Tag Archives: Russian

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.


Just a typical day

The Smolny Cathedral stands behind our school building.

The Smolny Cathedral stands behind our school building.

In a place where darkness does not come until nearly midnight, the beeping of my watch always wakes me far too early.

As 7:00 flashes on the face of my Timex, I roll over and hastily reset the alarm to 7:10, an improvised snooze button.

7:10 finds me rolling out of bed and plodding across the brown linoleum fake-tiled floors into the shower.

Water pressure is not a concern; Russia does not yet know the dubious pleasure of low flow. Water temperature is another matter. The water cascading out of the showerhead is easily set to scalding (and I do mean scalding, much hotter than any American shower), or freezing—Gulf of Finland cold. A comfortable temperature requires extraordinary finesse, difficult before the morning cup of black caffeine.

And fortunately, that dark boost comes soon enough. Russia lacks a strong black coffee tradition, so my morning drink has become Princess Noori High Grown Black Tea (25 bags for 20 rubles at Paterson, your local surly supermarket). Princess Noori is followed by an equally exotic treat—a banana, bought not from Paterson, where the produce is neither fresh nor appealing, but from the wealthy Russian grocery store, the one with food from everywhere except Russia itself.

When bananas-нет, it’s cheese and crackers for me. Paterson carries one brand of crackers; they come in a pink plastic pouch that loudly proclaims Крекер (Cracker) in bold type across the front. They’re not particularly good and they’re not particularly bad. Wheat Thins they are not.

Food eaten, it’s time to catch the bus to school. The coach bus, with pleasantly upholstered seats and white window shades that do little to block the glare of the morning sun as I try to steal some last minutes of shut eye, leaves at 8:30 each morning. Not 8:31. Not 8:30:05. 8:30.

The ride, a distance of no more than 10 miles, takes at least an hour in the vicious St. Petersburg traffic. The bus rarely makes it out of first gear, particularly in the пропка (propka – traffic jam) trying to cross the Leytenanta Shmidta Bridge.

Fortunately, the route wends along the Neva and through much of the historic city, past St. Isaac’s massive Cathedral, near the Bolshevik’s first battleship, the Aurora (framed now by billboards for beer and mobile phones), ending at the Smolny Cathedral, the centerpiece of the Smolny Institute of Saint Petersburg State University.

Incidentally, the beautiful Carolina blue cathedral is a major attraction (Never thought I’d use beautiful and Carolina blue in the same sentence). Walking to classes, we always pass busloads of camera-touting tourists, snapping photos of the big church, just as I’m used to at the Duke Chapel.

Once inside, we make our way down the wooden hallway to room 109, a narrow, high-ceilinged classroom with a large windows looking out on trees, a road, and beyond that, the Neva River.

Each day in that room, there are two classes taught by two professors. Each—literature, grammar, speaking, film, media, culture (pick two)—is an hour-and-a-half long. The names of the courses don’t really matter. They’re all stuffed with Russian grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation lessons, whatever the title.

Each class tries my ability to sit still and focus, despite the fact that every piece of Russian I pick up is immediately useful, despite the tiny seven-person class, despite the skill of our professors, despite my interest in the material.

1:00 p.m.—the time when words learned in literature get used to buy fast food blini at Teremok—is always welcome when it comes.

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.


Russians don’t smile. Not the ones that work in the service industry, anyhow. The uniquely American, “Thanks, and have a great day” doesn’t seem to have hopped on the boat to St. Petersburg with McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

At the metro, after you pass your 20 rubles through the window, they don’t even look at you before shoving a gold metro token at you. If, god forbid, you fumble for the correct bills or coins, several Russians are liable to push by you to purchase their entrance fares.

I’ll admit, it’s not like the Metro employees in D.C. are known for their friendliness either, and I’m sure they’ve put off more than one foreign tourist. But subway workers aren’t the only unsmiling ones.

I’ve already written some about the difficult cashiers at the Paterson supermarket, or универсам. From our travel guide, we recently learned that they’re colloquially referred to as гром баба, or thunder women. Makes me feel a bit better to know that Russians also incur their wrath.

