Time out. Navigating Russian cultural life
Russians love to stay at home, however, there is plenty to do if you decide to go out. Museums and theatres, clubs and restaurants, concerts and hikes – there are lots of options on offer. You can find entertainments to match not just your interests, but also your budget. In Moscow, the capital, however, even the “cheap” restaurants can be quite pricey. Let’s go on a cultural journey around Russia with our author Elena.
- Russian restaurants are far removed from the old, bland establishments with unchanging menus and cold soups. These days, you can find anything, from Japanese sushi to middle eastern shwarma. If you are on a tight budget, you can eat quite well in the mid-range Yolki-Palki chain, or try the delights of Uzbek cuisine and relax with a kalian (hookah) in one of the Chaihana chains.
- The Russian diet has traditionally been dictated by the climate, with mushrooms and berries in summer, and pickled or preserved vegetables in winter, hot soups at lunchtime, and slow-releasing carbohydrates – porridge, buckwheat, and rye bread – to give energy
So, what would you eat in a typical Russian restaurant, apart from the most obvious choise of caviar and blini? You can try all sorts of pickles and pelmeni (meat dumplings), traditionally made on vast quantities and then frozen (during the winter season – naturally, outside!) and kept through the winter. Of course, there is Russian salad, which in Russia is known as salade Olivier, after the French chef who created it at the Hermitage restaurant in Moscow in 1860s. Be careful if you want a vinaigrette dressing – might end up with a popular salad called vinegret, a vegetarian’s dream, which is a mixture of boiled beetroot, carrots, onions, peas, gherkins, and potatoes. Pirozhki, pies with a wide range of fillings (both sweet and savoury), are a popular snack. Dishes inherited from other Soviet republics are also popular, and include Georgian grilled shashlik, Ukranian borshch (beetroot soup), and Uzbek plov (rice with lamb, slow cooked with onions and spices).
If you think that vodka is the only famous Russian drink, think again – there are many interesting softer alternatives, such as kvas (a fermented drink made with rye bread), kisel (made with berries, sugar, and corn scratch), cranberry mors, kompot made from fresh or dried fruit, and more.
If after all this eating and drinking, you would prefer a more energetic night out, Russian nightlife offers plenty of opportunities. The neon lights of Russian nightlife can be described as “Las Vegas with Cyrillic script”. The choice is enormous: from vodka bars and cocktail lounges to clubs and themed discos. You will not, however, be able to find a casino in major Russian cities. In an unprecedented attempt to control the gambling business, the president introduced a new anti-gambling law, according to which gambling in Russian is restricted to a few zones, with super-casinos built in the middle of nowhere. Elsewhere in the country, gambling is illegal.
We, Russian people, need to “feed our souls”. If you are interested in Dutch paintings, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg has the world’s largest collection, together with treasures of Russian art, silver, and Impressionist paintings. It would take you, guidebooks claim, three years of daily visiting to see everything. The Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow offer unique collections of Russian art. Wander through the Kremlin museum, which recently celebrated its bicentenary, if you prefer to see the country’s history through gold artefacts and armor, state regalia, and manuscripts. Don’t miss the Tsar Bell and The Tsar Cannon at Ivan Square within the Kremlin walls. True to Russian tradition, they were cast to be the largest in the world but were never used.
Russian theatre is thriving, exposing the Russian soul in both traditional and innovative ways. From MHAT, the Moscow Art Theatre, to basement studios with several rows of seats, Russian theatres are eagerly attended. Note that there are usually several plays in a theater’s repertoire at any one period, and the tickets for some of them have to be booked well in advance.
Music, Circus and Weekend gatherings
Russian music is a true reflection of the Russian soul: passionate, melancholic, and melodic, it embraces folk songs, Byzantine choral chanting, Eastern motifs, and Western harmony. You can hear this music in churches during services and concert halls. Among the music festivals, the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg is unique, as it is the only place that combines Russian opera, ballet, and classical music with the magic of the northern June, when night slips into day in one long twilight.
If you think you have outgrown circuses, think again. The circus has been the most popular and the most egalitarian Russian form of entertainment since the time of Catherine the Great. Visit the Moscow Circus on the Tsvetnoy Boulevard, and your “inner child” will love the chimpanzees, admire the courage of those who enter the tiger’s den, and laugh with the Russian clowns. The most popular activity is still “getting together”, be it for a BBQ in the woods, visiting relatives and friends for lunch, or increasingly in recent years, at a café or restaurant. A Russian expression, horosho sidim (literally, “sitting pretty”) means being comfortable with each other – people enjoying themselves together.
The great outdoors
- The Russian love of nature is not only reflected in the dacha phenomenon (link to the blog about dacha). It embraces many and various activities, such as day or weekend hiking trips, fishing, and mushroom and berry picking. All these activities, even though they may sound relaxing, are quite purposeful.
- Hiking is often combined with some sort of celebration, such as school graduation, a birthday, or the beginning of a summer vacation. It involves a hike to a particular spot for a picnic or an overnight stay in a tent. Mushroom and berry picking are often done out of necessity, rather than enjoyment. Having said that, it is the case that even rich Russians with dachas in the south of England are known to roam their private parks in Surrey in search of autumn mushrooms.
- Fishing is the Russian equivalent of golf, or the most silent form of team building. It is also the best way to escape from and avoid family chores. It is important to return home with a catch, though. Hunting (shooting) is another, more upmarket, team-building and trust-building exercise. Even if you never have held a shotgun in your life, don’t reject the invitation – the picnic afterwards might lead to one of your most profitable deals.
“Russians are good at sports”, was a common perception even in the darkest days of Cold War propaganda. Russian figure skaters and athletes, hockey players and gymnasts are world-renowned. In recent years, however, Russian sports preferences have often depended on the hobbies of the political elite. Boris Yeltsin’s interest in tennis led to the creation of the Moscow Tennis Cup tournament; Vladimir Putin’s black belt spurred the opening of the numerous martial arts schools, and he has inspired an interest in horses. Russians love extremes, so it is not surprising that paragliding, parachute jumping, snow-biking, and water-biking are growing in popularity. And, despite common misperceptions in the West, wealthy Russian go to the Alps not just to spend vast sums of money on champagne and saunas, but actually to enjoy the skiing too.