What it's like to live in Russia

What it's like to live in Russia

I’ve written about What it’s like to live in China. I’ve also written about The overwhelming devastation of getting Russia. Now, it’s my turn to (try to) figure out what life is like in Russia.


The Moscow I remember most is cinematographic.

Two lovers on a deserted street
That famous bridge scene from The Cranes are Flying

It’s the Moscow of The Khrushchev Thaw, the Moscow of black-and-white deserted promenades. It’s the brief moment in the 1950s where there was something (for once) beautifully optimistic about the city. It’s a Moscow that no longer exists, but it doesn’t hurt to dream, right?

The promenade from "The Cranes are Flying"
Me, re-creating that famous bridge scene from The Cranes are Flying

I’m away from Shanghai for a week, embracing the wide promenades and the cold, red walls of the Capital. Moscow is picturesque, but at the same time it’s harsh. It’s uninviting. It’s not a city that embraces its foreigners, or even its citizens (which is such a change from Shanghai). Each time I visit Russia it’s difficult – I am at once a part of the city and so far outside of it. I am expected to behave like both a Russian and a foreigner. But by this time, I’ve forgotten how to carry myself in public: I smile a little too wide, I stare at people in grocery stores because I don’t quite know the brand of sour cream to buy (but at 20% fat, does it really matter?) It’s only my third time in this city and between bouts of babysitting my 3-year-old and 6-year-old cousin, I’m slowly re-discovering the city, touring the usual sights, the cathedrals, and the museums, finally reunited with my college roommate.

To me, life in Russia is:

  • Sweet. Now, don’t get me wrong, the lifestyle isn’t sweet, but sweets are everywhere. Every meal ends with tea, punctuated with jam, honey, chocolates, candy, and two kinds of prune or honey cake (at the very least)
  • On that note, I’ve seen far more ways to eat cottage cheese (called творог) in Russian than I ever thought possible.
  • It’s black rye bread with every meal
  • It’s an overabundance of dairy, of caffeine, of sugar, of everything you can think of to survive the Russian -30ºC frosts.
  •  It’s seeing every woman on the street with fried, dry hair because the Russian climate is so unforgiving.
  • It’s being transported back to 2003, when thin arched eyebrows and harsh lip-liner were in vogue.
  • It’s being told that my coat needs to be lint rolled (to be fair, it does) by a supermarket security guard.
  • It’s dealing with a culture of confrontation, if not politeness. China is a culture of personal space. Russia is the exact opposite. Every shopkeeper, every person you end up talking on the street is nosy. They will however, go out of their way to be polite, helping women carry bags, opening seats, and most importantly making little catty remarks.
  • It’s the constant barrage of comments from relatives and strangers. My grandma persistently comments on my cheeks (too fat), my dresses (not bright enough), my legs (finally not fat), my glasses (too nerdy).
  • But most importantly, living in Russia (permanently, because me , well I’m just passing by) means losing my freedom and my independence. It’s startling how many (seemingly simple) things we take for granted in the US. Living in Russia means being the weaker sex, being told to clear the dishes and tend to the male relatives, despite having an Ivy League education and an advanced degree, because those things hardly matter for a woman. It’s not being able to be ‘one of the boys’ because to my aunts, having a beer and some peanuts is a high moral offense. It means shutting down my willfulness, brashness, and my boldness. It means staying silent. And that, by itself, makes living in Russia – to me – almost unbearable.

0 thoughts on “What it's like to live in Russia”

  • Often it is hard to show as a woman that there is no reason for the disbalance of in fluency, power and whatnot. Many people (families, societies) have it burned into the head that there is a cler image of the man going to work and earning the money and that the woman has to stay at home at tend to all the housework and children. To change that will still take a lot of time. Even though you might think both genders are on a more equal position in Europe ypu will latest see the differences when it comes to the paycheck as men still earn in average more money no matter where you go.
    I was for the past years a house man and my wife was getting the cash for the family :p
    Btw, dark rye bread is also always presents finland 🙂

    • Yeah, I completely agree that the gender disparity is a much larger issue, and my short rambling post is probably not enough address it the way that it should be tackled.
      I think a better way to phrase the difference that I felt was that in Russia there was an overwhelming separation of the genders where a man would find it emasculating (in most cases) to even touch housework, but it translates to a much more chivalrous culture, so I guess it’s s strange trade-off of a sort. I am, of course, still making generalizations though. As someone who is used to being ‘one of the boys’, the moscow culture was a bit different, but I think largely being out of my element contributed as well.

      Rye bread is fantastic! Is it part of Finnish open-faced sandwiches?

  • Wow, this is so interesting. I’m not sure now whether it’s just my husband’s family in Moscow, but my feelings about Russia were quite different on some of the points.

    For example, my husband (and his father and brother) never mind washing plates after themselves. They always say that there were three of them in the family and just one mom, so they can’t expect her to tend to all of them all the time.

    And they were always proud of my education and that one of my sister in law. Their boys got degrees in UK, so maybe they just have a different take on education.

    My mother-in-law is always trying to watch what she eats, so it’s always a fight between the ‘traditional’ jam with tea and low carbs diet 🙂

    Politeness.. Well, I guess, men are usually trying to be gallant to women, but what about all the state offices? Oh my God, that was what I disliked the most about Moscow. Of course, they are understaffed and work on low salaries, but it still made me upset how rude they can be 🙁

    I have mixed feelings about Moscow – on one hand I don’t like that it’s very often cloudy there (I don’t mind the cold so much as lack of sunshine), that people are so driven and busy that they constantly wear an unhappy look on their faces. But I also always had some dreamy image about it from old movies, like you, how about that? No idea, how this happens, but I always felt some kind of warm feeling walking the same streets where those warm films were made. I guess, they has good film makers at that time that this feelings of warmth and optimism still seem to work on people decades later 🙂

    • Ahh yes, I think part of my conflict with Moscow stems from me being such an outsider in the Russian sphere, especially in Moscow. I’ve only been in the city a few times, so it feels much less like a homecoming than, say going to St. Petersburg. I am not used to the way people talk on the streets, the way that Russian bureaucracy works (I went to to a few hospitals to get some blood work done and while it wasn’t quite as bad as a state office, going between officers, laboratories, кассы, and all the other places was maddening), or even how to order food in a restaurant. I think part of being in Russia is knowing when to say things and when to not say things, and as an ‘American’, I lack a certain social tact.

    • Standing up to a Russian Grandmother is one of those things that I wish I had the courage to do! My grandmother is terrifying, very loving, but absolutely terrifying.

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