Red is the New Black: Seeing Russians as they really are

"To both viewers and onscreen characters alike, Red is the embodiment of the archetypal Russian, caricatured in the eyes of the Western world: expressionless, robust and as icy as an Arkhangelsk winter."

"To both viewers and onscreen characters alike, Red is the embodiment of the archetypal Russian, caricatured in the eyes of the Western world: expressionless, robust and as icy as an Arkhangelsk winter."

Alena Repkina
For a young English woman, returning to Russia after earlier studying the language in Moscow allowed her to gain a deeper insight into the true nature of the Russian people – and gave her an opportunity to compare what she had experienced with the portrayal of a Russian character in a popular Netflix drama.

When reflecting on how best to describe my impressions of Russia and its people, I realised that my experience follows a trajectory like that of Piper Chapman in Netflix’s binge-streamed drama, Orange is the New Black. For those unfamiliar with the show, the drama’s main character Chapman comes across a Russian lady in prison, known to the American inmates as “Red.” To both viewers and onscreen characters alike, Red is the embodiment of the archetypal Russian, caricatured in the eyes of the Western world: expressionless, robust and as icy as an Arkhangelsk winter.

As I entered the noiseless customs room in St. Petersburg’s airport three years ago, my first encounter with a Russian border guard in the motherland communicated much the same impression. No words were exchanged between us as I tentatively slipped my passport through the window slit. Anxiously watching the female customs officer’s eyes glance back and forth, hearing only the odd tap of the keyboard, it was with great relief that the gate was unlocked, allowing me to continue my first adventure in Russia.

Indeed, my first few days in Russia validated the impression of Russians propagated by TV shows such as Orange is the New Black. The streets were paved with stony-faced strangers and service with a smile was an alien concept in Russian corner-shops. But I soon discovered that such surface observations did not paint the full picture.

Having lived in Moscow for a year and having forged many friendships that I hope to be long-lasting, initially it frustrated me greatly seeing such a popular online show perpetuate this unfair stereotype of Russian people. However, as the seasons progress in Orange is the New Black, Red is seen in a more authentic light as the personification of the Rodina Mat (Mother Russia): strong, fiercely loyal, caring and a mother to all those she holds dear. This is the image of Russian people that I have grown to admire and respect.

Never mix your drinks

After my first few days in St. Petersburg acclimatizing to the directness and brutal bluntness of the Russians I encountered in shops and at tourist attractions, it was a delight to stumble across a side-street bar whose owner gave my friends and I the warmest of welcomes. Intrigued by the fact that we had decided to study Russians as beginners at university, this lady encouraged us to order our drinks in the best Russian we could conjure and helped us along the way. Whereas ticket sellers on the metro have no time for slowly conjugated sentences, this lady even rewarded our efforts with free limoncello.

It was in this bar in St. Petersburg where I discovered the concept of vodka and a mixer is, like myself, foreign. Making my best effort to decline my nouns, I confidently asked for a glass of vodka and coke. Initially the bartender appeared very confused and I worried that I had just spoken complete gibberish. Then from beneath the bar appeared a bottle of Russian Standard (my go-to vodka) and a bottle of Coca-Cola. Dumbfounded, the bartender pointed to the glass and asked whether I wanted both in the glass together. Da, konechno. The concoction I received was not so much coke with a shot of vodka, but vodka with a shot of coke. Of course, I wasn’t complaining.

It’s not just in a dingy bar in St. Petersburg where you will find Russians who are curiously interested in people learning their mother tongue. The highlight of my week when living in Moscow was attending language exchanges, of which there are plenty. Imagine the scene: at least 10 different languages being spoken in a Moscow bar and Russians eager to practice their language skills, but also to lend a helping hand to those trying to master the complexities of their native language.

Friendship is in the cards

Although these exchanges were always a bit of a gamble regarding who you were going to meet and whether you would have anything interesting to say, there was one night where I was dealt a lucky hand. Playing a card game in Russian, the name of which I forget, I met two people who would remain friends throughout the year and beyond, Marcel and Nastya. Over the course of the year, we shared some great moments, from Nastya introducing me to an authentic Uzbek restaurant to Marcel making sure I experienced all of Moscow’s parades and fireworks displays. What struck me most, however, was the genuine generosity and kindness extended to me from people like Nastya and Marcel from day one, and I can honestly say that this is far less common in the UK.

Life as a foreigner in Russia can be difficult. You learn quickly not to take rudeness or bluntness in shops personally. Experiences such as queuing to pay for accommodation, renewing your visa and losing your passport for a month or any other bureaucratic process is only positive insofar as it is character-building. Regardless of these painstaking activities unique to the Russian experience, overall my impression of the people I met is a positive one of fierce friendship and unwavering kindness.

Grace Dickinson, a Cambridge graduate born in Durham, is currently working as a School Liaison Officer. She taught English while learning Russian at Moscow State University and explored Russian culture while working as a writer in St. Petersburg in 2014-2015.

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