10 Things Only a Russian-Latino Could Teach You About Russia

It might seem like a crazy combination, but being a Russian Latina is a lot more common than you would think. How did it happen, exactly? Well, back in the 1980’s when the U.S.S.R. and Cuba were communist buddies, a lot of (mostly) Cuban men went to Moscow to study in college. And that’s how my parents met: both studying engineering at what is now the Moscow Power Engineering Institute.

Growing up in Moscow and its suburbs until I was 8 years old (and visiting Cuba occasionally), I learned a lot about my birth country. With all eyes on Russia for the Winter Olympics currently going on in Sochi, I realized that not a lot of people know much about the huge country to the East. If you’re a little curious, too, then here are 10 things that only a Russian-Latino could teach you about Russia.

1. Very Proud

Russians are very proud.

Like any people who come from another country to settle in America, Russians are very proud of our heritage. And what’s not to be proud of? Russia is the biggest country in the world, extends through Europe and Asia, is comprised of nine time zones and has a variety of environments. Russia is also one of the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, is one of the recognized nuclear weapons states and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council as well as many other world organizations. It was one of the first superpowers (along with the U.S.A., of course) and has both Europe’s tallest mountain (Mount El’brus) as well as the deepest lake in the world (Lake Baikail, which is estimated to hold 1/5 of the world’s fresh water). Oh yes, and we also make these very adorable nesting dolls!

2. Not All Are Tall & Blond

We're not all tall, blonde supermodels.

Of course, it’s easy to say this since I’m half Cuban and therefore definitely don’t look like the standard blonde haired-blue eyed Russian stereotype but the truth is that nobody in my Russian family looks like that, either. While they did all have blue or green eyes, everyone had distinctly dark hair. There are also many Russian Jews as well as Russian Eskimos (they originated in Siberia) and Russians with Asian features since about 3/4 of the country is actually on the Asian continent. 

3. Mob is Everywhere

The mob really is everywhere.

I know this is going to sound like a funny stereotype, but it’s really kind of true! While I haven’t lived in Russia for almost 20 years and have no personal ties (that I know of) to the Russian mob, the stories I hear from family friends that still live there are quite horrifying. Most of the stories have to do with businesses having to pay them off for protection, which I guess isn’t different from other countries—but it does seem like it happens pretty consistently. 

4. Lots of History

There’s a lot of history.

One thing that has always made me excited to be part Russian is Russia’s rich cultural history. From the gorgeous architecture of St. Petersburg to the musical accomplishments of composter Peter Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake, anyone?) to the paintings of Marc Chagall and the writings of greats like Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkhov, Russia has a rich arts history. And between drama with the czars, Napoleon invading, the communist era, and more, there’s a lot to learn. For instance, did you know that 15 countries (including Russia, who ruled them all) made up the U.S.S.R.?

5. Winters Are Brutal

The winters are pretty brutal.

Have you ever heard the joke that what really defeated Hitler was actually the Russian winter? Well, the same thing happened with Napoleon! There’s a reason why not many people live in Siberia, and the reason is the cold. The average low in January is -4.2 Fahrenheit in Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city. However, it goes get up into the 70’s during summer. Even in Moscow, where I grew up, my parents had stories of having to sleep with 5 blankets on the bed. Brrr! However, the Olympic city of Sochi is pretty far south—so the average winter temperature is actually 52 during the day.

6. Vodka in Threes

Yes, we drink our vodka in threes. 

I’m not exactly sure where it started, but it is a Russian custom to drink vodka in a group of three. Why, you ask? Likely because while two people can have a heated argument that leads to, ahem, tragic accidents, a third person can be there to settle the score. Unfortunately, this custom is also possibly responsible for Russian men dying early. A new study found that the risk of dying before age 55 for men who drank three (or more!) half-liter bottles of vodka a week was 35%, compared with less than 1% of American men dying before reaching that age. Beyond that, it’s very common to see men and women drinking and smoking at a very young age. My grandfather claimed to have had his first cigarette at 6!

7. McDonalds Defeated Communism

McDonalds is who defeated communism.

You might giggle at the thought, but it’s true! The arrival of the first McDonald’s in Moscow was hailed as a big win and a major marker of The West finally making it into Russia after the fall of the communist government that had been in place since 1917. I actually remember standing in miles-long lines with my parents, all of us anxious to try this new food. It was a symbol of capitalism and all of the good things that can come. For me as a kid, one of those good things was the availability of American sodas. Russians quickly developed a love affair with coca cola, myself included.

8. Caviar

Caviar is common but we have other food too.

For a Russian, eating caviar on toast in the morning is no big deal. It’s not that we’re all that fancy or rich (my family certainly wasn’t!) but just that the availability is so easy. It might cost a pretty penny here in the U.S., but in Russia it’s fairly cheap. My standard breakfast as a kid was simply buttered toast with a layer of red caviar. Black caviar is more expensive, and therefore more of a special treat, but still not out of the question. However, we also have a rich culinary history that includes some things most Americans recognize (kasha, blini, Borscht soup, dumplings) and some you might fear (like kholodets,  basically a jellied meat dish that even I’m not a fan of). 

9. Nobody Smiles

Nobody ever smiles.

This might seem silly, but people visiting Russia often notice this. It’s not that we’re a serious people, but in general I’ve found (and no offense to my fellow Russians) that we do not have a very developed sense of humor. I’m not sure what it is about the country or the culture, but most native Russians I know are very difficult people. They have had many hardships and they are not over them. When visiting Russia in 2004, I was actually told that I smile too much by a stranger on the metro in Moscow. Perhaps that’s why current president Vladimir Putin always looks so evil when he cracks a smile?

10. Money?

No, we don’t know where the money went.

Putin pushed hard to get the Olympics to Sochi, and he succeeded. So what happened with the $51 billion that was spent to create the games? We honestly don’t know. If you’ve seen anything on the news about the Olympics, you’ve probably seen that conditions are not so great. From the hysterical (and kind of sad) @SochiProblems on Twitter to stories of man-made snow, the money seems to have not done Sochi much good. One thing’s for sure: this will go down as the most problematic Olympics in recent history. And personally, that makes me really sad for the country I once called home.