Russia: What You Didn’t Know You Don’t Know

If you’re not sure what Odd Things in Odd Places is and why I’m wandering around Russia by myself, you can learn here.

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Russia Map

[Source: Freeworldmaps]

When given the choice of Russia, Latvia, and Poland for where to send me on the first leg of the Odd Things in Odd Places series, it wasn’t that surprising that WBW readers chose Russia. Russia is funny. And they knew that.

And of countries in the world, certain of them are just really a “thing.” The US is a thing. Japan is a thing. Great Britain is a thing. India is a thing. There are just some countries that have such well-known cultures, that are so storied, that are so widely discussed and regularly parodied that they become their own category of thing.

But with its czars and its Soviet flag and its writers and composers and its vodka and its И’s and Я’s and its KGB and its Siberia and its Lenin and Stalin and Gorbachev and Putin, Russia may just be the thingiest country in the world.

Prior to this trip, I had never been to Russia, and my most notable prior experience with Russian culture did not go well.

Comic 1

Comic 2

Comic 3

Comic 4

Comic 5

Comic 6

Comic 7

Comic 8

So I had little idea what to expect. Now that I’m wrapping things up after two weeks here, I have a lot to say, and I’m gonna do this in three parts:

Part 1) About Russia

Part 2) Highlights

Part 3) Being a Russian Person: The Day I Was Mustafa the Illegal Uzbek Immigrant Who Wears a Bear Suit

(Part 3 is the whole “I’m going to live a day of the life in someone else’s shoes” thing, and no I don’t care that an illegal Uzbek immigrant isn’t actually a Russian person.)

(Quick other note: Of course, there are a million normal, nice things to do and food to eat and sights to see in Russia, and I did a lot of that. And no, it doesn’t make for interesting blog material, so I’m leaving most of the standard stuff out of these posts.)

Part 1: About Russia

Things I Learned Before I Went

Population: With 146 million people, Russia has the world’s 9th largest population, a bit higher than Japan’s. Weirdly, right above Russia’s population is that of Bangladesh, despite Russia being 116 times the physical size of Bangladesh.

Land Area: Don’t fuck with Russia when it comes to land area. It’s by far the world’s biggest country, nearly double the next largest, and spans nine time zones—essentially wrapping halfway around the Earth. It got so big through a series of conquests in the 1500s and 1600s, and somehow everyone just decided it was okay for Russia to keep all that land in subsequent centuries. Russia’s borders even included Alaska before Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State William Seward purchased it from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, or 2 cents per acre (Americans thought this was a bad purchase at the time, calling it “Seward’s Folly”).

Economy: Russia’s 2013 GDP was about $2.5 trillion, making it the 6th largest economy in the world, right in the same ballpark as Brazil, the UK, and France. But to get a feel for the wealth of the people there, let’s look at GDP per capita, where Russia is in 58th place, similar to Croatia, Malaysia, and Botswana. By far Russia’s largest export is mineral fuels (mostly oil), which makes up more than half of its total exports.

Political History: I imposed a character limit on myself for the About Russia section or I would have pulled a Tim and made it 4,000 words, so I’ll just do this whole thing in one sentence: Things were ruled by a series of Grand Princes through the Middle Ages until 1547, when Ivan the Terrible decided he’d rather be a Czar, at which point there were Czars, which lasted until 1721, when Peter the Great realized that it was cooler to be an Emperor, and then there were Emperors until the Russian Revolution in 1917, when the last Emperor, Nicholas II, was murdered along with his family, after which there was the Soviet Union, whose leaders were called long things like General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and most notably include Vladimir Lenin at first, then the especially unpleasant Joseph Stalin, then a handful of others until the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, after which we were left with the new Russian Federation, officially a multi-party representative democracy but unofficially one of those democracies that does a lot of undemocratic things and is ranked as the 122nd most democratic country by the EIU, and of which Boris Yeltsin served as the first President, followed by Vladimir Putin and then Dmitry Medvedev, but then in 2012 Putin (who was Prime Minister then, the second highest office) was like “Hey look at that zebra!” and when Medvedev looked Putin took the office again and made Medvedev Prime Minister, and that’s where we are today. Yeah.

