Some of them are outdated, others sound merely ridiculous. Still, they have never disappeared and, I’m afraid, aren’t ever going to.
Once, walking in the Alexandrovsky Garden near the Red Square, I overheard two travelers (their origin will remain undisclosed, although I figured it out immediately by their accent) sharing their impressions of Moscow and what they thought Russia was famous for. One of them, an overjoyed middle-aged gentleman, exclaimed, “Russia? Just a moment… Vodka! Matryoshka…did I say it right? And...what was it…Ah, yeah! Bala..balalaika!” (His first attempt to pronounce the word was a complete failure). Unwilling to spoil their cheerful mood, I did nothing but wince.
So often I come across these vodka-matryoshka-balalaika stereotypes. Medved belongs here as well. A certain politician’s name has also reached my ears (let’s not get political in this article, however). There may be some variations, but the basic content remains pretty much the same.
Well, whatever. What I’m talking about is all of Russia is being limited to very few things in the eyes and minds of foreigners. Very few. And it hurts.
For years I used to feel irritated about this. I mean, Russia is a country that is diverse in every regard, with a history spanning over a thousand years – and this summary is an outdated set of few words associated with it. As a patriot, I could not, cannot and never will be able to keep calm and behave as if this is OK.
Then something other than anger came to me – and that was wonder. How come people imagine this stuff when they hear the word Russia? How on earth could Russia squeeze itself into so few items? There must be some story behind it.
To research the background of these things and find out whether they have something to do with the real Russia, the one we Russians see daily with our own eyes – that is what I would do.
And it wasn’t actually a story I found. It is rather a patchwork of stories, suggestions and facts from everyday life.
Let’s start with vodka. I’m pretty sure no explanation of what vodka means is needed. Anyway, with vodka it’s better to try it once than to explain it a hundred times.
In the eyes of the outside world the paths of vodka and Russia are tightly intertwined tightly.
Here I must admit you guys have a point. The connection between Russia and vodka isn’t a myth at all.
This may be sad, or maybe not, but true in any case.
Many Russians indeed like the beverage. I mean it.
For centuries Russia has been known for its high vodka consumption rate. As of now, it seems like things haven’t changed at all. According to the BBC, 31% percent of Russians consume vodka daily. It’s the most popular alcoholic drink at any feast.
Don’t drink too much vodka. No fluency in Russian will ever come, but a hangover is something you’ll get for sure
This so-called devotion has been proved by history. The first production of vodka ever documented in Russia dates back to the 9th century. Just think of it – more than 12 centuries of steadfast popularity! Government attempts to prohibit vodka production and consumption in the Russian Empire as well as in the Soviet Union have resulted not only in negative economic consequences but in popular dissent as well. That means vodka is here to stay.
You’re probably wondering what the reason for vodka being so popular is. To be honest, I cannot answer this question myself. I’m 100% percent Russian and I still don’t like the drink.
Personal preferences aside, there is one answer I find quite accurate.
“So what's vodka for? For the soul. If it's hurting real bad”, this is what Sergei Lukyanenko, a modern Russian writer, once remarked. And he may be right. No. I guess, he is right.
What confuses me, though, is this widespread opinion that vodka in Russia is served in great amounts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and basically nothing is done without drinking vodka beforehand. It’s just not true. We don’t do this.
In fact, no statistics prove this is true. It’s simple. Let me tell you something about the drink: vodka belongs to those strong spirits that make a person unable to work normally or even think clearly for a certain period of time. Had Russians consumed it constantly over the course of their entire history, there wouldn’t be any Russia left to today, because everyone would’ve drunk themselves to death.
Sometimes it’s better to say net (no) to vodka
Sorry if I’ve made you sad. Let’s proceed to more positive things, shall we?
On the Internet one can see a lot of pictures of a medved (bear) playing balalaika (a guitar-like triangle-shaped instrument with three strings). It looks weird but truly hilarious.
I really wish I could see such a scene with my own eyes. It breaks my heart that I’ll never have a chance.
Tales of medveds haunting people in the streets and breaking into their homes were included in foreign travelers’ diaries as early as the 17th century.
Well, I guess the poor guys drank too much vodka while discovering Russia. Advice to those planning trips to our country: be careful with vodka, or else you’ll risk coming face to face not only with balalaika bears, but with Joseph Stalin himself.
