Here are 12 random things that we experienced during our time in Russia that we found interesting or unique. Because Russia is so big and diverse, it got an extra 2 things! You can view our other “10-ish Things…” posts here.
1. Chowing down at the Stolovaya
A stolovaya (столовая) is a type of cafeteria that became popular in the Soviet Union. It is a bit like a self-service buffet, where you pick out the food you want, place it on your plastic tray, and pay for each item you selected. Stolovayas are still very popular eateries in Russia today. Unlike in the US, there is no stigma against food that has been sitting out in a glass case all day, and because of the popularity of stolovayas, the food rotates quickly. Sometimes, you have to microwave your own food to get it to your preferred temperature, but even so, the food at the stolovaya is surprisingly fresh and tasty. On top of that, it is extremely affordable compared to other restaurants. A large plate of food with soup, salad, pasta, and chicken might only cost $3 USD. Another bonus is that your meal is totally customizable, usually there are many options for main dishes, side dishes, soup, bread, desserts, etc., and you can select as few or as many items as you want.
We really enjoyed having the option of a cheap reliable meal at a stolovaya while traveling in Russia. The best stolovayas we encountered were in Kazan, where the options ranged from 50-year old, fluorescent-lit, neighborhood institutions, to trendy upscale stolovayas with creative dishes and artisanal earthenware.
2. There’s a museum for everything
Russia has mastered the museum. Russian towns, no matter how small, will always have at least one museum, with at least one employee (who would probably prefer to go on reading her book than help you buy a ticket). Some are house museums dedicated to famous artists who lived there, or local history, or culture. But the really amazing thing about museums in Russia, is that people actually go to them! Russian people are very cultured, and they are especially interested in documenting their local culture and passing it down to the younger generation. Some of our favorite obscure museums were: the Volkonsky House Museum in Irkutsk (dedicated to the Decembrists and their families who joined them in exile), Nikolai Gogol’s quirky art nouveau house in Moscow, and the department mini-museums or Tomsk State University, which featuring well-curated geology and paleontology exhibits.
3. People actually go to the theater… and read books
Russian people have a great appreciation for the arts. Classical music, ballet, literature, poetry, and opera are very popular throughout Russia. I was surprised at how many Russian people have read Dostoyevsky and can recite Pushkin poems by heart. They are very proud of their nation’s writers and artists, and it is typical to see a plaque posted outside the building where a famous author, poet, director, composer, or musician spent time living. Cities of moderate size have several performance theaters, and there are shows nearly every night!
When we were in Russia, we went to more museums and art performances than I have in the past 10 years. In St. Petersburg we saw the ballet Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre (the theatre where it was first performed) and it was excellent. Like, absolutely stunning. In Moscow, we saw a performance by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, a Pushkin play, and a Georgian opera performance. In Kazan, we saw a great performance of Don Juan, and even though it was all in Russian, I still enjoyed it. The performance quality is always quite high, and they rely on the talent of the artists instead of expensive effects. With the exception of Swan Lake, all of these experiences were quite affordable (we spent between 5 and 25 dollars, and even cheaper tickets were available).
4. Use the banya any chance you get
A banya (баня) is basically a Russian-style sauna, and it is an essential part of Russian life. The banya usually consists of one, or more rooms, heated to multiple levels from warm to sweltering. Typical banya technique involves rotating through the rooms until you can’t bear the heat any longer, then plunging your entire body into an icy pool of water, then repeating this process 2-3 times. Types of banya can vary from basic outdoor sheds with a cast iron stove, to luxurious, multi-story bath houses.
We had two great banya experiences in Russia. The first, and most memorable, occurred during our volunteer experience on Lake Baikal. There was a rustic cabin down by the shore of Lake Baikal with an attached bath house, and because we were volunteering in a closed-to-the-public nature reserve, we had the entire place all to ourselves. We had to chop all the wood to start the stove and wait 1-2 hours for the banya to reach maximum heat, but our efforts were well worth it. We bathed in the banya multiple times, even once in the middle of the night while it was raining outside. The feeling of working up a sweat in the banya, then running outside in the dark and plunging ourselves into the frigid waters of Lake Baikal, was truly indescribable.
Our other banya experience came when we were staying in a cabin in the Altai Mountains. The resort had a very nice banya with three rooms at varying levels of heat; the third room was scorching hot! Outside the bath house was a plunge pool dug out of the river, and the surrounding mountains and autumn foliage created an incredibly scenic environment.
5. World War II Monuments are everywhere
In Russia, World War II is known as the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet Union had by far the most casualties out of any other country, with over 24 million people killed in the conflict. Because of this, Russia has a lot of monuments dedicated to the people who fought in WW2. Each city, even small ones, have a monument dedicated to the local people who died in the war. The monuments are typically located in a central park and include an eternal flame to memorialize those lost in the war.
