When it comes to the world’s largest country, Russia, there are plenty of stereotypes that come to mind, and they are mostly negative. Russia has become synonymous with vodka, cold, and communism, and by all means, is thought of as a pretty depressing place. But stereotypes exist for a reason, so Russia did not earn its image entirely without cause.
Located on the continents of Europe and Asia, Russia spans nine time zones and has a larger surface area than Pluto. At its nearest point, it is just two and a half miles away from the United States. Its geography is stunning, encompassing forests, mountains, and seashores. Russia’s largest lake, Lake Baikal, holds one-fifth of the planet’s fresh water and is the deepest lake in the world. For all these reasons and more, Russia is a pretty interesting place but not always in a good way. It is an oppressive country with some scary statistics, including the short life expectancy for males and the fact that the bleak and wintry Siberia covers over three-fourths of the entire country. And those things are just the beginning.
The fact is that Russia, while beautiful in many ways, is not a place you would want to live. Often, life is hard for its citizens for many reasons, some of which include the climate, the politics, the economy, and the insane amount of alcohol consumption. This list will discuss these things, among others. Following are 15 dark facts about what living in Russia is really like and the pictures to prove my points.
15. A Scary Healthcare System
One everyday problem Russians face is health care. No, of course, we don’t go to the doctor’s office every day, but illness, injury, and preventative care are very prevalent issues in all of our lives. Having to deal with a healthcare system that is insufficient would be worrisome and quite problematic. On paper, Russians are entitled to free universal healthcare. It’s an entirely different story, however, when it comes to reality. In truth, they are required to take out compulsory private medical insurance. Sometimes, doctors are bribed. And in 17,500 small towns and villages throughout Russia, there exists no medical infrastructure whatsoever. Where there is medical care, the clinics and hospitals are dirty, have outdated equipment, suffer from a lack of medicines and beds, and are burdened by a shortage of doctors. Just two percent of Russians say they are happy with the healthcare system in their country, where hospital horror stories are rife each week in the news.
14. Pr———n is Prevalent
President Putin recently bragged that Russian prostitutes are “the best in the world,” and this says a lot about the leader of the country. The fact that there are that many prostitutes that the President can take time out of his day to discuss them publicly, also says a lot about the country. Officially, prostitution is illegal in Russia, where there are three million women working the streets. It is seen as a glamorous and lucrative lifestyle for those on the high end of the trade, but it comes with a price. Danger, disease, and prosecution are all very real fears of sex workers. Anywhere between 50,000-150,000 of them are infected with the HIV virus, and robbing at knife or gunpoint is common, as is paying off police officers to look the other way. Many young girls see themselves as having no other choice than to make a living this way, and honestly, there really may not be a lot of other options for them in a country like Russia.
13. Poverty is a “Mass Phenomenon”
This photo is heartbreaking. It is one thing to hear about poverty and the hungry, but it is quite another to see it on the face of an elderly person who is clearly suffering and cold. This woman has just received food from a food line for the hungry in Russia. Poverty and homelessness are real problems there. As of 2016, 20 million people were surviving on wages below the poverty threshold. In recent years, the economy fell into a recession, and the country found itself in an economic crisis. Russian journalist Anatoly Komrakov says, “Poverty has become a new mass phenomenon in contemporary Russia,” and it is largely due to falling oil prices. Most of the people severely affected by poverty are in the smaller cities and towns across Russia, and it was reported in 2016 that Russians spend over 50% of their income on food alone. In Russia, one isn’t classified as living in poverty until one earns less than 9,452 rubles ($139) per month.
12. Ugly Apartment Blocks
There is a good chance that if you live in Russia, seeing these lovely buildings is a regular occurrence. There is no escaping them, really. Maybe you even live in one. The Soviet policy of providing housing for every citizen, at one time, led to the development of enormous, plain housing blocks. The idea of a single family home, or of personal space in any capacity, has never been prevalent in Russia, hence the need for these unattractive apartment buildings that were erected to all be essentially the same. There are a few different versions of the block apartment, including the 17-to-22-story newer structures that are considered an affordable option, buildings that have 17 or fewer floors built during the 1990s in the suburbs of Moscow, and the older, 5-to-9-story buildings built from the 1960s to the 1980s when cost efficiency was the priority. They pretty much all have the same look to them, though and are a sight taken in by Russians everywhere every day because there are so many of them.
