Of Matryoshks Dancing Bears And Stereotypes By Thilini Bandara


Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” said Winston Churchill more than half a century ago. Maybe or not his views are accurate now as they were then; is not for me to judge –of course everybody is entitled to their own opinion, so why not good old Churchill? 

While thanking my lucky stars again for the free round trip air tickets to Russia (which I well deserved! ahem),it’s with great pride that I tell you that I got a chance to participate , as the only delegate from my country in a youth forum, where there were more than 3500 international youth participants from all over the world. During my 2 week stay in Russia-one week in the forum site, which was about a 6 hour drive from Moscow and 1 week in Moscow,-which may be not be enough considering the enormity of Russia, Spanning 9 time zones and two continents, and  covering about one-sixth of the Earth’s surface, I can say that those two weeks were enough for me to get a somewhat balanced impression about Moscow, Muscovites, and the urban Russia in general and,  that I had my fair share of the Russian experience.

So if you close your eyes and say Russia, what is the next word that pops in your mind? Pretty girls, Cold winters, mafia, beet salad, dancing bears, vodka and sometimes Dostoevsky. Russian stereotypes are not too flattering. Stereotypes never are.If I am to gather , the most common stereotypical descriptions of Russia would be : Russia is the coldest darkest country in the world far far away, with lots of beautiful girls and where bears that can dance or play hockey; and usually walk on streets at night. Russian people are spies, communists and mostly Orthodox Christians who fly MIG fighter jets, often with a knack for gymnastics, wrestling, and weight lifting. Russian men, who have large bodies, have a severe love for any liquid containing alcohol-specially vodca.  They wear big furry hats with ear flaps not tied up. When they are sober they spend their time making nukes or joining organized crime groups.  So I made a mental note to myself to check for the stereotypes myself. When discussing people of any country, it is dangerous to generalize excessively. Every country, city, town and block has good people and bad people. Hey, welcome to the human condition. Russia is no different, but many of the conceptions about Russians are wrong.

Apart from jumping up and down mentally whenever the idea of flying to Russia crossed my mind, I took some time to search about tourist attractions, local travelling, food, and other things online. After the fact that Moscow is among top five of world’s  most expensive cities, what bothered me the most was that most of the websites gave the hint that Russians, specially Muscovites are indifferent and unfriendly. One widespread opinion was that Russians rarely smile. On the other hand I had heard earlier, that Russians are a very hospitable nation. How can the same people be so rude and so hospitable at the same time?!!  I was not sure what kind of experience I should be prepared for ! aloof or even hostile looks from people on public transportation and in the streets and ,unfriendly attitude from the Russian participants of the youth forum, or a heartwarming hug from a able-bodied, and athletic  Russian male?(a girl can dream)
There were more than 3000 Russian participants from all over Russia like Siberia, samara, Vladivostok, Kazan, Volgograd  though I didn’t get to talk to all of them, almost all the Russians that I met were friendly and helpful, including the muscovites .specially the Russians  from distant places were really interested to get to know about other countries, traditions ,climate, sun and were always curious to know things. Some of the Russians that I got to know at the forum chipped in to show us around the city and saved me from using my broken Russian and the much hated sign language. Some of the Russians can speak English but the ones who couldn’t, often wanted to speak English with me and even apologized for their bad English even when I didn’t speak Russian with them or my Russian is worse than their English. Once I got lost in the Moscow metro and the first lady whom I asked for help, though she wasn’t speaking English took all her efforts to show me the correct way.
In the end, we all are guilty of stereotyping and having prejudiced minds  about some groups of people. Because many of us have never encountered any Soviets or Russians, we tend to be fearful and watchful of them. Propaganda and Hollywood movies depicting the cold war and the negative stereotypes of Russians / Soviets, like  Rocky IV, Rambo,  From Russia With Love, have brainwashed our minds to think in a pre programmed manner . We  have to work harder at righting those wrongs and making our decisions on the basis of our own experiences, not those of others.
While the fact remains true that Russian girls are pretty ,to which I am a witness of, I can clearly say that most of the stereotypes are not true. So i’m happy to say that I didn’t see any dancing bears playing ice hockey (or am i?)  and that I loved the experience I had in Russia. Well, if you don’t want to move at least an inch from  your comfort zone it might not be the best place to visit ,but if you are a globe trotter looking for a different cultural experience you sure should not miss Russia.