A Very Russian Temperament

by Harriet Buckley, Russian and Czech:-

Despite the fact that I studied Russian for the majority of my time at school and then at university, I had never actually been to Russia until my year abroad and had never met any “real” Russians. Sometimes people in the UK are too quick to judge Russians by their outwardly frosty behaviour instead of trying to understand why they might be like that. I always try to be open-minded about the people in any country I visit and Russia was no exception. I was even more conscious of the fact that I love Russia and all things Russian and so was determined that I had to like the people too.


It is well known that whilst Russians are unfriendly to strangers, they will treat you like a king if they invite you into their house or are your friend. I found this to be overwhelmingly true. I was treated like a celebrity in the small provincial city that I lived in. It seemed like everyone wanted to know who I was and wanted to hear about Oxford, Harry Potter and, of course, the Royal Family. A lot of the students thought that having an English friend was the bee’s knees, especially when I was quite literally the only native English speaking person in the city. I even acquired Russian parents, the head of the International Department and his wife took me under their wing, bought me tickets for the ballet, took me cross country skiing and taught me their family blini (pancake) recipe. I was well and truly overwhelmed by how friendly and willing everyone was to help.


On the reverse side of this were the strangers I encountered on the street. It is entirely true that Russian people do not smile at strangers on the street. A friend once told me that the only people who smile at strangers are creepy old men who are leering at pretty young girls. However, it is not because these people are inherently miserable and unfriendly, it is just the way they are. The climate inevitably plays a huge role in this, six months of snow and temperatures that fall to -50 does not exactly create a smiley atmosphere. History also contributes to this. I won’t go into much detail but years of oppression and the current ever widening gap between the rich and everyone else means that Russians often have very little to smile about. The lack of smiles does not mean that people are unfriendly. They just won’t smile at you when they’re telling you how bold you are to tackle the Petersburg Metro with two suitcase and a rucksack or helping you carry said suitcases up numerous flights of stairs. I never felt that strangers were rude or unkind to me as I struggled around various cities.

Once I had visited both Petersburg, Moscow and Yekaterinburg, and had lived in Perm for five months I came to the conclusion that the Russians and the British are more similar than either side would care to admit. The British, by nature, do not smile at strangers on the street, we do help people with luggage or pushchairs on the Underground, we like a drink and we are far more reserved than either the Americans or Australians. Perhaps this is why more than 200,000 Russians now live in London. They feel more comfortable here because the British temperament is more akin to their own. All I could say was that I always felt comfortable in Russia and that I came to consider it my home, a very cold version of home but one more familiar than I could ever have imagined.


It’s been quite a year for Harriet, who before living in Russia was working in the Czech Republic for the first half of her year abroad. We hopefully look forward to her sharing of these experiences in another article soon, but for now check out what she got up to in her blog, From Moravia to the Urals.

For more tales from Russia, try Lewis Spring’s account of the fall of the Rouble rate this year in Roubles aren’t worth peanuts almonds.