Tag Archives: Culture

Racism in Russia

As I was hanging out by the Gulf of Finland recently, a Russian acquaintance engaged me in a conversation about U.S. politics.

“Do you think Obama can solve the U.S. economic crisis,” he asked.

“I think he’s working hard on it – I think he has a good chance,” I responded.

“But,” the Russian persisted, “Obama is black.”

This exchange wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Russians question Obama’s competence based on his ethnicity (though I have relatively few conversations with Russians, in part due to my limited Russian skills).

More broadly, it fits into a pattern of racist attitudes held by some (but certainly not all) Russians towards people who are not white Europeans.

The media has overlooked this attitude, even as newspapers and TV stations have reported on Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia as he visits Moscow.

But for those harmed by Russian racism, this pernicious social fact cannot be overlooked.

Visibly foreign students, particularly Africans and Asians, sometimes face harassment and even violence in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, as documented by the BBC in several 2006 articles.

A lot of the violence is perpetrated by Neo-Nazis, such as the ones described in this TIME article. But the attitude goes beyond the skinheads.

There are also the subtle looks at minorities, the passing comments made about people from “the south” (Largely Muslims from Russia’s southern regions and the bordering former Soviet republics), the police harassment (see this article, for example), the recoiling of subway passengers from dark-skinned people, the racist chants targeting black players at Zenit football matches — all of which make Russia an unfriendly place for those who are not white.

One of our Russian teachers, a middle-aged woman, began class by asking each of her students what we had done the week before.

After we finished describing the museums we had visited, she said, “It’s great that you get out. The Chinese students never go anywhere. Only to the store.”

The same teacher also told us about the “problem” Russia has. People from “the south,” she said, are moving into St. Petersburg and other major cities and giving birth to many children. She worried that these people (who are strong and able to produce lots of kids because they don’t drink, as she put it), will soon outnumber white Russians.

The Saint Petersburg Mosque

The Saint Petersburg Mosque

The Saint Petersburg Mosque

The St. Petersburg Mosque, when it was completed in the waning days of the last Tsar, could hold many of St. Petersburg’s 8,000 Muslims. The massive mosque stands tall near the Neva River, not far from the Peter and Paul Fortress and other central St. Petersburg landmarks.

That the mosque survived the Bolshevik Revolution and the siege of Leningrad is incredible. However, the beautiful building was used as a warehouse starting in the 1940’s, and was only allowed to again function as a mosque at the request of Indonesia’s president in 1956. The mosque continues to serve St. Petersburg Muslims to this day, and the interior of the building is open only to members

The American Embassy

We went to the American Embassy in St. Petersburg today.

It has golden arches and serves Биг Мак and гамбургер (That’s Big Macs and hamburgers).

Seriously though, the McDonalds menu is almost identical in Russia—all the food items are transliterated in Cyrillic, even my филет-о-фиш (fillet-o-fish), and there really isn’t anything uniquely Russian.

The McFlurrys (Макфлурри), though, do come in different flavors: chocolate-caramel and chocolate-cherry. I tried chocolate-cherry. It did not disappoint.

The restaurant itself, across from Pushkinskaya Metro Station, is rather upscale by American McDonalds’ standards.

It boasts free Wi-Fi, and dinner time saw a crowd of well-dressed Russians besiege the cashiers (lines work a bit differently here), while others, mostly student-looking types, sat on brown faux(?)-leather stools and chairs and pecked away at laptops perched on bright white tables.

Country music played in the background as families enjoyed their fast food, wrapped in packages identical to their American counterparts, except for the Cyrillic script.

Even the friendly McDonalds atmosphere seemed to infect the joint, to a point—the cashier smiled as I fumbled the Russian words for chocolate-cherry, and thanked me after I had paid for my ice-cream drink and fish sandwich, in English!

The Museum of Erotica

Forget about the title. For titillation, turn elsewhere. This post is actually about medical privacy.

Dr. Igor Knayzkin, the chief prostate researcher of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, runs a venereal disease, prostate, and general sexual health center in a light pink building on the edge of the Tauride Palace gardens.

Dr. Knayzkin’s clinic, however, also houses a small collection of erotica in glass cases in its white, medical hallways.

Enter the center, proceed past the first images of naked women, pay the receptionist—the same one that checks in patients—100 rubles ($3), and you’ll be given blue plastic covers to put over your shoes.

Slip the covers over your shoes, proceed past the patients in the waiting room, and enter the medical center hallways to examine the cases of sexual sculptures, phallic figurines, coffee mugs with balls, and the requisite Greek and African erotic art.

