Weird Russians

Every time I mention that I am Russian, I can always register some fascination mixed with deep suspicion on the face of my interlocutor. Russians are considered to be weird and big. It’s the biggest country in the world, with long history, enormous culture and habits that leave the rest of the world population always slightly puzzled about us.

It was Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) who said the following about my native land:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,

No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:

She stands alone, unique –

In Russia, one can only believe.

Russia is considered to be big in everything but also weird. Russia has big writers read by many, such Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. It has world-famous composers, such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, leading chess players, famous ballets and trains. The trans-Siberian train takes 7 days of travel from Moscow to Vladivostok and spans eight time zones and 9,289 kilometers.

But this bigness runs in parallel to misunderstanding. Russians do appear as strange from the look of outsiders. We celebrate the New Year twice, we like vodka, and we had the revolution, the Soviet Union and the communist dream. Russians are often considered to be cold and distant, but few realise that if you probe more, you will discover a great romantic behind the façade of what looks like aloofness. You will discover a passionate spirit, capable of marking a page in the history books. Behind the initial impression of coldness, hides an eccentric.

Scratch a Russian, and you will encounter a great predisposition to deep philosophical debates, a penchant for nostalgia and great ‘terpenie’ that means patience. Because of the history of the country, Russians learned that bad times always end, that good things are meant to happen, and that for everything there is fate.

The misunderstanding of Russians is often due to the fact that we know how to remain silent. Russians rarely do small talk, and don’t chat. They like meaningful discussions about life, about the meaning of existence, about literature and art. If you go to Moscow and take the metro, you will see that many Russians read books while on their journey to work or study. They read a lot, and go to the theatre. If you want a good conversation with a Russian, don’t talk about the weather but ask about the latest theatre piece a Russian saw. Russians like theatre, books, and poetry.

Being a Russian is a tough job. I often think about our own strangeness and came up with the list of some of our weirdness. These are:

  • We celebrate the New year as others on the first of January and then again, on the 14th of January, because of the old calendar.
  • We love poet Pushkin. We learn about him from the moment we are born. He is the best poet. Truly, the best. We learn a lot about Pushkin. We grow up listening to his poems and we know lots of his poems by heart. We even have an expression when we want to be sarcastic that goes like: ‘Right, who will do that for you, then? Pushkin?
  • We are very superstitious. Spilled sault brings quarrel. Money discussed in the evening brings trouble. An empty bottle should be removed immediately from the table, or it will lead to financial difficulties. If your ears or cheeks are hot, it means that someone is talking or thinking about you. An itchy nose signifies that you will soon be drinking, etc, etc. We have a lot of these weird traditions, like really a lot.
  • We believe in Domovoy. It’s the household spirit of a given kin. This little man lives (he is invisible) in your house in order to protect it from the evil spirit. You need to respect him. Never talk badly about Domovoy.
  • We have the salad, called ‘Olivier’, originally from France, as the main dish for every celebration.
  • Most of us are Christians, but, and I am myself stupefied by this strangeness, we also believe in astrology, palm reading and other manifestations of magic.
  • We are great at computers and technology. If something is hacked, Russians are blamed.
  • We have great education at schools and universities. We learn mathematics at school at the level of what is taught at the master level in the universities in the west. School is like a marathon in Russia, and you do come out of it extremely knowledgeable.
  • We like to think big. We think about fate, about true love, about justice in this world. No wonder, revolution happened in Russia.
  • We eat fried sunflower seeds for pleasure.
  • We drink lots of tea, and many households can make their own ‘liquor’.
  • We are obsessed with jam. Each summer we make our own jams, and we stock it for the year ahead. There should be lots of it. There is never enough of jam.

And so many other things that make Russians slightly weird, but I will come back to it in the following posts.  

Russians and the meaning of life

Russians like deep feelings and philosophical discussions. You won’t meet a Russian, who doesn’t believe in ‘cudjba’, ‘ducha’ and ‘toska’. These three words mean: fate, soul, and a sort of nostalgia, that is difficult to translate directly.