While we’re here, how big a deal must it have been for the old Russian rulers when they got their nickname? Browsing through the history, I came across some normal ones, like Peter the Great (1682 – 1725), Alexander the Liberator (1855 – 1881), or Yaroslav the Wise (1019 – 1054), but others are hilarious, like Ivan the Terrible (1533 – 1584), Ivan the Handsome (1353 – 1359), Simeon the Proud (1340 – 1353), Vasily the Blind (1425 – 1462), Sviatopolk the Accursed (1015 – 1019), and Alexis the Quietest (1645 – 1676), and some are just weird, like Yuri the Long Arms (1149 – 1157), Dmitry the Terrible Eyes (1322 – 1326), and Vsevolod the Big Nest (1176 – 1212). Picture growing up as the future Russian ruler, imagining yourself as the future Yuri the Great or Yuri the Conqueror, and then the day finally comes and someone decides that you’ll be Yuri the Long Arms and that just becomes your name forever.

Life Expectancy: 70, which ranks 124th best in the world among countries.

Religion: Mostly Orthodox Christianity, but over a third say they’re non-religious.

Things I Learned When I Was There

The people can’t decide whether they’re incredibly nice or incredibly mean. Given my previous experiences, depicted above, I had low expectations for how I’d be treated. So I was pleasantly surprised when the people weren’t just nice, but there were many times I was treated way better than I am at home. Things like an airport security lady noticing I was carrying an extra pair of shoes as I finished the security check, telling me to hold on, fishing through her things for a bag, and giving it to me to put the shoes in. Imagine a TSA lady at JFK doing that. Or the woman next to me on the airplane seeing I was trying to sleep and struggling to get comfortable, tapping me, and telling me she’d be happy to put the armrest up so I could extend into her seat (I didn’t, that would be weird). Or the man who saw that I was in a rush to buy a train ticket and offered to make the transaction for me because he was near the front of the line. Then he walked me to my train to make sure I got to the right place. None of this kindness was solicited, none of these things happen to me at home, and I have a lot more of these stories.

And then there was the other side of the coin. The male train attendant who was standing right there when a woman was struggling to get her bag down the steps and didn’t offer to help, and who then, when she dropped it and it landed at his feet, just took a few steps away from it. The times I’d make eye contact with a waiter clearly needing something, and the waiter would look away, pretending not to see. And the funniest example, which happened no fewer than five times, was me on the street needing navigation help, trying to ask a stranger for help, and having the stranger completely ignore my existence, as if I weren’t there at all (this shocked me at first and then became my new favorite thing in the world when I realized it was an actual cultural thing). Not one of those three examples happens in the US either.

Pretty confusing. Speaking of the US—

The people are not fond of the US. No bipolar situation in this case. About 28 of 30 people I talked to about this were strongly anti-America. When I asked them about something like the Ukraine situation, the universal response was that the US spent a ton of money to turn the Ukrainians against Russia for their own selfish reasons. This never translated to anyone being nasty to me, they’d just calmly explain that unfortunately, my country is a piece of shit, and that would be that.

Putin gets mixed reviews and is hugely polarizing. The first handful of people I talked to all loved Putin, so for a while I thought it was universal. They’d explain how Putin was the perfect leader for Russia because he’s strong and smart and always a step ahead of idiots like Obama. When I’d bring up some of the other things about Putin that help land Russia in the 122nd spot in the Democracy Index, they’d basically say, “Good—hopefully he can be in power forever.”

But I ended up also meeting a large number of people who felt the exact opposite—i.e. the liberals—and they felt about Putin the way US Democrats felt about George W. Bush.

One sentiment that seemed pretty universal was an intense national pride and a yearning for Russia to not just be another European country, but a great world power. And there seemed to be a general frustration with the idea that the world parodies Russia as mean and vodka-drinking.

They don’t call it World War II, they call it The Great Patriotic War, and only talk about the 1941-1945 part of it. And most places I went to had a memorial dedicated to it. Which makes sense, given that over 20 million Soviets died in the war.

Sometimes people would continue to talk to me at full speed in Russian even after I made it clear that all I know how to say is hi, bye, thank you, and thank you very much. This happened a lot, and I still don’t get why.

A lot of cars have the steering wheel on the right side even though they drive on the right side of the road. Odd.

Siberia is real. I spent over half of the trip in Siberia, including taking the Trans-Siberian Railway 64 hours from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk (I highly recommend this, btw).

