‘After All, They Are Not Like Us’

PHOTO by Alexei Filippov / RIA Novosti
Why foreign tourists come to Russia?

What do foreigners think of Russia? Which sites do they want to see and how do American Orthodox Christians behave in Russian churches? How do foreigners react to the local bureaucracy? Lenta.Ru spoke to Maria Soboleva, a tour guide and interpreter who is the head of the Tour of Moscow travel agency and a teacher of Russian as a foreign language.

Lenta.Ru: Why do foreigners come to Russia?

Soboleva: Traveling is a consumer good. They have already been to France, Italy and the many beaches and resorts there. They may have even been to China. And once they have sampled all that, they need to try something new, and this is where Russia comes in. I am yet to meet a tourist for whom a trip to Russia is their first trip abroad; they all come here with considerable experience.

Have you met people who were genuinely interested in Russia?

Yes, I have met people like that. Some even come here because there is a connection with their work. There even used to be a whole profession, Sovietology, and adherents of this would determine what was going on in the USSR just by looking at the Astrakhan hats [a type of hat made from the fur of the Qaraqul breed of sheep; in the USSR, this type of hat was often worn by high-ranking officials during their public appearances] and who stood close to whom at official ceremonies in Moscow. I recently worked with a group of tourists, one of whom was a Sovietologist back in the 1980s. She told me that at one point she went as Brezhnev for a 1960s-themed party and her husband went as Fidel Castro. In July, I had an elderly couple that came on a cruise and they were both dressed head to toe in black, despite the hot summer weather. As it turned out later, someone had advised them to dress like this to avoid standing out in Moscow. I think there’s no need to explain that in July this could not have been further from the truth.

In Moscow, there is the Kremlin, the Lenin Mausoleum, the metro and a number of other sites, but does it ever happen that tourists think outside the box, so to speak, and want to see the city the way Muscovites see it?

When I started out as a tour guide, I thought that I would never bring people to see the main sites. I even naively believed that I would not need a Kremlin tour license, and I planned on showing them the real Russia. But it soon became obvious that no one was prepared to pay money to see an old village, visit a regular khrushchyovka [a type of low-cost, concrete-paneled or brick three- to five-storied apartment building erected in the USSR in the early 1960s during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev, hence the name] or take a stroll in the woods.

Mausoleum

Everyone just wants to see the Kremlin and Red Square, and there is nothing you can do about it. For them, this is what makes Russia exotic.

I think, in a way, we underestimate what we have. When Russians hire a guide for their foreign friends, they almost shy away from their own city and say things like, “Personally, I hate Moscow, so I've absolutely no idea as to what you are going to show them here.” My usual answer is to list the usual attractions: Red Square, the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In response, they exclaim, as if in desperation, “Oh no, not that wretched place!” Then they are tremendously surprised when their guests return having actually enjoyed what they saw. Foreigners do not really understand this behaviour of how the locals tell you how horrid and boring everything is in their hometown.

What do tourists find unusual about Moscow?

First and foremost, the fact that it's clean! Oh yes, that's absolutely right. Apparently, it's different wherever they come from, or so they say, and they complain about people littering the streets “back home in America.” In this respect, they find the metro particularly amazing. As for us, we do know that Muscovites see the metro as a sacred place and you should behave accordingly. During the Soviet Union, people who would hustle and push their way onto trams would suddenly become very dignified the moment they stepped into the metro. The reality for tourists usually exceeds their expectations. They usually expect something much worse from one of the BRICS nations' capitals.

What do people want to know, apart from the basic facts about the main sites and attractions?

It seems as if they come with a carefully prepared list of questions: marriage, salary, income, taxes, Vladimir Putin. They usually have a very lively reaction to all the controversial issues, such as Stalin's repressions or the fact that it was hard to find this and that in the USSR, or how they destroyed and tore down churches and cathedrals... Of course they sympathise, but, on the other hand, it is only natural to feel a sense of curiosity about other people's suffering.

Metro
Tourists at the Komsomolskaya metro station, Moscow

Have you ever met fans of Stalin or the USSR?

No, but I have met some American Orthodox Christians, who are very open about practicing their faith. We went to the Tretyakov Gallery and they simply fell to the ground before the Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir. Then we went to Suzdal and when we stepped inside a cathedral, one of them started singing, obviously enjoying the acoustics; another decided to study the frescoes on the ceiling, so he lay down on the floor to have a better view. One of the group was vegetarian, which meant that finding food she could eat while traveling around the Golden Ring [a ring of historic cities northeast of Moscow] was a real challenge. In Suzdal, for instance, she had to eat two portions of pea soup for dinner, poor thing.

By the way, all tour guides know the story of the tourist who brought her husband’s ashes to the Dormition Cathedral in the Kremlin because it was his last wish to have his ashes spread in all of the world's major temples and cathedrals.