However, toska has real part in the Russian culture. It’s a sort of dwelling, dwelling over life, dwelling over the past, dwelling over what could be. Russians are romantics at heart, and behind the façade of initial coldness, you will find a person who reflects constantly about the meaning of life. Russians reminisce about things. Do you remember, they will ask you, how it used to be, -uncomplicated and easy? Do you remember, how the world was peaceful and correct? Older generation reminisces about the days under the Soviet Union, while younger generation reminisces about the freedom that the year 1990ies brought to Russia, when right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone had lots of liberty and ideas to start new things.

Russians dwell about things, because things can always get better. Reflecting about ‘cudjba’ happens every time when two or more Russians gather together. Every Russian believes in fate. If things are difficult, it’s the fault of fate. Russians strongly believe that nothing in life happens because of coincidence. Everyone has a path in life, that is embedded in ‘cudjba’. If things happen, they happen for a reason. ‘You can’t escape your fate’ we say in Russia. You can’t escape your density, as each of us has one.

I remember how my late uncle would explain to us, my cousins and me, the particularities of fate. We would assemble around big table in the garden of my grand-parents farm, and talk. My uncle, a very kind person would tell us that life could be difficult sometimes, but difficulties were meant to be, and one had to learn how to overcome them. I know that most children in Russia have these conversations in their families, as all my friends are the same as me. With my friends from Russia, I can talk for hours about the meaning of life. We might chat for a bit about trivial stuff, but always end up in deep philosophical discussion. Why things are as they are, we ask ourselves? What is a deep meaning in events that happen in our lives? What lesson can we learn from our experiences? What is our path? What is the meaning of life?

One’s soul is also important for Russian. We greatly believe in ‘ducha’. Each of us has a soul that transcends the body. Belief in ‘ducha’ is very much linked with Christian Orthodoxy, but in Russia, everyone believes in the power of the soul, regardless of one’s religion. The soul and caring after it, is much more important than pursuing material comfort. There is a great belief that our soul landed on earth for a reason, that there is deeper meaning to life, that we can only grasp when we are aware of our soul, of a higher calling than mundane existence.

Russians love discussing meaningful things in life, and ‘toska’, ‘cudjba’ and ‘ducha’ are important words with a deep meaning in the Russian culture.

(me: reflecting as usual, about the meaning of life)

Extract from my novel

Chapter One

It was at the age of fifteen that I first fell in love. It was with a boy from the school. He often stood with his friends at the front entrance, with a cigarette, defying all rules and conventions. His name was Oleg, truly a beautiful boy.

But as the story of our times goes, the first love is rarely the one that is lucky, and nothing really happened with Oleg, even if in theory it could work, and I could be happy with Oleg forever after end.

The day after Oleg invited me on a date-and it was a spectacular invitation-he disappeared. Such things happen in Russia, quite often in fact. It was in 2008.  I was fifteen then, Oleg was seventeen, and his dad was a vice-mayor of the town of Tula. I realise now that I have forgotten to introduce myself properly, but I will come back to it in due term.

Oleg came to my class in maths. He entered the room in the middle of the lesson and put a note on my desk. I was sitting on my own, but this was a usual occurrence for me. I wanted to be small and invisible, and chances were in my favour. No one paid attention to me, and I was left alone. A girl from a foster family like me is not a happy child, and other children avoided me.

“Meet me tomorrow at the Kolonin’s café, at seven. It is a date. Oleg.’’

I stared in surprise at the text, because surely this wasn’t happening. The teacher was already pulling the note from my hands, shouting that this was highly inappropriate. The whole class was staring at me, so I just dropped my shoulders as if in total indifference, opening a math book to avoid stares from the classroom, while repeating to myself over and over: “Tomorrow at the Kolonin’s café, at seven.’’

The class soon resumed its pace. We were learning a new formula, and I pretended to tune in, while silently repeating to myself: “Tomorrow at the Kolonin’s café, at seven.’” Oleg was the first boy I ever fancied, and I think I grinned at some point, because the teacher was standing above me, asking me to repeat what she had just said. This teacher wasn’t a very kind woman. Who would disturb a pupil after seeing what had been written to him or to her? I saw her quickly glancing at the text in the note, and so she knew precisely what I was dealing with. I was invited for my first date!

Later at home, locked in my room, I opened a cupboard and stared at my two available dresses. One was old and black, and the other was old and blue. Neither of them was suitable for a date. My only good clothes were my school trousers and a blouse, and I decided then that I had to take some initiative and dare at more chances in life. So far, it was terribly unfair as far as I was concerned, but fortune was turning in my favour!

