The cashier at the currency exchange at Heathrow airport picked up my rubles, looked at them with barely disguised disgust and said: “So how was it in Russia?” “It’s ok,” I told him, not really being in the mood for an in-depth discussion of life in Moscow and beyond.
“I’m Polish,” he said. “We hate Russians.” He smiled, as if I was supposed to give him a badge, or something.
“Ok,” I said. I’d found myself short of cash with no bankcard and simply wanted him to change the rubles I’d had in my pocket into useable funds. I really didn’t need to know about his prejudices.
“So is it dangerous in Russia?” he continued, probing further.
“Not really, only for…” I went on, wanting for a moment to say “Poles,” but stopping myself at the last moment. After all, the massacre of Polish officers by Soviet secret police and the death of President Lech Kaczynski in a 2010 air crash in Russia aren’t really joking matters. No matter how much you’d like to wipe the grin off a Pole’s face.
“Dangerous only for who?” the persistent Pole asked, not suspecting how close he was to having been mortally offended. “Foreigners?” he suggested, almost salivating at the prospect of having all his conceptions confirmed.
I thought about that for a few seconds. Is Russia dangerous for foreigners? Well, I guess if your skin is the wrong color and you find yourself in the wrong place – then, yes – it most certainly is. No arguing with that. Or if you are a businessman who falls afoul of the authorities, in some cases.
But a brief perusal of the news here – plane crashes, police brutality, heartless child murders and much more – should be enough to convince anyone that, in fact, Russia is dangerous in the first place and in the first order for Russians. Foreigners are just a bonus.
So that was what I told him. He didn’t look too happy with my answer, but he’d already counted out my cash, and I was off on my merry way to buy a pasty or two, leaving the now perturbed Pole behind.
But he’d got me thinking about misconceptions and myths of Russia. As well as, well, sheer ignorance.
When I first visited Russia in the 1990s, I bought a copy of the now discontinued three-in-one Lonely Planet guide to Russia, Ukraine & Belarus. And a friend watching me pack for my first visit to the land of Lev Yashin and Fyodor Dostoyevsky asked me: “Why did you get that edition? You aren’t going to that area of Russia, are you?” I mean, I guess it’s an easy enough mistake to make if you don’t care, but how, I wondered, could anyone think Ukraine and Belarus were areas of Russia, rather than newly independent ex-Soviet republics?
The answer is – no one cares that much. Russia is big and far away and unless you are going to get all obsessive about it, there’s not that much to know.
It’s cold, they have dictators, they used to be commies, it’s cold and – yeah – it’s dangerous for foreigners.
Of course, Russians also have misconceptions about the way they are viewed in the West. Or, more accurately, some of them have made at least one pretty accurate self-fulfilling prediction over the years.
For instance, one of the things that puzzled me about Russians when I first got here was the fairly widespread – at least in the circles I moved in – belief that “people don’t like Russians much, abroad.”
I’d never really noticed. In fact, most people I knew back home were really curious about Russians and all things Russian. Dislike didn’t come into it. Besides, there weren’t really that many Russians living in England back then. (Of course, I can’t speak for attitudes in New York, for example). But, anyway, the belief seemed way off mark.
Then, at least. But as oligarchs, gangsters and New Russians flocked into London, it would be true to say that, yes, attitudes among some people did change. A certain dislike for the easy cash being thrown about.
But, there’s another misconception for you right there – most Russians aren’t oligarchs, gangsters or diamond festooned biznessmeny.
I thought all this while chewing a British pasty – my first in my homeland for almost six months. And then I started on my second, closing my mind to further thought so as not to spoil the mood. And chewed.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).