Some things about Siberia:

  • Siberia makes up 77% of Russia—everything but the westernmost quarter of the country—and Siberia alone would be by far the biggest country in the world if it were severed from Western Russia.
  • But with only about a quarter of Russia’s total population, if Siberia were its own country, it would have the 4th lowest population density of all countries, at 3.05 people/km2.
  • A lot of it looks like this:

Grassy Siberia

  • And a lot of it is endless trees, which left me unsurprised that Russia is home to about 20% of the world’s total trees, by far the highest of any country.
  • The places I went were warm in June, but I was told that temperatures regularly hit -30F (-34C) and can get as cold as –72F (-58C). That’s just a different level than anyone I know ever deals with. Apparently only when the temperatures dip below -40F (-40C) is school canceled for children.
  • After a few days in Krasnoyarsk, I hopped on a hideous 16-hour bus ride to the Tuva Region near the border of Mongolia, where everyone looked Mongolian, the people were Buddhist, and yurt-living was common—and I had to keep reminding myself that I was still in Russia. It really did not feel like Russia. But then I’d ask about the town’s political process, and I’d learn that their leader was put in place by Putin, who was on another side of the planet.
  • There were some super-weird scenes in Siberian cities, whose weirdness is hard to quite articulate…but just like look at this picture of a group of people hanging out in a city park:

Odd Siberians

Kind of odd, right? Like why is that lady in heels? And why are that guy’s jeans cut off there? And to the left, out of the frame, there were a couple guys in suits, just hanging out as part of the group.

I don’t know. Let’s move on.

 

Part 2: Highlights

Most adorable part of Russia that Russians take super seriously:

Their candy architecture. There’s no fact about Russian history that I enjoy more than that the succulent St. Basil’s Cathedral…

Candy Church

…was ordered for construction under the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan the Terrible

Who knows what his actual feelings were about things, but I prefer to imagine him being a widely feared man who was obsessed with rainbows and colorful swirlies and anyone who ever laughed at him about this was promptly beheaded.

He even insisted, apparently, that the inside of the cathedral looked like a princess’s house:

Inside Candy Church

And this lollipop architectural style was all over the place, including the dead-seriously-named Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.

The Most Shame-Inducing Moment:

The time I was whipped repeatedly by a grown man as I stood before him, naked.

You didn’t expect this to be an item in this Russia post. I didn’t expect this to be an item of this Russia post. But it’s something that happened—apparently all part of the experience at a Russian banya, or Russian bathhouse. The whipping tool is a dried birch branch with leaves on it, like this:

Branch

And it was just one part of a full routine of bad life experiences that happen at the bathhouse, which I learned by creeping out a couple locals by following them around the whole time. It goes like this:

1. Walk into a blazingly, scaldingly hot steam room where your ears and face literally feel like they’re in boiling water. Stay in there, inexplicably, for about 3-5 minutes, making sure to be publicly whipped by a grown man before leaving. (At one point, a staff member walked into the middle of the steam room with a towel and began spinning it around his head like a lasso. Yes, I thought, some relief—he’s fanning us off. In fact, he was using the towel to push the searing steam outwards, toward us, giving everyone blasts of scald.)

2. Walk out and take three seconds to be thrilled you’re not in there anymore before jumping entirely in a pool of frigid, 50 degree Fahrenheit water.

3. Get out, feel incredible for one second before going back into the boil chamber. Spend 3-5 minutes in there. Russian penises abound.

4. Given that you’re repeating Activity #1, find yourself with no choice but to consider the possibility that these two things might be the only activity for the whole time you’re there, and then shake your head no, because that just couldn’t be true.

5. Leave the hot chamber, life hanging on by a thread, bask for three seconds before jumping back into the heart attack-inducing bodyshock ice pool.

6. As you re-enter the boil chamber, continue to have it hit you that this is it. You’re going to alternate between those two things again and again and that’s just what’s happening in your life.

Of course, I felt fantastic afterwards, and no, I don’t want to do it ever again.

Closest New Friends of Mine:

The two Siberian maybe-crackheads I helped collect money on the street.

You know what’s remote? Here.

Remote Siberia

And it was there that I walked down the stairs of a random highway overpass and was asked for money by these two:

guitar couple

The girl asked me for money. That’s her job, while her guy plays the guitar.