Now, the woman I bought tea (another weapon in the continuing war against jet lag) and some food from today seemed nicer, or at least more low key. But she, too, hassled me as I tried to count out correct change (when the smallest common coin is 50 kopecks, that can be particularly tough). And I also learned that she spoke English—when she told me “You too slow” as I tried to put my change away while simultaneously juggling my purchases, because I had decided against purchasing another 6 ruble plastic bag.

We managed to steal a smile from a waitress today, however.

Restaurants and cafes in Russia are notorious for lacking many of the items listed on the menu. _____ нет, there isn’t any _____, is a common phrase for waiters and waitresses. Typically, food is ordered and delivered with as few words exchanged as possible, with the obvious exception of multiple “нет”s. There’s no friendly banter nor facial expressions, perhaps because tipping expectations are minimal, except in the fanciest establishments (apparently, in smaller cities, tipping means that you want to sleep with the waitress. Here, they’re more used to it.).

This means that the waiters won’t constantly bug you, asking you how your food is, or trying to move you along to make room for another table. It also means that they won’t ask you if you want something else, or offer you another bottle of water or soda—the savvy Russian restaurant-goer orders his whole meal, including dessert, upon sitting down.

There were six of us at the restuarant today, ordering Пироги, or Russian pastries, filled with anything from apple or orange to meat and fish. I actually went for a strange fried egg, cheese, and tomato dish, but only because the pastry I wanted – нет. So much of what we ordered was out that after asking for the umpteenth item and hearing the umpteenth нет, we finally earned a smile, and perhaps even a little laugh, from the waitress. Either that, or she was laughing at our mangled pronunciations of Russian food items.

Black Coffee

5/10/09 – 14:30

I’ve figured out the coffee situation here. Seems that no one really drinks black coffee, the kind I like. In Coffee House, when I asked for black coffee, the waitress looked surprised. She asked «без молоко,» without milk?, several times, but I thought she got what I wanted.

What she brought out, however, was nothing like the coffee I drink in the U.S. I got a mug about a quarter full of dark black coffee, or perhaps espresso, a small cup of milk, and instructions, mimed by the waitress, to add sugar from the jar at the table. So I did as she said and enjoyed my milky-sweet-definitely-not-black coffee, still determined to figure out how to get a full cup of dark full-bodied joe.

Later, we found ourselves at Coffee Club near our apartment, in need of caffeine to stay awake for a few more hours and deal jet lag another blow. There, I ordered some sort of mocha, which came piled with whipped cream. Nice, but not a daily drink.

Tom, however, ordered an Americano. Turns out, that’s the closest thing to black coffee you can get here. And even then, they’ll bring you enough sugar with it to bake a cake. So from now on, it’s—perhaps all too appropriately—Americanos for me.

With my Americano this morning, I had, for my first time here, something distinctly Russian: бутербродь c kрасное uкрой-an open sandwich with red caviar.

At Café Bar, which, with its wooden walls, wooden floor, and wooden chairs, resembles a hunting lodge, I tackled a menu entirely in Russian. So, that I had a caviar sandwich stems, at least partly, from the fact that caviar and sandwich are two of the few food-related Russian words I know. But that vocabulary is growing quickly out of necessity. Can’t wait til I can order a whole meal (one that’s без мясо-without meat)!


The jet lag has been conquered, sort of. It’s 7:30 p.m., and I’m exhausted.

In the interest of brevity, I’m going to list some of today’s accomplishments. You’ll notice that a lot of them involve purchases; talking with people in Russian is tough.

  • Rode the metro to downtown St. Petersburg to watch the Victory Day parade.
  • Bought lunch (but the menu was in English and Russian).
  • Bought a surge protector.
  • Bought water from a vendor on the street.

More later, but for now, it’s time to get out and get some coffee in the interest of the continuing flight against jet lag.

Arriving in Russia

5/8/09 – 23:00

A short flight over the Gulf of Finland, a deep blue bordered on all sides by green, set the scenic backdrop for our arrival in St. Petersburg. As we came over the city, its pervasive grayness—a slightly outmoded industrial quality—filled the hazy air. Power lines, massive apartment blocks, and factory complexes stretched through my field of view as the plane descended to Polkovo airport on the city’s outskirts.

On deplaning, we were greeted by a short, stern-faced man who said nothing as he pointed his temperature gun at each of us; no “Welcome to Russia” here, but thankfully, no swine flu either.

