“Common Sense” Ideas You Need to Abandon in Russia

Posted on 30. Oct, 2014 by in when in Russia

apartment building

Image by Nina on flickr.com

I don’t like appeals to the proverbial “common sense” in explanations. What is viewed as common varies vastly among individuals, not to mention groups of people. In this post I would like to concentrate on assumptions that we may take for granted outside Russia, especially in the Anglo-American world, that may not reflect Russian reality — or widely, sometimes incorrectly, held beliefs.

Apartments are for renters

Yes, you can rent an apartment/flat (снять квартиру) in Russia, as you would elsewhere. However, what is called apartment buildings in the US — blocks of apartments for rent belonging to one company — is virtually non-existent in Russia. Apartments are the predominant type of family housing in Russia.

This book snippet for Jane R. Zavisca’s Housing the New Russia summarizes the Russian housing system pretty accurately:

In 1992, the post-Soviet Russian government signed an agreement with the United States to create the Russian housing market. The vision of an American-style market guided housing policy over the next two decades. Privatization gave socialist housing to existing occupants, creating a nation of homeowners overnight. New financial institutions, modeled on the American mortgage system, laid the foundation for a market. Next the state tried to stimulate mortgages—and reverse the declining birth rate, another major concern—by subsidizing loans for young families.

Imported housing institutions, however, failed to resonate with local conceptions of ownership, property, and rights. Most Russians reject mortgages, which they call “debt bondage,” as an unjust “overpayment” for a good they consider to be a basic right. Instead of stimulating homeownership, privatization, combined with high prices and limited credit, created a system of “property without markets.” Frustrated aspirations and unjustified inequality led most Russians to call for a government-controlled housing market. Under the Soviet system, residents retained lifelong tenancy rights, perceiving the apartments they inhabited as their own. In the wake of privatization, young Russians can no longer count on the state to provide their house, nor can they afford to buy a home with wages, forcing many to live with extended family well into adulthood.

So, an apartment in a high-rise building is what you owe, rent, share with others, etc. Single-family houses are relatively rare and are often a luxury or a country home for the well to do. Therefore, more often than not квартира refers to a long-term dwelling rather than a rented one.

You mail will be delivered


Image from Adrian Clark on flickr.com

You can probably tell this is a favorite of mine since I mentioned it in passing here and here. We often take for granted the fact that anything mailed with a private or public postal company will safely make it to its destination. For instance, in the United States, utility and hospital bills, official documents, diplomas, and bank checks/cheques are sent by mail. People are certain that their mail will reach the recipient safely in a reasonable amount of time and will not be damaged or stolen in transit or in the mailbox. From what I know, the situation is similar in Europe.

Russian Post (Почта России) can be used for personal correspondence and for inexpensive gifts if you use tracking (отслеживание отправлений) and timing is not essential. As a result, most documents are applied for and received in person in Russia, for example, водительское удостоверение (driver’s license), паспорт (passport), or диплом (diploma). To be fair, some utility bills (счетаare delivered by mail, but then people try to make sure their mailbox (почтовый ящик) locks and cannot be rummaged or vandalized.

Doctors are male

I have written on gender dynamics in the workplace on this blog before. However, it is worth reiterating how ingrained the image of a male doctor (врач) and female nurse (медсестра – f, медбрат – m) is in most of the world — Russia being one of the notable exceptions.

What that means is that you should be prepared to been seen by a female physician for most specialties, including cardiologists (кардиолог), urologists (уролог), pulmonologists (пульмонолог), etc. with the possible exception of surgeons (хирург).

You can’t get a cold from drafts


Image by glasseyes view on flickr.com

Culture-bound attitudes to healthcare are a fascinating area of study. A particular area that comes to mind is the Russians’ constant fear of drafts (сквозняк) and cold temperatures. It’s particularly ironic because people tend to think Russians are used to and don’t mind cold weather (холод). However, the Russians’ response to cooler temperatures is to wear layers, hats, and gloves when their European counterparts would brave the weather.

The underlying notion in broadly defined Western medicine is the germ theory, which pretty much says that diseases are spread by microorganisms and the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to wash your hands and cover your mouth when you cough. While official Russian medicine subscribes to that outlook, it also somehow embraces the “draft theory” — the notion that head colds (простуда), inflammations, and infertility are caused by cold air, food, drinks, or surfaces.

Everyone speaks English

If you’ve ever been to Russia, you will know it’s not true, and I don’t need to convince you. It’s the Russia-neophytes I’d like to warn. Time and again, in my daily interactions with English speakers I hear things like “English is an (or the!) international language, everyone knows at least a little bit.” I’ve heard musicians tell me their lyrics are understood everywhere because English is apparently the international language of rock music. I’ve heard engineers say English screen captions on machines exported overseas are fine because everyone “can at least read it.”

