Donovan Nagel is from Australia and he has been travelling the world now for over 14 years, learning many different languages at home and abroad using a variety of approaches and tools. He shares 11 things he learned during his stay in Russia. Originally published here: mezzoguild.com
Today I’m going to share a few fairly random but very interesting things with you that I learned during my language immersion stay in Russia.
Looking over this small list now, nearly all of it is positive and I’m sure there’s so much more I could have added.
Russia’s a beautiful country full of interesting, kind people who are far too misunderstood by the rest of the world in my opinion. Of all the places around the world I’ve lived in for language immersion it was one of the most rewarding I’ve ever had.
1. Russian mead (медовуха) is delicious
Called медовуха (myodovukha) in Russian (I’m not sure but I’d wager the Russian word for honey (мед) and the word ‘mead’ probably have the same origin).
I think that when English speakers hear the word mead it conjures up thoughts of medieval Europe. You can still buy it these days in some places but it’s now a specialty drink made by mead brewers and most people have never tried it.
I tried this for the very first time right before I left Moscow. It’s bloody yummy!
If you ever get to Russia you should definitely try some.
2. Russia’s the perfect example of sink or swim language immersion
I mentioned this before but it’s worth saying again.
Russia is an excellent place for language immersion because people don’t tend to fall back to English when you’re learning it.
If you travel to most places in Western Europe for example to try and practise the local language you’ll find that one of the most frustrating hurdles is that a lot of people will revert back to English when they see you struggling (either to help you or because they’re impatient).
In Russia I found that people expected me to speak Russian and the few times I asked if anyone spoke English I got looked at as if to say, ‘No and why should I speak English?’
This is great because it means you can’t really get lazy if you live there. You’re forced to adapt and learn the language as quickly as possible if you want to get by.
3. Russia’s made up of so many peoples and languages I’ve never heard of before
Russia is such a massive place that it’s no surprise it’s made up of many many ethnic groups and languages.
I lived in a region of Russia called Tatarstan where the ethnic group (called Tatars) are a Turkic people with a language closely related to Turkish and a very similar culture and cuisine. Interestingly, when I asked people if they were Russian they’d often reply to me, “No. I’m Tatar.”
Likewise, people from Moscow would often say to me, “I’m not Tatar. I’m 100% Russian.”
Even more interestingly, when I asked about religion I’d get the same kind of answer.
“Are you Muslim?” “No. I’m Russian.” or “Yes of course. I’m Tatar.”
I’m no expert on Russian demographics but I found it fascinating that people from the European side of Russia are regarded as 100% Russian whereas everyone else scattered across Asia proudly assert their own ethnic identities and maintain a distinction between them and the European Russians. Perhaps this is more prominent in Tatarstan though due to the troubled history Tatars have had in Russia – I don’t know much about it admittedly.
In any case, Russia is a linguist’s paradise.
A good friend of mine in Moscow is from an area close to Georgia and he was teaching me a little of the Kabardian (Кабардинцы) language which sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It blows my mind that so many interesting people exist in Russia and indeed the world that we know so little about.
I’d love to spend a year or two travelling around the entire country to learn more about the multitude of minority languages and cultures it’s made up of.
4. In Russia men are men and women are women
I’m hesitant to write this one but here goes. 🙂
I’ve always been the traditional type myself.
I like to be the kind of bloke who pays the bill, holds the door open and carries the heavy stuff. As I said in a viral post I wrote about my near marriage to an Egyptian girl a few years ago, I was happy to first approach her father about my proposal which I still believe is a necessary thing to do regardless of where you are in the world.
Chivalry is a virtue.
Of course saying what I just said now is an excellent way to get into an argument with the vocal minority these days but Russia’s one place where I found it to be a completely black and white, non-problematic issue with people.
Men are men, ladies are ladies and there’s no blurred line or malarkey about it.
When I first arrived in Russia I was quite surprised when we were unloading the car after shopping one night and the Russian women stopped and waited for me to carry everything. Often without even asking they would just stand there or sit down and expect that it was now the man’s duty to do the lifting and to be the one who gets his hands dirty.
