Today’s post is by Stephanie, another Australian who has started learning Russian while teaching in Russia.
In this post she shares about her experience as a woman dating in Russia while learning the language. This is a topic I have a lot to say about personally as I had a Russian girlfriend during my time in Kazan which I partly credit with helping me learn the language so quickly (links to my story below).
So it’s interesting to hear another perspective – especially one that respects the traditional values of Russian society. 🙂
Russia is portrayed to the West as a cold, hard place with some magical architecture, myriad vodka shots, and a leader who dances with bears and who, for some unfathomable reason, never wears a shirt.
The people are portrayed in the countless American films featuring Russians as spies or members of gangs who continue to refer to each other exclusively as comrade (which, incidentally, is a word that came into English via the Romance languages and is not at all a Russian word! Who knew?!).
Whilst it is cold, vodka certainly exists, and calendars featuring a shirtless Putin and puppies are not in short supply, there are a thousand misconceptions about Russian culture and people.
After living here for long enough to catch a decent glimpse into Russian culture, here are the things that I want you to know about Russia and Russians:
1. The more traditional view of women that persists in Russia does have its perks in dating (and day-to-day life)
Before I get stuck into this point, I want to make it clear that I do not condone any “traditional” view of women that involves domestic violence or any kind of behaviour that devalues, disrespects or degrades the importance of the woman’s free will.
What I do want to say is that, as a financially-independent Western woman, I LOVE that Russian men hold doors open for me and help me off buses.
Do I expect it? No.
Does it enrage me when it does or doesn’t happen? Definitely not.
Do I feel a small flutter of butterflies in my stomach when my date does it? You bet I do!
It’s a respectful gesture and it shows that they’re capable of thinking of others. If nothing else, it is certainly better than having a man yell “nice arse” at me from a car…
It’s a little more complicated outside of the dating scene.
I’m grateful when a man helps me down from the bus or train. I’m Australian and I am not yet comfortable jumping off something a little higher than I’d like it to be when my landing space is covered in snow and ice, so it is genuinely helpful.
It’s also heartwarming to see men helping women with prams, shopping bags/trolleys or whatever else up the stairs, BUT I will admit that I’m suspicious of what my male 14-year-old students are up to when they insist on holding the classroom door open for me. 🙂
It’s also a little bewildering when an elderly woman rejects my offer to help her with her shopping, only to accept the offer of the next passing male.
Russia is not a disability friendly place in many ways, so I do query whether these gestures that being increasingly scrutinized in the West and called out as potentially being “sexist” are borne of necessity and consideration, not as a result of a more “traditional” view of women.
In any event, when I recall the fights that I had with lazy/tired Melbourne workers for a train seat when I had stitches in my foot and compare it with the Russians jumping off their seats to assist anyone slightly worse off than themselves, I think the West could learn a thing or two.
2. The more traditional view of women that persists in Russia does have its drawbacks in dating
So, whilst I love the doors that have opened for me on the dating scene since I moved to Russia (pun intended), I haven’t exactly gamed the system and found perfection here.
There are certain expectations that come along with being a female in Russia that I don’t necessarily subscribe to. I’m a pretty low maintenance girl, in the sense that I don’t spend a ton of time maintaining myself and my usual hairstyle is “yes, my hair has been washed recently enough and then left to its own devices”.
I certainly don’t look or smell like I spent the last three years living with Russian bears, but, compared to the effort put in by Russian women, I can probably be best described as plain.
A few of my male friends and dates have brought this up on a number of occasions.
Some of the comments are innocuous:
“You don’t look or dress like a Russian”
Some are a little more overt:
“Have you ever thought about getting your teeth whitened?”
But all of them evidence that my attitude is definitely a quirk that Russian men notice.
In Australia, women who cannot cook or who don’t take ownership of housekeeping duties aren’t going to be ostracized these days. I have firsthand experience and a bunch of anecdotes that suggest Russian men prefer women who will tackle these tasks with a smile.
The Russian guy that I’ve been seeing is happy to cook. He actually makes me elaborate breakfasts whenever I stay.
He is also more than happy to take the backseat on every other meal and makes a show of complimenting me whenever I cook.
It’s a little Pavlovian, but for now I find it cute so no harm, no foul.
Another cultural difference that I’ve noticed is that male-female friendships aren’t common. Students in my classes have raised their eyebrows more than once when I’ve mentioned spending time with a male friend.
