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5 Russian Stereotypes Other Than Winter, Vodka and Bears Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in Culture, General reference article, when in Russia


In the middle of the winter, a group of young foreigners travels across Russia searching for Russian women, Russian vodka and Russian bears. Nope, this is not a sequel to Особенности национальной охоты (Peculiarities of the National Hunt) movie. Instead, it is this year’s Cinetrain documentary project.

The twenty four filmmakers participating in it are filming movies based on стереотипы (stereotypes) about Russia, including “snow, ice, vodka, colossal landscapes, Russian women and Lada cars”.

After reading about this project on Russia Beyond the Headlines, I got to think about a different kind of  Russian stereotypes, the ones Russians have about themselves and Russia.

1. Умом Россию не понять – Russia cannot be understood by mind alone…

This opening line from a четверостишие (four-line poem) by Fyodor Tyutchev might be the most often-quoted phrase from the entire corpus of Russian classical literature. Russians use it when they don’t want to explain why something is done the way it’s done. Instead, they chalk it up to особенности менталитета (peculiarities of the mindset).

Почему в России до сих пор отмечают Новый год и по новому и по старому стилю? Потому, что умом Россию не понять.
(Why do Russians still celebrate the New Year according to both the new and the old calendars? That’s because Russia cannot be understood by mind alone.)

2. Что русскому хорошо, то немцу смерть – What’s good for a Russian, is death for a German

Keep in mind that “German” here is собирательный образ (a generalized character) applied to any foreigner. Russians believe that particular Russian experiences are incomprehensible to or unendurable by foreigners, including баня (Russian sauna), рыбалка (fishing), and driving in Moscow.

3. Русский язык – самый богатый в мире – Russian language is the richest of world languages

There is no doubt, the good ol’ великий могучий (great and mighty) Russian language packs some serious descriptive power. Just think of the infinite variety of diminutives, a bewildering array of meaning-altering suffixes and prefixes, and the multi-storied poetry of русский мат (Russian obscenities).

Examples are the classic and highly cryptic answer of “да нет, наверное” and stories such as this one “Подходит один хрен, берёт эту хрень и начинает этой хренью хреначить, только вот нахрен? И хреново и всем похрену.” If you understand the gist of it, demand an A+ in your Russian class.

4. Россияне – самый читающий народ в мире – Russians are the most well-read people in the world

I’ve always had my doubts about this one. In the times of повальный дефицит (epidemic shortages) of everything, Russian readers’ hunger for books was never satisfied. But that was probably because of the said shortages as well as the readers’ appetites. Now there’s изобилие (an abundance) of books of all sorts. The above stereotype does not clarify whether качество (quality) matters as much as количество (quantity).

5. Русские женщины – самые красивые в мире – Russian women are the most beautiful in the world

Whether you believe it or not depends on your personal definition of beauty. After all, as we say, на вкус и цвет товарища нет (the beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Some циники (cynics) might even say нет некрасивых женщин, есть мало водки (there are no unattractive women, there is not enough vodka). What’s undeniable is that Russian women always try to look their hottest, keeping in mind the old adage встречают по одёжке, провожают по уму (you are judged on your appearance first and on your mind last).

What other stereotypes about Russia and the Russians can you think of?

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  1. Bob:

    #3 – If the number of verbs of motion (and their prefixes and suffixes) is any indication of language richness, Russian definitely has a leg up on most other languages.

    #4 – During my trips to St. Petersburg in 2006 and 2007, I would spend an entire day checking out the bookstores in the city. There was one particular bookstore on Nevsky Prospect (I think it was Dom Knigi) which was massive – and always packed with people. In addition to books, there was a huge magazine section as well. There’s definitely been a publishing boom since the breakup of the USSR – simply browsing kniga.com or bolero.ru or bookvoed.ru should prove that to you.
    I can’t comment too much on content quality – most of my books are scientific and technical, so there’s not much wiggle room between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

    #5 – I can personally attest to the stunning beauty of Russian women. During my two visits to St Petersburg I had several dates with some amazing women – smart, cultured, and drop-dead gorgeous.
    Your comment about Russian women always wanting to look their best is spot on! During my first trip to St. Petersburg, I was taking a walk one morning (actually walking down Vladimirsky Prospect from my hotel to “Кофе Хаус” for the galaxy’s best hot chocolate!) It has snowed a few inches the night before, and there were some workers on top a building pushing snow off the roof onto the street below. The area around the building had been cordoned off, and supervising the whole thing was a woman who appeared to be in her mid-30s, dressed like she was just about to go clubbing (complete makeup, rather short skirt & high heels, in about 30F degree weather!). How did I know she was in charge? She was wearing one of those hideous florescent orange vests you see highway workers wear 🙂 I wish I’d had my camera. . .

  2. John:

    Well if you look at films, especially depiction by Hollywood, the crazy scientist is normally played by a Russian; crazy and brilliant I think is another stereotype but this stereotype also comes from the real world, e.g. Perelman, etc.

    Also Russia is strongly associated with great chess players and that many Russians play and are good at chess.

  3. Throbert McGee:

    “Подходит один хрен, берёт эту хрень и начинает этой хренью хреначить, только вот нахрен? И хреново и всем похрену.”