What a pity – you’ll never meet a medved walking freely on a Russian street! Neither will you see it playing balalaika. The medved isn’t physically capable of that. Even if you give the instrument to a trained circus bear, the only possible outcome will be a broken balalaika.
No bear can play balalaika. People can manage it though
Yet the medved does have a gift for art: we Russians have taught it to dance and ride a bike. For safety reasons such performances take place only on a circus stage. These are really exciting though. You’re welcome to enjoy.
Everyone can be talented. Why not a bear?
As for the main problem, I assure you: Russian streets are completely safe. I walk them daily and no bear has harmed me so far. I haven't even gotten a scratch!
What else comes to mind when you hear the word “Russia”? Yes, that’s it. The matryoshka.
There are only two types of places where you can see these wooden dolls –in souvenir shops or in museums. You will hardly find any matryoshka in modern Russian households – they are thought of as beautiful but useless items that do little more than collect dust. Well, at least my mom thinks so. Still, matryoshkas are funny. A doll inside another doll which is placed in a bigger one – interesting, isn’t it? Matryoshka remind me of a multi-layered Russian soul (read the previous blog post to learn more about the soul).
Basically this symbol of Russia isn’t originally Russian. The initial matryoshka concept was borrowed from the Japanese at the end of the 19th century (thank you to our Eastern friends!). But I’ll admit it: we’ve definitely added a Russian accent to it. Just look at their flowery ornaments and cheeks colored with bright red powder!
The matryoshka: no practical use, but so much cuteness
Stereotypes about Russia spread even further, reaching certain articles of clothing.
Whether I am in Moscow or in Saint Petersburg, I often see tourists buying and actually wearing shapka-ushanka (a warm hat with long ear flaps). Well, you guys look cute. I’m not kidding! You’re absolutely welcome to take such things home as a sweet reminder of your wild Russian adventure and keep on wearing them in front of your family and friends. Keep in mind, the hats with a red Soviet star on the front deserve your special attention. And those dyed in pink, my personal favorite. Check them out, and you’ll look absolutely irresistible!
Now that was a joke. Let me tell you something – and I’m doing this because I consider you my friends – if you don’t feel like being laughed at, keep these masterpieces of Russian creative and commercial genius as souvenirs only. Or wear them to costume parties. Nowhere else. And if you still feel like wearing them, at least don’t do it in Russia.
Yet the situation at hand isn’t desperate. At least if you look at it from another angle.
Fact is, the shapka-ushanka has proved itself too useful to be discarded completely. So we Russians have never said goodbye to it, but rather modified the hat. Nowadays different variations of shapka-ushanka are sold in multiple clothing stores. They definitely don’t look as colorful as those kindly offered to you by street retailers. Yet such a shapka-ushanka is really trendy and stylish and surely won’t make you look like an amateur-photoshopped version of a soldier from the Soviet cartoons.
This shapka-ushanka is a souvenir
This one is all right to wear
Talking about clothes, how can I resist mentioning the legendary picture of a girl in a sarafan (a long folk-style dress) with a kokoshnik (a crest-shaped headdress)? There is only one thing to be said: only during some type of feast can you meet such a beauty. The collapse of the Russian Empire put an end to this fashion trend.
A girl in sarafan and kokoshnik, 1913
Today you won’t find anyone dressed like this, even deep in the Russian countryside. Still, if you want this gorgeous vision in front of your eyes and are content with a paper version of the sarafan-kokoshnik duo, buy a book of Russian fairytales. It will contain plenty of similar illustrations.
Just to be clear, I never meant to say that the things I’ve mentioned are bad as such – on the contrary, they add some truly spectacular and unique accents to this huge picture of Russia. Yet vodka, matryoshka, balalaika, etc. are not the only things that Russia is.
Russia is deeper than that. Russia is brighter than that. Russia has much more to offer than that.
Going beyond these cultural borders will help you open up a whole new world, a truly marvelous world, with so many wonders to see – and isn’t that any traveler’s most important goal?
Visit Russia, read about the country, ask those who have been to Russia – and you’ll be excited to learn just how much you’ve missed by judging this country with stereotypes.
Welcome to Russia and beware! (Just kidding. The image is a fake)