Distant Voice: from Russia with love


As I stepped off the bus in -40 degree snow boots, a down-feather jacket, thermals, and as much of my remaining wardrobe as would fit underneath, into the 19 degree heat of a glorious September day, to meet the “babushka” (“grandmother” – essentially landlady/adopted mother for the next seven months), I didn’t need Google Translate to decipher her first thought: “tourist”. The winds changed swiftly however, in more ways than one. After a mere few days of sunshine, winter arrived in early October, and with it the first snowfall, the babushka’s crisis of faith in my ability to survive out the winter, and the disappearance of either “minus” or “plus” before her daily stating of the temperature outside. Thus began apparent covert “mission cabbage”: to fatten the little English girl up for the winter, entailing sweets smuggled into lunch bags, extra meat cutlets sneaked onto dinner plates, and the daily potato challenge: a scientific experiment of whether or not it is possible consume your own body weight in carbohydrates. This eternal carb-loading is simply an ordinary cultural phenomenon here. Russians apparently consume inhuman quantities of potato (resulting in an entire supermarket aisle dedicated to pick n’ mix of different types of frozen potato). Stereotypes about Russian potato passion unearthed, now to analyse said stereotypes in their most potent form: vodka. Stories of Russian drinking seem so fantastical, so preposterous, that one doubts their reality. But not so. Within the first two weeks I found myself seated at the dinner table, attempting to quietly eat my cabbage soup, while being showered by perseverant insistences from the babushka’s 40 year old son to join him in necking vodka shots. Now, bears. The trip does indeed appear to be turning into something of a bear hunt. The current sighting tallyis at four, including one mascot bear at the ice hockey stadium, skating round the stadium’s rink to “Eye of the Tiger”, and Yaroslavl’s own live bear, Masha, who lives inside the town walls in the city museum. I also had the somewhat unnerving experience of turning round in Red Square for a chance meeting with a live bear (his name was Stepan and he liked crab sticks, wearing gold ties, and licking unsuspecting children’s’ faces). I have also encountered approximately 1,000 bears at Yaroslavl’s Teddy Bear museum – two rooms stuffed (pun definitely intended) with furry exhibits ranging from the interesting (a 100 year old bear that had outlived both tsardom and the Soviet Union), to the somewhat dubious (terrifying and/or resembling a Neanderthal version of the meerkat from the Compare the Market adverts), to the downright mistaken: the Winnie the Pooh toy, which I’m fairly certain was an owl, and not a bear. I arrived in Russia armed with a camera, enough winter clothing to make me the spitting image of a giant knitted marshmallow, and one or two stereotypes. I’ll be leaving with yet more suitcases, approximately a million photos, a whole new view on the definition of “cold”, and a few more stereotypes to add to the collection. Before coming to Russia, my mind was so full of these stereotypes, but of course I expected them to be just that, and not really representative of everyday life. Now though, I’m starting to think that maybe this country really is as wonderfully bizarre, dazzling beautiful, and utterly fascinating, as we all half-assume, half-doubt, yet entirely hope, it is.

PHOTO/Sergey Ponomarev


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