Women Talk: Misanthropy as a National Sport

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Why aren't Russians happy meeting other Russians when traveling? We can't help it, I am afraid. Regardless of education, social status and a general "goodness" level.

Why aren't Russians happy meeting other Russians when traveling?

We can't help it, I am afraid. Regardless of education, social status and a general "goodness" level.

Last week, my friends and I arrived in Saas Fee, a perfectly tranquil, 100% car-free and overwhelmingly scenic ski resort in the heart of Switzerland. While instantly falling in love with the mountain views, we were slightly disappointed to be not the only Russians in our hotel. "Russkie," my girlfriend, honors graduate from the Moscow State University, a polyglot who speaks five languages and one of the sweetest persons I've known, muttered, wistfully, having noticed a few of our countrymen sipping beer at the bar. I looked around and nodded with a sign. It all sounded as if we spotted a large cockroach family chilling under a humongous Christmas tree that glittered in the hotel's lobby. Shame on us, but we just couldn't help it.

Yet this was a rather discreet alpine chalet style hotel, and the Russians staying there weren't particularly loud, drunk or obtrusive even when they celebrated the Russian Christmas. They didn't shower the waiters with 500 euro tips and spoke decent English when ordering excursions at the reception. These weren't even close to the types I had shared a hotel at the Turkey's Mediterranean coast with so many times: those who used to start their day with a generous share of vodka and beer together, swore like seamen during a deadly storm, threw up into the hotel's swimming pool occasionally and beat up fellow guests from Germany on the 9th of May, Victory in World War Two Day.

Even so, in that cozy Swiss paradise we somehow sensed each other's presence and not in the most welcoming way. No smiles, not even casual ones, no "hellos," "Merry Christmasses" or any other genteel chitchat in which other nationalities would happily engage. Instead — sneaky "checking out" glances and quiet sneering gossip behind each other's backs. "Why is this guy traveling with two women? Is the older one a wife and the younger — a mistress? What do they do to have earned their money for this kind of vacation? Why are they dressed so tastelessly?.." The mutual audacity was subdued, but it was there.

Where's this nasty attitude coming from, I wonder? Is this a class thing (the Russians belonging to the same social strata do enjoy hanging out together in some special "chosen" places around the world)? Some deeply rooted inferiority complexes, a form of new Russian snobbishness or mere bad manners? Or is our desire to temporarily escape our homeland's realities so strong that we don't want any reminders when we go on vacation? Or, is it perhaps a queer form of competition verging with envy, a by-product of the Soviet era when consumer joys were limited to the Communist party elite and of the wild capitalism that brought striking inequality?

I talked to my colleagues, many of them avid travelers, about this curious case of misanthropy which became the national sport. Most confessed they did choose vacation destinations partly based on the chances of encountering other Russians there: the lesser the better. As for me, while editing numerous travel features in Marie Claire magazine, I, too, have often stressed the absence of my countrymen as a major advantage of a hotel or resort.

"Unfortunately, the way many Russians still behave when they travel abroad make you want to pretend you don't belong to this nation," Ekaterina Chumerina, my fellow editor, agreed. She admitted to have always tried to avoid mass destinations like the Turkey or Egypt coast for that particular reason. "For many of my countrymen, vacation means binge drinking. I don't want to be identified with this and I don't want my trip to be ruined," she said.

"We aren't that friendly with each other back home, why should we bother abroad?" said Anastassia Gerasimtchuk, photo editor and another ardent traveller. She said that outside her country, she's often taken for a Westerner. "Nobody believes I am Russian — I don't drink, I don't wear evening make up and stilettos at breakfast and speak English. That's how, justly, an average Russian is perceived abroad."

Interestingly, many other nationalities don't mind at all running into their countrymen while in the foreign lands. The French, for instance, might hesitate before heading to a resort flooded by the British, Americans or Russians, but they'd gladly socialize with other French and even share the travel tips from their favorite Le Guide du Routard (the French analogy of Lonely Planet guide) with each other. When Americans meet fellow Americans abroad, they'd eagerly get into their usual small talk enquiring what state their travelling countrymen are from and how long it took them to fly over. The Italians, moreover, would nearly fall into each other's arms and immediately proceed to recommending buoni posti per mangiare (good places to eat) in the area.

But it's not yet the case for Russians, at least for many of us.

Still, I believe this demeanor could change. As our middle class solidifies, more of us get to travel and we get clearer about our identities, our behavior abroad might become different. And I mean not only less debauchery and more style, but also just a bit of civility towards each other.

But I only wonder how many generations this might take.

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Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.

Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.

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