What do Russians miss About Russia?

Selection_005After writing last issue about what expats miss when they leave Russia and return to their home countries, I thought I should turn the proposition around and write about what Russian expats miss about home. As before, my research is not particularly scientific, but hopefully contains some interesting thoughts.

Ten or so years ago, I remember the head of an international pharmaceutical firm in Russia telling me that, of his top 20 best-selling products in Russia, only 2 were on the list of bestselling products in his home country. He explained this by saying that for the most part, the medicines that were popular in Russia were ‘old’ (he must have hesitated to say ‘outdated’), whereas in the ‘West’, doctors were prescribing more advanced medicine. We smiled knowingly, almost certainly condescendingly.

injectBut now I find, from my own wife and from other Russian friends, what a nightmare British medicine is in comparison to Russian. For a start, says Katya, a 30-year old HR specialist and mother of Misha, 6, one’s relationship with one’s doctor in Russia is much clearer – friendly, professional, you can contact them directly whenever you need, have them visit at home (in a white coat!) and take your concerns seriously, not to mention offer treatment before they become serious. I guess private medicine in the UK is not that different, though certainly more expensive, but the National Health Service that most of us use really only performs in an emergency. In the experience of many of my Russian friends, British GPs usually have their minds set on getting to their next patient, an impression which probably has more than a grain of truth to it given the targets-based culture of all our public services, and doctors are always reluctant to prescribe medicine when time might eventually lead to the same result. Unexpectedly, Russian medicine, though maybe strangely old-fashioned, is something that Russians definitely miss.

One thing that Russia has in abundance, of course, is space. I’m not sure I ever really understood that, living in Moscow. I went out to dachas of course, and even managed trips north to the Kola peninsula for the salmon, and south to Astrakhan for the ducks, but somehow, the sense of space mostly eluded me. In fact, dacha villages just seemed to confirm the sense of people living cheek by jowl. But then my friend Pyotr (now in England) mentioned how he missed the fishing, and I noticed my Russian parents-in-law looking in British fishing magazines at the typical photos of grinning fishermen clutching the carp they had just caught (and would shortly release). They commented on how pot-bellied and unnatural the fish looked, not like the wild fish they caught and ate on their 3-week long, mosquito-bitten, sunburnt, vodka-fuelled adventures down the Volga. If you want to fish in Russia, you can travel into serious wilderness, catch wild fish, and live on them!

Sergei Sokolov, a web developer and entrepreneur freshly returned from a year and half in Thailand, commented on Russia’s particular dairy culture. Thais are not big on dairy – no tvorog or kefir (not to mention buckwheat!) – though Sergei did acknowledge that fresh fish and fruit every day went some way to compensating for the lack of Russian comfort food.

Again on the subject of food, Katya mentioned the lack of varieties of honey. In my innocence, I thought she was probably just disappointed by the lack of choice in Sainsbury’s, and offered to bring a pot back from my native Shropshire. The response was withering: “Thank you for your Shropshire honey, but can you find me camel thorn honey from Kazakhstan or honey with propolis from the Siberian taiga?” I looked up propolis, also known as bee-glue, and found that bees use it to fill small holes in their hives, and people as something of a panacea for all ills. Though much promoted by the alternative medicines industry, I agree it is unlikely to be available in natural form direct from the producer. Then there is the lack of mushroom picking opportunities.

Sergei also mentioned energy! Who could deny that? The energy in Moscow has something to do with adrenilin, and however much of a paradise life by a warm tropical sea might be, something existential draws one back to where the action is.