Picture the winter sun glinting off the golden spire of St Peter and St Paul’s Cathedral; imagine an untouched blanket of fresh snow covering the frozen Volga; envisage the steamy warmth of a banya, the welcome heat of a bowl of borsch and the refreshing swig from a glass of pure Russian vodka; imagine humid, mosquito-infested Siberia in the summer, the overcrowded, sweaty Moscow underground…. actually, wait, best not imagine that. These are just some of the things Russia has to offer; and, if you are intending to go to there some time soon, read on for some invaluable advice!
- When trying to understand any foreign culture, grasping their sense of humour is naturally a vital step forward. Russians do actually have one, but for us Brits, used to irony and dry wit, it’s difficult to find. To give you a better idea, here’s an authentic joke told to me by a lady from Yaroslavl (N.B. a ‘New Russian’ is a term used for Russian businessmen who have seriously benefitted from the rise of capitalism in Russia): “Three Russians walk into a bar; a Georgian, an Armenian and a New Russian”… Erm, that’s it.
Basically, this joke is a discriminatory snipe at rich people and the increase in immigration in recent years from ex-Soviet states. Trust me; I was on the floor clutching my sides for 5 minutes too after first hearing it.
- Russians love bureaucracy. As you prepare to go to Russia, arrive there and start living there, you will be inundated with paperwork for all kinds of visa and registration purposes. None of it is really necessary; it’s just another way of bleeding us gullible foreigners of a few more of our precious roubles. Unfortunately, a hobby of bored Russian policemen is to check the documents of any unwitting tourist wandering around Red Square. If you do happen to have forgotten one of the 5 million pieces of paper they demand, by law they will be ‘forced’ to take you back to the station for further questioning. But do not worry, a crisp 1000 rouble note (£20) always suffices for that missing document!
- If you’re looking to fit into Russian society, clothing is massively important. (By the way, this also helps you not being singled out by pick-pockets or the police.) For guys, it’s simple: just pick out your dullest jackets, shirts and trousers. Any shade of black, brown or grey will blend you right in. For girls, it’s a bit more tricky. All Russian girls up to the age of 30 wear tight tops, even tighter mini-skirts, a few kilos of make-up and high heels. And this look remains the same throughout the year. Russian women making their way unswervingly along ice-covered pavements in the slimmest of heels is quite frankly a miracle of nature.
- Though Russians have got the hang of selling good quality products and serving good food (in some cases), the term ‘customer service’ is still yet to be heard. Smiling or making small talk with customers is not the done thing; in fact I was explicitly told by my landlady NOT to smile at the person serving you, as they would think you were slightly wrong in the head!
- Now, if none of the last points have convinced you that Russia is the place to go, my last one will: the nightlife is amazing! Whether it’s due to the inherent alcoholism in Russian society or not, there is a great selection of bars and clubs in all major towns, which all stay open until 7 in the morning. They cost an absolute maximum of £10 to get in, and you’ll be paying at most 2 quid for a beer and a pound for vodka (which in Russia actually tastes nice!). For this not only do you get to enjoy a great atmosphere and meet many interesting Russians, but you will also witness shows of a nature upon which I don’t think I can elaborate here…
All in all, you’ll get your ups and downs wherever you go to in Russia. Getting to grips with things won’t be easy, but it will be enjoyable. I can’t promise you’ll have an amazingly fantastic time, but I am certain you will have an unforgettable experience which will remain with you for years. Oh, and one last piece of advice: don’t get a haircut out there unless you like mullets…