“Siberian maybe-crackheads!” I thought to myself, and decided they were perfect people to get to know. So I showed them this note, in Russian, that I had on my phone. A lady I met on the train wrote it for me—it basically explains that I’m a writer and want to spend some time with you while you do your normal thing so I can get a better understanding of Russian culture (I learned early in the trip that hanging out and watching someone do their thing is super weird-seeming without any explanation, so the note was key). This is them reading the note:

Reading Note

(If you’re wondering, no, she wasn’t caught making a funny face by an ill-timed photo—she just had that exact face on for 30 straight seconds while she read the note.)

After reading the note, they were fully into the plan, and we became fast friends. They even let me collect coins for a while.

When the day was over, they invited me to come hang out at their house, which was a great idea except it was a bad idea.

The main issue was that we couldn’t talk to each other whatsoever, but the mainer issue was that their queen size bed took up nearly all of the square footage of the apartment, and I found myself having nowhere to sit but the bed, and so now we’re all just sitting there on the bed without being able to talk and that was kind of the extent of it. For three hours. I don’t really have more to say about this situation, and I’m sure they don’t either.

Most Worldview-Altering Moment:

The time I learned that I have a dark side, and it lives in my left testicle. That’s what this man told me:

Psychic

He’s a Siberian psychic and someone I clearly needed to meet once I learned of his existence, and after a one-hour interview with him about his work (expertly interpreted by a local WBW reader) and a one-hour psychic assessment of me, the key takeaway was that I have a dark side that lives in my left testicle. Now I have to go on with my life with that information.

The Most Impressive Person I Met:

So remember the super-remote place I was just in? From there I took a 16-hour bus ride to an even more off-the-map place—the Tuva Region, right on the edge of the Mongolian border.

It was there that I met the guy in the video below, who is astonishingly good at the local specialty, Tuvan throat singing, an ancient and dying art and one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. The thing he’s doing that’s crazy is singing two tones at the same time, a really low one and a really high one.

The Most Spiritually Enlightened Person I Was Physically Abused By:

Shamanism is an ancient practice that predates religion—the idea is that a shaman is someone gifted with the ability to access the spiritual world and help or heal people by altering the way the benevolent and malevolent spirits are affecting them.

Shamanism isn’t prominent today but there are still shamans in certain parts of the world, one being Siberia’s Tuva region. It was there that I met possibly the world’s most famous living shaman:

Shaman

I’m not joking about the famous thing—people come from all over the world to see him, and he is often flown to other countries to treat people, including the president of Latvia, and on multiple occasions flown to a clinic in Switzerland to train doctors. He’s even pictured in the Wikipedia article on Shamanism.

With the help of an interpreter, I interviewed him, and learned the following:

  • He was raised a nomad, and would have still liked to be, but the nomadic tradition is no longer sustainable after the majority of Tuva’s grazing animals were taken away during World War II.
  • So he lives in a village, in a yurt that he built himself, which he said takes two months to do if you know what you’re doing.
  • Anyone can try to be a shaman and mimic what a shaman does, but they’ll be completely ineffective if they’re not naturally gifted.
  • He makes an herbal concoction which supposedly works miracles for people’s health, which he sells for $1,500/liter. I’m skeptical too.
  • He at one point showed off by putting his arms over a fire and waving them through it for a while with no seeming pain, which I couldn’t tell whether was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen or one of those things that doesn’t hurt if you just keep moving your arms in and out of it.
  • In general, I spent the whole time torn between whether he was fully a placebo-effect-inducing snake oil salesman or an actual magical man and I’ve been wrong about the world this whole time.

After our interview, he briefly examined me before deciding that my head was a bad head and that he’d fix it for me, which he’d do by hurting me in a bunch of creative ways. If you’re interested, here’s a montage of him abusing me.

And if you’re counting, this is the second time in a week I was whipped by a grown man.

Back to Moscow for the Lady With the Longest Hair:

Long Hair

There were multiple contenders.

Most dickish wooden babooshka doll:

Bin Laden Doll

The flier I understood the least:

Babushka

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this flier. It’s one of the great mysteries of my life.

A highlight of the Trans-Siberian Railway was Russia’s Most Upsetting Roadside Snack:

Dried Fish

Really stressful thing for people to be selling outside the train at every railway stop. I finally bought one just to see what that life experience of owning a dried fish would be like, which really upset everyone on the train once I brought it in.

