Russians aren’t exactly known as the world’s most enthusiastic and friendly people. Instead they’re known for their dour dispositions, sullenness, and rudeness, at least in public. In fact, Moscow was recently ranked the world’s least friendly city. To a Russian, someone walking around with a smile on their face is basically an imbecile, and the preferable expression is sort of half-angry blank stare. Before traveling to Moscow while in graduate school, the single best piece of advice that I was given on how to fit in was “stare at the ground and look pissed off.” It worked like a charm.
Yet despite this hard-edged reputation there are some indications that Russians aren’t quite as surly as they might appear at first glance. While it’s hardly the most scientific analysis of opinion, the popular travel website TripAdvisor showed that, for the second year in a row, Russians were the happiest users of the site in 2012, ranking their destinations more highly than any other nationality. How does one explain the seeming contradiction between unfriendly Russians and Russians deeply satisfied with foreign excursions?
One easy answer is that “they’re simply happy to get the hell out of Russia.” But there actually is a deeper lesson here, one that shows how greatly Russia has changed in the little more than 20 years that have transpired since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under communism, foreign travel was almost totally banned and was the exclusive purview of the elite nomenklatura: the vast majority of the population never went abroad and if they went on a vacation went to a domestic resort somewhere on the Black Sea. While foreign travel was liberalized during the 1990s, the country’s horrific economic situation meant that, practically speaking, very few Russians were able to afford foreign travel (though the tiny numbers of oligarchic “new Russians” quickly became infamous for their poor taste and decadence).
It is only over the past decade, as Russia’s economy has experienced an oil-fueled boom that foreign travel has become “normal” in Russian society, and many millions of middle-class Russians now travel abroad each and every year. Without trying to be too dramatic, I think this excitement over a new experience is what largely explains Russians’ surprisingly positive reactions on sites like TripAdvisor. While in the West foreign travel long ago ceased to be novel or interesting, Russians are still in the early stages of experiencing tourism.
So not to put too much emphasis on these findings, but they serve as a helpful reminder that Russians are now better-traveled and more exposed to foreign cultures than at any other time in their history. And they like what they’re seeing.