Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Russia is a vast country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Russian language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, there is a great deal to see and do while visiting Russia.
In general, Russians love to stay at home. This is probably why sofas and slippers are the bestselling items in Russian Ikea stores. This desire to stay comfortable and cozy inside may be due in part to the cold weather Russia is famous for. If you do want to go out, however, there is plenty to do. Museums, theaters, clubs, concerts, tourist sites, and hikes are just a few of the multiple entertainment options available to the adventurous visitor.
Despite the tendency to stay indoors, Russians do have and live out the expression “cultural hunger.” Due to the Russian love of art and culture, the lines for an art exhibition or a new drama production can be longer than the lines for a Harrods sale in London. If you are looking for something to do, keep in mind that newer or more popular cultural attractions can be crowded, not just with other tourists, but with native Russians; be prepared to stand in long lines, or stick to smaller or little-known attractions.
The good news is that you can find activities in Russia to match not just your interests, but also your budget. The wide variety of cultural sites and entertainment options means there is something for everyone in Russia, regardless of their financial status. Keep in mind though that the capital tends to be one of the most expensive locations to visit or live – even the cheapest restaurants there can be expensive.
Moscow and St. Petersburg are the two likely arrival cities of visitors to Russia. Though each is a sprawling metropolis with an abundance of restaurants, hotels, and theaters, they each have unique atmospheres.
Moscow was originally a collection of villages that were brought together under a common growth plan. For this reason, the city requires a more adventurous spirit to explore. Although this is the location of Russia’s tallest and most modern buildings, there is an endless array of traditional areas to discover. Like its eclectic makeup, this city remains a melting-pot in the classical sense. It is a wealthy cultural center for countless people hailing from all parts of Russia. It is an extremely art-centric locale, and filled with people who recognize the value of eccentric living.
St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is a truly modern city. It was designed using an efficient and pragmatic mindset. It resembles some of the most advanced cities in Europe with its transportation options, and business-oriented city center. The layout of this city is geometric, and its infrastructure facilitates easy navigation for residents and tourists. Though this city is incredibly modern, it retains a traditional core. Large and modern cities tend to represent and house the most progressive populations, but St. Petersburg is very different. Despite some global urban trends, St. Petersburg remains one of the most conservative and non-progressive cities in Russia. The 2005 publication by ABBYY Software House lists many of the language and cultural differences between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The comparisons are extremely useful for visitors who tend to place these two cities in the same category.
Shopping for food can be a primary part of a family’s budget. Open from 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. and until 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. at night, the food shops here in the community can be a great resource. You may even find private corner retailers open 24 hours.
The days of empty food shelves in the Soviet shops are long gone. Long lines are also a thing of the past. Russians follow a more as needed approach when purchasing dairy, sausage, bread and ham. Because many people make twice weekly trips to the store, you won’t see the food shop shelves barren. There are also no preservatives in many of the products, so their shelf life is short and foods can spoil easily.
Dairy products such as yogurt and milk are universal items. But you’ll also find foods that are distinctly related to the Russian culture such as “простокваша” and “сырки.” If you’re unfamiliar with the items, it’s a version of sour milk or pieces of cottage cheese wrapped in chocolate and then stuffed with nuts or jam.
McDonalds to Russians equates to ready-prepared foods for sale. The delicatessen aisles are stocked with popular food items such as fried fish, pickles, baked meats and home-style salads. Russia also has its own version of ravioli, called “пельмени,”which are always filled with some kind of meat.
At the outer edges of the larger cities you’ll find modernized supermarkets. Making a trip to one of the giant superstores is a popular pastime for market goers on a Saturday. You’ll also find international giants in Moscow such as France’s Auchan and Britain’s Tesco.
The Russian love of nature is expressed through actives such as day or weekend hiking trips, fishing, and mushroom and berry picking. These activities sound relaxing and certainly can be, they all serve a practical function as well.
Hiking is a popular activity to celebrate events like graduations, birthdays, or the beginning of summer vacation. Russian hiking consists of a march to a pre-designated spot (sometimes with a quick glance at the surrounding woods), followed by a picnic or an overnight stay in a tent. Mushroom and berry picking are often done out of necessity rather than as a pastime, though even rich Russians with dachas in the south of England are known to roam their private parks in search of autumn mushrooms.
Fishing (“рыбалка”)is the Russian equivalent of golf; it is the most silent form of team building, and the best way to avoid unpleasant tasks such as household chores. It is important to return home with a catch though! The summer weekend markets do a brisk trade in fresh river fish of all sizes.
Hunting or target practice is another, more up market team-building and trust-building exercise. It is an important activity for networking and facilitating business deals. Even if you have never held a shotgun before, don’t reject an invitation – the picnic afterwards might lead to one of your most profitable deals. Just remember the advice of Russian politician Viktor Chernomyrdyn: “Hunting is my favorite leisure pastime. It gives me a chance to walk, to ramble, to wait, and to hide.”
In the 11th century, Nestor the historian described Russian bathhouses in a glorious treatise. His writings highlighted how Russian baths were places of communion, brotherhood, relaxation, and rejuvenation.
“…naked and joyous, they beat each other with birch twigs, and at the end pour ice-cold water on themselves, thus washing themselves, and not tormenting…”
This is a rather short description of traditional Russian baths. “Баня” is a place where both men and women go to beat the cold, but in the summertime “баня”is also very popular. This is a healthy and invigorating place similar to western saunas. Somehow though, “русскаябаня” is much more extreme. True immersion in the Russian bath requires the need to experience an entire rejuvenation. This is not the place to constantly sit and bask in a sleep-like state. It’s the place to use the elements to drive-out body toxins, while taking part in herbal treatments. The use of birch and oak switches, so called “веники,” and other natural essentials, helps the cold and hot treatments to shock the body. The experience of “баня” is something that Russians take very seriously. They considered it to be a type of mini vacation.
Facilities like СандуновскиеБани in Moscow not only feature traditional whipping massages, but TV lounges and tea service. These types of baths offer many options for body health, relaxation, community interaction, and enjoyment. In the past, русскаябаня gained a reputation for being the location of less-than-desirable actions. The increase in popularity of these facilities by tourist crowds has helped them transform into some of the most interesting and enjoyable places in Russia.
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