Russia: What You Didn’t Know You Don’t Know

July 11, 2014 By Tim Urban

If you’re not sure what Odd Things in Odd Places is and why I’m wandering around Russia by myself, you can learn here.

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And of countries in the world, certain of them are just really a “thing.” The US is a thing. Japan is a thing. Great Britain is a thing. India is a thing. There are just some countries that have such well-known cultures, that are so storied, that are so widely discussed and regularly parodied that they become their own category of thing.

But with its czars and its Soviet flag and its writers and composers and its vodka and its И’s and Я’s and its KGB and its Siberia and its Lenin and Stalin and Gorbachev and Putin, Russia may just be the thingiest country in the world.

Prior to this trip, I had never been to Russia, and my most notable prior experience with Russian culture did not go well.

So I had little idea what to expect. Now that I’m wrapping things up after two weeks here, I have a lot to say, and I’m gonna do this in three parts:

Part 1) About Russia

Part 2) Highlights

Part 3) Being a Russian Person: The Day I Was Mustafa the Illegal Uzbek Immigrant Who Wears a Bear Suit

(Part 3 is the whole “I’m going to live a day of the life in someone else’s shoes” thing, and no I don’t care that an illegal Uzbek immigrant isn’t actually a Russian person.)

(Quick other note: Of course, there are a million normal, nice things to do and food to eat and sights to see in Russia, and I did a lot of that. And no, it doesn’t make for interesting blog material, so I’m leaving most of the standard stuff out of these posts.)

Part 1: About Russia

Things I Learned Before I Went

Population: With 146 million people, Russia has the world’s 9th largest population, a bit higher than Japan’s. Weirdly, right above Russia’s population is that of Bangladesh, despite Russia being 116 times the physical size of Bangladesh.

Land Area: Don’t fuck with Russia when it comes to land area. It’s by far the world’s biggest country, nearly double the next largest, and spans nine time zones—essentially wrapping halfway around the Earth. It got so big through a series of conquests in the 1500s and 1600s, and somehow everyone just decided it was okay for Russia to keep all that land in subsequent centuries. Russia’s borders even included Alaska before Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State William Seward purchased it from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, or 2 cents per acre (Americans thought this was a bad purchase at the time, calling it “Seward’s Folly”).

Economy: Russia’s 2013 GDP was about $2.5 trillion, making it the 6th largest economy in the world, right in the same ballpark as Brazil, the UK, and France. But to get a feel for the wealth of the people there, let’s look at GDP per capita, where Russia is in 58th place, similar to Croatia, Malaysia, and Botswana. By far Russia’s largest export is mineral fuels (mostly oil), which makes up more than half of its total exports.

Political History: I imposed a character limit on myself for the About Russia section or I would have pulled a Tim and made it 4,000 words, so I’ll just do this whole thing in one sentence: Things were ruled by a series of Grand Princes through the Middle Ages until 1547, when Ivan the Terrible decided he’d rather be a Czar, at which point there were Czars, which lasted until 1721, when Peter the Great realized that it was cooler to be an Emperor, and then there were Emperors until the Russian Revolution in 1917, when the last Emperor, Nicholas II, was murdered along with his family, after which there was the Soviet Union, whose leaders were called long things like General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and most notably include Vladimir Lenin at first, then the especially unpleasant Joseph Stalin, then a handful of others until the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, after which we were left with the new Russian Federation, officially a multi-party representative democracy but unofficially one of those democracies that does a lot of undemocratic things and is ranked as the 122nd most democratic country by the EIU, and of which Boris Yeltsin served as the first President, followed by Vladimir Putin and then Dmitry Medvedev, but then in 2012 Putin (who was Prime Minister then, the second highest office) was like “Hey look at that zebra!” and when Medvedev looked Putin took the office again and made Medvedev Prime Minister, and that’s where we are today. Yeah.

