How to touch Russia

This is a video that gone totally viral: it’s about Cody White, an American guy who experienced the country of Bears and Vodka by literally touching everything traditionally Russian. But just posting it, obviously, isn’t enough, so Slava Moroz found out that Cody was currently staying in Moscow and interviewed him.

Let’s first clear out the details of your travel. Did you visit a lot of cities and manage to cross the country?

In 2009, during my first visit to Russia, I was here for 1 month and I spent 2 weeks in Astrakhan, with the following brief stay in Sochi and Volgograd. My second time—I had a chance to travel a lot more, I’m here for a lot longer and I’ve got much more resources. Now I’ve been to Suzdal, Vladimir, Tula, St. Petersburg, Pushkin (near St. Petersburg).

Have you been planning to go to Vladivostok or Khabarovsk?

The top destination now is Kazan. It’s the cultural capital of Muslim Russia, so I’m really curious to check that out. That’s really a lot different than St. Petersburg, Moscow or even the other similar cities in Russia.

What do you do here?

I study at the faculty of foreign languages. The name of the program is actually “Russian studies abroad”, organized by SRAS, a foreign organization, which works with Moscow State University. We have 12 study hours of Russian language at week, then I have 6 hours of elective classes: culture, business, politics etc. It’s a very large choice of electives over here.

It’s like a small island of American education system in Russia.


Cody White near Moscow State University or MSU

Short question: why Russia?

Whooooa… I guess the answer does have to be “A girl”. It all started with one girl who sparked my interest.

They always do.

Yeah, it’s always girls, but it sparked my interest to travel and since I’ve started traveling I’ve been to many different places: Columbia, Kenya, China. But nowhere captured my love as Russia did. Well, of course I’m not here for the women. Sure thing, they’re really beautiful but it’s the whole culture, the place that have captured my heart.

How did your friends react when they heard you were coming to Russia?

I didn’t really tell to many people at first, because during the school years the scholarship was really competitive, I couldn’t have been too confident with that. So my close friends knew, they were all like “are you crazy” with all those “in Soviet Russia” jokes. They were really supportive, but a lot of them didn’t understand me, especially when I went here for a year. As for my family’s concerns, they just didn’t want me to go, they had this idea that Moscow is this big, dangerous place where all these terrible stuff happens like in the “Brat” movie they must’ve previously seen.

Well, it was 1990s!

It was, exactly. It evolved a lot since then, but I think western media doesn’t do a good job of portraying Russia.

Cody White in a very hip green Russian car

Well, everybody’s got their job to do and the PR gurus never sleep. And what’s people’s attitude towards you around here: the Russians in general, the people you study with?

In your opinion, what’s the difference between Russia and Moscow?

I’ve had a pretty warm welcoming from everyone. I think being American doesn’t affect people’s perceptions. People are not hostile in any way, they are just curious. They’ve got a lot of questions and they also like to share. Many people are speaking English with me and I’m speaking Russian with them.

Wealth is one of the startling differences between Russia and Moscow. The quality of life, to be exact. A couple of kilometers outside Moscow the prices will drop a half. That’s amazing to see the way the concentrated population and all international businesses in the capital stimulate the prices to reach the global competitive level, one of the highest in the world.

Another difference is that on Russia isn’t that developed. It’s really strange because you have really developed suburban areas. You’ve got the basis, the know-how and the ability. But it’s such a big place, it’s almost impossible to manage. It takes a long time, especially coming out of the Soviet Union. It’ll take a long time before you can catch up to other rural areas and develop. Now, in some places you don’t have water, in some—there’s no electricity. All in all, there’s a lot of poverty and wealth, sitting side by side.

Culturally, I guess the culture is important as well and the cultural differences. I’ve dealt a lot with people from different cities, usually from bigger cities, Novosibirsk, Yakutsk, Irkutsk and they still hate the Muscovites, their pretentiousness.

Even in the “Touch Russia” video we tried to show the Moscow city life, but we still captured a lot of things that are typically Russian.

I didn’t get any feeling that it was only in Moscow, it felt really all-Russian. My first impression was that you travelled all across the country. Well, you’ll have your chance, I’m sure.

I definitely want to do the Transsiberian railroad. Well, I’m not sure about the investment, cost.

And it IS quite dangerous.

I will definitely do, one day, I want to see Kamchatka, so I’ve got to make my way over there.

You’ve come here at very vibrant times in political terms, so what’s your perception of why don’t Russians like Putin?

See the thing is that a lot of Russians do support Putin and a lot of Russians don’t, obviously… I’m not sure if they’re tired of Putin. But of course I have an outsider’s view and my reasons to dislike Putin are different from what the Russians’ reasons could be. In my opinion, it’s all about his economic approach and the fact the economy isn’t diversified.

Also I think that being so long in power isn’t really healthy for democracy. So, people simply want someone new. They might even support any other party if it had a proper leader. They just want a new face, new person, because it’s looking more and more like an authoritarian regime.

Cody White on Moscow protest rally

Why do Russians never smile?

Russian culture is very masculine. I’ve always wondered: maybe it’s not cool or manly to smile, maybe the city is pretty gray, the metro is pretty boring, perhaps people don’t like it and thus don’t smile. But it also has to do with the fact that Russians in general tend to be more open and more sincere with their emotions, and usually the American smiles are put on. Americans are HAPPY all the time, it’s a part of the culture, we smile just because it’s what we do, it’s rude not to. Here, if you smile at a girl, she might take that as you’re hitting on her. In America, you can smile at anyone.

So, what are the things you had to get used to when came to Russia?

Transportation sure was tough as I’m from a small city of 50,000 people and it’s like a piece of dust comparing to Moscow. There are constantly people moving around. In the US, before I had a car, my parents drove me everywhere. When I got one, I drove everywhere I needed to. And in Moscow I got used to walking, taking a bus, taking marshrutkas, the metro. Well, truth be told, I’ve never been on a train before Russia.

The food also takes slow I get used to. It’s different from the US food: you use a lot of ingredients. And we usually have very simple dishes, we almost never mix foods. Here it’s very often a lot of combinations of foods together for one dish and it takes a while to get used to separating those ingredients in your mind.

I also had to get used to the cold. Of course it’s not cold all the time: November is fine, March has turned out pretty OK. But March is like December or January in my city so dealing with –30 degrees is tough.

It was also tough to get used to traffic (including human traffic): it’s hard to find the restaurant downtown, everything is always full, it’s hard to go anywhere, sit down, relax without having a lot of people around you. So, there’s a lack of privacy, even outdoors in public places. In my city it’s easy to go and find a nice place to sit down and relax.

What would Russia be like in 12 years (12 years is a timespan that we expect Putin to be the president)?

It all depends on the next election. I can see Russia falling back into sort of authoritarian state, that tries to keep positive relations with Europe and the US to support its economic stronghold. I think Russia’s got a wealthy future, but I see it being unstable. I also foresee the population growing again as there’s been reforms recently to try to give better social programs for people and everything to help encourage higher growth rate. I think it’s gonna progress as a superpower, but of course not like the one it used to be.

Thanks, Cody. Best of luck in touching more Russia.

Cody White jumping up in Moscow metro

By Slava Moroz

Slava prefers to be That Guy. Because everyone wants to be That Guy. Even his favorite B&V merchandize t-shirt says so.