Initially I thought it was a one-off occurrence but I later experienced this multiple times with different women during my time in Russia. At one point when I asked a female friend why it was she simply replied, “You’re a man and I’m a woman. You’re strong and I’m not.”
Of course a similar kind of stark gender contrast exists in Korean culture too but it stood out for me more in Russia (plus you’d have a much harder time finding the styled hair, makeup-wearing pretty boy type in Russia than you would in Korea I’m sure).
When I lived in Georgia (which is culturally very similar to Russia) it was almost impossible to refuse alcohol at dinners and toasts for example because if you did you were a weak man. Women don’t have to worry about it.
I’m sure a lot of people out there believe this is a sign of a society that hasn’t caught up with the times but I say who are they to make that judgement.
5. There’s an elite mega rich class referred to by some as ‘The New Russians’
It’s time for me to explain a bit more about why I left my job in Russia.
I’ve talked a lot about the kindness and hospitality of Russian people but I did experience a few things that made me sick to the stomach and filled with rage while I was there.
I’ll try to sum up my experience briefly for you.
I was a private language instructor (English and later Arabic as well) for one of the top 5 wealthiest families in the whole of Russia according to Forbes Magazine. It was the highest paying teaching job of its kind that I’ve ever had and most likely will ever have again.
I worked in the family’s mansion (which was actually more like a slightly smaller version of Buckingham Palace) in a picturesque forested area of Tatarstan and I got to travel at their expense (business class) to their villa on Palm Jumeira in Dubai a few times. I got to meet the president of Tatarstan and other important Russian politicians, ate in restaurants that normal people like us could never dream of affording and had armed Russian security with me everywhere (they’d even sit on either side of me when we went to the cinema).
These mega rich people are part of a new class of super elite called ‘The New Russians’ and believe me when I say that they are the worst kind of rich people on the planet.
I say this because there’s an enormous gap in Russia between them and the rest of the country where they treat the ordinary, struggling people like dirt while themselves living incredibly decadent, hedonistic and lavish lifestyles (I’ve always hated socialism myself but my experience actually made me understand and become somewhat sympathetic to why that ideology flourished so much in Russia).
I found these people to be completely divorced from reality and the most excessive, reckless spenders I’ve ever seen (the kind of people you see pulling up in their Bugattis, Ferarris and Rolls Royces out the front of Dubai Mall if you’ve ever been there).
I’ve got nothing against wealth or rich people whatsoever but these people are something else entirely (completely different to wealthy people you’d meet in Europe, Australia or America for example).
It feels like a caste system exists in Russia.
Being a foreign professional meant that I was treated much better than others but I just got to the point where I couldn’t stomach seeing Russian workers treated so unfairly and paid so little.
I was defending the staff often which put me at odds with my employers (e.g. at one stage I managed to convince an airline to upgrade the maid from economy to business class for free because I was disgusted at how unfair it was that she had to sit at the back of the plane away from the rest of us).
In the end I put morals and integrity before a fat pay cheque.
If you’ve ever been out somewhere and seen a Russian person doing or saying something that made you think “what a rude bastard”, in all probability you saw one of the rich elite and not one of the ordinary Russian people.
6. Russians love their дачи, бани and the outdoors
Nearly every Russian I spoke to in the big cities has a family house/cottage in a village somewhere called a дача (dacha) with a sauna (баня) connected to it.
Russians are fanatical about бани. 🙂
I was told that one thing many Russians like to do is go in the sauna in Winter and then jump into the snow naked to cool off. I never got to try it myself unfortunately!
I went to some incredibly beautiful дачи too while I was there with homely, log cabin designs and heated by wood fire.
There’s a great barbecue culture in Russia too which suited me well as an Aussie 🙂
7. Russian weather’s extreme but at the same time incredibly beautiful
We all think of ice when we think of Russia.
It definitely lived up to its reputation when I was there as I’ve never experienced such extreme cold in my life (being an Aussie Queenslander didn’t help). I’m quite sure we got down to almost -40 degrees celcius at one point and if you’ve never been in cold like that before then I can assure you it’s pretty nippy.