Please, read my book on Amazon (here is the link: Elena: A Love Story for Humankind)

Each Language has beauty in it

If you ever listen carefully to languages, you will hear a particular music in each of them. In the English language I hear Robbie Williams, Taylor Swift, and Shakespeare. It is funny, playful, mad and pure orange. If I might assign an animal to this language, it would definitely be a monkey or maybe even a cat.

            In French I hear Paris, red, passion, grace, Sophie Marceau and the raven. Raven says: “it is magique.”

            Italian is amazing. I hear nirvana, Andrea Bocelli, turquoise, amaretto, Florence and yellow. It is the colour of the sun and of feathers of the hummingbird. This bird sings the songs of delirious joy. Just like Andrea Bocelli.

            The Dutch language has a flavour that can appear as hard at first, but then becomes soft and cosy. I dream of Amsterdam in Dutch, of flat beautiful landscapes, of coffees with biscuits, of bikes, and of the most beautiful beaches. I hear dance music in it, and the colour in front of my eyes is deep blue and purple. Blue heron rules that language, always somewhere lurking, observing and blending in, challenging one towards the exploration of one’s soul. 

            Russian is the trickiest of all animals. On good days you can experience with this language a cosy winter evening near the fire, Chekhov, green colour and the healing touch of a Siberian cat.

            On bad days, however, it can bring a life sentence in a psychiatric institution, capitalism in its most unwanted form and a snake in its reversed form. Snakes are very funny animals in a normal position – they bring the healing power of transformation and make the day of all children on a visit to the zoo. In their reversed position snakes bite by injecting a deadly poison into your veins. Russian language is like the most beautiful snake. It attracts by its beauty, terrifies you, and remains enigmatic, full of mystery. I love the Russian language.

In German I hear classical music, the philosophical debates, and great discussions. If I find time, I would definitely learn it. It speaks to me of fresh yummy bread, romantic candles, and cosiness of a Christmas market.

I love languages, do you too?

Looks like Amsterdam

Having lived in four different countries, in two of them twice (Belgium and The Netherlands) I reminisce about each of the places, missing them all.

From Brussels I miss the Belgian ‘joie de vivre’, that people smile at you on the street, the food, the international aspect of the city. Different languages are spoken there, and you feel like you are in the centre of the world.

From Amsterdam I miss the city itself. The houses on the canals, the boats and the museums.

From Russia I miss the feeling of vastness, of freedom and deep emotions. Russians can appear as cold from exterior but if you make a friend from a Russian, you make a friend for life. I miss deep, meaningful connections.

From England I miss especially Sheffield, where I spent eleven wonderful years. I miss the roast on Sunday, Yorkshire pudding, being called ‘love’ by total strangers. I miss the British values, such as love of freedom, critical thinking and big debates. I miss the language, culture and BBC. I miss the anticipation of Christmas, because Christmas in England is definitely the best. I miss that people call dinner ‘tea’. I miss the pubs, the cosines of strangers, fish and chips on Tuesday and musical scene of a wonderful town in the north of England.

I miss them all.

Because of so much travel, I have an ideal place in my head. It looks like Amsterdam but where people speak French, with Sheffield’s hills, British pubs, amazing Belgian food and Russian philosophy of life, that teaches us that after each dark period there comes light at the end of the tunnel.

I miss that feeling now.

(me in the Netherlands)

My novel

Last year I sat down and wrote a book. It can be found in here.

In my book the main heroine is a 27 years renowned Russian pianist, that looks for her twin sister in a world affected by Covid. The book teaches us the power of human connections and that individual resilience is no longer enough. We all travel together in this life.

I wrote it in English, but the book’s heroine who tells the story, has a distinctive Russian voice. Elena tells us about the Russia of the oligarchs and how she was separated from her twin sister at the age of 8. The orphanage where she grew up lacked in kindness and compassion, and the heroine tells us how hard it is, when one’s personal trauma in life is delegated into a disorder to treat. Elena has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Elena is lucky to get a doctor who tries a trauma-approach on her. Trauma-approach in psychiatry can help the patients to recover from their psychiatric journey. We are all prone to become mad, and everything depends on who ends up treating the manifestation of human malaise. Are there some kind doctors left, I wonder, who see beyond the society of medical capitalism, where each extreme feeling can be labeled into a psychiatric disorder to treat?

