What Does a Russian Look Like?

Posted on 31. Mar, 2015 by in History, Russian life, Soviet Union


Some people find it surprising to learn that I am Russian. “You just don’t look like somebody from Russia” – they say. It doesn’t offend me but it does make me want to say something like: “What do you know about Russians?” I don’t ever say that, instead I usually mumble something along the lines of: “Oh, I um…um…OK.” So, this post is my official opportunity to explain what a Russian person might look like.

First of all, the term Russian in itself is misleading to a lot of foreigners. What somebody from the former USSR associates with the term Russian and what somebody from the USA associates with the term Russian are two different things. People who were raised in and around the former USSR understand all the subtleties and complexities of the term Russian. I will try to address some of these subtleties and complexities in this post.

Let’s take the term American as an analogy. The term in its current interpretation implies someone who is either a Native American or is a citizen of the USA, whose roots can go back to anywhere in the world: Ireland, Germany, Mexico, Portugal, etc. The term Russian in its current interpretation is somewhat similar: it means that someone is either of Russian origin (their ancestors were Russian, at least to some degree) or that they are a Russian citizen whose origin can go back to any one of the former Soviet Republics or to one of the many lands that are or were owned by Russia. I would dare say that pure Russians would be extremely hard to find these days due to the sheer number of peoples that coexisted on Russian lands for many years. Despite the fact that some of them desperately try to preserve the purity of their people, migrations and mixed marriages did and do exist, perpetuating further mixing of the bloods. Each and every one of the former Soviet Republics represents a people with distinct physical features and cultural heritage. For example, peoples from the Caucasus region, such as Armenians and Georgians, typically have dark curly or wavy hair, dark brown eyes, olive skin, and more prominent noses; on the other hand, the Byelorussian people tend to have light hair, blue eyes, fair skin; the people of Udmurt Republic (which is a part of Russia) typically have red hair, a lot of freckles, and wider shoulders. I can go on and on about other peoples and nationalities that are or were a part of Russia at one time or another but my point is that all these people were and still are shaping the way an average Russian looks today. Let’s briefly look at my family tree. My grandparents on my mother’s side are from Zaporozhia (currently Ukraine, part of former USSR), they moved to Orenburg, Russia when they were young; they have dark hair and brown eyes. My grandmother on my father’s side was born in Russia from a German family who were a part of the German settlement; she had blond hair and blue eyes; my dad’s dad originates from a family of Don Cossacks; he has dark hair and brown eyes, they both met in Orenburg when they were young. …Eventually my mom and dad (who both have dark hair, light green eyes, and pale skin) had me. I have dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. Orenburg has a fair amount of Asian people from Kazakhstan because it is right on the border. Had my mom married a person from Kazakhstan, I would have been half-Asian, but… still Russian.

The bottom line here is this:

-Russia is still a very big country that houses more than one people

-In the not so distant past Russia was an even bigger country that housed even more peoples who migrated and mixed all the time

-You can become Russian in 2 ways: by being born in Russia or by moving to Russia and acquiring Russian citizenship.

-After the collapse of the USSR, some people chose to emphasize their origin (they say they are Armenian because they are of Armenian descent, even if their passport says Russian), while other people chose to emphasize their citizenship (they say they are Russian because that is what their passport says even if they are of Kazakh or Turkmen descend, which means they belong to the Asian race).

Now, with all of this in mind, what do you think a Russian person might look like?

Всего хорошего! 

Ways to Be Frustrated in Russian

Posted on 30. Mar, 2015 by in language


Image by Brandon Grasley on flickr.com

You might have thought from the title that this post is a continuation of our pet peeves discussion. However, I would actually like to talk about the ways annoying behavio(u)r is described in colloquial Russian. Most of these words have a different primary meaning but are used colloquially in unexpected ways.

1. Па́рить

steamy teapot

Image from unsplash.com

Па́рить comes from пар (steam) and means, broadly defined, to treat something with steam. Don’t confuse this word with пари́ть (to float, to glide). Па́рить can be used in collocation with о́вощи (to steam vegetables) or но́ги (to give your feet a steam bath). Па́рить (-ся or noun in accusative) в ба́не describes visiting a banya, a traditional Russian steam bath.

