As someone whose parents grew up in the former Soviet Union, I’ve heard my share of Putin jokes and references to communism. When people find out that I’m a first-generation Russian-American who speaks fluent Russian, they generally tend to ask one of two things: do I love the cold? (yes) and do I drink a lot of vodka? (no). I always laugh because I know that the friends who joke around with me about Russians mean no harm. But I feel like there are real misconceptions about Russian culture and society that portray them as grim and unfriendly and portray Russia as a desolate wasteland — and if anything, my trip to Russia over spring break was about breaking down those stereotypes.
I joined Professor Tatiana Akishina and a group of 19 USC students for the “Trans-Siberian Experience,” a course that introduces students to Russian culture and language, preparing them to travel through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway for spring break. Professor Akishina explained that traveling by train would allow us to interact with Russians in an informal setting as well as attempt to understand why the figure of the train has had such a strong presence in Russian history and storytelling. For me, it was also about exploring a part of the world that I felt a deep connection to but knew little about. What I found was that spending four days on a train moving east from Moscow to Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Baikal in the heart of Siberia, was an exercise in companionship. The train cars are divided into rooms called kupes, or compartments; I shared mine with three strangers, all of whom I saw (at first) as dauntingly austere.
All I had ever known about Russians came from my parents, who are obligated to love me and thus, didn’t give me much material to know what to expect of Russian behavior. When it came to actual people who lived in Russia, I had no guarantees that they wouldn’t turn out to be exactly as American stereotypes portrayed them: unsmiling and cold. The fact that we spoke the same language wasn’t, at first, of that much help; the way I saw it, our cultural divide was too great to become friends while we traveled over 5,000 kilometers together. I didn’t know how to begin to approach someone who might not be willing to talk to me or might resent the fact that I was an American.
All of this changed when, despite my nervousness, I began to converse with Russians on the train, and I learned more about the travelers in my kupe and helped translate for the USC students in my group who didn’t speak Russian. My first night in the train, Lena in the bed across from me invited me to share food and drinks with her to celebrate her son’s wedding, and we talked late into the night about our respective lives in Siberia and America. Maxim in the kupe next door seemed reserved at first, but as I asked him more questions, he began to open up and converse enthusiastically; at the end, he offered me a taste of his salo, a type of traditional Slavic cured pork. When I visited the travelers sharing kupes with my USC friends, I couldn’t leave without fistfuls of candy that they insisted I take back.
There are two unifying themes here. First, Russians embrace a sharing culture; every interaction I had with them involved some sort of exchange of food or drink, which was not only appreciated but also assumed. We all pooled our resources together and conversed around the table because each person could have more when sharing with others rather than keeping to him or herself — this concept is ingrained in the Russian identity.
And second, the stereotype about Russians being cold and unsmiling is only true so far as first appearances go. A Russian university student I spoke with in Irkutsk said it best when she explained why Russians don’t smile at strangers: “Americans smile all the time, so we can’t tell when they’re being sincere. Russians only smile when they truly like a person, so you know that they mean it.” The Russians I spoke to were all willing to converse with me at length about everything from politics to pop culture, but it took proving to them that I was really interested.
There’s a takeaway here, and it may seem obvious: don’t judge a book by its cover. But no matter how cliche the concept of keeping an open mind may be, especially when traveling, the truth is that it can be easy to get tunnel vision without actively pursuing new experiences that challenge one’s dominant worldview. Nothing is ever black and white, and I found that even the Siberian snow and dirt comes in shades of gray.