I am quite optimistic in my novel, and I hope it can bring some hope to all those who have had a psychiatric experience, got diagnosed, and are stigmatized because they dared to be different or suffered from a deep trauma, that can’t be treated only by some pills.

I hope you will read my novel!

Growing up in the Soviet Union: a short story about Russia and Ukraine

I grew up in two places. One was Moscow, with its splendor of being a capital city, and the other place was in Ukraine, in its eastern part, where I spent first two years of my life and where I would go back each summer when I had my school holidays. It used to be one nation, it used to be one people. I remember how I inhaled the smokey area from the mines that was so present in a village near Donetsk, and how that smell brought me a sense of pleasure. It was a symbol for me of cosines, of deep friendships with my cousins, of a happy childhood that could be – when everyone grows up feeling the same, being friends with each other, regardless of the origins and the language spoken. It was a united place under the Soviet Union, where everyone had the same rights, the same benefits, food and the security of a great nation, where Armenians were friends with Georgians, where Ukraine and Russia were the same, where no one would ever imagine that sisters and brothers would fight a war on the opposite sides. One of my cousins lives near Donetsk (the ‘separatist’ area), the other lives right across the border in Russia, where tanks amass, and where no one understands how come that they have to fight each other.

When I would return each summer to the southern Russia, right across the border with Ukraine, it would take us an hour to reach the village One Four, close to Donetsk and Krasnodon, in the middle of the current separatist region, where the area was smoky from the mines, and where people would speak Russian but with a soft accent, that I inherited in my speech, because each summer I would be there, spending it with my grand-parents and my beloved cousins. We swam in the river Don, and we ate fried fish and pancakes in the evening. We would run around, and no one was thinking that this child was Ukrainian and this child was Russian. We were all the same, we were all the children of the Soviet Union, naïve in our beliefs that everyone had the same rights and the same privileges. Talking about Ukraine as a separate nation, a separate country, was unimaginable then. We were all friends, we were brothers and sisters.

The One Four settlement in the Eastern Ukraine that is now a separatist area was among my favourite places. It smelled of mines, a smell that I associated with happiness and a care-free life. Children could play outside whole day long, unrestricted in their movements and whereabouts. Together with my cousin we would walk around the settlement, picking pears and apples in the park, running with neighbourhood kids, to return to delicious pancakes or amazing fried fish made by my auntie. At weekend, if we were lucky, my uncle would take us sometimes to the river Don, a magnificent river where water was deliciously warm, and where instead of beaches, there were stretches of green grass, and one could jump into the water from not very high cliffs, and then climb back for another round. It was wild and so exciting, and made such a difference with a more regulated life back in Moscow. We would stay at my cousin’s house usually for a week during the summer holidays, and the rest of summer months were spent at my grand-parents across the border, where chickens would wake us up at five thirty, but we would promptly fall back asleep, to wake up to the sweet smell of pastries made by my grand-mum. The mornings would be spent on helping around the farm, such as picking up the weed or feeding the chickens, while in the afternoon we would run around the village, and swim in the narrow, small river, together with snakes. In the evening, together with other village’s children we would all assemble in the local park, light up a fire, and sing and dance around. After spending three months in such a paradise, it was always hard for me to get back to Moscow, because I missed Ukraine and Southern Russia.

It is especially painful to see people struggling there now, and it’s not because of the Soviet Union’s big past. We were the same people, one nation long before that. Denying us the right to be called One People is simply ignoring the history of a bigger nation, a greater past. Russia was born in Kiev, it was the capital city of the Big Rus. It was the same people, it was one nation, and a great nation at that. Different religions were welcome. Various languages could be spoken. It was embracing minorities and different walks of life. One of the princesses then, Anna, once she was married with a Western prince, sent a letter back from a ‘civilized’ western land. She could write the letter, but her aristocratic husband, a prince, could only sign it with a big letter. He couldn’t even write. Rus was prosperous and educated. It was a big nation, with a big heart.

It is devastating to see people, nations, languages and faiths being turned against each other, all at once, in a nation with such a great, honorable past.