What about expats? Does Moscow meet their expectations?

Everything is fine at first and then comes winter, which does tend to put a damper on their spirits. When the central heating is on, they always find it to be too hot indoors. To be entirely honest, so do I, but I can cope with it. As for them, they take off their extra layers and say, “It's warm in here, isn't it? Is it always so warm?” I say yes, and I explain that Russians like it when it's warm. Besides, it makes perfect sense since it helps the wet snow everyone has brought in on their shoes dry faster.

I teach Russian to the director of a German company, and he tells me that working with Russians is all right at first, but then it starts driving you up the wall because you've got no idea how to deal with them. How do you keep them motivated? If you promise them a raise or a bonus, it might backfire since they might think that everything is going fine as it is. I tell him the key is “control, nothing but control.”

Moscow

For example, he was planning to go to the meeting of the Russian-German Chamber of Commerce to present a report on how his company had been doing business in Russia, so he asked one of his employees to prepare an outline of his report. What do you think happened? She came back asking, “What exactly is the report going to be about?” So they had to sit down together and go over the job he had originally entrusted her with. He said that, “You cannot just give a task by setting the goal, it seems the boss has to spell out all the steps that need to be taken. No one wants to see past their own duties and responsibilities.” So I told him, “They are simply afraid of you. They are afraid that if they take initiative, it might prove to be wrong.” And initiative, as people here have learnt all too well, can be punished.

On the other hand, Giovanni, an Italian acquaintance of mine, seems to really enjoy the fact that he can easily solve the problem of forgetting the name of his Russian business partner, as there are not that many to choose from. “Is it Nikolay, Alexey, or Sergey? Alexey? No, it's Sergey!” But as you can see, it's not too hard to guess. Usually, you can just name one of the ten or so most common names and there is a good chance you will have guessed correctly. Do foreigners have to deal with local bureaucracy?

A marathon was held in Moscow recently and my expats were planning to take part. To do so, you need to get medical permission. They were taken aback at first, but then they were told at the office, “No worries. Just give us a minute, we’ll order something online.” They were very impressed. And everyone who registered for the marathon got their medical certificates the same way. Everyone knows that it is utter rubbish but, nonetheless, it’s something you need to have.

After they registered, they were given a bracelet they had to put on right away. “But that's ridiculous,” one of them tried to argue, “what if I want to take a shower?"

“Don't you see? You could possibly give your bracelet to someone who doesn't have a medical slip,” I tried to explain. Such an ability to quickly solve any problem is unique to Russia, in my opinion.

Tourism

However, you sometimes have to go through the dreadful procedure of extending your work permit. To do this, you need to go to the Federal Migration Service. One of my German clients had to go there and, upon arriving, he found a crowd of people (mostly Russian) instead of what should have been an orderly queue. The Russians there had some sort of a list, and they were "saving" spots in the queue. He decided to wait but people from the list kept coming up in front of him, and he soon realised that it would be impossible to get through to the window on his own.

When the same thing happened after lunch, he could bear it no longer. “Stop this nonsense, or I will call the guard,” he shouted, since by that time, thank God, he already spoke good Russian. The guard came, took the list away and said that he had already forbidden them to do that several times. A new list emerged only minutes later but my German client managed to get through eventually, and he even helped several Filipinos who didn't speak any Russian along the way.

There is a common belief that all foreigners love Russian women...

They often remark that women look better than men and they dress better. One tourist I worked with used to say that all women in St. Petersburg looked very “vertical.”

High heels, short skirts, long straight hair, very thin... I explained that these were mostly provincial girls, looking to find a husband from “the big city.” In general, such women are much harder to find than well-groomed men and starting at a certain age (say, after the age of 40), they are even more rare. My clients ask if vodka is to blame, but such an explanation would be way too easy.

Women
Women shopping in Moscow's GUM department store

Do Russians show any aggression towards foreign tourists?

One forum had a discussion of whether or not it would be safer to refrain from wearing any clothes that would make it obvious that the person wearing them was an American while visiting Moscow. I explained that wearing t-shirts and hoodies with “New York” written on them would be all right, but those saying “USA” or bearing the US flag were best avoided. A city is just a city, after all, whereas a flag is a political statement.

This was in the midst of rapidly deteriorating relations two summers ago. Other people on the forum offered different answers to that same question, saying that in Moscow it would be all right and no one would ever harm a tourist in the city centre. But I do know of examples of the opposite. Drunk people might take offense just from hearing people speak a foreign language. One drunk guy once started mimicking them and making fun of them for speaking a foreign language, and he made some rather aggressive advances before noticing me, then all his attention was diverted since he decided to focus on the only woman in the group. Just recently, a rather grumpy-looking middle-aged man standing in front of us in the queue to buy metro tickets said with a hint of a disapproval that “after all, they are not like us.”

Interview by Mikhail Karpov