 

Part 3: Being a Russian Person—The Day I Was Mustafa the Illegal Uzbek Immigrant Who Wears a Bear Suit

Whenever possible on this series of trips, I’m trying to find a person who will let me live as them for a day, and in the case of Russia, that person was Mustafa the Illegal Uzbek Immigrant Who Wears a Bear Suit.

I met Mustafa while wandering around the Arbat area of Moscow. He looked like this:

Bear Suit

What an odd thing to do with your life, I thought, and watched him for a while. When he retired for the day, I approached him and using the Google Translate app on my phone, asked him if he wouldn’t mind letting me live his life tomorrow. He was so surprised by the question, he just said yes without thinking about it, and we had a date.

I showed up in the morning and had breakfast with him, where I learned that he and his friends moved to Moscow from Uzbekistan to try to get better work there, and I think he alluded to that not being legal, but I’m not positive. We finished up and it was time to get to work, which ended up turning into one of the longest days of my life, condensed here to a 10-minute highlight reel:

The other stops:
Japan
Nigeria
Iraq
Greenland

The genie question I asked people in all five countries

And another time, North Korea

  • Bob

    Very cool article 🙂 If nothing else, I just hope it inspires people to buy a ticket and go some place. Nothing will transform your life as much as the places you visit, the people you meet and the books you read.

  • Philippe

    You’re like a funnier, safer-living, early 2000’s Anderson Cooper.

  • Sofi Berro

    How many Earths we would need to fit the entire population if we lived as densely as in Siberia?
    I find it hilarious that you ignored the little girl probably most eager to meet The Bear because you were making a baby cry. That’s what I call an excellent job.

  • Lara

    So cool! I can not wait for the next one!

  • Saxon

    I’m dying from laughing so hard. This blog is the best. Good luck with the rest of your travels! Can’t wait to read about them.

  • Zach

    The creepy horror of you in a bear suit fast-waddling for hugs is priceless. Excellent article.

  • Mongolian

    Really nice article! Enjoyed it very much.
    Russian culture is well-known in Mongolia, so although there was nothing quite new, I still enjoyed seeing it from a different angle.

    As someone has already commented above – those cars with the steering on the other side are imported cars probably made for other markets. Mongolia is full of them too.

    And throat singing is quite common all over Mongolia and Inner Mongolia (it’s a nomadic thing). It’s called Khoomei and is usually sung while playing on the horse-headed fiddle (Morin khuur). Throat singing is usually divided into Tuvan and Mongolian. I don’t know much about the Tuvan one, but the Mongolian style is considered to have 4 different varieties and it is said that one can even sing classical pieces with it.

    So what I want to say is – it’s not dying out, it is so common that I find the man in the video not too much impressive because I’ve heard and seen such great performances back home.

    For centuries nomadic tribes used to call lands far beyond lake Baikal their home, including large parts of Siberia. So it’s no surprise that the Tuvan people look very Mongolian – because they kind of are. Mongolia is not a single ethnicity – it is a collection of nomadic tribes which have been living in central Asia for millennia. This year we are celebrating the 2223rd year of the foundation of the state in Mongolia, so I guess that says quite a lot.

    Thank you for the article.

  • Yana

    Looks like no one told you most Russians just don’t hug with strangers, even with those wearing an Olympic Bear suit 🙂 The video is quite touching though, and a bit sad.
    Loved the article, I just wish it was longer and more detailed.
    The syberian crack-heads look – and sound – really scary. Being Russian, I guess I’d never go with these two anywhere for a damn minute. Brave and lucky you)

  • hs912

    that was awesome!

  • Danimal

    Awesome article all around, but the highlight for me was that slide over to the woman on the bench at the end of the video. Cracked me up.

  • Ian

    Well done on trying to get to know another culture better. Those dolls are called matryoshka dolls, not babushka (which means grandmother). And the flier was telling old people to be wary of swindlers who could cheat them out of their money.

  • Valeria

    Great article, I laughed a lot! But… the picture of people in the park… it’s… it’s completely normal! The Very Normal Thing! That’s where I begin to feel truly Russian 😀
    Also, people might have been ignoring you in the street because they don’t know the area well. I’m frequently afraid of midleading people myself.

  • Clay

    I have really been enjoying your stuff. Thanks. Hope the rest of your travels are as good as they have been so far. Amazing fuckin world out there.