Boy, are these people in for a surprise. Yes, English is the most commonly taught foreign language in Russia, so many will have taken it in school. However, some people will have taken French or German. In addition, even those who did take English rarely get to hear or practice it in their everyday lives. So, there are many people who know some English if it’s written down but will not understand spoken English. When students in Russia do take English, it is usually the UK variety, so people might not be able to parse an American’s accent or choice of words.

Are Russians Educated? Da!

Posted on 29. Oct, 2014 by in Culture, History

How many of you have gone to college? Finished college? You may be surprised to learn that Russia leads the world in having the highest percentage of college graduates. According to findings by the Organization for Economic and Co-Operative Development, 54 percent of Russians between the ages of 25 and 64 have at least an associates degree. In comparison, the United States, which used to be ranked number one, was listed in 12th place with just over 40 percent holding associate or higher degrees. Canada, Israel, and Japan were second, third, and fourth.

You may argue that it is easier to go to college in Russia than it is in the United States because of the lower tuition rates. If you attend a state higher education institution and are a Russian citizen, your tuition will be free. In rare cases, it may cost you a little. According to the College Board, the average annual cost of tuition in the U.S. in 2013 at public universities was between $8,893 for in-state residents and just over $22,000 for out-of-state residents. I am thankful I went to college before I moved here – it can prove very difficult to find that kind of money.

You may say that a good education comes with a price and a great education with an even higher price. According to The Times Higher Education University Rankings 2013-2014 rankings, there was not a single Russian university listed in the top 100, most of them being in the U.S. or United Kingdom. California Institute of Technology came in at number one, followed by Harvard and Oxford. Some may say that maybe a free education should not be cherished if the school is not great. Here is a link that you can use to see the rankings of various universities around the world:


Due to my being slightly biased, I would say that it is admirable that more Russians have attended and received degrees than any other country. Most of the people that have degrees in many countries, did not attend Harvard, Oxford, MIT, or any school on this list – though this is my opinion based upon simple observation. They attended schools, like many in Russia, that were satisfactory and in line with their goals, financial ability to pay, and previous academic accomplishments. In all fairness, most people could not get into many of these schools by design; Harvard would not be as prestigious if they admitted each applicant. In my opinion, it is admirable to have a degree, no matter which university or program it came from – a degree helps to demonstrate our commitment to finishing what we’ve started.

Russian Breakfast: Not What You’d Think?

Posted on 28. Oct, 2014 by in Culture, Russian food

One of the first things I noticed upon coming to America many years ago were the differences in what people ate for breakfast. The breakfast that I was used to eating could not easily be found – at first. Breakfast cereals seemed to be omnipresent. Visiting the local grocery store was interesting because there always seemed to be an entire aisle – sometimes on both sides – devoted to hot and cold cereals. When my husband first visited Russia, he automatically assumed that his breakfasts would include some selection of these cereals; he was surprised. It is worth noting that Americanized breakfasts can be found in hotels and resorts though.

During my life in Russia, I always had sandwiches and tea or coffee, for breakfast. The sandwiches consisted mainly of some variety of white bread or rye bread, butter, and whatever type of cheese or meat we could afford, mostly bologna or salami. The bologna we had, as well as the bread and cheese, were different from the Wonder Bread, Eckrich, and Kraft cheese varieties that seemed so prevalent in America. The white bread we ate was not soft and spongy – like so much of it here. The cheese we ate was usually a hard cheese, quite unlike Kraft Singles. It was not until I had been in America for a while that I found the right places to get similar breads and cheeses/meats for breakfast. As far as beverages went, it was not too difficult procuring a good black or green tea.

Russians typically do not eat anything sweet for breakfast – I am talking about breakfast cereals, pastries, and things like that. Fruit and juices can also be added to this list. Breads with some type of meat, like bologna or sausage are common. Children often eat a type of porridge made from semolina, which is essentially the same stuff that goes into cream of wheat; oatmeal is fairly common too. This is often sweetened and can be made with milk or water. On weekends, we would occasionally make eggs for breakfast. They could be cooked similarly to how people in America eat them. Some Russians like to eat theirs with mayonnaise; this never really appealed to me though.

When my husband and I first lived together, he thought that what I ate for breakfast was not very appetizing; in kind, I couldn’t eat those artificially flavored and sweetened breakfast cereals without complaining. After coming back from our first trip to Russia, he was a fan of our typical breakfast choice; in fact, he rarely eats cereal anymore. Never underestimate the power of a woman :-) !