While we’re here, how big a deal must it have been for the old Russian rulers when they got their nickname? Browsing through the history, I came across some normal ones, like Peter the Great (1682 – 1725), Alexander the Liberator (1855 – 1881), or Yaroslav the Wise (1019 – 1054), but others are hilarious, like Ivan the Terrible (1533 – 1584), Ivan the Handsome (1353 – 1359), Simeon the Proud (1340 – 1353), Vasily the Blind (1425 – 1462), Sviatopolk the Accursed (1015 – 1019), and Alexis the Quietest (1645 – 1676), and some are just weird, like Yuri the Long Arms (1149 – 1157), Dmitry the Terrible Eyes (1322 – 1326), and Vsevolod the Big Nest (1176 – 1212). Picture growing up as the future Russian ruler, imagining yourself as the future Yuri the Great or Yuri the Conqueror, and then the day finally comes and someone decides that you’ll be Yuri the Long Arms and that just becomes your name forever.

Life Expectancy: 70, which ranks 124th best in the world among countries.

Religion: Mostly Orthodox Christianity, but over a third say they’re non-religious.

Things I Learned When I Was There

The people can’t decide whether they’re incredibly nice or incredibly mean. Given my previous experiences, depicted above, I had low expectations for how I’d be treated. So I was pleasantly surprised when the people weren’t just nice, but there were many times I was treated way better than I am at home. Things like an airport security lady noticing I was carrying an extra pair of shoes as I finished the security check, telling me to hold on, fishing through her things for a bag, and giving it to me to put the shoes in. Imagine a TSA lady at JFK doing that. Or the woman next to me on the airplane seeing I was trying to sleep and struggling to get comfortable, tapping me, and telling me she’d be happy to put the armrest up so I could extend into her seat (I didn’t, that would be weird). Or the man who saw that I was in a rush to buy a train ticket and offered to make the transaction for me because he was near the front of the line. Then he walked me to my train to make sure I got to the right place. None of this kindness was solicited, none of these things happen to me at home, and I have a lot more of these stories.

And then there was the other side of the coin. The male train attendant who was standing right there when a woman was struggling to get her bag down the steps and didn’t offer to help, and who then, when she dropped it and it landed at his feet, just took a few steps away from it. The times I’d make eye contact with a waiter clearly needing something, and the waiter would look away, pretending not to see. And the funniest example, which happened no fewer than five times, was me on the street needing navigation help, trying to ask a stranger for help, and having the stranger completely ignore my existence, as if I weren’t there at all (this shocked me at first and then became my new favorite thing in the world when I realized it was an actual cultural thing). Not one of those three examples happens in the US either.

Pretty confusing. Speaking of the US—

The people are not fond of the US. No bipolar situation in this case. About 28 of 30 people I talked to about this were strongly anti-America. When I asked them about something like the Ukraine situation, the universal response was that the US spent a ton of money to turn the Ukrainians against Russia for their own selfish reasons. This never translated to anyone being nasty to me, they’d just calmly explain that unfortunately, my country is a piece of shit, and that would be that.

Putin gets mixed reviews and is hugely polarizing. The first handful of people I talked to all loved Putin, so for a while I thought it was universal. They’d explain how Putin was the perfect leader for Russia because he’s strong and smart and always a step ahead of idiots like Obama. When I’d bring up some of the other things about Putin that help land Russia in the 122nd spot in the Democracy Index, they’d basically say, “Good—hopefully he can be in power forever.”

But I ended up also meeting a large number of people who felt the exact opposite—i.e. the liberals—and they felt about Putin the way US Democrats felt about George W. Bush.

One sentiment that seemed pretty universal was an intense national pride and a yearning for Russia to not just be another European country, but a great world power. And there seemed to be a general frustration with the idea that the world parodies Russia as mean and vodka-drinking.

They don’t call it World War II, they call it The Great Patriotic War, and only talk about the 1941-1945 part of it. And most places I went to had a memorial dedicated to it. Which makes sense, given that over 20 million Soviets died in the war.

