Voices from Russia

Monday, 9 April 2012

Reflections on Russia Over a Pasty


The cashier at the currency exchange at Heathrow airport picked up my roubles, looked at them with barely disguised disgust, and said, “So, how was it in Russia?” I told him, “It’s OK”, not really being in the mood for an in-depth discussion of life in Moscow and beyond. He said, “I’m Polish. We hate Russians”. He smiled, as if I was supposed to give him a badge, or something. I said, “OK”. I’d found myself short of cash with no bankcard, and simply wanted him to change the roubles I’d had in my pocket into useable funds. I really didn’t need to know about his prejudices. Probing further, he continued, “So, is it dangerous in Russia?” I replied, “Not really, only for…”, wanting for a moment to say “Poles”, but I stopped myself at the last moment. After all, the massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet secret police and the death of President Lech Kaczyński in a 2010 air crash in Russia aren’t really joking matters… no matter how much you’d like to wipe the grin off a Pole’s face. The persistent Pole asked, “Dangerous only for who?” not suspecting how close he was to having been mortally offended. “Foreigners?” he suggested, almost salivating at the prospect of having all his conceptions confirmed. I thought about that for a few seconds. Is Russia dangerous for foreigners? Well, I guess if your skin is the wrong colour and you find yourself in the wrong place… then, yes… it most certainly is, no arguing with that. Or, if you’re a businessman who falls afoul of the authorities, in some cases.

However, a brief perusal of the news here… plane crashes, police brutality, heartless child murders, and much more… should be enough to convince anyone that, in fact, Russia’s dangerous, in the first place, and in the first order, for Russians. Foreigners are just a bonus. Therefore, I told him that. He didn’t look too happy with my answer, but he’d already counted out my cash, and I was off on my merry way to buy a pasty or two, leaving the now perturbed Pole behind. All the same, he’d got me thinking about misconceptions and myths of Russia. As well as, well, sheer ignorance. For example, when I first visited Russia in the 1990s, I bought a copy of the now discontinued three-in-one Lonely Planet Guide to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. A friend watching me pack for my first visit to the land of Lev Yashin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky asked me, “Why did you get that edition? You aren’t going to that area of Russia, are you?” I mean, I guess it’s an easy enough mistake to make if you don’t care, but how, I wondered, could anyone think the Ukraine and Belarus were areas of Russia, rather than newly independent ex-Soviet republics? The answer is… no one cares that much. Russia’s big and far away and unless you are going to get all obsessive about it, there’s not that much to know. It’s cold, they have dictators, they used to be commies, it’s cold, and… yeah… it’s dangerous for foreigners.

Of course, Russians also have misconceptions about the way the West views them. Or, more accurately, some of them have made at least one pretty accurate self-fulfilling prediction over the years. For instance, one of the things that puzzled me about Russians when I first got here was the fairly widespread… at least in the circles I moved in… belief that “people don’t like Russians much, abroad”. I’d never really noticed. In fact, most people I knew back home were really curious about Russians and all things Russian. Dislike didn’t come into it. Besides, there weren’t really that many Russians living in England back then (of course, I can’t speak for attitudes in New York, for example). Still, anyway, the belief seemed way off mark. Then, at least. On the other hand, as oligarchs, gangsters, and New Russians flocked into London, it’d be true to say that, yes, attitudes amongst some people did change. A certain dislike for the easy cash being thrown about. Nevertheless, there’s another misconception for you right there… most Russians aren’t oligarchs, gangsters, or diamond-festooned biznessmeny. I thought all this while chewing a British pasty… my first in my homeland for almost six months. Then, I started on my second, closing my mind to further thought so as not to spoil the mood… and chewed.

9 April 2012

Marс Bennetts



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