‘We have to take sides!’ – Everyone seems to be proclaiming without actually realising that the only side which can bring a peaceful solution is to recognise the great past. And despite the fact that the Soviet Union became associated with something bad, I remember how fun it was to grow up there. I was born there, and I was taught equality, great friendships, respect for each other, and acceptance of other lands, faiths, and walks of life. I grew up loving all races, languages, and belief systems.

When I see all these people turning against each other, becoming enemies after centuries of being friends, I can only cry. Half of my family is in Ukraine, while the other is in Russia. I remember how I envied my cousin who went to school in Ukraine and could speak Ukrainian. It could never cross my mind that one language is better than another, or that one nation has more reasons to exist than someone else. Yes, the Ukrainian language is beautiful, but so is Russian, and it was all the same, before a movement of Cossacks claimed a separatist way in the old Rus. Catherine The Great brought it all back together. It became again a Great Rus, with new cities, such as Odessa, being created to memorize the way of a great nation, a great, same land.

Yes, claiming that it’s all different is denying both Ukrainians and Russians the great past. It is ignoring how much efforts was put into making it a beautiful, unique land, where different languages were welcome, and where one had respect for each other. Ukraine and Russia were never really separate lands until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and all the disasters the fall would bring with it. Without its strong bulk of unity, other countries, other lands started to fight, because the collapse of the Soviet Union brought wild capitalism to all other lands. Capitalism is an ideology, a set of beliefs, imposed on us now as if it’s a must, where as children we already grow up thinking that some are better than others, that some can have a better education, a better healthcare system, and a better life. The Soviet Union, however, was based in equality and it was a great and prosperous land. Each summer I would go to my beloved Ukraine, which was the same country, and the same land, and it was, oh, so welcoming and friendly, and together with my cousins we would play, run around and laugh. Growing up as a child thinking that everyone is equal is a past I will never deny myself.

When I think of that days in the past, I experience ‘toska’. It’s a Russian word that is difficult to translate into English. Toska is a dwelling, a dwelling for the old good days, and I dwell a lot because the current tension between Ukraine and Russia, brings to me the memories of how it could be: children happily playing on the street, several languages spoken with freedom, people being kind to each other, despite the country of the origin or a language one speaks. I love Russia, but I also love Ukraine, and things were so different in still quite recent past.

Once, upon a time, there was a great nation with a great outlook at life. It envisioned that everyone should be equal, that everyone should receive education, have access to good medical care, and never be homeless, without any support, understanding and love.

with my Ukrainian cousin at the border between Russia and Ukraine

Elena: A Love Story for Humankind

After catching a brief glimpse of a woman’s face on a friend’s Tinder page, world-famous pianist Elena Sokolova’s life is plunged into total chaos and collapse. The quickly vanishing image is the face of her missing twin sister Olga, separated from her in a Russian orphanage at the age of eight, and who Elena has been told may not even exist except as a symptom of her supposed schizophrenia.
Needing to find answers, Elena frantically runs through the streets of London knocking on random doors until she is finally picked up by police and brought to a NHS psychiatric hospital where she is placed in the care of the kindly Dr Arms, a practitioner of trauma-based therapy. Under his treatment, Elena gradually learns to process the painful events of her past life in the Russia of the oligarchs, while forming close friendships with fellow patients who are also embarked on journeys of healing from trauma.
Set in London and Sheffield amid the backdrop of the Covid crisis with its disruptions and enforced isolation, Elena: Love Story for the Humankind, is a love letter to British culture as well as a testament to the power of human connection to repair broken lives. Elena’s story teaches us that individual resilience is not enough; we all travel through this life together.

‘Elena: A Love Story for Humankind’ is a novella I wrote last year among the Covid pandemic and personal struggle with my bipolar disorder. The novella can be found on Amazon Kindle (here is the link).

Thank you!

The Dutch, Dutch coffee and Dutch borrel

Having looked at the marvels of Belgian food, let’s move to its neighbouring country and have a look at the Dutch.

