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Russians: What We Think vs What We Know

(Last Updated On: February 23, 2020)
Russians grill in Adler, Sochi, Russia

Grilling on swords in Adler

Is what we thought about Russians accurate?

We and the Russians, a family of 3, were the only ones on the Winter Olympics gondola leaving Sanki Sliding Center. The descent to the Krasnya Polyana hub is spectacular and very swift. There was just enough time for the young dad to turn to me and ask, “What do you know about the Olympics?”

Startled, I racked my brain. What do I know? Dates, statistics, locations? Oh! Then it dawned! He wanted to know what I thought about the Olympics. Different thing entirely! I quickly responded, “Oh, it’s all so wonderful and amazing! You should be proud!” And then, whoosh! Swing into the landing pad, the gondola doors slide open and hands grab, helping us out. The end of the encounter.

A few days ago, after we’d been back on Kauai for a couple weeks, an acquaintance asked me, “What do you think of the Russians?” And again, I was startled. What did I think? But then I thought, “He’s really asking me what I know about the Russians.” And so, after telling him the gondola encounter story, I responded, “Russia is so vast; I only know of the Russians from the ones we met in Sochi. And I can tell you: They’re people. They want the same things we do: To be warm, to keep things safe, to love their children, to celebrate life. If there are different kinds of Russians in Moscow or St. Petersburg, or Smolensk, or Vladivostok, I’ll have to find that out.”

Pete with Russians Rafael and Sergey

Pete with Rafael and Sergey

What we think vs what we know about Russians is very different now. I think it’s fair to say we were somewhat prepared. We’d heard the stereotypes: boisterous, hard-drinking, long-suffering, hospitable, dramatic, melancholy. We knew Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Solzhenitsyn, Dr. Zhivago, Stalin, Rasputin, Chekhov and Khrushchev banging his shoe, right? Gosh, Gorby had even come to St. Paul when we lived in Minnesota!

Right. During our stay in Sochi, we came to realize our preconception was not completely accurate. To be sure, we encountered Russians who fit the stereotypes. But we also came away from Sochi with a deeper awareness of the diversity and richness in Russia. As well, we arrived at an understanding of how our respective media duke it out on the ideological stage. And, we came to appreciate how far removed the average Russian, just like many the American, is from day to day politics. In these respects, Russians and Americans have more similarities than one might think.

Pete and Tatyana

Pete and Tatyana

We were very pleased to make the acquaintance of Tatyana, a Muscovite whose company had constructed the U.S. Olympic Team House in the Olympic Village, as well as other structures built specifically for the Games. She had been on site full time for at least two months prior to the Opening Ceremonies, staying in our Adler neighborhood. Tatyana told us how to get in the U.S. house to shop for team gear, and how to get in touch with her if we ran into any problems.

Betsy with Russians Tanya and family

Betsy with Tanya and family

Tanya and her husband, the owners of our Adler Guest House, Villa Deja Vu, along with family members, Ash and Tatyana, as well as others: Tamara – who had worried about us prior to our late night arrival, the two bartenders who indulged our Western requests for ice and Americano coffee (by pouring hot water into espress), and our housemaid to whom I gave a coat, shoes, scarf and hat. All who worked at the Guest House restaurant, bar and hotel, were kind and welcoming, despite language differences. We didn’t know Russian, and they didn’t know English. Thanks to translate programs on computers and smart phones, we did fine.

We did have one negative encounter – an inebriated Muscovite who really had something to say to us during breakfast, but was totally smashed and rendered inarticulate. Instead, the entire time we were in Sochi, we managed to acquaint ourselves with interesting individuals such as the young, single professional from St. Petersburg with whom Pete “talked cameras” during a luge event.

Russians Ljudmilla, Daniel and Betsy

Ljudmilla, Daniel and Betsy

And then there was young Daniel. He and his grandmother, Ljudmilla (my age), were riding the bus with us. Daniel gave me his seat (most likely at his grandma’s bidding). Immediately ensued a lively conversation, again with the use of iPhone translate. Running into Ljudmilla and Daniel again a few days later at our Restaurant Deja Vu was a real treat. We phoned them during our layover at Sheremetyevo in Moscow.

What do we think of Russians? Wouldn’t you agree that we should think what we know? And we know now that what we thought we knew wasn’t completely accurate. We’re glad we actually went to Russia and met some Russians for ourselves!

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International Travel Safety Don'ts - A Baker's Dozen - Passing Thru

Monday 21st of December 2015

[…] Don’t go to Russia for the Olympics. There will be a terrorist attack. (Obviously, there was not and the security made us feel confident and safe. All the toilets we used and doorknobs we turned […]

Carol Colborn

Tuesday 14th of April 2015

Underneath we are all the same. When I was in St. Petersburg for a day, it was just very difficult to communicate when you have little time. Good, you spent some time to get to know them more!

Betsy Wuebker

Wednesday 15th of April 2015

Hi Carol - Yes, we had a couple weeks and really enjoyed it.

alison abbott

Monday 13th of April 2015

Betsy you are so right and travel is one of the best ways to break down those stereotypes. I wish everyone could step out of their comfort zone and meet people on the other side of the divide. The world would be a much more peaceful place.

Betsy Wuebker

Wednesday 15th of April 2015

Hi Alison - I agree, totally. It can be dismaying to observe the amount of intolerance and misunderstanding that could be alleviated with familiarity.


Sunday 12th of April 2015

A very interesting post that applies to people from many of countries we all visit. I found that the people we met in Turkey were some of the friendliest I have encountered anywhere yet there are many people who would arrive here with their minds already made up. Meeting the locals is one of the highlights of travelling.

Betsy Wuebker

Wednesday 15th of April 2015

Hi Jenny - Thank you. While we all have our favorite and not so favorite places, human beings are remarkably similar.

Cathy Sweeney

Sunday 12th of April 2015

Thoroughly enjoyed your account of interacting with the Russians -- the real ones, not the stereotypes. It always gives me a renewed feeling of hope for our crazy world when we have these surprising and insightful encounters with strangers in a foreign land. I've been wanting to visit Russia for a very long time - eager to more about your trip.

Betsy Wuebker

Wednesday 15th of April 2015

Hi Cathy - Thank you so much. You're right about getting a renewed sense of hope from positive encounters.

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