6. Mushroom hunting is like a sport
Mushroom hunting is a very popular Russian activity. Almost everyone knows which mushrooms are good to eat and where to find them in the woods. When hiking in the woods, don’t be surprised to see one or two people out with their mushroom baskets looking for some fresh mushrooms. When we were camping out on Olkhon Island with our crew of Russian volunteers, as soon as we had some downtime, it was unanimously agreed that we should go foraging for mushrooms in the woods. Since it had been raining, we found a great crop of maslyata mushrooms right near our camp. The first haul was so good, we decided to go out every day in search of more! We ended up having an epic feast of mushrooms cooked over the campfire every night.
7. Why not add dill and sour cream?
Two of the most popular additions to food in Russia are dill and sour cream, and it is widely believed that these two ingredients will improve any dish. What would improve a nice hot bowl of borscht? Dill and sour cream of course! Dumplings, chicken, mushrooms, pasta? Add more dill and sour cream! By the end of our time in Russia, I was becoming quite addicted as well. I particularly enjoyed chicken cooked with sour cream, and Russian dumplings (pelmeni) dipped in sour cream.
8. There’s probably a Marshrutka to get you where you want to go
Marshrutka (маршрутка) is the Russian term for a minibus. The name literally translates to “cute little route”. Marshrutky (plural) service a set route and are the way most people get around in towns without a metro. They come very often (roughly every 5 minutes) and are inexpensive. The interior of the buses are also quite cozy and comfortable; I told Chiara that sitting on a marshrutka feels like sitting in a grandma’s living room. In bigger cities, Google Maps or other apps like 2GIS will give you directions and tell you which Marshrutka number to take, which make traveling by Marshrutka very convenient. Without an app or knowledge of city landmarks, it is really hard to figure out which marshrutka to take, because the maps aren’t posted anywhere obvious.
9. Relaxing at the Dacha
Ah, just thinking about the dacha (дача) can make you feel more relaxed. A dacha is a Russian summer cottage out in the country. Though some dachas built these days are extravagant mansions (like what you probably picture when you hear the words “summer home”), the quintessential dacha is a rustic, wood home with only basic amenities. The garden is filled with summer vegetables, which are eaten fresh, pickled, or canned for later in the year. Fruit from the trees are turned into jam. Barbequing is an important part of the dacha experience, and shashlik (grilled meat) is an included in dacha feast. If you’re lucky, there will even be a banya. Too bad we arrived in Russia in the fall after the end of dacha season! All I got to hear was people speak wistfully about dacha life. Maybe next time…
10. Don’t go camping without your butt pad
This was an interesting piece of camping gear that all of the Russians on our Baikal trip brought with them. It’s called a podzhopnik (поджопник), which literally translates to “under butt thing”. It is basically a foam pad that is attached to your butt and strapped around the waist. Every Russian crew-member of our team would wear these all day, even while digging holes or chopping wood. Then, when it was time for tea, as it often was, they could just plop down on the ground and have a nice little seat under them. I admit it looked appealing, and maybe we need to bring these to the US.
11. The Soviet Union of Cats
I believe that there is a grand conspiracy, and that the Soviet Union was secretly controlled by cats. Just kidding, obviously, but it is a strange coincidence that in Russia, and all of the ex-Soviet states we’ve been to, cats are universally loved and can be seen everywhere. Even one of the most iconic characters in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is a giant cat named Behemoth. During our travels in Russia, we were constantly pausing to take photos of cute cats or cat paraphernalia.
12. Russian Names
Russian names follow an interesting pattern. You are probably already familiar with many quintessential Russian names, such as: Anastasia, Ivan, Vladimir, Natasha, Dmitry, etc. Almost all Russian names also have a diminutive form; that is a more familiar form that is used among family and friends. For example, if a boy’s name is Alexander, the diminutive form is Sasha. Or, if a girl’s name is Anastasia, the diminutive form is Nastya. In the US, we sometimes take the diminutive form of Russian names as legal first names such as: Natasha, Tanya, or Sonya, so it gets a bit confusing. However, in Russia this naming convention is well defined and everyone will know what your real name is if all your friends call you “Mitya”, for example.
Russian names also have a different patronymic for men and women. This means your middle name will be your father’s first name, and it will take on a different form depending on if you are male or female. Generally, for males you add -vich to the fathers name and for females you add -ovna or -evna. For example, if your father’s name is Fyodor and you are a male, your middle name will be Fyodorovich. If you are female, your middle name will be Fyodorovna.
If our names were to follow the Russian convention, my name would be Tarick Ahmedovich Abu-Aly, and Chiara’s would be Chiara Bruceovna McKenney. Chiara’s mom, who is Polish, will also sometimes call Chiara, Chiarushka as a playful diminutive.
That’s all for now, thanks for reading!