What You Thought You Knew About Russia

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As a frequent traveler I’ve had the entertainment of discovering what people from other countries think about Russia. Boy, the stereotypes I’ve had to address — “Do you drink vodka on a daily basis?”; “Are you a part of the Russian mafia?”; “You’re Russian, you’re not supposed to be cold”.

I’ve had my good share of laughs and I’ve been thrown head-first into a pool of awkwardness due to current political events. But I won’t be focusing on that. This piece of writing is about misconceptions and ill-informed utterances about the Russia I know.

Vodka. Vodka. Vodka.

I was once legit asked if I drank vodka for breakfast. Sure. I take showers in it, too. All Russians drink vodka. In fact, vodka is the very first word spoken by 1 out of 3 Russian babies. Right?

I hate to break this to you but not all of us are vodka lovers. Some people drink it, some people don’t. And it doesn’t make me any less of a Russian if I prefer Baileys to a shot of that disgusting fiery liquid (I did get mocked once for not drinking it at a bar abroad). Some of my friends and family members drink vodka occasionally, but it’s not something we consume every day in colossal amounts. Water. You’re thinking water.

So there you go, we’re not all about vodka. We drink beer, wine, cocktails, and what not — just like the rest of you.

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The Soviet Union. KGB. Terrifying Russians.

 Even though our governmental system, democracy they call it, is far from perfect, we’re no longer a communist state. Check your history books, the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. No, we don’t worship Lenin or have his portrait up on the wall next to our family borsch recipe (I mean I do carry his photo in my wallet, but that’s just common courtesy).

They say that Russians are scary. If you’ve heard that we don’t smile at strangers on the street, it’s totally true. You never know if one turns out to be a KGB agent. The good thing though — brace yourselves, people! — KGB doesn’t exist anymore. Yes, you heard me right. Every country has its own intelligence service, and Russia’s is called FSB (Federal Security Service). No one gets sent to labor camps and we don’t even call each other comrades anymore. I know. Boring.

You might think this little history lesson was unnecessary but here’s what happened to me when I spent a summer working at a souvenir shop abroad. A boy of about 10 asked me where I was from and upon learning that I was Russian, exclaimed, ‘So you came here to free yourself from your horrible communist country?!’. Imagine the embarrassment written all over his mother’s face. I smiled and explained that we had democracy and freedom, to which the boy may or may not have suggested that we all should hit North Korea with a ballistic missile since they still were communist. So, um, yeah, we’re not. Just FYI.

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The Land of Everlasting Winter And No Sun.

 I have to admit it gets uncomfortably cold in winter. For instance, my brother’s January wedding was no fairytale. The weather dropped to -40, and, let’s just say, it wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t typical January weather, either. We don’t have winter all year around and can pride ourselves on four full-blown seasons. Winter is the longest of the four, but once it’s over, it’s nice and warm. Plus, in the South there’s not much of a winter at all.

My former colleague from South Carolina was sure that we had snow in July, where in fact the temperatures in my hometown go almost as high as they do in good old Myrtle Beach during the summer. It’s just not humid. Moreover, sunbathing is pretty common on weekends. Of course, it’s a little unpleasant to do it on top of a glacier, but we manage.

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Caviar, Oligarchs, and Russian Prostitutes.

A typical Russian evening goes like this: we lie in a bathtub filled with a mix of red and black caviar, we smoke Cuban cigars, and we watch Russian prostitutes/singers perform an erotic version of Kalinka. Yep, all Russian girls are prostitutes and most guys are oligarchs. And if we’re not prostitutes, then we’re wives of those oligarchs, i.e. former prostitutes, right?

Not quite!

All of my female friends just want to be successful, see the world, and eventually build a family. The latter has been vital to generations of Russian women, but lately the focus has shifted toward careers.

Oligarchs, rich people at the top — yes, we have them like everywhere else. The country thrives and moves on the backs of the working class, though. Working hard and not getting enough money for it, these are the things that define us. We like to complain about it, always hoping someone might come to our aid. So if you’re a Robin Hood in between jobs, willing to rob thick wallets and throw a giveaway for the poor, you might be welcome here. But then again, we never smile, so you wouldn’t know.

As for the caviar, a New Year’s feast wouldn’t be the same without it. (And yes, that’s when we feast. I swear it’s a bigger deal than Christmas or Thanksgiving.) Red caviar isn’t extremely expensive and we have a lot of it for sale, so sue us. I may not drink vodka but I sure have had blini* with caviar for breakfast.

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Hope this article has shed some light on what a cold and unwelcoming place Russia is. Make sure to come visit! The list of stereotypes goes on and on but these are probably my favorite. Alright. I have to go feed my pet bear now. He always tries to dismantle my balalaika** when he’s hungry.

* Blini are Russian pancakes

** Balalaika is a musical instrument

Author: Lada Redley

Lada Redley draws inspiration from her travels, experiences, and the people in her life. She writes both prose and poetry, and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster, London. You can follow Lada’s adventures on Instagram: @ladaredley.

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