The Devil in Disguise

PHOTO by jenyhanter/Depositphotos
Americans, Europeans and other foreigners on Russia and Russians

Long-standing stereotypes portray Russia as a vast country of bears, vodka and never-ending winters. Even today, the writers of Hollywood blockbusters use bland Soviet-era tropes. Russians appear as dull gangsters or cold-blooded KGB agents who rarely show emotions and are likely to hit the bottle. Has the image changed in the minds of those people who look beyond what they see in the cinema? posed the question to young people from different countries to better understand the mindset of the current generation.

Charles Forray, US

Like many Americans, I view the world with an innate optimism. The fact that I was born healthy and white with access to education also had an impact on that, as it gave me the opportunity to seek college education abroad. I chose Russia.

Russia is tougher than the US. There’s a sense of anxiety and skepticism in Russian culture, a doubt that the world is your ally in becoming successful. Watching and talking with people I noticed they don’t take anything for granted. But this helps them to adapt. When it comes to reaching for goals and improving their quality of life, Russians reveal a unique agility and strength.

Overcoming formidable difficulties, from the bitter cold to costly wars, has shaped an unprecedented resilience of character. The pressure and stress of the current reality, it seems, have deepened family bonds and added more value to work and experience.

People who have to pull themselves out of a mess often speak several languages, are good communicators and have a propensity to laugh. This becomes a lifeline in harsh conditions. These are the virtues of the young people I’ve met here: I’ve noticed their willpower and desire to express trustworthiness before asking for anything. I’ve also realised the load they carry on their shoulders is one of the reasons for alcoholism: they're drinking to ease the burden.

Russians I spoke to want to travel the world and come home to improve things there. For the Russian youth, life is a ladder that you have to climb by yourself, bearing in mind how many people have already fallen off.

Ghada Sekhon, UAE

I come from Egypt but now I live in Dubai. The UAE is a multinational state, so I have friends from all over the globe. During my time at university, I met girls from Russia who seemed shy, even to the point of being unfriendly. But over time they opened up and revealed a completely different side: they were thoughtful and compassionate, so we were easily able to communicate.

Initially, my thoughts of Russians coincided with those of Hollywood: rough and unpolished, always trying to make a profit or to get drunk. But in reality I’ve discovered completely different people: smart, generous, hardworking and adoring their family. I am only distantly familiar with Russian culture, but I can say with certainty that it’s utterly enthralling. First of all, I adore Russian cuisine – I fell in love with Russian dumplings and borscht. I hope to one day expand my knowledge by actually visiting the country.

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Hampus Totrup, Sweden

I went to the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia to study the language. I remember someone from the admissions committee asking me, “You're Swedish? What are you doing here?” I didn’t say anything, but the question kept following me. My girlfriend is Russian, she taught me how to stand in queues and introduced me to Russian bureaucracy.

I’d heard a lot about the metro before using it for the first time: about the marble, its lavish design, the mosaics and sculptures. But what amazed me more than anything was how Muscovites sleep on the train. It’s bizarre at first, given all the noise, but with time I too learned how to squeeze in a nap during the commute.

I experienced what Russian power is firsthand. It happened on a commuter bus outside the MKAD ring-road. Two drunk guys got on the bus with more bottles of booze. In Sweden, in the worst case scenario, we’d say, “Hey guys, keep it down please.” But here, other passengers grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and kicked them out without a word.


Gaia Pometto, Italy

I got my Bachelor’s in Russian. But my experience with the country is limited to a three-day trip to St. Petersburg. I certainly couldn’t get in contact with the locals in such a short time, but it was enough to appreciate the spectacular architecture. Incidentally, Petersburg reminds me of Rome: huge squares, lots of churches. I met lots of Russians and Russian-speaking people in Italy. Remarkably, the Russian-speaking community – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Estonians, Moldavians – usually sticks together. Maybe it's due to their common past. I haven’t seen anything like that among Latin American students, so I think it has to do with the singularity of Russians.

