10 big Russian stereotypes (that are kinda true)

10 big Russian stereotypes

Pretty much every time I tell people I’ve been to Russia, they ask me why I bothered going there, and how they picture it as just a bunch of babushkas in bread lines wearing fur hats covered in snow.

Pushkin statue, St. Petersburg, Russia
Warmer and more colorful than ya thought, huh?

And it’s not like they don’t have babushkas or fur hats or snow, but since not so many people actually go all the way over there, their heads are filled with Russian stereotypes that more accurately represent the 1950s (or even the 1850s) than modern-day Russia. Things have changed a whole lot in the last 20 years, and chances are you had some weird notions in your head anyway.

On the other hand…there’s a reason for stereotypes, and sometimes they turn out to be surprisingly accurate, and after my all-too-brief time in Russia, I came to learn that some Russian stereotypes are incredibly true. There’s a lot more to the country than just a few preconceived notions, but if you’re wondering if Russians love vodka or if entire cities get snowed under, well…let’s find out!

10 kinda-true Russian stereotypes

1) They love their vodka

Russian vodka
It is a wonderful wonderland for vodka lovers of all sorts. Photo by Th1234.

So all Russians are vodka-swilling alcoholics just a few brief steps away from alcohol poisoning, right?

Well, not quite. Though vodka is still king, beer sales exploded in the early 2000s due to cheap costs and lax regulation. Beer wasn’t even classified as an alcoholic drink until quite recently, seen as more of a light refresher. Like a soda! Though I guess it really only furthers the stereotype of drunk Russians when Russia didn’t even think beer was strong enough to be considered alcohol.

But the point is, things are changing. Russia does indeed enjoy its most traditional spirit, but beer and wine are widely enjoyed as well, and the allure of high-end Western brands is frequently on display at fancier clubs and bars.

That said, they drink a lot. And I mean a lot. Whenever I sat down for dinner with a Russian family, they took the vodka out of the freezer and we downed that bottle like it was our last night on Earth. You know what it’s like downing 9 shots of vodka over the course of a half hour meal? Well I sure do.

But even so, the mom and daughter were drinking champagne. In sane amounts.

Plus, Russians aren’t even the biggest drinkers on the planet. But they sure are close. Alcoholism has been declared a national problem, and when you consider it’s mostly the men who drink in large quantities (and whose life expectancy is significantly lower as a result), you realize they’re making up for the lower drinking rates of the ladies, and the image of a drunk uncle causing a ruckus at a wedding is all the more believable.

2) They’re all stony-faced and mean

Russian train ride
Getting Russians to smile is like calling out Rumpelstiltskin on his real name. They have to give you all their gold.

I’ll be happy to point out that this one is simply a big misunderstanding. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that most visitors only ever meet people in a bureaucratic setting; ticket booth operators, hotel staff, police officers doing a “random” passport check, and other fun stuff that only helps feed the notion that Russians don’t seem polite or friendly.

But when you sit down for dinner with them, they’ll feed you until your stomach explodes and pour you shot after shot of vodka until your liver explodes too. What’s the deal?

Oddly enough, it’s purely bureaucratic. They’ll have no interest in serving your needs when behind a glass barrier of some kind, but take the glass away, and they’ll open their kitchens and liquor cabinets and offer you as much as you can possibly handle. Plus 25% more.

Also, to fulfill your “I learned something new today” quota, Russians don’t smile to be friendly. They smile when something is funny. Once you realize that, the stony-faced demeanor is actually just fine, since they can be perfectly straightforward about taking care of things, but without being all smiley about it.

And speaking of glass barriers…

3) It’s a bureaucratic nightmare

Russian museum rules sign
They’d save time by having a sign of what you CAN do.

I’ll be the first to say that this is 100% true. Any attempt to deal with bureaucracy and red tape is going to be a soul-destroying endeavor that tests your faith in humanity to its most extreme. The chances of you coming out of this experience with your optimism intact is about the same as the likelihood of you sitting down with a Russian family for dinner and coming away sober.