The Dutch nation is situated in the Netherlands, which is a beautiful country, famous for its flatness, cosy farms, gorgeous mills, and obviously, the unprecedented amount of bikes. Bikes are everywhere, and it is a national transport. You are considered as really weird and not ‘gezellig’ if you don’t have one. It is almost a crime not to possess and ride a bike, as well as calling the Netherlands – Holland, a place, which doesn’t even exist. There is South Holland and North Holland, two provinces which are just a part of the Netherlands, but Dutch people are very tolerant, so they forgive you for this silly mistake of assuming they all come from ‘Holland’.

 Bikes are a true national trait, but so is coffee. The ritual around this divine drink isn’t replicated anywhere, not even close.

(Dutch bike)

Dutch people love coffee. Coffee is not just a drink, but an essential part of the day. Dutch people start their day with coffee, and drink it throughout the day. If you go to a canteen in the office, you won’t stumble upon tea (and if someone drinks tea, it means they come from England), you will be greeted with coffee. Coffee machine is always on, brewing.

Coffee is a Dutch institution. If you meet someone for a business meeting, or just among friends, it is usually around coffee. Even the famous Dutch expression ‘going Dutch’ was invented in relation to coffee. Dutch people don’t want to spoil their enjoyment of coffee, by sitting and thinking about who is going to pick up the bill. They know from the start that everyone pays for their own coffee, and just relax in the moment. Coffee should be enjoyed in peace, savoured in its taste, fully processed and not hurried up. They have a right to it though, as Dutch coffee is indeed a treat.

(enjoying the coffee)

Yes, Dutch people know how to make coffee. It is always made in a right way. It should never be a brown liquid, it should live up to its name. Coffee is strong, real coffee, never saved upon. While Dutch people don’t like discussing money and who earns how much, coffee is there no expense should be spared. It is probably the best-selling drink in the Netherlands. Everyone drinks it.

The first time I attended a family gathering in the Netherlands, at a birthday party of a relative of my family member, I was trying to process the awkward sequence of how food was served. It was so bizarre that back home, in Moscow, I couldn’t stop laughing about it with my friends. “Can you imagine,” I would say, “They start the party in a reverse order! They first serve coffee and cake, followed by normal food!” I was laughing about it for ages, until I moved to the Netherlands and learned the pleasure of coffee. Yes, everything starts with coffee, cake is just an accompaniment.

It is also only in the Netherlands that coffee is always served with something extra, such as a biscuit, a chocolate, or a waffle. If you know about it, you don’t even need to order a dessert. The dessert comes with coffee, included in the price. It is such a luxury, that no one can really accuse the Dutch of being not exuberant enough. Just look at how coffee is served, always and everywhere, and you will witness the ultimate exuberance. Here in the Netherlands I drink coffee, lots of it, strolling from one small cosy café to another (takeaways at this moment), ordering it after dinner, and during lunch. I savour it, I enjoy it, I study the different biscuits which come with it.

(coffee and a treat)

Coffee is not, of course, the only best thing about the Netherlands (though, extremely important!), it is also their bread and the national ‘gezelligheid’ called the ‘borrel’. Both words are difficult to translate, as is usually the case with true and unique cultural traditions, but I will try to explain.

Dutch people really love the word ‘gezellig’, and for a good reason, as it defines them as a nation. The term can be translated as ‘cosy’, but it implies so much more. ‘Gezellig’ is not just ‘cosy’, it is the whole essence of total relaxation, cosiness, and also of enjoying the moment. And ‘gezelligheid’ is the ultimate cosiness, achieved in the company of good friends, usually around coffee or a good Dutch ‘borrel’. ‘Borrel’ is an event. It is going out with friends and colleague to enjoy some nice drinks, and preferably around ‘borrel hapjes’. If you order a borrel on the Dutch menu, you will get the ultimate tapas. A selection of delicious snacks, that you can enjoy with a good glass of wine or beer, while having a good moment with your friends. It is a tradition, a perfect event to enjoy friendship, nice drinks, and great food, all in one go. It is indeed ‘gezellig’, it is indeed the absolute ‘gezelligheid’.

(Dutch borrel)

And so, to summarize, if you ever go to the Netherlands, and you want to enjoy it as a Dutch, you need to borrow a bike, drink lots of coffee, order a ‘borrel’, and try their bread. It is thin, melting in the mouth, coming in different colours. The brown bread is not just brown bread, it’s darker brown, or lighter brown, with seeds, or plain, perfect accompaniment for any dish!

The Netherlands is ‘gezellig’.