‘Hipsters Are the Same Everywhere: It’s Just the Russian Ones Are Passé’

PHOTO by Varvara Lozenko/daily.afisha.ru
Émilie Durnovo, the great-granddaughter of an aristocratic Russian émigré who fled to France in 1917, shares her views on Moscow life, using smartphones on a date and strange Russian fashion

I first came to Russia at the age of 11 to visit my father, who had just moved here. Moscow didn’t impress me then, but when I returned six years ago I fell in love with the city. My dad’s friend was getting married and invited us to the wedding, but my father couldn’t make it at the last moment and asked me to go on my own. I didn’t speak any Russian or know anyone there. “You’ll be fine,” he said, “it’s a great chance to learn a bit of Russian and meet some new people.” A few guests at the wedding reception spoke English and they became my first Russian friends.

I have Russian ancestry. Our great-grandfather’s last name was Durnovo: he spoke six languages and led an aristocratic existence in St. Petersburg before the revolution. After 1917, he said good-bye to Russia and settled in Ardèche, where he earned his living as a plasterer and decorator. My great-granddad never spoke Russian after he emigrated for fear that he would be forced to return. My relatives told me how he would sing melancholy songs “in a strange language” after drinking vodka. This is all that used to link me with Russia before my father found love here.

My parents separated when I was young, and my father fell in love with a Russian woman. At first, dad and his girlfriend travelled to see each other, but she didn’t want to relocate to France and lose her promising career in Moscow. My dad decided to move to Russia. I was happy for him, and remember thinking how my family had come full circle: that my great-grandfather had left his home country, and that my father was returning to his roots. In Russia, dad worked for AIT as a mixologist, experimenting with combining the different ingredients to make bread. Two years ago he bought some land near Kursk and started a goat cheese factory - he has always been crazy about goat cheese. Dad lives in Moscow, but regularly travels to the village of Ponyri. I adore the place. There are just ten houses, many animals and lots of things to do. Of course, the French have traditionally romanticized Russian country life - I don’t exactly know why. I have a recurrent dream about taming bears in a Russian village. In my dream, I live in a small house, wear a kokoshnik crown and keep three or four bears.

I may be a little biased, but I hate Paris. The people there are verbally aggressive: men in the streets wolf-whistle at young women walking by and call them bitches. I just don’t understand why men would use such language when I’m just minding my own business. I often think that the girls in Paris use bicycles so much because they want to get past gangs of boys as quickly as possible. I also find the atmosphere too stressful. Paris is anything but romantic! There are lots of beautiful buildings, splendid architecture and great exhibitions, but living in Paris is tough. You have to pay huge taxes and prices are steep.

When I came to Moscow for the first time, I spent a lot of time sightseeing. I was amazed by the broad avenues. God, who would expect to see eight-lane roads in the city centre? I felt like a little girl, which I was. On my second trip, I explored the less touristy spots and fell in love with the little streets in the historic Kitay-Gorod area. That first wedding which I went to without my father was sheer magic. After the church ceremony we walked in the park, drank champagne and ate salmon sandwiches before a long bus ride. In the end, we spent two great days at the dacha washing down shashlik with vodka and singing karaoke: it was so funny. It was also the first time that I saw the Moscow University building on Sparrow Hills. I looked at it and thought to myself: “one day I am going to study here.”

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During my third visit to Moscow, I started thinking about moving here for good. I kept turning the idea over in my mind for the years as my boyfriend was against living in Russia at all. At some point, I felt the symptoms of a professional burnout, so I just packed my things and left Paris. My boyfriend said it was my choice and stayed behind. I started a new life here. That was in 2013, the same year Gérard Depardieu was granted Russian citizenship. My friends joked that I just wanted to emulate him.