Everything from visas to train tickets to permits of any kind are going to take 43% longer than you expect, succeed 28% less often, and cost 34% more. Be prepared. Then prepare some more. Have a bottle of vodka available back in your room so you can drown your sorrows and frustrations as soon as things go horribly wrong.

(The one exception: Train travel. The Russian train system makes the more “modern” European rail system seem like a rickety ride along a dirt road in a horse and buggy.)

A friend of mine referred to all the these nuisances and fees as the “speed tax,” which, when implemented, I have been informed works very efficiently. But if you’re not planning on a bribery attempt, expect things to take their sweet time.

And speaking of bribery…

4) All the cops are corrupt

Passport check in Russia.
“Uh oh, I found a typo. You’ll have to pay 50 rubles.” Photo from Newsru.com.

This is partially true.

Russia has a horrific reputation for police corruption, government kickbacks, and all sorts of other ridiculous complications that stifle development and reward ruthlessness. And it’s kinda true. My very first day in Russia included the dreaded “passport check,” AKA a bribe request. It was the first of several, in Russia and other former Soviet states. And it was very annoying. Luckily for me, I am such a suave and sophisticated gentleman that most attempts at bribe extraction resulted in my brilliant and dashing escape. Only Moldova defeated me.

Keep your passport safe, kids. Hand them photocopies only. But on the other hand, sometimes the passport check works out hysterically. Good luck!

5) Mail order brides actually exist

Bridal Train painting, 1912
The ceremonies are a little more modern than this, though.

The only inaccuracy here is that they’ve evolved to email-order brides. And they’re mostly in Ukraine anyway.

I was somewhat skeptical this even existed, or that it could be anything more than isolated cases, but once I got to Odessa, there were billboards advertising gorgeous Ukrainian girls that just wanted to marry YOU. The Irish pub always had some English-speaking guy talking through a translator to a girl way out of his league. It was pretty creepy.

But that brings up another point; the stereotype that Russian and Ukrainian girls are incredibly attractive. I used to think this was just a silly notion, as there are all sorts of people all over the world, and a large part of it is due to their relatively low obesity rates combined with their extraordinarily high “always get dressed up” rates, but I have to say there’s something to it.

It could very well just be a genetic coincidence, but I heard another explanation while I was over there; Russia lost 20 million people during World War II, with heavy losses all over Eastern Europe as well. Though many of them were women, more of them were men, who died in combat. And after the war was over, who did they pick to marry? The pretty ones, of course.

I can’t say whether or not that’s the real reason, but I can’t see it not being at least somewhat true.

6) It’s really damn cold

Russian woman swimming in winter
“Get in, you big babies! The water’s just fine!” Photo by A. Solomonov via RIA Novosti.

Well, sort of. The Earth has an axis tilt, dummies! And without going through too much of a meteorological tangent, the short summary is that oceans keep temperatures moderate, while continents push temperatures high and low.

And look at Russia all the way up there. Once the summer sunshine starts beating down on it, there isn’t much ocean to sneak the heat away, especially in southern Siberia. It doesn’t happen every day, but summer highs can reach perfectly enjoyable sunbathing levels.

That said, it does get incredibly cold. Colder than anywhere besides Antarctica. The record for coldest temperature in a permanently inhabited place is shared by two Russian cities; Oymyakon and Verkhoyansk, both of which went down to -67.7° C (-90° F).

7) They love bears

Russian bear cub photo op
Can’t say I’m a big supporter of this sort of thing.

But who doesn’t?

So this is something of a silly point, but Russia has long been associated with bears, so I thought it might be helpful to point out why, for those who are curious what bears have to do with Russians.

It’s fairly simple. They’ve got plenty of them over in those massive forests of theirs, and they’re big, strong creatures who make for intimidating and ferocious mascots. For a while the bear was considered for inclusion on the coat of arms, but they finally decided on the tsar-era symbol of the two-headed eagle instead, since apparently they favor symmetry over anatomical accuracy.

On the downside, western countries have used the symbol to poke fun at Russia for being a slow-moving, awkward beast. Apparently these people have never had to outrun a bear.

But yes, you can get your picture taken with a baby bear on the streets of St. Petersburg. It’s more kitschy than traditional, so I can’t imagine many modern-day Russians that would talk about how bear-like they are. Think of your country’s national animal, and ask if you…you know, care.