Sometimes people would continue to talk to me at full speed in Russian even after I made it clear that all I know how to say is hi, bye, thank you, and thank you very much. This happened a lot, and I still don’t get why.

A lot of cars have the steering wheel on the right side even though they drive on the right side of the road. Odd.

Siberia is real. I spent over half of the trip in Siberia, including taking the Trans-Siberian Railway 64 hours from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk (I highly recommend this, btw).

Some things about Siberia:

Kind of odd, right? Like why is that lady in heels? And why are that guy’s jeans cut off there? And to the left, out of the frame, there were a couple guys in suits, just hanging out as part of the group.

I don’t know. Let’s move on.

 

Part 2: Highlights

Most adorable part of Russia that Russians take super seriously:

Their candy architecture. There’s no fact about Russian history that I enjoy more than that the succulent St. Basil’s Cathedral…

…was ordered for construction under the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

Who knows what his actual feelings were about things, but I prefer to imagine him being a widely feared man who was obsessed with rainbows and colorful swirlies and anyone who ever laughed at him about this was promptly beheaded.

He even insisted, apparently, that the inside of the cathedral looked like a princess’s house:

And this lollipop architectural style was all over the place, including the dead-seriously-named Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.

The Most Shame-Inducing Moment:

The time I was whipped repeatedly by a grown man as I stood before him, naked.

You didn’t expect this to be an item in this Russia post. I didn’t expect this to be an item of this Russia post. But it’s something that happened—apparently all part of the experience at a Russian banya, or Russian bathhouse. The whipping tool is a dried birch branch with leaves on it, like this:

And it was just one part of a full routine of bad life experiences that happen at the bathhouse, which I learned by creeping out a couple locals by following them around the whole time. It goes like this:

1. Walk into a blazingly, scaldingly hot steam room where your ears and face literally feel like they’re in boiling water. Stay in there, inexplicably, for about 3-5 minutes, making sure to be publicly whipped by a grown man before leaving. (At one point, a staff member walked into the middle of the steam room with a towel and began spinning it around his head like a lasso. Yes, I thought, some relief—he’s fanning us off. In fact, he was using the towel to push the searing steam outwards, toward us, giving everyone blasts of scald.)

2. Walk out and take three seconds to be thrilled you’re not in there anymore before jumping entirely in a pool of frigid, 50 degree Fahrenheit water.

3. Get out, feel incredible for one second before going back into the boil chamber. Spend 3-5 minutes in there. Russian penises abound.

4. Given that you’re repeating Activity #1, find yourself with no choice but to consider the possibility that these two things might be the only activity for the whole time you’re there, and then shake your head no, because that just couldn’t be true.

5. Leave the hot chamber, life hanging on by a thread, bask for three seconds before jumping back into the heart attack-inducing bodyshock ice pool.

6. As you re-enter the boil chamber, continue to have it hit you that this is it. You’re going to alternate between those two things again and again and that’s just what’s happening in your life.

Of course, I felt fantastic afterwards, and no, I don’t want to do it ever again.

Closest New Friends of Mine:

The two Siberian maybe-crackheads I helped collect money on the street.

You know what’s remote? Here.

And it was there that I walked down the stairs of a random highway overpass and was asked for money by these two:

The girl asked me for money. That’s her job, while her guy plays the guitar.

“Siberian maybe-crackheads!” I thought to myself, and decided they were perfect people to get to know. So I showed them this note, in Russian, that I had on my phone. A lady I met on the train wrote it for me—it basically explains that I’m a writer and want to spend some time with you while you do your normal thing so I can get a better understanding of Russian culture (I learned early in the trip that hanging out and watching someone do their thing is super weird-seeming without any explanation, so the note was key). This is them reading the note:

(If you’re wondering, no, she wasn’t caught making a funny face by an ill-timed photo—she just had that exact face on for 30 straight seconds while she read the note.)