The slang meaning of па́рить is to annoy someone, to tell something or ask for something in a tedious, cumbersome manner. Sometimes this also appears as “парить мозги.” Example from the Russian National Corpus: Не бу́ду тебя́ па́рить техни́ческими подро́бностямиони́ приме́рно одина́ковы у телефо́нов э́того кла́сса (I won’t annoy you with specs — they are more or less the same for all phones in this class).

2. Грузи́ть

Грузи́ть is to load; think of the word for cargo — груз. Гру́зчик is a porter — one that actually carries or loads and unloads things, not the hotel doorman. If someone is very tired, you can jokingly ask her/him if they ваго́ны разгружа́л(а) — unloaded train cars.

What does any of this have to do with being annoying? Грузи́ть is used colloquially to say that someone’s is testing your patience with their problems, by sharing something convoluted, or otherwise demanding attention from you.

Example from the Russian Nationa Corpus: Здоро́вье Бори́са Никола́евича не позволя́ло «грузи́ть» его́ дли́нными те́кстами (Boris Nikolayevich’s [presumably Yeltsin’s] health didn’t allow us to overload him with long texts).

3. Достава́ть

Достава́ть literally means to reach something or to obtain something. For example, “Ребёнок не достаёт до ве́рхней по́лки” means “The child can’t reach the top shelf,” and “Он где́-то доста́л биле́ты на конце́рт Мадо́нны” is “He managed to get tickets to Madonna’s concert somewhere.”

The metaphor for the slang meaning is getting to someone. So, to say you’d just had it with your job you can say “Рабо́та доста́ла.” It is often used to talk about people:

Я всего́ ме́сяц рабо́тала в компа́нии, и шеф доста́л меня́ со свои́ми приди́рками (I only worked for this company for a month, and my boss wouldn’t leave me alone with his knocks).

4. Выноси́ть мозг

Last but not least, I’d like to share an expression that brings a compelling image to mind. Выноси́ть is, of course, to take out or carry out: из до́ма вы́несли всю ме́бель (all furniture was removed from the house). A homonym of this word — also выноси́ть — is to bear or take something: мой отец не выно́сит э́той му́зыки (my father cannot stand this music).

Выноси́ть мозг literally means “to carry out someone’s brain.” The imagery here is that someone is overloading you so much with their convoluted problems or explanations (cf. грузи́ть) that it feels like your brain is being taken out of your head.

В э́то вре́мя мне упо́рно на́чали выноси́ть мозг, о том кака́я она́ молоде́ц (Around that time they started beating into me the idea of how great she was). The corresponding noun phrase is вы́нос мо́зга.

There are, or course, numerous other ways of talking about getting someone’s goat, some of them quite vulgar. I hope next time you come across one of these expressions it will make a little more sense. As always, feel free to share your examples below.

First time in Russia? Добро пожаловать! (Part 2)

Posted on 25. Mar, 2015 by in General reference article, when in Russia

You finally get to your hotel and your adrenaline is the only thing keeping you awake because you’ve now been up for more than 24 hours. You check in and get your visa registered as required by law. Thankfully the Intercontinental Hotel staff are able to arrange this for you – sometimes this is free and other times it isn’t depending upon where you stay.

Once you both have had a chance to shower and change clothes you are off to explore Moscow! Being that you’ve been sitting for most of the last several hours and your experience with the cab, you decide to walk. When you checked in, the concierge suggested making copies of your passport and visa to keep in your wallet just in case you get stopped by police – you were half listening due to your fatigue mixed with excitement and didn’t take their advice. In Russia, you must always carry your passport on you – a copy will not save you from getting fined but it can serve as temporary proof that you have one. Should you lose your official passport and visa, good luck. Also, make sure you’ve already exchanged your currency for rubles – preferably small denominations.