8) They love those adorable little nesting dolls

Soviet leader matryoshka nesting doll set
I bet the tsar would have been upset that he was the smallest one.

It’s called a matryoshka, and they are indeed a common sight among gift shops all around the major attractions throughout Moscow and St. Petersburg.

At this point they’re more touristy than traditional, but then again, plenty of tourists in Russia are Russian people, so it’s not just something they sell to foreigners.

One of the popular styles, particularly during Soviet times, were the nesting dolls painted to look like all the Soviet leaders. Which, oddly, meant that as time went on and new leaders were added (and became the largest of the series), Stalin got smaller and more adorable with every new leader.

9) They love their authors

Dostoyevsky tomb, St. Petersburg, Russia
Dostoyevsky’s tomb in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are his neighbors.

Yup, they sure do. Russians are pretty darn proud of their authors, poets, composers, and all sorts of other artistic types, and with good reason. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are pretty widely agreed to be the best novelists ever. And there are plenty more.

They have elaborate graves in famous cemeteries; their former homes are decorated with descriptive plaques; and Russians can quote passages from the books the way English majors can recite Shakespeare.

That’s not to say the current state of artistic achievement is particularly exciting, and if you’ve heard any Russian pop music from the last decade or two, well…you probably switched it off pretty quickly. Look to the classics, Russia. You’ve done better.

10) They still love the USSR

Lenin statue, Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia
Lenin still presides over many a plaza in Russia.

Hmm…kind of. For a lot of Russians, the Soviet era represented the greatest heights Russia ever achieved, from scientific advancements to technological development, economic growth, and political significance. They even made their own version of Winnie the Pooh!

And all of this was accomplished after rising from the ashes of World War II, through some of the worst battles in human history. For a region that for centuries lagged behind Europe and other western powers, these were the glory days. For Russians, anyway.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s GDP was cut in half, the country became a lawless, depression-struck joke, it lost half its territory, millions of Russians were stranded on the wrong side of the border of several newly independent countries, a few of its nukes supposedly went missing, and politically-connected oligarchs took over the most lucrative industries. And that’s just a brief summary of everything that went wrong. It’s easy to look at Soviet history as synonymous with the rise and fall of the fortunes of the Russian people.

The story isn’t so rosy for all the non-Russians, though. The Baltic states in particular have been the most obvious case of Soviet rule being oppressive and stifling, as they’ve joined the EU and seen their economies develop rapidly, while many of the challenges they face are due to former Soviet membership. They’d have been better off without them, in other words. And that’s to say nothing of gulags.

So it’s certainly rather skewed, and it’s easy to see why opinions are so diametrically opposed to each other, as the Soviet Union was certainly not a good place to live if you weren’t Russian. But I think it’s worth understanding why the USSR, despite the horrors of Stalinism and his ubiquitous labor camps, is still a fond memory for so many. I’m not saying I agree, but I’m saying it’s worthwhile to understand the perspective, and I think it’s quite easy to understand. But you really need to ignore quite a few atrocities in order to feel legitimately proud.

Don’t read too much into Russian stereotypes, though…

Red Square at night, Moscow, Russia
St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Tomb, and a Kremlin clock tower in nightlight glory.

So I meant for this post to be more educational than anything else, and I hope the info here doesn’t just reinforce Russian stereotypes, but instead gives some perspective. There’s generally a more interesting story behind things than a simple coincidence, and it’s worth knowing a thing or two about how these things got started, or how they’re not quite what you might think. I certainly had a great time there, and the people were very curious about what I thought about Russia, and what life was like elsewhere. Just like visiting any country, really.

So life is life, wherever you go. I mean, who doesn’t like downing half a bottle of vodka over the course of a light meal? Idiots, that’s who.

Just stay away from the cops, and you’ll be just fine.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

41 Comments on “10 big Russian stereotypes (that are kinda true)”

  1. Man, great post! You really add value to your experiences and tell the story behind why things are the way they are. Thanks for your in depth perspectives. This is very helpful information!

    1. Oh good. I knew that writing about stereotypes could be tricky, but I was trying to make it informative rather than just mean.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. It was entertaining and informative. Kudos!

