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
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 (счета) are 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
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.