  • Karla H

    It blew my mind, I made the wrong decision to read this post and watch the video sitting in the office at a Friday evening, and I barely could hold the laugh to myself. Love your posts!!! You definitely made my day easier and put the last thing I needed to support my boyfriend on the saving process to go to Russia next 2018.

    Hugs to your awesomely cute and weirdest teddy suit that I hope to find when we are there ha-ha or that you can take to Mexico were we LOVE to hug every thing/person using motleys 😉

    • Yulia

      Karla, where exactly are you going to?

  • Sveta

    The poster says “Be careful! Money-grabbers!” I think the grandmothers are not supposed to be the money grabbing ones, but them who had their money grabbed) Funny post))

  • Erik

    Back in college (10 years ago) I studied abroad in Russia, and I had the SAME traumatizing naked whipping incident in a banya. I completely forgot about that until reading this… laughing in my office right now!!!

    P.S. great story – makes me want to go back to Russia to visit

  • Tralala

    Well you definitely haven’t seen all of the Russian banya. I suggest you return to Russia in mid-winter and try jumping right into the snow after being whipped by a naked adult male.

  • Alex Hvastovich

    Hey man, do you mind if I’ll make a video out of your post, translation to Russian with some of my comments? This is so funny though!

  • Rina

    It is quite interesting – and, perhaps, helpful – to look at the country you live in from another point of view, through the eyes of a foreigner. Thank you!
    And, by the way, one of the names you`ve mentioned is “VladImir”, not “VladAmir”. Just to make sure : )
    Good luck with your following adventures!

  • Cidae

    I know that pro-American Russian people exist. Just like me and my friends. I like Western culture (especially music) and I think that our people should give more attention to the human rigts.
    Excuse me 4 my awful language ))

    • Sasha

      Mmm… Pro-American and pro-human rights are two vastly different things, and one does not require the other. The USA is hardly a stellar example on the military front… However most people do want to have better relationships with other foreign countries, and cultural differences don’t help any (smiling at strangers is thought to be a little odd in Russia, however not smiling is considered unfriendly in other countries)

  • Ramón Yabra

    Tim, you’re like a real life Walter Mitty, I wish I could be like you when I grow up. I admire your work and absolutely love your website, I always recommend it to my friends although none of them actually know english well enough to read you.

    I wanted to ask you (If it isn’t inappropiate) the approximate cost of your travels, at least just to give me an idea of what it would take to travel as much as you do when I’m an adult. I understand if you don’t want to specify but it would be really helpful.

    Also, if you ever decide to go to Mexico City I will very gladly show you around the place, I’ve lived here all my life and would happily tour you around the city. I want you to know Wait But Why has quickly become my favorite website and I look forward to every single post.

    Thank you and good luck on your travels. 🙂

  • No thanks

    That head massage looks great man! how is your bad head now? feeling better? You should have told him that you have a dark side in your left testicle…

    To be naked-whipped, and repeatedly hit so creatively in the head by 2 old men in a few days in Russia… and you wonder why some of them behave so mean? Imaging a life-time.

    That was a very good post. I’d love to be in Japan with u now. Have fun!!

  • greercn

    Just wonderful stuff. I loved reading this. Thank you.

  • Lizzie

    The bear video made me laugh cry so hard my contact lens came out! Can I just ask though – who’s holding the camera?

  • Car

    That bear video is amazing. The best part is the guy and his friends giggling when you can’t keep the head on straight.

  • POPJ

    After my visit to a Russian Bania, I told my host “Somewhere in America, I know we do SOMETHING that would seem as strange to you as this experience has seemed to me… but I don’t have a clue what it might be.”

    • Saint

      I think smiling at strangers falls into that category for the average Russian.

  • Katie Elizabeth

    Tim…you are suuuuuper cute. I feel weird saying that, but yeesh. You are really attractive. That hair? I can’t.

  • What’s in a name?

    Tim, you’re HOT. And brave. And did I say you’re hot? The lady in the park is in heels to look pretty, and the guy on the right puts comfort before fashion, hence his jeans-turned-shorts-a-bit-too-long-but-who-cares. The dolls are matryoshkas, and babooshkas (first syllable stressed) are grandmothers or old women in general, but nothing else. The dried fish is a beer snack, I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone eating it without beer. And you’re hot. Lots of bear hugs from St. Petersburg <3

    • Saint

      You’d be surprised how many “Russian” things Americans call babushkas. I’ve heard fur hats called them, scarves, matryoshki, and more. I guess the scarves sort of make sense. But Americans seem to think all of Russia is a big old lady! 😀

  • Quackslikeaduck

    Please explain why Mustafa wears a bear suit in Moscow. I must know.

