Breaking Down Stereotypes

Breaking Down Stereotypes about Russia and Russians

Here is the pedestrian street Pokrovskaya, which is about a mile long and is lined with shops and restaurants on either side. In the background is one of the towers of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin.

Here is the pedestrian street Pokrovskaya, which is about a mile long and is lined with shops and restaurants on either side. In the background is one of the towers of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin.

There are many stereotypes, especially in America, about Russia and Russians, which are false. Some of them may have a grain of truth to them, but in general these stereotypes are quite exaggerated. Here are some of the main stereotypes that I’d like to break down:

Russians are Loud

While Russians, just like any other nationality, can be loud, more often than not they actually speak quite softly. As an American, I’ve found that oftentimes it’s hard to understand Russians just as much because of the low volume at which they speak as the fact that they’re using Russian. On the metro I’ve been amazed to see Russians talking on the phone at an extremely low level despite the ambient noise of the metro racing through the underground tunnels. In conversation, I often feel like I’m practically whispering when I lower my own voice to match their volume level. In any case, if they speak too softly, it’s always best to ask a Russian to repeat him or herself rather than to assume that you heard everything correctly.

Russians Drink a Lot

While many Russians do, indeed, drink a lot, this is not universally the case. In fact, one of the things that has surprised me most upon arriving in Russia is the number of Russians I’ve met who do not drink alcohol (or smoke). Especially when making friends with a Russian, do not automatically assume that he or she drinks in excess, or even drinks at all. By the same token, do not be surprised if he or she does drink, and can even hold his or her alcohol well. In general, do not try to keep up with your Russian counterpart if he or she drinks a lot.

Russians are Xenophobic

While this is oftentimes true, that is not to say that Russians will automatically dislike you for being a foreigner. It’s just that, out of its 1,000-year history, Russia has either been occupied or repressed by foreigners for 500 years. The Mongol invasion alone lasted 250 years (around 1230-1480). In other words, Russians have historically had reason to be mistrustful of outsiders, and who can blame them? Nonetheless, you won’t be ostracized for being an outsider. If you give Russians the respect they deserve and treat them as the equals they are, then you may be surprised at how open Russians can be to outsiders.

Russians Hate America

This is simply not true. From the Russian perspective, America is the most interesting foreign country, and Russians oftentimes want to travel to the U.S. more than to any other country. Additionally, English is the most commonly taught and learned foreign language in Russia. If a Russian asks you where you’re from, don’t hesitate to say that you’re an American. Chances are that he or she will have many questions for you about life in America, especially in terms of how it compares to life in Russia. Give your honest opinion, but avoid criticizing Russia or Russian life. In any case, don’t think that you will be treated poorly simply by being an American in Russia. Of course, don’t go out of your way to advertise the fact that you’re a tourist, especially when walking around the streets, because, as in any major city, you can be targeted by pickpockets or to be mugged, regardless of which nationality you are. But in general, don’t be afraid to disclose where you’re from when asked.

Russians are Very Serious/Don’t Have a Sense of Humor

Yes, oftentimes Russians are very serious, but this is not always the case. I have met many Russians who smile and joke around a lot more than the average American. When walking the streets you will see very few smiles, but this is not necessarily because everyone is sad or humorless. Rather, in Russian culture smiling for no reason can be seen as insincere at best and a sign of insanity at worst. This can vary from city to city as well. For example, when I was in St. Petersburg I noticed that people on the streets there smile quite a bit more than do the residents of Nizhny Novgorod. In any case, just be aware that if you smile at others on the street your smile will probably not receive a smile in return and may be misinterpreted.

Russians are Mean

Russians can be terse, including when it comes to “customer service,” but they are generally not mean. In fact, if a Russian ever strikes you as impolite, don’t take it personally, but rather hold your ground. For example, if you need something in a store and an employee seems to be rude (at least by American standards) or to be brushing you off, don’t be offended, and do your best not to take no for an answer. In other words, make sure you get the help you need. Indeed, Russians themselves oftentimes don’t take no for an answer, and so an initially abrupt “no” is not necessarily set in stone.

Russians are Tricky/Dishonest

Not so. Generally speaking, Russians are quite honest, oftentimes to the point of being blunt. If you yourself speak the truth, even when it is not necessarily popular to do so, you will be respected for doing so. Indeed, a Russian will appreciate you getting to the point much more than trying to phrase an issue in a roundabout way. Also, there is a surprising (at least surprising to an outsider) level of trust in Russian society. On the bus people hand their bus fare to complete strangers to be passed up to the conductors. In public places people leave their bags unattended with little fear of them being stolen.

–David Pruden


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