Similar to most Americans, I wrongly assumed that Russia was all about communism, vodka and stone-cold people. After spending a week in the country, I can say that we have a completely skewed concept of a beautiful country and an extremely kind people. While in Sochi, I only had good interactions with the locals. Despite the language barrier, they were nothing but helpful.
Our group had to get directions for the train on several occasions. The night a writer and I went to women’s ski jumping in the mountain cluster, we got lost but found an extremely helpful Russian couple who were going the same way as us. Only the man in the relationship spoke English and, although it was broken, we had some amusing and sarcastic conversations with them and another Russian couple while following them back to the Olympic Village train station. I found out that night that the word for “sarcasm” is the same in English and Russian leading me to believe how similar our senses of humors are.
When pin trading, I was going to give a Russian volunteer one of our BSU at the Games pins because she only had one pin at the point. After handing her the pin and telling her she would have two now, she went over to her bag, dug inside it and handed me a wooden magnet of her hometown.
I had several of these experiences where the other party and I would hardly understand one another, using pointing and charades in order to communicate, but they were some of the most sincere conversations I have ever had. It is odd to not understand any of the language being used by another person, but still understand them and connect with them in this way. It is humbling.
We often asked the locals how they could tell we were Americans and, nine times out of ten, it was because we smiled so much. In our culture we are taught to smile at one another as a way of acknowledging the other person and saying hello. Russians are taught that a smile is supposed to be a genuine exchange of emotion and that a smile between strangers of the opposite sex is considered flirting. While walking down the street, Russians would not make eye contact or smile. They were rather stoic, which is probably one of the reasons we believe they are rude. It is simply a difference in cultures though. In fact, once we started speaking with the locals they loosened up and instant friendships were formed.
I think that American history classes teach us to fear Russia because of the Cold War and because of communism. I now feel like it is all propaganda. Russia is rich in history and pride. Our countries seem to be more similar than different. We are both facing issues with terrorism, tight security, LGBT rights and the working class. Both countries are evolving in an attempt to correct these issues.
It is really amusing looking back on the discussions we had before leaving for Sochi. We were warned about the terrorist threats and given security plans. We were told to not wear any American apparel because we would be considered “targets”. But I never felt threatened while there. Security was everywhere and it was a hassle to get through, but it was completely necessary and only made our group feel safer. As for the American apparel, people decked out in American flags were constantly approached by Russians to have their photos taken together. If anything, we were targets for photo ops.
Honestly, I am glad the Winter Olympics are being held in Russia. It is allowing Americans to experience the real Russia and to share those experiences with others. It is a country similar to any other European country and especially similar to the United States. Because we were enemies during the Cold War we have so many misconceptions of Russia. Honestly, the only stereotype I found to be true was the love of vodka. Russia definitely loves its vodka.