After reading the note, they were fully into the plan, and we became fast friends. They even let me collect coins for a while.

When the day was over, they invited me to come hang out at their house, which was a great idea except it was a bad idea.

The main issue was that we couldn’t talk to each other whatsoever, but the mainer issue was that their queen size bed took up nearly all of the square footage of the apartment, and I found myself having nowhere to sit but the bed, and so now we’re all just sitting there on the bed without being able to talk and that was kind of the extent of it. For three hours. I don’t really have more to say about this situation, and I’m sure they don’t either.

Most Worldview-Altering Moment:

The time I learned that I have a dark side, and it lives in my left testicle. That’s what this man told me:

He’s a Siberian psychic and someone I clearly needed to meet once I learned of his existence, and after a one-hour interview with him about his work (expertly interpreted by a local WBW reader) and a one-hour psychic assessment of me, the key takeaway was that I have a dark side that lives in my left testicle. Now I have to go on with my life with that information.

The Most Impressive Person I Met:

So remember the super-remote place I was just in? From there I took a 16-hour bus ride to an even more off-the-map place—the Tuva Region, right on the edge of the Mongolian border.

It was there that I met the guy in the video below, who is astonishingly good at the local specialty, Tuvan throat singing, an ancient and dying art and one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. The thing he’s doing that’s crazy is singing two tones at the same time, a really low one and a really high one.

The Most Spiritually Enlightened Person I Was Physically Abused By:

Shamanism is an ancient practice that predates religion—the idea is that a shaman is someone gifted with the ability to access the spiritual world and help or heal people by altering the way the benevolent and malevolent spirits are affecting them.

Shamanism isn’t prominent today but there are still shamans in certain parts of the world, one being Siberia’s Tuva region. It was there that I met possibly the world’s most famous living shaman:

I’m not joking about the famous thing—people come from all over the world to see him, and he is often flown to other countries to treat people, including the president of Latvia, and on multiple occasions flown to a clinic in Switzerland to train doctors. He’s even pictured in the Wikipedia article on Shamanism.

With the help of an interpreter, I interviewed him, and learned the following:

After our interview, he briefly examined me before deciding that my head was a bad head and that he’d fix it for me, which he’d do by hurting me in a bunch of creative ways. If you’re interested, here’s a montage of him abusing me.

And if you’re counting, this is the second time in a week I was whipped by a grown man.

Back to Moscow for the Lady With the Longest Hair:

There were multiple contenders.

Most dickish wooden babooshka doll:

The flier I understood the least:

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this flier. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life.

A highlight of the Trans-Siberian Railway was Russia’s Most Upsetting Roadside Snack:

Really stressful thing for people to be selling outside the train at every railway stop. I finally bought one just to see what that life experience of owning a dried fish would be like, which really upset everyone on the train once I brought it in.

 

Part 3: Being a Russian Person—The Day I Was Mustafa the Illegal Uzbek Immigrant Who Wears a Bear Suit

Whenever possible on this series of trips, I’m trying to find a person who will let me live as them for a day, and in the case of Russia, that person was Mustafa the Illegal Uzbek Immigrant Who Wears a Bear Suit.

I met Mustafa while wandering around the Arbat area of Moscow. He looked like this:

What an odd thing to do with your life, I thought, and watched him for a while. When he retired for the day, I approached him and using the Google Translate app on my phone, asked him if he wouldn’t mind letting me live his life tomorrow. He was so surprised by the question, he just said yes without thinking about it, and we had a date.

I showed up in the morning and had breakfast with him, where I learned that he and his friends moved to Moscow from Uzbekistan to try to get better work there, and I think he alluded to that not being legal, but I’m not positive. We finished up and it was time to get to work, which ended up turning into one of the longest days of my life, condensed here to a 10-minute highlight reel:

The other stops:
Japan
Nigeria
Iraq
Greenland

The genie question I asked people in all five countries

And another time, North Korea

Footnotes

Extra information

Citations & Sources