Navigating friendships with Russian men can be tricky because their intentions are likely to be a little different to your own.
This certainly exists within Western culture, but the undertones are on steroids in Russia, where marriage and children are hot topics amongst the parents of single people in their mid-to-late twenties.
3. Language can be an issue here
I know that combining wine, mime and exaggerated facial expressions goes a long way towards forging lasting and meaningful bonds.
I’m also an English teacher and spend a lot of time working to get my meaning across to my students.
This means that I do have to be in the right mood if I’m going to be enthusiastic about going on a first date with a stranger with B1 level English and where I’m not sold on whether there’s enough chemistry for the date to be worth putting eyeliner on for.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE love in all of its glorious forms and will hopefully end up with someone whose first language is not the same as mine.
That said, it can be tiring at times and dating in Russia has demanded a lot more effort and attention than dating in Sweden or Germany. I’ve learned to not shy away from the phrases “sorry, what was that?” or “I’m really sorry, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say”.
I know it might seem impolite but it’s much better to ask for clarification and to admit defeat than it is to politely giggle and ruin the conversation for the next five minutes.
4. There will be misunderstandings
I am guilty of forgetting that this level of fluency isn’t the norm in Russia and have made more than one assumption of understanding only for it to come back and bite me since I got here.
Some of these assumptions have been hilarious! 🙂
I asked my friend if he likes spicy food, he assured me that he does. Unfortunately, he thought that “spicy” food was food prepared with spices and he was taken aback by the heat in the Mexican beans that I had prepared.
As it turns out, he does not like spicy food.
I have learned to be a little more careful with the way I phrase things in the dating scene.
Questions like “do you have feelings for me?” are risky for two reasons.
Firstly, if my advocacy subject at University taught me nothing else, it’s that you should be wary of questions you do not know the answer to.
Secondly, whilst native speakers understand that this question means “do you fancy me?”, a non-native speaker might (as I found out) think that you’re asking whether he has any kind of feelings about you, like whether he finds you funny at times, or friendship.
5. There are benefits to dating someone who speaks your target language
Jokes aside, I am lucky enough to have found an excellent Russian man with excellent English who is willing to help me improve my Russian.
He encourages me to describe what is going on around me, or to answer in Russian where possible.
He speaks in slow Russian where he thinks I might be able to understand.
It feels a little ridiculous sometimes, to babble to someone the same way a toddler might one minute in one language and then switch back to English a moment later to discuss something substantially more complex than “we eat cucumber and egg”.
Russian is also a really sexy language.
I’m sure you’ve come across the adage that languages are best learned in the bedroom. Well, whilst the pillow talk is sexy (as is listening to him order burgers over the phone or anything that he says in Russian), it’s also amazingly beneficial to have a native speaker who is willing to practice the target language with you daily – for free.
For those of you who are interested, the most common Russian pet names are Котёнок (kitty) and Солнышко (sunny).
These seem a little cringe worthy to me. I like being called Австралия, which translates to Australia.
It’s a little grammatically incorrect and it perhaps seems a little unfeeling but it came from a good place so I like it.
Language exchanges, language exchange apps and lessons are all valuable learning tools, but having someone around who is genuinely motivated to help you learn the language for no reason other enabling you to speak with them in theirs is truly a beautiful thing.
6. You really have to know who you are and what your values are
Long story short, dating a Russian has its advantages.
The Russians that I’ve come to know and love are passionate, considerate, and thoughtful.
They’re also much more traditional in their views than I am.
My advice for anyone dating someone from a vastly different culture is to make sure that you know yourself and your non-negotiables in a relationship before you let anything get too serious.
Realistically, the charming, passionate, traditional Russian man may not be suitable in the long term if you firmly believe that the household responsibilities should be evenly distributed.
Values, even contradictory values, can happily coexist within a relationship as long as they are negotiable.
If your Russian partner would prefer for you to put a bit more effort into your appearance when out in public, but is happy for you to be your low maintenance self at home – and that’s a compromise you are happy to come to – more power to you. For this to work, you do have to have a hard look at what you are and what you are not willing to compromise on.
Obviously, you should be doing this in every relationship, but it is especially true when you come from an egalitarian society and your partner is raised with traditional values.
So… what’s my verdict?
All in all, living and dating in Russia has been fun and truly educational! I’ve learned a lot about what traditional values look like – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and I’ve learned a lot about life, love, the Russian language, and myself.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I truly do enjoy living here and I’m looking forward to whatever happens next.
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