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Russia Profile
May 30, 2007
When You’re Ashamed of Your Own
Civilized Russians on Vacation Want to Avoid their Countrymen

Comment by Georgy Bovt

I have to admit to a very serious sin: Unpatriotic behavior. I always behave in a very unpatriotic way when I organize the winter and summer vacations for my family because one of the first questions I always ask the tour operator when I’m booking a holiday is whether or not there will be a lot of Russians at the resort in question. And if there are going to be a lot, it’s highly likely that I won’t go there. I’ve even taken to telling the tour operators in advance: “Find me somewhere where there aren’t that many Russians, or, even better, a place where there are no Russians at all.”

I understand that, in objective terms, this is not a good thing, and my wife always puts me to shame ­ “What have you got to shout about? You’re a citizen of the Russian Federation yourself!” she tells me. And I myself do in fact understand that there’s something not quite right about being ashamed of your own countrymen. But nevertheless, I stubbornly continue to stick to my policy.

When I asked friends and acquaintances what they do in similar circumstances, I discovered that all of them, without exception, work on exactly the same principle as me ­ they also book vacations to places where there are no Russians. I can’t tell you if they feel a sense of shame as they do it, but now I have a powerful argument on my side ­ the research of a popular tourist Internet portal, Expedia.com, which surveyed 15,000 hoteliers around the world. The research revealed that Russians are considered to be among the most unpleasant tourists, only losing out in terms of “unbearability” to Chinese, French and Indian nationals. Although I have never encountered any unpleasant Indian tourists, on the behavior of Russians, Expedia.com and I agree: They behave obnoxiously and boorishly, they drink and smoke a lot, they make a lot of noise and they ride roughshod over all the written and unwritten rules of whatever country they happen to be visiting.

Since Russian tourists usually start drinking on the plane, I warmly welcome the initiative undertaken by Aeroflot to first, ban the consumption alcoholic beverages onboard that have not been purchased on the plane and second, charge fairly sizeable sums for alcoholic drinks offered onboard. But charter flights are an entirely different matter; there are no strict limits, particularly on the relatively cheap charter tours to Turkey, Egypt and, in the winter, Andorra and Italy. For some reason, certain Russian tourists believe that rest and relaxation begins with drunkenness and that you have to arrive at your resort already happy, which is to say inebriated.

I remember flying to Switzerland with my family several years ago on a skiing trip. The prehistoric Yak-42 plane was packed with over 100 people, mostly average and entirely normal Russian tourist families. But about five people from Zhukovsky, just outside Moscow, got drunk on the plane and began a brawl at passport control. And naturally, following that incident, the local inhabitants wrote all the passengers on that charter flight off as inveterate yobs. I was very ashamed of that little group of fellow countrymen. Ever since that incident, I’ve tried to avoid charter flights since there you run a far higher risk than on regular flights of encountering Russian louts, people who see a trip abroad as a good reason to “really get smashed.”

Russian citizens, in general, really do behave differently from the majority of tourists from other countries when in vacation hotspots. It is important to remember, however, that the unpleasant image of “the Russian tourist” is created by an actively boorish and rude minority, rather than by the less noticeable and entirely reasonable behavior of the majority. And it is also necessary to note that factors not limited to the behavior of Russian tourists lead to this negative perception of Russians abroad. First, Russians, like the Chinese, who also rank high in the unpopularity stakes, as a rule, don’t speak any foreign languages. In that, they are the direct opposite of the Americans, who are considered to be the nation that does the most to learn the language of the country being visited, even if it is just a few words. Russians believe that if they arrive somewhere as tourists, the local service personnel are simply obliged to speak to them only in Russian.

Secondly, Russians are citizens on the wrong end of the visa systems. With very few exceptions, such as Turkey and Egypt, they have to get visas for any country they wish to visit, with very few exceptions. This requirement simply stresses further that they are, as it were, “alien.” In Europe, they differ in this from the English, for example, who are pretty much on home ground, even if they also love raucous, drunken celebrations.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t over-dramatize this wariness of Russians. Everything becomes clear through comparison. Now, after all, far more Russian tourists go abroad than just a few years ago ­ last year, 15 million Russian tourists traveled abroad. In this sense, quality has been left behind by the increase in quantity: So far, Russians have only just managed to catch up with the leaders ­ the Americans - in terms of the proportion of their income spent on vacations, but they still lag behind many other countries in terms of the culture of their vacations.

And let’s not forget what Russian tourists were like just 15-20 years ago. They were people who took cans of food with them in order to save every kopeck; they were people who carried electric water heaters with them in order to boil up sausages in the hotel sink; they were people who, because of poverty, engaged in petty theft from hotels, restaurants and shops; and they looked wild and weird. Today, many of those unpleasant characteristics are already behind us, which is a positive trend. And the more Russian citizens get to know the surrounding world, the more familiar and natural the generally accepted standards of behavior in the rest of the world will become. And civilized Russians will no longer avoid mass tourist destinations where they’re likely to encounter their own fellow countrymen, but instead, they will search out those places and endeavor to visit them in order to rest among their own, with no fear of the others being a cause of shame.

Georgy Bovt is a Moscow-based political analyst. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.