“So, why are you going to Russia?” was a question I’d often received when I mentioned my plans for the spring semester of my junior year. And while it seemed innocent enough, I could read between the lines and most of the time it ended up translating as: “So why are you (read: black girl) going to Russia (read: scary, cold, xenophobic, communist country)?” There is always the assumption that people of color and Russia are inherently incompatible. To be very honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I was only familiar with American media perceptions of Russia that tend to be overwhelmingly negative. Even outside of politics, there’s still pervasive satirical and even cartoonish portrayals of Russians in American cinema (ex. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Red Heat). I feel that many Americans’ knowledge about Russian culture and society doesn’t exist outside of the contexts of the Cold War and Soviet Union — or tacky blockbuster films featuring the Russian mafia for that matter.
So, I did some “research” which mostly entailed watching countless YouTube video blogs and scouring over Tripadvisor forums to help prepare myself the best I could. Even with all the “preparations”, there’s still a learning curve that every person faces. With regards to Russia, that learning curve is steep, albeit for different reasons than what I initially thought. For the remainder of this blog, I want to break down my initial first impression of not only Moscow, but Russia as a whole.
- Russia is incredibly diverse.
There’s a common misconception that Russia is a purely homogeneous country where the average Russian has blonde hair, blue eyes, practices orthodox Christianity, and speaks Russian and only Russian. Whereas, in reality, there’s an amalgamation of many different ethnic groups, languages, religions and even cuisines as a result. The main reason why I love the pictures below is because they embody this particular aspect about Russian society that’s often overlooked. Khachapuri (first picture) is a popular dish in Russia that originates from Georgia, a country located at the crossroads between Eastern Europe and West Asia. Kubdari Khachapuri (second picture) is another popular Georgian dish that bears astonishing similarities to чебуреки or Çiğbörek as it’s known in its original language, Crimean Tatar.
Both dishes can be found in many different forms and regional adaptations throughout the Caucasus and even as far as Turkey and Romania, where there are significant diaspora communities. Georgia, along with other countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, bear great cultural and historical significance in Russian society.
When I’m on the metro and if it’s not час пик ( chas pik or rush hour), I sometimes take a few moments to people-watch and it’s amazing to see how everyone divulges from how the world perceives the “average Russian”. The “everyday Russian” can be Muslim with roots in Kazakhstan or Buddhist with roots in Kalmykia (a majority Buddhist republic in southern Russia). I think in the US we tend to want to categorize and box people into one set of determined identities. If they happen to fall outside of these categorizations, then their identity becomes complicated. With regards to Russia, I’m sure there are deeper political and socio-cultural aspects to take into consideration; however, my first impression is that identity tends to be more fluid here. You can be Russian, but celebrate and acknowledge your Tajik or Kazakh roots without having one identity undermine the other.
In future blogs I hope I can expand on this issue of Russian identity as it relates to ethnicity and nationality, especially considering how I view my own identity in relation to the world around me. In the coming months hopefully I can provide a more nuanced assessment on the diversity in Russian society informed by my daily experiences and interactions.
By: Brittni Foster
Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program (RLASP), St. Petersburg, Russia
Term: Spring 2020