Russian Wanderlust

Daniel Brooks

Many Russians have their eyes directed firmly on destinations outside their country to travel, educate their children and live. They see the world as their oyster and their knowledge of the world is often astonishing.    

Most Russians are proud of the schools and universities in their own country. Meanwhile, a significant number of Russians, who can afford it, would like to send their children to some other country to get educated. Some parents join the children and move overseas permanently. While the majority of Russians prefer to stay put in their own country, a surprising number have their eyes set elsewhere.

Have a conversation with almost any group of Russians and it turns out that they have come to know many corners of the globe in extensive detail. Ask about one country or another and you will get an earful. Some go to the same place every year to ski, or swim in a warm body of water. Others wander relentlessly from country to country. If the conversation ever lags among Russians at the dinner table, bring up travel and everyone will spring to life. Afterwards, I sometimes feel like I have enough information about exciting destinations around the globe to open a travel agency.

Russians have a collective memory of a time in their history during the Soviet era when travel outside the country was not allowed. When the borders opened up, the Russians broke forth into the world on vacation or to move abroad for good. Perhaps there is a fear that the borders might shut down again. For whatever reason, wanderlust has set it.

Going on vacation inside Russia can be tough going. I’ve taken a few road trips around the country and sometimes feel like I’m off-road while on the highway. Once reaching a destination in Russia, the choices of hotels are often not ideal, and the best hotels can be expensive. Things can take an unexpected turn. One hotel we stayed in used a central boiler fueled by wood to heat the water. We had to inform the hotel owner in advance when we needed to take a shower so that he could stoke the fire under the boiler ahead of time. Quirky, but not ideal. While the situation in Russia is improving fast, services remain underdeveloped. Russia needs better roads, hotels, restaurants and other kinds of infrastructure to compete with tourist destinations in the rest of the world. To add insult to injury, going on holiday outside Russia often costs the same or less than inside the country and reaching various destinations can be faster. Let’s remember, many parts of Europe are much closer to Moscow and especially St Petersburg than Siberia and beyond.

The Russia winter is long. It’s now the 18th of March and my thermometer reads -5 Celsius outside. A big snow storm is expected. As the winter drags on and on, Russian feet get itchy. No small number of Russians do in fact prefer to travel inside the country, especially campers, fishermen and hunters. Among the rest, many survive the winter by counting the days until the next trip to a country with more sunlight and all the creature comforts. 

Russians who can afford to travel outside the country are highly knowledgeable of the rest of the world. They are skilled in getting around and adapting to local conditions. A friend of mine never stands in line while skiing on vacation in the Alps. If a ski resort is crowded, he finds a ski instructor and slips him a few Euros. If that doesn’t work out, he hires an instructor for lessons. The ski instructor helps him, and his large group of friends and family to cut the line at the ski lift, something the other people stand in line might not consider doing. Beating the system and finding good deals is another popular subject of conversation at many Russian gatherings.

Many Russians are determined to send their children outside the country for an education, especially in Europe. The entire family becomes focused on entrance requirements, language tests, visas and financing a complex move to an entirely different country. Advising Russians who want to educate their children overseas is a growth industry. Many young Russians who were among the first wave of those educated abroad earn a living by advising others how to study overseas. Schools the world over frequently hold conferences in Russia, promoting their schools, sports programs and housing. Some universities and schools offer a year of education in country to prepare Russians students for study abroad. Flights to all corners of the earth (especially London) are filled to the rafters with Russian high school and university students at certain times of the year. They are flying off to be educated in a system entirely different than their own. They often become fluent in another language and comfortable in that culture. Some of them seem happy about the whole idea. Others are miserable and would rather stay at home. If you book a seat next to one of the students on the plane, it is often ideal. They will hide behind their hoodies and keep their eyes on their phones without making a peep during the entire flight. Nor will they try to hog the armrest.

This trend has its antecedents in Russia history. In Tsarist time the nobility sent their children overseas, primarily to England and France, to be educated. This took place over many decades and even centuries, creating generation after generation of Russians who were fluent in languages other than Russian. French was the language most widely spoken in the pre-revolutionary era. Many spoke Russian as a second language, with French or English being the equivalent of their mother tongue. England was also a popular place for the nobility to be educated in Tsarist times.

History is repeating itself. Gradually, a coterie of young Russians has become either entirely bi-lingual or speak a foreign language better than Russian. Many have returned to Russia. They could be mistaken as English or Americans and are equally comfortable in both worlds.

Perhaps Russians travel widely because their own country is multi-cultural. Russia has 186 ethnic groups, officially named nationalities.  Some ethnic groups have their own republics within the borders of Russia, of which there are 15 in total. There are over 100 languages spoken in Russia. Of these, 35 are considered official. Just under 7% of the population of the Russian Republic is Muslim. Because Russia is made up of many cultures and what amounts to separate countries within its borders, Russians find it easy to travel to new ones. And that’s what they do. 

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 18 March 2019