Myth Busting

Daniel Brooks

More and more advice can be found in the media, social and otherwise, about how cultures differ from country to country. Some of this advice about Russia claims to be myth busting, doled out to those visiting the country for the first time. In doing so, new myths are sometimes created. Other advice is simply odd.

An article I read recently suggests that students visiting Russia need to understand that Russians are hospitable. If you visit someone’s home, you will always be given a large meal. It goes on to suggest not eating anything beforehand. Why wouldn’t Russians be hospitable? What countries are inhospitable?  Finally, in what country would it be necessary to eat plenty of food before visiting someone to have a meal?
Another article I read said that that Russians enjoy the banya, the local form of a sauna. A banya is very hot, small room.  The idea behind a banya is to spend time in it, sweating, to get as hot as possible. After sitting in the banya for as long as you can stand, jump into ice water to cool down quickly. Then go back into the banya for more sweating and heat. Have a few drinks in between, for good measure. This is great fun, for those who like to heat themselves up as much as they can.
The article suggests someone new to Russia should go to the banya with newly found friends. Let’s get something straight. Many banyas in Russia are simply banyas. Others are establishments where funny business takes place, for a fee. Friends made in a banya often shouldn’t be taken home to meet Mom and Dad. Going to the banya can be synonymous with getting up to no good. The advice should read, go to a banya once you know the lay of the land with friends you trust and before going to one, make sure you find out what kind of banyayou are visiting. Another option is to take up cross country skiing.
Russian women, in one article I read, are held up as a natural resource, along with oil. For some reason, the same article talks about Russian architecture, as if the three are synonymous. Do other countries look upon women in the same way that mineral deposits and old buildings are valued?  Beyond any doubt, a vast quantity of women in Russia are gorgeous and the Russian nation has every right to be proud of them, perhaps more so than in other countries. What about Russian men? I’ve noticed that not much is written about their good looks although no small number of them are handsome devils. Would the lack of handsome Russian men off-set the plethora of gorgeous Russian ladies that occupy every nook and cranny of the nation? I think not. A better conclusion is that Russia has many handsome people. The remainder are simply normal. Many are not good looking at all. Who cares? Let’s recall, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Within Russian culture, women dress well with the urging of their mothers and other women, often by putting on the shiny things that men like to look at such as makeup, jewellery, nice clothing and high heeled shoes. They work hard at looking great for each other and by coincidence, men. The best way to find out about Russian women without any makeup is to marry one of them, something I highly recommend. Some web sites target unmarried, non-Russian men. One site praises Russian women saying “Emotionally or financially, these women are known to bear pain and loss without a single tear shed” as if the women in Russia do not cry and are oblivious to loss. Men cannot stand to watch a woman cry. Coming to a country where women never cry would, for many men, seem like a dream come true. Let it be said that women in Russia cry, just as women, and people, the world over shed tears from time to time. They are, after all, human beings. Another site claims that Russian women prefer to be obedient, stay at home, take care of the household and provide home cooked meals to their husbands when they come home after a long day at work. This should be taken with a grain of salt. Certainly, some Russian women prefer to be homemakers. Many, however, do not and are about as enthusiastic, or unenthusiastic, about doing housework as women can be in any country around the world. Russia is a matriarchal society, the result of the fact that for many years, there have been more women in the country than men. Women often have no choice but to work and take over the household. Foreign men should be prepared to do what they are told by their Russian wives, should they marry one, just as they would in their own country. Smiling is much written about, and the lack thereof. This dead horse has been well beaten. One piece of advice I read recently about visiting Russia says that “smiling for no good reason in public is considered a form of insanity”. This is absurd.  Smile as much and as often as you want to in Russia. You might be considered insane, but not because you smile. Another site says a visitor was surprised to learn that Russians have a sense of humour, going so far as to write ‘I actually met quite a few Russians with awesome senses of humour!’. Let’s ignore the grammatical implications of the phrase ‘awesome senses’ and ask; how can a sense of humour be unexpected in a country with a population of over 140 million people? One article I read forbids arguing with Russian grandmothers. In what other country would such advice be given? Imagine visiting the United Kingdom and before you land, you read an article that informs you, when you see a British grandmother, to agree with every word she says. This advice would seem to be factually true but unnecessary. Who bickers with grandma? What about grandpa? Can he be disagreed with? It is true that Russians have many superstitions. However, a visitor to the country who is not Russian won’t be held to task for committing the shocking error of shaking hands across the threshold or wearing shoes indoors. The fun of visiting a new country is to find out how people think and act when you get there. Simply ask any Russian for the things that are acceptable to Russians, and unacceptable. After that, carry on acting like you would in your own country.  There is no reason to worry too much about adapting, no one is expecting you to. This, it would seem, stands true just about everywhere. It is true that Russians put empty vodka and wine bottles on the floor when they are finished drinking them. However, it has been a very long time since I’ve actually seen anyone do this. It is not a hard and fast rule. Go to any Russian restaurant and the empty bottles can be seen on the tables. I recently had a dozen Russian friends over to visit and celebrate the summer of 2018 on our deck.  When the evening was finished, I threw away 16 empty wine bottles, two of which were 3-liter magnum bottles. The evening lasted from 4 pm until 3 in the morning. Not a single bottle found its way to the floor. This being a tradition with few adherents, it’s mostly written about, as opposed to practiced. One piece of advice I saw online pointed out that visitors to Russia should not kiss complete strangers. The writer explains such an idea originates from pictures of Brezhnev kissing Eric Honecker.  As a result, many foreigners come to Russia expecting to land a big smooch on people they don’t know.  I have yet to meet anyone with the urge to kiss random Russians or the other way around. Kissing those you know seems like advice that doesn’t need to be given. Some of the suggestions I read are universal and perfectly reasonable for travellers anywhere. Keep your money safe. Avoid street food. The men shouldn’t take women they’ve just met to their hotel rooms. The women should not go to anyone’s hotel room but their own. Carry your passport in a secure place on your person. Don’t drink beer on public transport. Dress respectably. Wear appropriate clothing to suit the weather. This is the kind of advice anyone might follow when visiting any country, Russia included. Another piece of advice is to keep your wits about you. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Come to your own conclusions. That’s what travel adventures are all about. RussiaKnowledge©Daniel Brooks 22 August 2018