is everywhere in Russia. It even grows in winter. There is always dill.” Many younger Russians have now deviated from these traditions and Japanese food has become a trend in recent years in Russia, just like in the UK. There are restaurants with signs reading ‘Pizza Sushi and Shisha’ on every corner but any informed Russian will let you know that these places aren’t very trustworthy in terms of food hygiene or quality. Overall, Russian food is not anything to rave about but I definitely think I’ll appreciate the stodginess and heat of the simple classics in winter.
The prospect of having to adjust to the Russian climate was a bit daunting. My friends and family weren’t very helpful either, often saying to me: “Why are you going to Russia? It’ll be so cold; you’ll freeze to death!” However, when I first arrived in Kazan, I was shocked by how hot and humid it was. I never really pictured a Russian summer but I’ve realised that in most cases it’s actually hotter than a British one.
But the temperature has dropped significantly within these first few weeks, and it now feels like mid-November would in the UK. This has sent me and my British friends here into a slight panic as the first predicted snowfall is in just over a week’s time and we don’t yet feel mentally or physically prepared for the depths of a Russian winter. Before coming to Kazan, I couldn’t imagine a country functioning with snow and ice for months on end as in the UK everything seems to go into meltdown as soon as there’s one snowfall – schools are closed, people are stranded, the roads are icy. But Russians have assured me everything is well managed and that the winter’s not as bad as it’s made out to be – though they did also admit that the roads are much more dangerous in winter (so no more difficult late-night conversations with Uber drivers for me!).
I hadn’t had much experience interacting with Russian people prior to my arrival in Kazan and so I had a rather distorted, old-fashioned view of how they would be, envisaging them as hard-hearted, unsmiling people who probably had a disdain for the West and foreigners. And it’s true, partly. Russians don’t often smile, especially in the company of strangers, and may seem a little blunt and unfriendly at first, but they soon warm up and are kind, welcoming and helpful people for the most part. What is especially interesting about Russian society is the generational divides that exist within it. My friends here are staying with older host families who grew up in the Soviet Union and they often have a more conservative world view. In contrast, I’m staying with a young host family in their 20s who have only known post-Soviet Russia and enjoy and relate to Western culture much more than their elderly counterparts. This distinct generational difference seems to pervade almost all parts of life. From the clothes they buy to the food they eat and the TV shows they watch, the young and the old in Russia are poles apart.
In England, I heard horror stories about the stress and frustration that Russian bureaucracy can bring. Lecturers and other students told me about the excessive and exhausting process of applying for a visa, extending it and then registering with the university. Unfortunately, all of these preconceptions have been correct. From the moment I started preparing for my year abroad, I had to complete a seemingly endless number of forms – so many that I could hardly believe I had managed to break through all the red tape when I finally got to Russia. Little did I know there was yet further paperwork for me to make my way through at the university. Thankfully, though, my landlady works in the international office of the university so, once I reached the front of the queue and met her, she helped me to skip some of the hurdles and sped up the process for me.
Never before have I felt so British as when a Russian babushka pushed in front of me in a queue while I just stood there. . . .
I’ve learned that this queue-jumping is a typical Russian habit. No matter where you are: in the queue in a supermarket, at a cash point or at a bar, it is guaranteed that someone will push in front of you. Never before have I felt so British as when a Russian babushka pushed in front of me in a queue while I just stood there, turning red with rage but still staying silent. To sum up, it seems Russians have a very different perception of efficiency.
My first ever month in Russia has gone surprisingly well and many of my preconceived ideas about the country have already been quashed. It turns out that the Russians actually do live in the 21st century, although their outlook on the world understandably differs from ours. Their culture is vast and rich, even though their cuisine is not, and I cannot wait to explore more of this bizarre, fascinating country! The main thing I have learned from this experience so far, though, is summed up in a quote by Fyodor Tyutchev, which roughly translates as “there is no understanding Russia.”