    I remember once commenting on a Russian/English forum that “Al Qaeda has been blowing sh!t up for years” — and a Russian asked me in sincere shock: “Do you really think that the World Trade Center was sh!t?” In other words, he was unaware that the “S-word” isn’t always pejorative, but can be used in a totally neutral way, meaning “things” or “stuff” or “assorted random items you don’t know the correct names for”.

    And to me, the word хрен presents the same sort of problem; I assume that it’s USUALLY negative, but perhaps not always. So I’m confused about the “overall gist” of that sentence, even though I know some of the expressions individually. (For instance, I assume that всем похрену is more or less the same as всем всё равно — “everyone is indifferent”; “no one gives a damn”.)

  4. Throbert McGee:

    Русские женщины – самые красивые в мире – Russian women are the most beautiful in the world

    There’s certainly no shortage of beautiful women in Russia, but this reminds me of a stereotype that probably isn’t true any longer. I recall that in the early ’90s, many Russian women would apply their eye-makeup with an extremely heavy hand — sometimes giving the impression of a silent-movie heroine from a Charlie Chaplin film.

    It didn’t bother me, since I’m a guy and no one was pressuring ME to use more eye-shadow, liner, and mascara. But it was a bitter point for a lot of the American girls I knew! (Because Russian women would tell them “Oh, you’d look so pretty if only you used more around your eyes” — and the American girls would mutter under their breath about “raccoons” and “sure, if I wanted to look like Divine from Pink Flamingos“…)

    But that seems to be a fashion that’s fallen out of favor!

  5. Throbert McGee:

    But a more positive stereotype: сбор грибов — “gathering [wild] mushrooms”. Specifically, urbanized Russians who know how to do this without dying!

    Most Americans would never dare try, and it’s especially surprising to meet a city dweller has the skill to tell the mushrooms from the toadstools.

  6. christian:

    Русский язык – самый богатый в мире – This mere claim gives reason for the prejudice,that Russians are chauvinists.But i suppose,that word comes from the former predominance of french in the upper class.On the other hand,Russian lacks for proper verbs for riding or closing vs. opening.And when it comes to technical questions,its awfully complicated.
    сбор грибов – Russians are not so worried about their life,there are many people empoissoned by mushrooms.

  7. alexyeh09@gmail.com:

    good~ like this!

  8. Rob:

    I was just reading through a list of Russian пословицы/поговорки and it reminded me of another (self-)stereotype:

    Русский человек задним умом крепок. — “Russians tend to be wisest after the fact” or “Russians have 20/20 hindsight” (More literally, “A Russian person is strong in afterthought.”)

    And perhaps my very favorite self-deprecating stereotype that Russians have about themselves: СССР/Россия — родина слонов! — “The USSR/Russia is the motherland of elephants!”

    As a native “Pindostanian,” I find it very endearing that Russians poke fun at themselves in this way, because the We Invented Elephants mentality is a stereotypical flaw of Americans, too. (We assume that television was a purely American innovation, and that “G.I. Joe” singlehandedly defeated the Nazis in WWII, etc.)

  9. Rob:

    P.S. The phrase задним умом крепок (“having plenty of hindsight [but lacking foresight]”) can be used by itself, too — with the short-form adjective крепок being changed as necessary to agree with the subject in gender/number: она задним умом крепка, мы задним умом крепки.

  10. Rob:

    By the way, IMHO, the “Russian” man in that Family Guy clip very definitely has a stereotypical American body under his coat! (Of course there are fat Russians, but they seem to put on their excess weight at a comparatively later age than fat Americans do.)

  11. Tatiana:

    “встречают по одёжке, провожают по уму (you are judged on your appearance first and on your mind last).”

    Встретили меня по одежке, проводили тоже плохо.

  12. PiperBernadotte:

    “On the other hand,Russian lacks for proper verbs for riding or closing vs. opening.”
    ride – Eздить
    ride a horse – Eздить верхOм
    We have also a verb “тыгыдымить”, but it is very new word. =)
    closing – закрытие, закрывание, замыкание
    opening – открытие, открывание and опенинг (opening title in movies, anime or shows – specifically OST)
    ending – окончание, завершение and эндинг (final title in movies, anime or shows – specifically OST)
    Sorry for my bad English.((

  13. PiperBernadotte:

    Сбор грибов is the same thing that admire the blooming sakura for Japanese – strange activity understandable only to those who does it. Wild mushrooms is very delicious and healthy snacks. It is very difficult to make a mistake non-poisonous and poisonous mushrooms. Really.
    And any mushrooms is edible, but some of them – only one time)))

  14. Gavrusha:

    Married for 15 years now to my beautiful Russian wife. I worship the ground she walks on, and regularly give thanks to her parents, God and all the Saints for bringing her into my life. Our children got my smarts, her levelheadedness and the best mixture of both our looks. SHe makes life a heaven on earth for me.

    Spacibo, my darling Alionushka!

  15. EvoKrasavitsa:

    Yelena, I think your articles are amazing! I teach Russian and use them all the time to augment my classroom material. They really help me, since I am not a native, to give my students a broader depth of understanding. Thanks so much; keep up the great work! -Alexandra

  16. catbehemoth:

    Пока гром не грянет, мужик не перекрестится.
    A Peasant Needs Thunder to Cross Himself and Wonder.
    It’s a proverb, but very good at describing a stereotypical russian man. Unless a problem appears right on front of him, he won’t move a finger. Or his wife must start yelling at him=).

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