Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Unwelcome Reception

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

With the May holidays just weeks away, hordes of Russians are furiously planning trips abroad, after which they will furiously recount how people abroad treated them like Russian hordes.

Writing of abuse and injured pride at the hands of foreigners is a Russian tradition dating from at least the late 18th century, when playwright Denis Fonvizin decried the "ignoramuses" in France who "hear for the first time that there is such a place as Russia" with "a language different from theirs." Fonvizin made short work of the offending Gauls, declaring "the Frenchman has no common sense, and if he did he would consider it the greatest personal misfortune."

Another classic Russian writer-traveler, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was heartened by Fonvizin's musings but still suffered pangs of inferiority before Europeans a century later. Beholding the marvelous bridge at Cologne, Dostoevsky imagined how its German tollkeeper was beholding him: "He has guessed that I am a foreigner, and in fact a Russian, I thought. At least his eyes were practically saying 'You see our bridge, you pathetic Russian -- well, you're a worm before this bridge, and before any German, because you don't have such a bridge yourself.' You will agree that this was offensive." Who but a Russian could take offense at what a little old man in a tollbooth just might have been thinking?

If such empire-age travel notes reflect a national mindset of the insulted and the injured, many of the 21st century's popular equivalents -- the comments posted on hotel and travel agency web sites by returned Russian travelers -- add the whine of Soviet-era complaint-book entries. Svetlana from Moscow writes that at her Egyptian resort, "we were third-class citizens. They put Russians in little one-story huts ... to make a sort of 'Russian Harlem.' We were deeply offended, especially after we saw the arrangements for the Italians." Yelena warns others of her vacation spot in Turkey: "Russians, NEVER come here!!! They don't like Russians in this hotel. The Turks beat up one young Russian for defending his wife. This place is a CATASTROPHE!" Yet another Russian's experience in central Europe may represent the attitudinal nadir of the genre: Not only do people "especially dislike us in the former-socialist states," writes LL, but it gets worse: "Traveling through various countries, I came to the conclusion that people fear Russians and don't like them anywhere."

Responses to these unhappy wanderers range from the therapeutic to the remonstrative. The helpful options include a Chelyabinsk newspaper's advice column for travelers called "Why Don't People Like Russians Abroad?"; an Internet forum on tourist psychology with a subsection titled, "The treatment of Russians abroad, or why people don't like us"; and a recent Internet photo essay by a traveler named Olga, titled, "Which Russians don't foreigners like?" These are complemented by counter-testimonials from many satisfied Russian tourists who insist that the behavior of their compatriots is the real problem; simply put, foreigners react well to Russians who act well.

Whether it's counseling or auto-therapy they need, disgruntled Russian travelers may find some company for their misery in Americans. From the benign naivete of Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad," the American profile has grown considerably darker. Over the last 50 years, Vietnam, big business, fast food, crass consumerism, Iraq and a good deal else has driven much of the world to a shorthand for us drawn from a different book: "The Ugly American." As the U.S. head of Business for Diplomatic Action put it: "Surveys consistently show that Americans are viewed as arrogant, insensitive, over-materialistic and ignorant about local values." One response to this has been a booklet called the "World Citizens Guide," featuring a series of tips for U.S. travelers to help improve the United States' battered international countenance.

This guide has some bullet-point advice that both Russians and Americans could profit from, such as "Think as big as you like but talk and act smaller," "Listen at least as much as you talk," "Think a little locally," and "If you talk politics, talk -- don't argue."

For our two blundering, these micro-homilies could make macro-sense. The trick, of course, is in the application. Can Americans and Russians, traditionally super-sized in worldview and behavior, really learn to "talk and act smaller"?

An old saying has it that Russians want to be respected and Americans want to be loved. Perhaps thinking smaller is the key to both -- and to making gruntled Russians with less to write home about.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.