Five Things Foreigners Should Know about Living in Russia
By Editors February 01, 00:49
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The simple fact, though, is that everyday life in Russia can be surprisingly banal: people wake up, go to work, hang out in cafes, buy groceries, and do all of the other things that people who live in big cities do. The famous saying is that you «can’t understand Russia with your mind,» but the place is not nearly as strange as it’s often made out to be.

From the way that Russia is often presented in the media you’d probably think that it was a country-sized version of the DMV, one big chaotic and confusing mess in which nothing ever worked properly. #Sochiproblems has almost fallen down the memory hole (as have the entire Sochi games, but that’s for a different column) but the once enormously popular hashtag for construction defects was a note-perfect encapsulation of how Westerners think about Russia: slapdash, incompetent, jury-rigged, and second rate.

The simple fact, though, is that everyday life in Russia can be surprisingly banal: people wake up, go to work, hang out in cafes, buy groceries, and do all of the other things that people who live in big cities do. The famous saying is that you «can’t understand Russia with your mind,» but the place is not nearly as strange as it’s often made out to be.

There are, however, clearly some differences. Russian life might not be the freak show you’d expect from the Russian media, but it obviously has differences. Having just spent several months in Moscow, I’d thought I’d prepare a list of the things that actually struck me as noteworthy. This is intended to be a lighthearted exercise.

1. Be prepared to pay a lot for coffee. A. Lot.

It’s not exactly a secret that the prices for many goods in Russia are rather inflated: there’s a reason that Russians who are able to do a lot of their shopping in London, Paris, Berlin, and other European capitals. If you’re looking to buy high-end electronics, Moscow probably shouldn’t be your first choice. But what really stood out to me was the price of coffee. You can easily shell out $8 for a smallish cup that seems to consist primarily of warm milk. Given the frequency of coffee consumption, this crazy price inflation has a direct impact on someone in a way that real estate or high-end automobiles simply don’t. If you don’t mind the taste, use instant coffee.

2. Despite all of the propaganda on TV, people don’t seem to pay much attention to politics

Before I left for Moscow, I was warned that, largely due to the situation in Ukraine, things could be pretty dicey for Americans. These warnings («don’t speak English out loud, if someone asks, say you’re from Canada») came not only from friends and relatives with no practical knowledge of Russia, but from people with substantial time on the ground. Given what I personally had read and heard, I frankly expected to find a super-charged political atmosphere in which «the Kiev fascists» were on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one on the metro, in restaurants, on planes, on the streets, in the university, or anywhere else paid even the slightest attention to our obvious American accents and no one said a word to us about politics. The idea that everyone in Russia has been brainwashed into becoming an aggressive and angry nationalist might sound exciting, but it simply does not comport with my experience.

3. Workplace safety standards are much looser

Despite Russia’s slowing economy, there is construction everywhere. Even in Yaroslavl, which is a smallish city that isn’t exactly renowned for its economic dynamism, I counted at least three dozen major construction projects. The amount of activity in Moscow and Petersburg is, of course, substantially greater. One can’t help but notice, however, that the rules governing this construction are a lot looser than they are in America or Western Europe. Now on the one-hand it’s fair to argue that Western countries might have gone too far in their nanny-statism. It sometimes feels like even the most minor construction project in America attracts the same degree of caution as the disposal of military-grade explosives. Russia, however, is at the opposite extreme. You can easily encounter construction equipment being employed on heavily-trafficked streets with little or no separation from pedestrians. I don’t necessarily think this mean Russia is a «wild» country, but it’s certainly a noteworthy and worth paying attention to.

4. The norms regarding personal space are a little…different

I’m not the first Westerner to notice that Russians are more comfortable in tight spaces. You notice this on the metro, in lines at the airport, and in other forms of transportation. The most glaring difference from my perspective, however, was in museums. If you ever go on a guided tour, be prepared to have at least three or four people tag along and join your group for the entire excursion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but compared to the timidity that most Westerners (and especially Americans) display around strangers it a major difference in behavior.

5. Be prepared to get everything stamped

Russian bureaucracy might not be the all-encompassing morass that it’s sometimes made out to be (by far the worst bureaucratic experience I’ve had over the past year came courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) but there are genuinely a lot of forms and you’re going to have to get almost all of them stamped. This strikes the average Westerner as quite anachronistic, I don’t recall getting any official form stamped in my entire life in the US, but it’s still a part of the process in Russia and it’s not going to change anytime soon. If you go with the flow and accept the process as it is you won’t have many problems. If you start going off on a rant about how backwards the country is…well, then you’re going to be in trouble.

There are, of course, other parts about Russian life that are different than in the West, but, at least from my personal perspective, the above covers most of what you are likely to encounter on an everyday basis that differs strongly from Western practice. The main takeaway, however, is that life in Russia is not nearly as strange and exotic as you might expect.

 

 

 

Editors February 01, 00:49
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