Reflections From An American in Russia

As an American who grew up during the tail end of the Cold War, it was difficult to avoid developing a few stereotypes about Russia. And from Rocky Balboa’s Russian rival Ivan Drago to the nefarious Rocky and Bullwinkle ‘toon Boris Badenov, who can blame me? Could Russia really be how it’s portrayed in popular culture–or how I imagined it?

Now that I’ve been living in Sochi for nearly a month, let’s examine four preconceived notions I brought with me along with my luggage–and how they’ve panned out:

1. Russia is cold.

Russia is a big country that occupies a good chunk of the northern hemisphere, so parts of it are going to be cold. Especially in February. But could the whole country be so cold?  Here’s a photo from a few days ago:

(Photograph by David DiGregorio)
Queens in February 2014 (Photograph by Chandra DiGregorio)

Wow, frigid, right? Turns out that’s actually Queens, New York, where it’s been snowing nearly every day since I’ve been gone. While it has barely crawled above freezing back at home, I’ve been enjoying temperatures in the 60s (F) here in Sochi. And there are palm trees. Just like in America, it can be tropical in one place, and absolutely freezing in another. That’s what happens when you’re talking about two of the top five countries in the world in terms of sheer land mass. One down, three to go.

(Photograph by David DiGregorio)
Not all of Russia is frozen. Here’s Exhibit A, in Sochi.(Photograph by David DiGregorio)

2. Russians hate Americans.

Sure, Americans have a good laugh at Russia’s expense every now and again, but would you really dislike a person you met just because they were Russian? Of course not. This feeling goes both ways. Rivalries in politics, technology, and sports aside, at the end of the day, we’re all just people.

During my time here I’ve found that Russians have an unexpected soft spot for Americans. I have not experienced any negativity upon identifying my nationality; on the contrary, Russians seem even more interested in me when they learn I’m American. Everyone here is eager to practice their English and, all jokes aside, I think both Americans and Russians have a mutual respect for one another as a people.

3. Russians aren’t friendly.

Well, it’s all how you look at it.

In America, we are superficially nice to one other. We smile at strangers, ask people in the service profession how they’re doing, and hand out a “Have a great day” at the drop of a hat. But do we really mean any of these things? Not literally, most of the time. We’ve adopted these pleasantries to be polite, to grease the social wheel.

While you shouldn’t expect this kind of behavior in kind from Russians, that doesn’t mean they aren’t friendly. They’re just more deliberate about their emotions. When a Russian offers a smile or takes interest in you, it’s because he or she really means it. The more time I spent there, the more I realized how rarely Americans actually mean what they say. My encounters with Russians, on the other hand, have been nothing but genuine. In fact, several people here have gone above and beyond for me in ways that no American I know ever would have.

4. Russian food is gross.

(Photograph by David DiGregorio)
The food is good, just not very flavorful. (Photograph by David DiGregorio)

I had really hoped to dispel this one with tales and photographs of the fabulous culinary delights I’ve enjoyed here. But after a month in Sochi, I can’t quite say that’s the case. The food definitely isn’t bad; it just lacks the variety that many Americans may be used to. That’s my biggest issue with it, at least. At home, I eat a lot of Japanese, Thai, Indian, and Mexican food. “Ethnic cuisine” just doesn’t exist here, and it tends to disappoint when it does.

If you like meats, heavy grains, and serious soups (staples here include buckwheat, raviolis filled with meat, and, of course, borscht) you’ll love Russian food. But if you prefer flavorful sauces, strong spices, and loads of international options, you may find the pickings bland.

The Verdict

Russia may not be the easiest place to adjust to, at least for Westerners like me, but that’s a big part of what makes it so fascinating. In Sochi, the simplest of tasks may prove difficult and the prideful behavior of the people may come off as arrogant. But once you peel back the layers, you begin to discover that Russia has more to offer than you could have ever imagined.

David DiGregorio is a travel industry professional, co-editor of the travel blog Style Hi Club, and author of How to Work in Travel. His adventures have taken him to 70 different countries, often with his family in tow. Follow David on Twitter @Darodi.

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  1. Anatoliy
    Russia, khabarovsk
    April 30, 2014, 7:30 pm

    Hello Thank you for your objectivity reviews for our country, thank you for an unbiased opinion! Indeed, we are very welcoming and friendly people, but there are exceptions, like everywhere else. The climate in our country is very different, then you need to look by region) I apologize for the technical translation

  2. Nic Hilditch-Short
    March 4, 2014, 7:06 am

    This is so very true, Russia is an amazing and surprising country. I found it was actually pretty warm when I visited Moscow in September and the people helpful and approachable, and the food, amazing! Russia is definitely worth seeing and experiencing, I bet it would challenge most peoples preconceptions. I look forward to returning to do the Transiberian in a few years.

  3. David DiGregorio
    February 26, 2014, 4:52 pm

    Thanks so much for these comments Elliott! I appreciate it. Russia gets an unnecessarily bad wrap. I’m glad to hear you are enjoying living there.

  4. Elliott Morrow
    St. Petersburg, Russia
    February 26, 2014, 4:17 am

    I’m an American who moved to Russia in June, so it has been about 8-9 months now. I was skeptical when I read that the author had only been in Russia for a month, and in Sochi. But actually his observations are spot on. I have to agree 100% with him, but after a few more months he would start dreading eating Russian food more and more because of the monotony. A couple other big things he could have mentioned is the girls really are crazy beautiful (but maybe this isn’t suitable for “intelligent travel”) and many subscribe to conspiracy theories (not most, but a lot more than in the US), many many really do want to go see the US, but they don’t all necessarily want to live in another country (although many do), they probably aren’t more racist or less politically correct than anywhere else, but they are a lot less afraid of voicing it. I love living in Russia so far, if only wages were better I might stay here longer. The main problem for me besides wages is the food, and innovation/variety of things to do. It can get a little boring.