11. A High Suicide Rate
No doubt, you’ve heard about Russia’s troublingly high rate of suicide, particularly among the youth. So many suicides likely have to do with loneliness, especially for teenagers who spend more and more time online. International headlines were made in 2016 when over the course of six months, 130 teenagers across Russia killed themselves because of the social network Vkontakte, which influenced them to take their lives as they played disturbing games. The extremely high alcohol consumption, depression, and economic conditions in Russia all factor into the reality that more Russians kill themselves than most other nationalities although the numbers have dropped in recent years. Still, all that death, especially if you’re a parent to teenagers and are worried about them, would be a pretty big downer to live in the midst of. The photo above is of two teenagers who filmed a shootout with police before killing themselves, just one of the many sad examples of the suicide problem in Russia.
10. The Obsession With Vodka
Vodka is largely blamed for the high death rates in Russia and even contributes to the relatively short life expectancy (64 years) of men. It has always been this way, dating back to 988 A.D. when Russia is said to have chosen Christianity over Islam because they did not want to give up drinking. Alcohol, vodka in particular-, is to blame for the fact that a whopping 25% of men die before the age of 55 in Russia, and that is largely due to liver disease, alcohol poisoning, accidents, and fights. There are an estimated five million alcoholics in the country of 143 million, and 31% of people there regularly consume vodka. As you can see in this photo, that is not limited to college kids or even middle-aged folks. Even the grannies love their vodka in Russia. 30% of all deaths there are attributed to alcohol, which is an astonishing number if you think about it. Russians are quite literally drinking themselves to death because of the cold weather, hard lives, cultural habit, and cheap prices, although these are all just excuses.
9. There is Literally No Fun
This woman’s face says it all. There is no fun in Russia, and by this, I mean that literally, there is no direct Russian translation for the word “fun.” That says a lot about a place. The closest the language comes to the word “fun” is a word that means “pleasant.” Some have said that since there isn’t an exact notion of fun, nor the word to describe it, it’s not what their society focuses on, and it’s not as big a part of their lives as it is for most westerners. Russians would more likely describe an experience as “great” or “fine,” losing the sense of enjoyment we think of when we describe something as fun, which is concise and all-encompassing. But Russians prefer to express their feelings in more definite terms, and there is no single expression such as “fun” in Russian. This, to me, is mind-boggling, and I cannot fathom a society that cannot, itself, fathom having fun.
8. The Frigid Cold
Russia is known for being one of the coldest countries on earth, and it is home to the coldest city on earth, Oymyakon. Here, the average winter temperature is negative 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote Siberian city has a subarctic climate, and the ground there is permanently frozen. In the city of Norilsk, accessible only by air, polar nights mean 45 days of darkness per year. There, over two million tons of snowfall during the 8 to 10 months of winter each year, and people live with UV lamps to combat insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Yet another frigidly cold city is Yakutsk, where the average high in January is negative 40, and there are just three hours of sunlight per day. In places like these, it is considered “wimpy” to lower the ear flaps on your fur hat unless it gets below negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, not all of Russia lives in these cities. But the country as a whole, despite dramatic seasonal changes, is a very cold one. They suffer long, brutal winters that for most of the country last 8 to 9 months per year. That sounds like a bleak and depressing reality to deal with for 75% or more of your life.
7. The Traffic
In some places in Russia, traffic is such a headache that the very wealthy will avoid it altogether — by hiring an ambulance! The country’s capital, Moscow, is the worst for traffic jams due to its high population. Four million registered cars, the fact that the city was founded in 1147, and the radial ring road design from ancient times that doesn’t work so well in modern times all contribute to traffic congestion. Additionally, Russian drivers do not always play by the rules, thus causing many accidents that lead to traffic jams, especially in winter. The average commute for a Moscow resident is one and a half hours each way, with one hour being considered excellent time. So if you are filthy rich and want to beat the traffic, you can hire an “ambulance taxi” — unofficially, of course. Be prepared to shell out about $200 an hour, although this may be worth it considering that the interior of these ambulances have been redone so the passengers can lounge in luxury and eat caviar and sip champagne while they are whisked through the city. Police have caught on, however, and inspect ambulances when they seem suspicious, which if you think about it, could cost someone their life when time is of the essence.
6. Anti-Gay Laws
Russia is not a place you want to live in if you’re gay, bisexual, or transgender. This is because promoting LGBTQ issues and allowing children to be exposed to any sort of “non-traditional sexual relationship” are against the law and can land you in jail. You could also be arrested for public displays of affection in said “non-traditional sexual relationships,” and plenty of people have been. Russian people are among the least tolerant of gay people in the world after Muslim countries, and there is no protection offered to gay people who may be the target of hate crimes, often violent ones. Many gay youths live in fear of coming out because of the society they live in, and they have little hope that they will ever meet a partner. In Russia, it’s traditional values that are promoted, and “western liberalism” is suppressed, so giving minors any information about gay people or holding a gay-pride rally will surely be met with at least heavy fines.