    • Helen

      This is how he works in Moscow.

    • Tanya

      He has the same job as guys wearing Mickey Mouse suits at Disneyland.

  • RJ

    Damn I wish you were also coming to India. After this insane piece on your trip to Russia, I’d love to hear what you have to say about my country. Very much looking forward to the remaining articles!! 🙂 Stay safe and have fun!

  • Wanna go

    I wanna go to Russia now. Your post made me feel like Russia may not be such a foreign country. Even if they do have some weird/very different aspects than the US does, Russia seems cool.
    Privjet Russian readers!

    • Yulia

      Privet!

    • Tanya

      Privet! Come to Russia! I think you will have a good time here 🙂

  • shin

    Do you want waitbutwhy to be about the guy with the amazing mind or the guy with the handsome face? I would do some research on how using video in communication works. For example check out the YouTube-star-phenomenon.

  • Nay

    You mixed up the Russians and Ukrainians there quite a bit – not the best thing to do given recent events. e.g. WWII casualties are for the whole USSR (which not = Russia), and many of the czars and princes are actually from Kyiv Rus / Ukraine (of which Russia was a late offspring).

    • What’s in a name?

      Sooo… Russia is a late offspring of Ukraine, not the other way around? Well, lol. Kiev was the capital of RUSSIA and the territory of modern Ukraine was Russian territory, that’s why it was Kievan Rus, not “Kievan Ukr”. Ukraine never existed as a state before the 20th century, and that’s why its name means “the outskirts”.

      As for the WWII casualties, you’re right, they are for the whole USSR.

      • Khaine

        But Kiev was the birthplace of the Russian civilisation.

  • klajs, Sweden

    Fantastic post! Love it.

  • danceofjoy

    Lovely article!! I can’t wait for you to get to Nigeria!!!

  • Anna

    Brilliant, brilliant write-up, and totally spot-on – I am telling you this as a Russian and a Moscuvite.
    I would never have the balls to approach someone for these ‘a day as __’ projects.

  • Julia

    Beautiful! Will recomend to my friends.

    Way to go, Tim.

  • Anonymous

    I really enjoyed reading the article. Its awesome that you visited the throat singers of Tuva. That’s something I have always wanted to do since I heard about in a documentary on Richard Feynman…

  • Max

    The fact that people will continue to talk in their native language even though you know only a few words is something that disturbed me too while I was living in China. I guess people with very little education don’t realize that others just can’t understand them…

    Great post tim !

    Max

    • Khaine

      Or maybe they simply cannot speak English, just as we can’t speak their language. Just talking on, even if the other person doesn’t understand you might be an attempt to fill the gaps, rather the awkward silence…

  • Olu

    I can’t wait for the article on Nigeria. I’m Nigerian

  • Alexey

    Thank you for the funny and sincere article.

    Actually, regarding banya, you have to practice it for a while, and then, maybe, you would love it. I don’t. But my friends constantly tell me that I don’t have the foggiest idea what real life pleasures are.

    And, as Max has said above, it’s a usual thing when people in foreign countries try to speak with you, even if you tell them that you don’t understand their words. People in Andalucian villages just repeat everything more loudly in this case. I had to learn Spanish to be able to talk 🙂

    Good luck with Japan! From what I heard from my friend who lived there for a while (she’s a scientist) it’s by far more weird place to live in. Russia climate and everyday customs seem so ordinary comparing to Japanese 🙂

  • Alex

    You forgot to include the annexed part of Ukraine in your map. Just sayin.

  • Jansie Martin

    You are amazing and this is the best idea, ever. Thank you for doing this!!! Also, is it weird to hear American music playing in a Russian shopping center?? I can’t imagine the inverse happening here.

  • Dmitry

    Wow. I just read the random article in google and i see my hometown – Krasnoyarsk. Nice work! Come to Russia again, we will wait:)

  • Mukesh

    Great Article, can’t wait to read about rest of the countries which you are going to visit.
    Good Job.

  • Jo

    Tim you’re much younger and cuter than I thought!

  • Notorious M. E.