It kinda makes you feel like your eyelids are freezing to your eyeballs when you go outside.
Despite how cold it is though it’s truly beautiful to see and even though I never got to see the Summer, the Spring was gorgeous. Russia’s a nature-lover’s paradise.
8. Russia means business
I honestly don’t know or care much about Russian politics (I definitely don’t condone or claim to understand what’s been happening in the Ukraine) but one thing I always respect is a government that has some balls.
There’s a lot to not like about Putin I’m sure but when you compare the Russian government to the current, most pathetically impotent government in US history that flexes its muscle through pouty-faced Twitter #hashtag campaigns then you can clearly see who means business and who doesn’t on the world stage.
Even if the actions they take are at times wrong I’ve learned that the Russians don’t lack strength and resolve and at the same time I respect their persistent unwillingness to jump on the bandwagon and do what they’re told. They take their own sovereignty and self-determination very seriously.
Not surpisingly though I did find that most people I spoke to weren’t that interested in politics and had very little to say about what their government does (like everywhere in the world).
They followed the news but didn’t have a lot to say about what was going on in the Ukraine or its relationship with America. Just ordinary people living their lives and trying to get by with no desire for war or conflict.
9. Russia has a long tradition of drinking birch sap / juice (берёзовый сок)
It isn’t really an exclusively Russian thing but it is a really important, age-old tradition in Russia for people to collect birch tree sap around the month of April.
Birch trees are the really tall trees with white bark that you see all over the Russian landscape. Whether they’re green or covered in snow they’re absolutely beautiful.
They cut the bark and hang a bottle under it overnight to catch the sap which kind of looks like blue water.
It’s apparently packed full of nutrients and I’m told that Russians used to (perhaps still do) use it for medicinal purposes. Tastes good too. 🙂
10. Russia’s dilapidated buildings and infrastructure add to its charm
Here’s one thing I think is both a negative and in some ways also a charming feature of the Russian landscape.
Russia is full of old, delapidated buildings and infrastructure – much of which I’m sure is pre WW2 era in age.
Most of the apartment building exteriors for example look like uniform concrete boxes and you see broken playground equipment covered in rust with roads full of huge potholes everywhere.
I’m sure it would be a safety inspector’s worse nightmare. 🙂
I’ll never forget this one day I got an invitation to go to a children’s fun park in Kazan and the driver who was taking me pulled up out front of a crumbling old factory outside of town. I thought we might have been stopping for some other reason but he said, “Here we are. It’s inside.”
I was thinking, “This has to be a joke surely.” There was nothing on the outside of the building to indicate any kind of business was being run inside (let alone allowing children to play in it). It was a rotten old structure that should have been taped off and scheduled for demolition.
I went inside and couldn’t believe there were two amusement parks fully operational and a food court with a few restaurants.
Part of me thinks that it’s time Russia modernized its buildings and infrastructure but another part of me thinks that this is all beautiful and charming in its own unique way. It has character of its own. 🙂
11. Russian people are incredibly kind and hospitable
I’ve said this a few times already but I want to finish on this point again here.
In contrast to all the biased negativity that gets spun about Russia and the stereotypes of Russians being cold, unfriendly people I received some of the warmest hospitality I’ve ever experienced during my stay in Russia.
Ordinary people there are doing it tough – wages are low, prices are ridiculously high, and yet people always went out of their way time and time again to make me feel welcome (can’t say the same for the elite rich I mentioned above however).
The first friend I made in Russia was a girl who offered to help me go shoe shopping because she heard that I didn’t have boots in -30 degrees cold. She spent the day showing me around (entirely in Russian since she doesn’t speak English) and helping me out even though I was a complete stranger.
She ended up becoming my best friend in Kazan.
I experienced the same level of kindness and warmth from many people in both Kazan and Moscow who went to extraordinary lengths to help me when I needed it and make me feel welcome.
These people left a lasting positive impression of Russia on me and made me want to visit again.