5. There is Literally No Privacy
Much like the word (and concept of) “fun”, the word (and concept of) “privacy” lacks a direct Russian translation. This means that Russian people do not understand or need privacy, which to most westerners is something unimaginable. It seems like such a basic, simple concept, one that human beings should all be privy to and (for our own mental health) practice at least occasionally. But there is no way to say “privacy” in Russian without implying that whoever wants privacy is a hermit, is antisocial, or needs to go to the toilet. (The above photo, by the way, is of a public toilet at the Sochi Winter Olympics.) It comes down to the fact that most westerners appreciate and have become used to a bit of personal space or alone time, while Russians do not feel the need for it. Thus, they neither have a word for it nor even have the exact concept in their culture. Other countries that lack a translation for “privacy” include some Central Asian countries and Mongolia and Latvia, both of which border Russia.
4. The Societal Effects of the Gender Imbalance
One reason for this gender imbalance is World War II, which wiped out over 29 million Russian men, leaving the country with the opposite problem as their neighbor, China. China is known to have too many men because of their one-child policy. As a result, women in Russia end up settling for less and even putting up with domestic violence and infidelity because there are simply not enough men to go around. More women are also okay with being the mistress instead of the wife. This imbalance could also be why there seems to be an endless supply of beautiful Russian brides willing to leave their lives for western men. The lack of Russian men, especially because they have a vastly shorter life expectancy in Russia than women do, has another surprising consequence: there is a distinct lack of “gal pal” culture in Russia since women are distrustful of each other due to adultery and because they are essentially in competition with one another for the men. Today, there are about 87 males for every 100 females in Russia. Pictured above is one of those females, along with her lover, his wife, and two children, all of whom she killed. This is not typical, of course, but it is the type of thing you tend to see see more of when people must fight for love.
3. The Crazy Number of Commuters
Everyone going to and from work at the same time each day causes a headache for people who commute no matter how they get from one place to the other. As we have already seen on this list, traffic jams are a huge problem in parts of Russia. But the subway is another one. Approximately nine million people ride the subway every weekday in Moscow alone, a number which is almost the population of New York City. In fact, the nine million subway riders are more than those of New York City and London combined, which is pretty awesome. The Moscow Metro sees nine million strangers spend hours with each other every day beneath the city, so luckily, it is considered the most beautiful subway in the world. It is a subterranean network of 200 stations and 12 lines that span over 200 miles. But the sheer number of people would be a nuisance to deal with day in and day out.
2. Shorter Male Life Expectancy Than North Korea
We have touched on this a bit in earlier parts of this list, but the extremely low life expectancy for males in Russia is depressing, especially if you live there and are male or have a brother, father, and/or husband that you worry about losing too soon. Shockingly, the average male life expectancy in Russia (64.7 years) is even lower than that of North Korea! Now that is pretty pathetic. It ranks 107th in life expectancy according to the World Health Rankings. Drinking alcohol, especially binge-drinking vodka, which most Russians like to do, has a direct correlation to the shorter life expectancy. Russian culture is so rooted in drinking that while there may be no Russian translation for “fun” or “privacy,” there is a word that describes a several-day-long drinking binge: zapoi. Because of this kind of drinking, one in four men will die before they reach the age of 55 (compared to one in 11 American men), but this is better than the one in three it used to be.
1. Corruption Is An Everyday Reality
Russia has always been seen as a corrupt place, and even though it’s not as overtly corrupt nowadays, bribery is still very much a part of Russian life. Bribery is actually essentially invisible in Russia now, but it exists in the form of hidden costs. For example, truck drivers say they have to pay off policemen along their routes, and this cost is reflected in higher grocery store prices. Imported goods, especially, are more expensive than they should be because customs officials are paid under the table to speed up the clearance of merchandise. Russians deny that bribery goes on, however, because acknowledging that it does would essentially be confessing to a crime punishable by up to 12 years in prison. But it cannot be denied: Russians do pay bribes for everything from securing a specific cemetery plot to avoiding parking tickets to getting in faster for surgery. There is, of course, more publicized bribery involving government officials and whatnot, but the everyday people of Russia spend approximately 1,000-15,000 rubles ($19-$288) per bribe. But no one just hands over money because that would mean getting caught red-handed. They do it indirectly, such as through retired policeman or by wiring money.