    The map is really weird, because it doesn’t include the argued Kuril Islands in the Far East, lol
    Awesome post, really. I’m Russian and I don’t understand banya either. You’ve been to places where most of the people I know here in St. Petersburg, Russia, will never be, by the way.

  • Laurie Larks

    Applying my extensive knowledge of the cyrillic alphabet I worked out that the flyer is about osteoporosis, hence the worried-looking old ladies. You say it’s about scams? How good is your Russian, I’m thinking!

  • wobster109

    Bad news about Yuri the Long Arms. Turns out Long Arms is figurative. It actually meant he had influence over a big geographical area.

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  • NataR

    Very shallow, but funny article …. I enjoyed it actually.
    Its a pity people try to use direct translation for Russian tzars nick names, – the meaning is completely lost through that kind of translation. For example, if you would be curious enough, you would learn and Yuri Dolgoruki (Long hand) got his name because he took over many small principalities and expanded his land. The name, therefore, shows his far-reaching ambitions.

  • Ash

    Wahaha! You in a bear suite assaulting people for an entire day! Don’t quite your day job 😉

  • Another Russian

    Great post! Man, you made my day (actually, two days)! Thx a lot! Write more!

  • Elise

    I’m so confused about the Bear, how does Mustafa earn money doing that? Is there more to it that trying to hug people who don’t want hugs?

    And why were there other bears? Surely one man in a bear suit is enough for the one place.

  • This is a great article – quite the entertaining read! I assume my Russian SO thinks it is, as well, since he’s the one who emailed me the link to this article/story! Thanks for the read!
    Cheers!

  • Yoyo Go

    I read this article when it was published. Returning now to comment – – – I’m a huge fan of the 1 sentence history of Russia!

  • Meleh

    Tim, you cannot imagine how I enjoyed your article on Russia
    – as a native Russian speaker, but belonging neither to Russia nor to US.

    Your description of
    Russia and the Russians depicts not only typical Russian weirdness but also
    typical American view on anything different from your own culture.

    And the fact that
    you know so little of modern Russia and did not make much effort to understand it
    makes it even funnier – which is actually good as otherwise my US friend would
    not send me the link.

    Couple of comments: Russian girls are not mean at all. What
    would you expect – that they would run to you the very moment you say hi? You need to sweat a lot to attract their attention;
    they do not want to show they are too easy… Even if they are local sluts. But
    when you are friends, they would do everything for you – given you picked up the
    right one.

    Regarding the picture of people in local park: the guy in
    the squatting position covered with tattoo is ex-convict. That way they can sit
    for a lot time as they do not have a lot of chairs in prison. The details of
    the tattoo could tell to those who understand everything of his criminal and
    prison career. The other two guys look also of the type.

    BTW – any local
    could explain these simple things to you. There are enough English speakers in Russia;
    you could look for a student or a teacher type, or just ask if somebody spoke
    English around you.

    Just as I would expect from Russian tourists in my country
    to look for a Russian speaker rather than trying to speak Russian to those who
    cannot understand. It is really a very weird Russian trait.

  • Schmoopy

    This is the most insightful post on Russia I have come across so far. Thanks for sharing your experience on Siberia, I always wonder what it’s really like there. I can attest Russian Banyas are a torture but I alway feel fantastic right after- something about jumping between 2 extremes really gets the endorphin going.

  • Karel

    This really is much more insight about USA than Russia. How did you expect to get any close to ‘Russian culture’ waving around your phone with google translate on ? This is basically forcing shallow and cheap encounters just for the sake of having fun stories to tell afterwards, something like a cheap version of Vice magazine. In my country, I would never bother to hang out with a tourist I can’t communicate with, and who’s obviously just trying to see if I’m enough of a weirdo to feature on his blog. Nothing to do with the fact you’re American.

    Hope you enjoyed parts of it at least, because it does look like a waste of time.

  • Sasha

    Remember that confusing flier? It was warning you of thiefs – Осторожно (Be Careful) Мошенники (Thiefs/Frauds).

    The girl in heels? Maybe not in her precise circumstance, but you may have noticed that girls get a lot more dressed up to go anywhere, wearing heels and skirts in winter and in general always looking put together.

    Funny post, and it does show a few Russian cultural traits.

    • Sasha

      As to why there’s old ladies on it, there’s too possibilities:

      – Children and pensioners are most often the victims of thiefs

      – Thiefs are coming with increasingly complex ways to mislead people

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