    Did you do the obligatory pic with a bear cub?

  3. Rad list, Eytan. Chuckful of info and insight. This gave me quite a chuckle “On the downside, western countries have used the symbol to poke fun at Russia for being a slow-moving, awkward beast. Apparently these people have never had to outrun a bear.” Cheers! Eager to read more of your lists.

  4. Wow, I’ve never heard of number 4 before. As a solo female traveler, that’s kind of scary to hear. I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably just smile, keep repeating “I don’t understand” and try to walk away.

  5. Fun post. I must have stated with the only sober families in Russia because neither my host family in St Petersburg or Moscow drank much at all. My hosts in Moscow were just all about tea and in a month in St Petersburg, I think we had wine with dinner maybe 2 or 3 times. And that was only when my host mom seemed to have had a rough day at work.

    As for the smiling thing, my Moscow host told me they don’t get why Americans smile so much – that we smile at everything whereas Russians only smile when something is genuinely amusing.

    1. I think it may have been that lots of celebratory occasions were happening, like staying with a family for the first time. If I had stayed for weeks, we probably wouldn’t have gotten drunk every night. And even as an American, I find there’s a limit to how much smiling I can take. After a while it starts to seem like an act, so I definitely see their point.

      1. There is more in smiles than it seems, unfortunately. As far as I can tell, smile taught as a first reaction to something weird/uncomfortable really decrease an amount of anger in society. The hatred in crowded Saint-Petersburg’s subway is almost unbearable to me — all those grim, aggressive faces. I forced myself to adopt this habit and it really makes my life a little easier.

          1. Well, I see your point :)

            BTW, if you will ever plan to visit Saint-Petersburg again, contact me (you should be able to see my email in my comments) — I will be happy to be your host and/or help with visa invitation :)

        1. Dmitry, you’re the second Russian I’ve heard complain about the grimness in the St. Petersburg metro. I just spent a couple days there, and maybe it was different from Moscow.

  6. I am a Russian immigrant in the USA since 1999, and to tell you the truth, I had to learn about American stereotypes about Russians, so that I don’t disappoint my American friends about not being a true Russian woman. So, I joke a lot about drinking vodka (I say I drink vodka in the morning instead of coffee, due to my heritage), even though I don’t ever drink this spirit. I prefer wine or cognac on a special occasion only.
    When I date an American guy I fake my accent (I mean, I speak with an accent anyway, but I make it even heavier, since this exotic feature seems to be the most attractive ha-ha). also, when I am in a relationship, I call my significant other “bear” to prove the fact that bears are the most favorite animals of Russians (even though the first live bear I saw was in Omaha Zoo, Nebraska about 6 years ago).
    As far as smiling, I should say that it took me a while to learn how to smile with no real reason. I like it! When I go back to Russia, I miss smiley faces and despite it being my home country, I experience cultural shock over there.

    1. Those are all really funny. I do the same thing sometimes when I’m traveling, and I’ll say I’m an American so everything needs to be twice as big for me, but of course it’s just a joke.

  7. Over the years I’ve read lots of such descriptions of Russia, and this one, atypically, didn’t suck. But one writes what one sees, and all of us have different experiences. Someday I’ll write my own, and I will expand on the bear thing. Dozens of Russians have told me, “You probably thought that bears walked on the street here,” and I always respond, “Yes, I have heard that many times–but only from Russians!” If you want to find a bear on a flag, look to my home state, California. I was taught in college about the whole slavophile-westernizer internal conflict, and it remains as true today, 25 years later, with all the same cycling betweenn pride and inferiority complex.
    One question: While I have heard that nuclear *materials* have gone missing, I am not aware of any incidents of nuclear *bombs* walking away. That is a challenge orders of magnitude more difficult, and I’d like to see you cite a source.

    1. You’re right, they haven’t been confirmed as lost. I’ve gone ahead and added a “supposedly” and a source describing the issue. And yes, it was difficult to write this without sucking, so I’m glad it worked. It’s something of a sensitive issue to describe racial groups, particularly the prejudices associated with them, and I wanted these stereotypes to be explained, rather than cemented.