Make sure to stay out of the way of the white-coated attendants exiting exam rooms in the same hallway and the patients fresh from their various intimate appointments.

Russians, apparently, aren’t quite as fanatical about their medical privacy—HIPAA remains an American innovation.

But even if you are a bit embarrassed by camera touting tourists traipsing by as your testicles are examined, perhaps there’s good reason to go to Dr. Knayzin’s clinic. And that reason has nothing to do with the prominent doctor’s medical skill, or all the ads he has bought in the St. Petersburg metro.

You see, the medical center houses the embalmed 30 centimeter penis that allegedly once belonged to Grigori Rasputin, an incredibly odd character and close adviser to the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

Simply viewing the member is said to cure impotence (Warning: Link contains an image of said device). In any event, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than any scientifically proven remedy.

Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s Communist Party, covered the museum’s 2004 opening and scored an apparently-exclusive interview with a Rasputin descendant:

Rasputin’s great grandchild John Nekmerson is currently living in the US. He is a grandchild of Matrena Rasputina, Rasputin’s favorite daughter. After her father was murdered, she fled to Europe and afterwards migrated to America, where she began working as a tiger-tamer. She died in 1977. Recently, John Nekmerson has visited St. Petersburg in order to see his ancestor’s private part with his own eyes. The great grandson exclaimed, “This is really it, I’ve got the same one!”

Five Strange Things at the Supermarket

Paterson (Патерсон) is our 24/7 supermarket of choice in Russia. Now that I’ve gone shopping too many times, here are five Paterson oddities, or perhaps just general Russian supermarket oddities.

  1. Eggs come in boxes of ten. I always feel like I’m getting ripped off.
  2. Red caviar flavored Lays potato chips. Also: шашлик (shashlik—sort of shiskabob/Russian BBQ) flavored Lays.
  3. There are no granola bars. No chewy bars. No Clif bars. No cereal bars. No breakfast bars. No fruit-filled bars. No low-fat diet bars.
  4. Lots of mayonnaise. But no tomato sauce, damn it.
  5. Plastic bags cost 6 rubles. This is perhaps the most environmentally friendly feature of St. Petersburg (awesome subway system aside) that I have seen thus far.

Drink, Drank, Drunk

The verb drink is irregular in both English and Russian. In class today, we learned how to conjugate it. We also got a few Russian drinking tips, tailored to an American audience:

  1. Russians drink vodka like Italians drink espresso. Be careful!
  2. Russians drink their vodka straight. And quickly. Be careful!
  3. It’s important to have a big meal before drinking a lot of vodka. Be careful!
  4. If you don’t have time to eat a big meal, at least eat a piece of buttered bread. Be careful!

Alcohol in Russia is a bit more accessible than it is in America. There is a sign at the grocery story saying that it is forbidden to buy cigarettes if you are under 18. There is no such sign for alcohol.

And Russian kids appear to enjoy the relaxed rules. Groups of teenagers, probably no older than 16, gather on sidewalks, drinking from big cans of Nevskoe Ice, smoking and killing time. Public (and underage) drinking is technically illegal, but I haven’t seen the St. Petersburg police give anyone any trouble.

Kids aren’t the only ones who drink in public, though. Grown men often walk in the streets, a cool Baltika 7 (or again, Nevskoe Ice – It’s apparently pretty popular) in hand. Sadly, I haven’t taken part in this Russian tradition—quite frankly, the Militsia, as the leather-jacketed police are called, scare me more than a bit.

But there are plenty of options for drinking beyond the street corner.

Every restaurant, pizza place, fast food joint, and coffee shop has an alcohol selection bigger than some American liquor stores. You can get a cheap shot of Ruski Standard vodka or a several thousand ruble bottle of wine with whatever food happens to be available at your chosen dining establishment.

The alcohol selection at the corner grocery store is even more mind-boggling. There’s a full aisle of hard liquor, another of wine, and another of beer. There is also a locked cabinet for the really expensive stuff, and beer fridges placed strategically throughout the store for those who get thirsty while shopping.

Why my name sucks in Russian

My name sucks/is funny in Russian for two reasons:

  1. Zach sounds like зек, pronounced zek, which is a Russian slang term for prisoner. To avoid this problem, I’ve taken to pronouncing my name as Zaaaaak.
  2. Zachary sounds like закурить (zakooreet), which means “to start smoking.” I haven’t figured out a way to avoid this problem yet.