For most Americans, Russia is just a cold place — the weather’s cold, the people are cold and the war is cold.
Before I visited Russia, everything I knew about it came from school. I had a year of IB history on the Bolshevik revolution. Plus, one course I took in college called “Love and Death in the Russian Novel.” It was as heavy as it sounds. To be honest, I had zero interest in Russia when I enrolled in that class. But, the class and authors — Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev and Dostoevsky — surprised me with their layers. It was one of my favorite courses I took in college. In the same way, Russia itself did not disappoint.
So what’s it like for an American in Russia? Especially a single, black female? Well I’m happy you asked.
For starters, all those things about how icy Russia is are true. It is cold here (at least in November). The people aren’t exactly cheerful and diplomacy doesn’t particularly flourish.
But I found their frozen facade is for a reason. These people have been through it. Their history includes Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, communism… Not to mention the weather is often below freezing. Russians come from a tough cloth, and being an American in Russia is an eye-opening experience.
While in St. Petersburg I hired a guide, Eugenia, she runs Smart Free Tour (look her up she’s awesome). She spent the entire day showing me landmarks and talking about the history of the city and the country. What I found the most fascinating was hearing from someone my age who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
She told me about living in Russia during the Cold War and when the Soviet Union fell. She remembered as a kid, the only fresh foods at the grocery store being potatoes, apples and carrots. We’re not talking about Medieval times, this was in the 90s! Hearing that was strange. I knew it happened in my lifetime, but as a kid I had no idea. My exposure level to the Soviet Union was Zahngeef from Street Fighter. I remember thinking as a kid: “What kind of name is USSR for a country?” And here was Eugenia, who seemed like me, but who had experienced so much in her short lifetime. War. Famine. The fall and rise of an empire.
So when she told me how great it was the years after Putin came to power, I was like, “Wait, what?” In the US, Vladimir Putin looks like an insane megalomaniac. But for a lot of Russians there’s still a halo effect from those early years. He saved the country from the brink of destitution. Putin, a hero? Well, excuse the hell out of me.
Even though I don’t agree with the politics, I saw why some Russians don’t give Putin the major side eye he deserves now.
In Russia, I got one question a lot from people. It wasn’t even always a vocalized question. It was a look that I could see in people’s eyes. When I got on the train or walked down the street, the stares and quizzical looks said it all: “Why are you here?”
I expected this to come from a place of xenophobia: American-hating Russians. But the odd thing was, I don’t think it did. They were in fact curious. They wanted to know what would bring this black woman halfway around the world to cold ass Russia.
For those who could speak English, I was happy to share with them that I was as curious about them as they were about me. And they would tell me how awesome it was that I had come to visit their country. They felt genuine excitement to see an American visiting Russia. And not to be stereotypical, but this moment was usually followed by an offer of a vodka shot. Which, who am I to say no to?
Also the fact that my name is Natasha seemed to bring smiles to a lot of people’s faces. “Do you know you have Russian name?” Da, da (yes, yes) my dad loved Rocky & Bullwinkle. I’m not Russian, but my namesake was a Russian spy ;)
By the way speaking Russian and understanding Cyrillic is a whole other story. I picked up about 10 good words I could say. But don’t let the Cyrillic trick you! You think you recognize the characters, but then you find out a P sounds like an R, and you see a backwards N and you realize that you know nothing.
Now as a black person in Russia, one thing is for sure: you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. I read an article about the worst places for black people to travel, and Russia was right up there on the list. Not exactly surprising. It said there’s quite a bit of violence against people considered to be black and to be extra, extra careful. Extra, extra? That second extra had me a little worried. But I saw the other countries on the list and I had been to a lot of them without incident, so I decided to press on.
I thought it would be funny to count how many black people I saw while I was there. Let me tell you, not many. I got to about six total. But I didn’t have any negative experiences as a black woman in Russia. My advice if you’re worried: stick to the big cities, follow the rules, don’t get too drunk and you’ll be fine.
My main gripe with Russia was the general lack of graciousness. I could be waiting in line for my turn and someone would dart in front of me when it was my turn. I did not let that ish fly by the way. I would get shoved around on the subway platform, or getting on and off the train. I’ve been in busy subways in New York and Tokyo, but in Moscow people act like they’re ready to fight.
The one thing I can say for Russian subways is America’s are absolutely ugly in comparison! I lived in New York for a year, the subway terminals are completely disgusting and sad. Being down there makes you lose all hope and joy. It’s like the dementors work for MTA.
Walking into the metro in Moscow and St. Petersburg was like walking into a freaking museum. There’s stain glass art, statues, paintings, mosaics. It’s gorgeous! And clean! I don’t think I saw a single pizza rat down there.
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.