Why are movie villains so often Russians? the BBC (international version), asked recently, citing well known characters from James Bond and films like Eastern Promises. Even when Russians are not actively portrayed as evil, the stereotype that they are stony-faced and hard to read is as common as the expectation that Germans are efficient. (And I can promise that that’s not always the case).
If you take just my experiences taking the metro, then yes, you would conclude that Russians are cold people. They stare. They stare when they hear you speak a different language, they stare when you wear strange clothes, and they stare when they’re bored. Sounds a lot like the English- except for they don’t look away when you catch them.
I’d like to share some recent, heart-warming, if awkward experiences, that prove that the cold, stone-faced stereotype of Russians can be so mistaken. The first occasion happened when we were on our way to Sergiev Possad, waiting for our train and chatting. We had already annoyed three or four Russians with my poor attempt at asking which train we had to look out for, and had created a small huddle, speaking English at ease.
When I say annoyed, I am already stretching the truth. Particularly the last man I asked was in no way annoyed, chatting at me, telling me about the different trains that were NOT my trains, and then asking where we were from, telling me that he was from Tajikistan, although if I understood this correctly is, erm, somewhat questionable…
As we stood in our little group, Maddi, Stephen and I merrily chatting away and sometimes bursting into the raucous laughter, a man approached and boldly opened with the line; ‘I want to talk to you!’. He proceeded to tell us about how he practices English via skype, where he talks with his American friend, and that his dream is one day to head to an Eminem Concert in the United States. He definitely would be able to hold his own at the concert- he provided us with a small rap performance, to demonstrate.
He stayed and chatted for a good fifteen minutes while we waited for our train, telling us about where he lived, how he’d been working all evening, and about Russian literature. A very chatty man, he also came back after his friend dragged him away to catch his train, in order to get contact details to continue practising his English. Definitely friendly to the point of intrusive, from a British perspective. In no way cold.
This event was in many ways repeated when we decided to spend the evening at the ’16 Tunns’, a “British” Bar. Again, standing in our group, we were approached, or perhaps rather joined, by two older ‘gentlemen’, who had clearly been busy drinking Vodka. (They openly informed of us this evident fact, in case there had been any doubt). While they also wanted to drink with us (‘We Russians want to drink with the British’), they either lacked the vocabulary or had passed the state of intoxication in which they were still able to create a conversation. Instead they simply repeated that they wanted to join us and apologized for their encroachment of our circle, until we finally gave up and politely asked them to leave.
While these instances happened in part (or primarily) because speaking in a different language caught their attention, they stick out in my mind partially because their ability to speak some English allowed for a longer conversation than I usually maintain. But even when you are not attracting people through speaking English, the Russians are open and friendly.
Today for instance, I attempted to politely sustain a conversation with a lady who joined me in one of the local park’s ‘outdoor gyms’. When I finally said that I was failing to understand a lot because I need to practice and learn more Russian she gave me valuable advice:
‘You should drink with people. Russians like to drink and talk. Drink, and talk, and you will learn Russian!’