20 May 2010

Guest Entry: Audrey on Russians

A large element of travelling is about making assumptions, and that is no exceptions when it comes to the Russian people. To be honest, the Metro bombing and assignation of a high court judge have shaped our initial impressions, and they are not entirely positive. But travelling on the trains, talking to random strangers on the street and having the opportunity to meet up with locals have given us a more in-depth appreciation of their mentality and hospitality.

In part, our good luck with Russian can be down to the fact that we are English-speakers who can manage a bit of Russian: on at least three occasions, strangers have approached us in order to practise English with them, and most of the time we are the first “real” English speakers they have chatted in English with. At a Russian Orthodox bookstore in Yekaterinburg, an elderly woman which was helping me find a book proudly announced, “Talk to my daughter in English, she can speak English.” The same pride in foreign language ability can be found in Daud, one of the guys celebrating Ivan’s birthday at the Georgian restaurant in Rostov. The minute he found out that we speak German, Daud gave a call to his son who is studying German in school, and handed the phone over to us. “You can speak to him in German, he will understand.” And of course we need not mention Igor the Irish-Siberian, who was born and raised in Irkutsk but can speak English with a heavy Northern Irish accent, Gaelic, and fluent Japanese (by the way, his Japanese kanji handwriting is ten times more beautiful than mine.)

Generally speaking, I think Russians are enthusiastic communicators. Among themselves, they have absolutely no problem making new friends on train journeys, chatting and sharing a 5L beer as if they are old schoolmates. Towards us and our broken Russian, they are curious and patient, but cautious in expressing their own opinions. When we were at the Romanov’s memorial in Yekaterinburg, we got into a casual conversation with a young local woman about her opinion on the Romanov’s canonisation in 2000. “Well,” her gaze suddenly refocused on a point three metres beyond, as if looking in my direction but talking to someone standing behind me, “some people find it a good idea, and I am...er...I don’t find it good or bad.” If they are so reserved about their opinions on history, it is no surprise that on at least two occasions we are told to choose our words carefully when discussing the current regime. The Secret Police are gone - or are they?

But then of course, their reluctance to express their opinions can also be due to the fact that we barely know them at all. So instead of understanding what they think, we instead focus on observing how they behave.    

In queues - canteens, train stations, museums – they like to nudge up really close to the counter and always to our right, so the queue is not perpendicular to the counter but about 30 degrees diagonally sideways. The pleasant surprise here is that there is a queue at all: I mistakenly thought that their queuing habit will be as bad as the Chinese (we will tell you more about this in a month’s time!)

Now, if you glance down the queue, you will notice that girls love their stilettos. Provodnitsas wear them on trains, visitors wear them to a 5-hour pilgrimage to the Hermitage, and – this puts me to shame - in inches of snow and slush they walk much more quickly (perhaps even more gracefully!) than me in hiking boots!

In public places they are generally quite quiet, particularly on short-haul journeys. We noticed this on our bus trip from Yarosloval to Vladimir, where the only noise came from five English-speaking travellers at the back, who ‘took over’ the bus by talking loudly then bursting out laughters. I wonder what the local passengers thought of them (and of us, probably under the category of “unruly ignorant student tourists”), but they endured in silence. If this happened in Germany I wouldn’t be surprised if an elderly woman got up and ask them to hush.

Perseverance is a theme that pervades in history and in its people’s psyche – so says my “Culture Shock: Russia” book anyway. But when I read of Russian’s sympathy I didn’t believe the book at first: Aren’t we preconditioned, either in association with the harsh winter, historical accounts or even Hollywood movies, to think that Russians are rather cold and unemotional? But time and again locals have proven to be very supportive and (disproportionally) kind to the weak: pigeons, stray dogs, confused tourists. We cannot count the many times when we had to rely on conductors on the bus to signal us off, strangers on the street to point the way, hotel staff to help us book another night at the next hotel...we have learnt that when challenged by the authority, do not confront them. Rather portray yourself as an innocent victim and earn their pity. Whenever a Russian jumps queue and gets caught, what is the best way of defence? “Sorry, my husband is waiting for me inside the museum....”, “My daughter has bought a ticket for me, I just want to join her at the front...”, “Please police officer, I have arthritis and my knees cannot stand such a long wait!” In sticky situations, quoting the law is apparently the quickest way to land you in a police station. Well of course there are other more creative ways to get yourself out of trouble, but dear readers, since we have not seen these alternative methods in use, we have to leave it to your imagination.