Past customs, the mood lightened considerably as we were met by Саша (Sasha), our Russian discussion instructor from first semester. From there, we threw our bags into a small truck with a green-canvas-covered bed and settled into a white mix between a van and a bus for our ride to Капитанская Улица (Kapitanskaya Street), situated right on the Gulf of Finland.

As we drove, St. Petersburg came into focus as a city, it’s character clearly unbounded by the industrial grayness that I saw from above. We passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a giant statue of Lenin, whose name the city once bore. Monuments to Tsars and Soviet soldiers filled the centers of enormous circles that seemed to give the traffic—everything from old Ladas to modern Porsches and Toyotas, and even a few American cars—some semblance of order.

Numerous supermarkets, markets, drug stores, convenience stores, clothing stores, and sundry other shops lined the streets, their gaudy signs advertrising their wares, and often, their 24/7 schedules. We strained to decipher the letters on some of the fleeting signs, and painstakingly sounded-out cyrillic filled the bus-van, accompanied, sometimes, by cheers marking the recognition of a remembered vocabulary word. Frequently though, the names were comfortably familar; Кафе (café), суши (sushi) and бар (bar) were only the tip of the iceberg.

But the city, what little of it we explored in our first hours in Russia, hummed to a beat distinct from anything that might be suggested by superficial sign similarities.

Shopping for food was a fascinating, and humbling, experience. Tomato sauce, of the kind we are so used to in America, was impossible to find at the  supermarket we went to. Also missing were spices, crackers beyond a single brand, and all the many styles of granola bar that are ubiquitous at home.

Eggs are packed 10 to a carton—strange.

The checkout aisle marked our first linguistic challenge. As the cashier rang up our bread, cheese, pasta, and massive jugs of water, she asked us if we wanted bags. We quickly declined, only to realize a few seconds later what we had done. Bags being an unfamilar word to us, we couldn’t figure out how to ask for them, except by pointing to one after the cashier had finished ringing us up.

Plastic bags (пакеты – a word I will not soon forget) cost six rubles, the cashier snarled. She waved away Tom’s 100 ruble bill, demanding exact change. The phrase «I just arrived and only have large bills» not being a part of our vocabulary, Tom dug around and handed the cashier a coin that said 5 and another that said 1. Her annoyance visibly increased at being handed a ruble and five kopecks, the cashier finally, mercifully, accepted Tom’s 100 ruble bill (worth, roughly, $3), and doled out all 94 rubles in change, pissed as hell. We quickly shoved our purchases into the bag and escaped, chastened and nervous for future shopping encounters.

Pre-planning vocabulary became the order of the day for our other big purchase – a map of the city. Fortunately, the vendor in the magazine stall was more understanding of our limited Russian skills, and the smoothness of this exchange provided a much-need confidence boost. Tom also managed to buy a memory card reader from an electronics kiosk located in, of all places, a pet shop.

Tomorrow, to wipe out jet lag, we plan to get up around 8 a.m., in plenty of time to go watch the Victory Day parade through the city center.

Preparing for a trip

I haven’t quite realized yet that I’ll be spending the next ten weeks in Russia. I leave Thursday morning for St. Petersburg via Reagan-National to JFK and then Helsinki.

I’ve been studying Russian all year, but as I flip through my Russia at a Glance phrase book, I keep coming upon phrases I’ve never seen before, and hope to never use:

  • He’s stolen______ – Он украл______
  • There is no hot water – Нет горячей боды
  • I was hit by a car – Меня сбила машина

The book also includes useful phrases for meeting new people, such as “Are you married?” and “Are you alone?”.

To get a taste for St. Petersburg culture before arriving, I’ve been trying to read the English-language St. Petersburg Times. Among the stories leading right now are a piece on rising tensions between Russia and NATO and an article critical of anti-corruption efforts. 

From the latter article, we learn: “Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, could vacation in the Czech Republic in an apartment owned by his wife. This inflamed United Russia Deputy Alexander Khinshtein, who told Kommersant that it was “nonsense” for a senior official’s family to own property in a NATO country.”

On the lighter side,”Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev, who put his earnings at about 370 million rubles ($11 million)… listed among his property a Porsche Cayenne and a Porsche 911.” 

It is unclear if Minister Trutnev was criticized for owning two cars manufactured in a NATO country.