Since it is evening you first need to eat dinner. As you are walking around you notice a McDonald’s store and a Kentucky Fried Chicken – it’s tempting to eat there but you want something else. Since the Cafe Pushkin is close by, you decide to go there to eat. Once inside the Cafe Pushkin, you’re immediately impressed with the 19th Century-style decor. The wait staff speak English and are happy to take your picture. You decide to order Borsch because you’ve always heard about it but never tried it. The waiter recommends it because you say your are going to be out late and it will help to hydrate you – it will also be a good food to consume the day after. Both you and your friend also decide to order a vodka to celebrate this monumental occasion. You are still so excited that you are actually here and the euphoria will not soon depart. Everything is new and exciting to you; even the bathrooms are somewhat memorable.

By the time you’ve eaten and had a few beverages you are feeling great. Your bill comes and you notice that the total seems quite high and since you’ve no idea how to convert rubles to dollars, you ask the waiter for help. He is happy to help you and you figure out that your bill comes to about $70 per person. The waiter goes on to explain that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities to live in and visit. Fortunately, you don’t need to leave a large tip since waiters make decent wages – you still leave about 300 Rubles. Between the cab and dinner, you’ve put a small dent in your funds so you decide to go back to the hotel – you’re going to be here for a week and can’t go broke on the first night.

The following day you and your friend want to go to the Kremlin. After all, not going to see it would be like visiting Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower. Rather than going in the Kremlin right away, you decide to walk around the perimeter, see Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and Lenin’s Tomb. All of these attractions are worth every penny. As you gaze at Red Square you imagine the May Day parades that have passed by and how Stalin, Khrushchev, and more have been in this very place watching the awesome display of Soviet military might. As you are furiously snapping photos with your smart phone, you hear a voice that sounds as if its directed at you. Turning to look in the direction its coming from, you see a police officer looking directly at you while he approaches.

“Can I please see your passports?” You reach into your pocket and hand him your passport. Fortunately, the whole document checking procedure is over with in just a few minutes.  

By the end of the day, you’ve seen some beautiful historic sites, eaten some great authentic Russian cuisine, paid top dollar for a matryoshka because the seller figured out you weren’t Russian, and had a great time. Also, you’ve spent a good deal of money. Before you came to Russia, you didn’t really do your homework. You figured that because the ruble is weak compared to the dollar right now, it would go a long way. Proper planning and a little research could have saved you some of money during your first 24 hours in Moscow.

On that note, here are a few tips to make your first trip to Moscow better and possibly less expensive:

1. Keep your passport in a safe but easily accessible place. You might have to show your passport more than you anticipated. Any Russian policeman can ask you to show your documents.
It might not be a bad idea to make copies of your documents in case they get lost or stolen. Copies will not replace the originals but might make the situation easier to handle.
2. Always exchange money at authorized exchange points.
3. Never accept invitations from taxi drivers who seem to swarm in and around train stations and airport terminals. Always go to the authorized taxi stand present at all train stations and airports and place your order through them.
You can also take the Aeroexpress train to and from the airport but let’s face it, this option is not the best if you have luggage or small children, or both. If you want door to door service, you will have to take a cab.
4.  When planning your trip, check hotel reviews on trusted travel sites, then book your hotel through hotels.com, travelocity.com or a similar site. Booking directly through the hotel’s website seems to be more expensive, at least in my experience.
5. Look for a hotel that includes breakfast.
6. When shopping for souvenirs, keep in mind that hotel/airport gift shops will have the highest prices. If you come across a sore off the beaten path, it might be a bit cheaper. Also consider visiting Staryi Arbat (Старый Арбат) – an old pedestrian area of Moscow filled with souvenir vendors, food vendors, street performers and artists. While it is not the cheapest place to buy souvenirs, you can always try to negotiate the price.
7. Beware of pickpockets. Always.
8. If you really want to stick to American food, there is McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, etc. I urge you, however, to venture out of your comfort zone and try Russian cuisine, you won’t regret it.
9. Figure out which places you would like to visit ahead of time and check admission prices and schedule.
10. Enjoy your stay!