As for stereotypes, everything I heard in Italy turned the complete opposite. I expected to meet cold and uncommunicative people, prone to suspicion and doubt. On the contrary, every Russian was friendly and cheerful. Maybe Italians have confused the Scandinavian and Slavic personalities. Although, I wouldn't say that all Scandinavians are reserved and miserable. I have more than five Russians in my friendship group and, given our cultural differences, communication becomes quite fun. The difference is not so great that you're not able to understand each other. My Russian professor once said, “You will never understand Russia until you start loving it.” Even though I am a huge fan of Russian literature and Russia is so immense and multifaceted and you can spend years exploring it, I never fully followed his advice. Perhaps it’s the language. It’s too complicated.

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St. Petersburg in winter

Penny Fong, Hong Kong (China)

In Hong Kong you don’t hear much about Russians. As use of the Internet became widespread, it showed popular videos of crazy Russians who do ridiculous things, like climbing to the top of a skyscraper without a harness. I work as a Russian-speaking guide, so I talk with Russians nearly every day. In my opinion, Russians are similar to the northern Chinese. They are quite emotional: five minutes ago you were ready to fight and now you’re sharing a drink.

Russians do not care about details. For example, Hong Kong is thousands miles away from Moscow, so when you go on a trip you’d probably want to plan ahead of time. But Russians are different, they go with the flow. Wanna go to the beach on a rainy day? Why not?! Chinese people would think twice about consequences before signing up for anything.

When you spot a Russian in the street, they look like they’re ready to kill someone. It’s a mixture of detachment and strength. They leave an impression of toughness, because they don’t smile much, neither men nor women: it’s always a poker face. Russian ladies are truly beautiful, a tribe of ice queens. My acquaintances from Russia say it's all down to the weather.


Maya Koyanic, Italy

I did Russian classes for nearly three years. It was a spontaneous choice without any particular motivation, but trips to the country boosted my enthusiasm. I’ve been to St. Petersburg twice as a tourist, just to get a taste of dumplings, pancakes and see a performance at the ballet. At first, I thought Russian drinking was a mere stereotype, but while I was there, I was convinced that it was true. A university professor who invited me out once got so drunk that the situation slipped out of control, and I had to run away in the middle of the night. I’ve been in Moscow for a month now, but frankly, I don't feel completely safe at night. Although I like the city. People are very responsive and always ready to help. But there are exceptions – the babushkas in the metro and museums are real devils in disguise!

A woman participates in the city cleanup day at Muzeon Park

Edith Permen, Sweden

I lived in Russia for six months when I was working at a women's rights organisation. I had been attracted by the country before moving there. Myths about Russia and Russians are ubiquitous, so I was curious about it. When I arrived, life was not any different than in Stockholm. The facial expressions people have in the street aren't exactly cheerful: everyone’s serious, just like in Stockholm. Then I noticed how they change when you ask for help, whether you're asking for directions or choosing painkillers in the pharmacy.

As I mentioned, my work had to do with women’s rights. I was surprised how deep-rooted traditional gender roles in Russia are. I took me a while to get used to men treating me differently simply because I’m a woman. Russian women are exceptionally strong, perhaps stronger than any other women that I’ve met in the world. They carry a lot on their backs. Perhaps it is due to constant pressure they encounter from early childhood. But whatever their burden is, the 14,000 women killed by men every year is utterly unacceptable. The men drink a lot, which is a cause of domestic violence on the one hand, and early death on the other. But aside from the negative aspects, I was swept away by Russian culture and hospitality. And I made tonnes of friends there.

Ballet dancers perform at a gala concert held at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre

Andrea Romani, Italy

I feel comfortable in the company of Russians. You certainly wouldn’t call them ideal colleagues, because at work they often keep to strict and ineffective guidelines. They nearly always fail to put themselves in shoes of a foreigner and don’t think like a European. Those who lived and worked in Europe are an exception. It takes a few months to adapt to the work rhythm and bureaucracy in Russia. Europe doesn’t have this. To change everything takes time, young people born after 1985 know this perfectly.

Communicating with Russians is a famine or feast situation. They aren’t open-hearted, oddly reserved, and the first impression is always peculiar. You go to the store, no one says “hi” or “thanks,” nobody holds doors in the metro. But once you find the right way in, Russians suddenly transform. You find yourself visiting their home, country house, sauna, where you’re treated with delicacies and get to know their relatives. In these moments it seems you’ve known them your whole life.