    2. >I was taught in college about the whole slavophile-westernizer internal conflict, and it remains as true today, 25 years later, with all the same cycling betweenn pride and inferiority complex

      Wow, interesting. Can you please elaborate on what you’ve been taught and what’s your perception of modern state of affairs? I’m very curious on your view from the outside.

      1. Hmm, I probably learned, and forgot, everything you can read here:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavophilia
        I have experienced the same basic split: some Russians feel that Russia is inferior to the West and want to catch up, others insist that Russians are different, and are suspicious of non-Russian influence. Just last week I listened to a girl in Moscow rant about how Russia has been contaminated by primitive Central Asians, how for a century (through the present day) it has been a colony of the UK. In all cases, Russians are very *aware* of Russia’s place in the world.

        The US has a similar historical internal conflict, between liberty and puritanism, still going strong nearly 400 years later. Americans do share a bit of the Europhile-Isolationist conflict (e.g. Obama is a Europhile), but without the emotional content.

  8. Is it true that Russian men are impossible to tie down? Do they really have no sense of loyalty to one woman?I was engaged to a Russian immigrant (we’re still engaged at the moment but things are really rocky) and his best girl friend sent me some links on dating Russian men. It’s a long story and I’m too tired to tell it so I’m just going to cut this question off sorry…. But, I read that it is typical for the Russian make to cheat on his girlfriend, even if she is a live in girlfriend… why is that acceptable?

    1. I can’t say I’m directly familiar with this issue, but I will say that traditional gender roles remain strong, and throughout most of Eastern Europe and Russia, people marry young. 18-22 is a perfectly normal age range to get married and start having kids, and they’d ask me (26 years old at the time), if I was planning on starting a family soon. I’m certainly not saying this is an excuse, but I can certainly understand how rushing through marriage would leave people wanting to…um, “explore options.”

      1. USSR is to blame here. It was widely believed (and indoctrinated, too) that women giving birth after 24 is somewhat inferior. It’s no wonder that nowadays people get married and sometimes have a child before 25, and then they break their relationship and/or cheating on each other. It’s complete madness, in my opinion. Divorce rates are as high as 80-90% in some places.

        1. Ouch…that’s pretty sad. Thanks for joining in so quickly on the comments, though. I could only offer a few observations as an outsider.

  9. Thanks for writing this post, it was quite amusing and enjoyable to read. While I agree with most statements you made earlier, I have to disagree on the last one.
    I haven’t yet met a person who was happy and/or proud with the whole USSR business (unless, they supported communism). The times of the Soviet Union were times of incredibly corrupt leaders and hardships. People were indoctrinated with the most outrageous statements and beliefs. Russia was a very strong country before the bolsheviks rose and most literally, destroyed the country and it’s pride. This caused years of suffering to the nation, and a long time for the country to more or less get back on track (although it never really did…) Even now, there are plenty of Russians that are a ‘little cracked’ because of this.
    The things the nation achieved during the USSR, would have probably been happened much earlier than it actually did, which means that the country would not be in it’s present state.
    I also, wondered why they left their statues and memorials Lenin, Stalin and the like. A good friend of mine, explained that ‘no matter haw many statues you take down, and even if bury Lenin’s body, this won’t change the past. It also costs money, and the government has better area to spend their money on’. This is also history, and a daily reminder of how wrong things went, and this should never happen again, otherwise the country will cease to exist.

    While this is only my opinion, I will be surprised if people read through this rant to the very end :)

    1. I appreciate your comments on this one. And I hope people didn’t take some of my statements the wrong way; I didn’t mean to say that Russians have a wonderful view of the Soviet days, but rather that, in the case of those who do, it’s not hard to see why. I don’t think it was the Soviet system that made Russia wonderful, but since they did experience a number of achievements (space exploration being the most obvious), it’s easy to associate the Soviet days with those achievements, and it’s easy to see why certain Russians are still proud of that history, even if it came at a price.

  10. Thank you for the responses to my rather crass and undiplomatic question. And I appreciate the lack of snarky little comments (I crack myself up!)… Very cool article, by the way. I forgot to mention that…

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