I spent six months learning Russian at Moscow University and looking for a job. At first, I stayed in my dad’s apartment in the north-west of Moscow close to the Polezhaevskaya metro station. It felt like I had become a poor student again. Eventually I was offered a freelance job at an agency, and that grew into a permanent contract. Now I am sharing a flat in the centre of Moscow with some Russians in order to improve my language skills. It's a typical Russian household: slippers, kasha, pancakes, and flatmates who eat pickled cucumbers. There is no carpet on the wall, thank god. Wall carpets are probably the strangest thing I have seen in Russian homes, alongside those village houses where every free surfaces are covered with animal skins.

Russian women most definitely have a soft spot for leopard prints. I look unusual too, but no passers-by in Moscow ever ask me about my tattoos. People do gape at the flesh tunnels I have in my ears: they ask how I got them and even want to touch my ears. I don’t let them, needless to say.

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The French are always moaning about something, but I really like it in Moscow. The traffic jams are not a problem as I don’t have a car; I get around on a longboard or scooter. The only really disappointing things are Russian butter and bread. I miss French ham, Raclette cheese and other French delicacies. I never drink wine, but there is some good craft beer in Moscow, which I love. The Moscow music scene is also much better. There may be more interesting bands in Paris, but it’s often impossible to listen to the music at the gigs because everyone comes there to talk to each other. People keep pushing and crashing into you. The one thing that puts me off Muscovites is the constant staring at your smartphone screens. Couples on dates don’t even talk to each other: the girl usually takes photos of the food; the guy checks his emails. On the subway, you can’t see anything but passengers’ necks craning over electronic screens. Nobody listens to each other; they just keep saying “mhm” while someone else tries to tell them about their problems. I’m so sick of you guys posting your lives on Instagram!

Russians know how to have fun better than anyone in the world. They are also sympathetic and supportive: unlike friends in France, who quickly disappear at the first sign of trouble. Russians, like cats, need some time to warm up to strangers: they might be wary at first, but little by little they open up until you become friends for life. Russians aren’t pessimistic; they are convinced everything will be ok. Sometimes it makes me want to scream when I am told not to worry, even when I can see so many bad things happening around me. This attitude is so annoying - what exactly do you mean by “it’s going to be ok”?

“Russians, like cats, need some time to warm up to strangers”

I think Russian women are much stronger than men. Women know the right way to live; men just yield to their pressure, fully convinced that they are the decision makers and have the real power. In France, gender equality has generally been achieved in everyday life, and partners share responsibilities and household chores. Not so in Moscow. The Russian attitude to sex is different too. What a paradox: it is not acceptable to talk about sex in Russia, but there are many oral sex schools in Moscow – I’m not sure Paris has anything like that. Moscow teems with strip clubs for both sexes, but in Paris there are almost no male strip clubs for women.

Six years ago Moscow used to be very old-fashioned; it has become less parochial now. I miss the kiosks: they were the soul of the city. It was great when you could buy anything you needed from these little stalls in the pedestrian underpasses: a bottle of water, a pair of socks or an umbrella. I always used to buy pantyhose there. There are many secret spots in Moscow: if you need to get something special you have to look up the address online, then have a little adventure searching for the place.

The famous Gorky Park is still beautiful, but it has become a boring, hipster place. Hipsters are the same everywhere in the world; it’s just that the Russian ones are slightly passé. Nobody wears beards in Paris anymore. The first time I heard the word “hipster” in Russia was two years ago, long after they had stopped using it in France.

I much prefer the Soviet VDNKh amusement park and exhibition centre. It’s spacious and offers a beautiful mix of landscape and architecture. I don’t think it’s tasteless, although the Russian style is always associated with gold and kitsch. Stalinist architecture is part of the Russian style too. There is also a distinct Russian style in clothes. When I was at university, I had a lot of fun with my Italian friend by playing fashion police on the subway. Seriously, how can you wear the polka dots together with stripes and florals? It just blows my mind!

Today, I can’t even imagine living in France: this is where I want to grow old. I never watch the news or think about politics – I have my own life, my own problems. If they cancelled my Russian visa, I would cry my eyes out: Russia is my real home. I love shuttling between the town and the country. In Moscow, every day is like the start of a new life. You never know where you will find yourself in the evening; you can fall asleep and wake up in St. Petersburg the next day. There is no routine here.