Friday, 9 May 2014

Russian Victory Day and 12 things about Russians

Today, we will be talking about something very near and dear to me - Russia or rather, Russian culture. Yesterday was the Russian Victory Day, and today, I will be sharing a few tidbits about it, as well as Russian culture. 

I am quite the embodiment of a cosmopolitan person - I was born in one country, have an ethnic background from another, and lived in yet another, and then another, ... and then one more! I love all of the countries I have lived in, my birth country, being an immigrant in the US, and then hopping around Europe before settling down in the Netherlands. At the same time, there is always a bit of a special place in my heart for that one culture, that one place where I was born: 

Crimea. It's that peninsula in the south of Ukraine that can be described as  a Russian enclave. [Most] people here speak Russian as their first language, and identify as Russian. To try to keep confusion at a minimum, my family identifies as Russian, but we were born in Ukraine. 

Have you heard of Crimea? It's that peninsula that used to be a part of Ukraine, but is now a part of Russia? Kind of. You see, Ukraine is unstable again. Because of all of the instability, it feels strange to be writing a post about such a nationalistic Russian holiday. I have a few degrees in International Relations and Eastern European studies, and it is very difficult not to turn this into a scholarly article about the current situation. This isn't the platform and I will try to keep all of my rants and theories to myself. You're welcome! 

Let's look at some photos as we transition into the culture talk. 

I had better ones, but they got deleted. Ukraine is a gorgeous country though, trust me! 

Victory Day is about the Second World War. It marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany and the end of WWII. During 'the war', there were about twenty million military casualties from the Soviet Union. Isn't that number mind boggling? That is also not including victims of the genocide. Just to have a comparison, there were approximately one million deaths and wounded US soldiers combined, and five million German casualties. 

World War II is still remembered in Russia. My grandparents and great grandparents, like many others, all suffered so much, and those horrific stories are still remembered. Victory Day is a large celebration of national pride in Russia, marking the end of that terrible time period, and now includes concerts, parties, speeches, parades, and lots of flags cheerily being waved.

When my family moved to the US, Victory Day became acknowledged with a small party or gathering with family and close friends, while remembering the losses and celebrating the end of the War. It's a strangely somber, but exciting day. I suppose celebrating a Russian national holiday as an expat in the US that is actually from Ukraine is in itself a strange concept. 

While there is so, so much I can say about Victory Day, Russia, Ukraine, and especially Crimea, I want to move on to something light and cheerful! I want to tell you a little bit about Russian people... a list of some fun quirks that many of us have! These are generalisations folks so take 'em with a grain of salt! 

In no particular order: 

  • High heels - women get dressed up. You will never see a Russian woman in Russia/Ukraine going to the grocery store in sweats or worse yet, pjs! That does not happen. In fact, many women will bust out their strollers, high heels, and lipstick just for a quick walk to get some toilet paper!  
  • Food, food, food, and still more food. If you go to a Russian person's home, make sure you are hungry! Especially if a babushka (granny) lives there. They will not let you leave until you have eaten at least an entire meal and most likely seconds. It doesn't matter if you just came from eating dinner. 
  • Food brings us to our next point: Vodka. No, I don't mean 'Woohooo! Paaartaaay!', but there is a proper way to drink it! You don't just do a shot or whatever other wild antics you may imagine. Rather, you sit at a table with loved ones, while consuming a ridiculous amount of food, chatting about anything and everything, and maybe even singing. Prior to actually having a drink, someone will say a very long toast, everyone lets out a quick 'Na zdorove' (for your health) and then you may finally have a shot! My family often used pickles as chasers. Then, course number 1434222 will make an appearance... just incase you're still hungry! 
  • Parties typically involve sitting at a table, and eating. For hours. In between several courses of delicious food that comes in ridiculously large portions, there will be an equally ridiculous amount of drinking, singing, accordion playing (if you're lucky), and anecdote telling. 
  • There are superstitions for pretty much everything. One of the most dreaded offences you could commit in a Russian person's home is whistling in doors! You would practically be dooming them to financial ruin if you dared to do so! My husband has finally been trained to only whistle whilst outdoors, and all indoor spaces are official whistle free zones. Bad luck can of course be countered by knocking on wood, or spitting over your shoulder three times... obviously! 
  • New Year is the best thing ever. Who doesn't love the biggest holiday of the year? Santa Claus (Ded Moroz or Grandpa Frost) brings presents with the help of his granddaughter Snegorochka, fire works everywhere, loads of drink, and of course, enough food to feed an army! It will also involve watching the necessary 1970s Russian classic Irony of fate or enjoy your bath
  • Bring a gift when visiting someone else's home. It's just nice! They'll probably stuff you with food anyway, so it's kind of like bartering for something tasty. 
  • Sashliki - A Russian barbeque. So. Much. Awesome. 
 Russian barbeque
Click photo to visit original source
  • I've found that it's much harder to become friends with a Russian person than with Americans, or the Dutch. There seems to be a certain air of distrust at first. Once you get past that initial phase though, you have a friend for life. If they invite you over to their house (where you'll eat), you know you're in!
  • No shoes in the house! Take off your shoes after immediately entering a Russian person's home unless directly told not to. It's true. I've never met someone from any Eastern European country that actually just wore shoes inside... Here in Holland, it's the norm. People always wear shoes indoors. This (and feeding my guests too much food) is probably one of the Russian 'things' that I really live by. 
  • Skovznyak - I think in English this is a cross breeze. Basically, you can't open too many windows or doors in the same room to allow a cross breeze. You will get sick. Everyone will be sick... I suppose this one is comparable to the frozen/sick ovaries old wives tale. I still find myself avoiding these things out of habit to this day though, but it does sound silly, huh?  
  • And lastly, a tip: If you ever want to be stressed, anxious, generally miserable, face unhelpful government staff, be ignored, and have to pay ridiculous amount of money, you should most definitely try to go arrange some paperwork in Ukraine/Russia. You may have to pay a bribe or two, and have a member of parliament call some people before any city hall staff member will even consider talking to you. 

I think the main 'lesson' we have learned today is that Russian people sure love their food! In all seriousness, food culture is a pretty big deal. I love the atmosphere of a small gathering, with a full table, laughter, and some guitar playing and singing.

So if you are lucky enough to get a chance, stop by a Russian party! Just make sure that you are hungry! 

Thanks for reading,