My name is Valerie Stark. But that’s not my real name. In fact, I don’t use the last name that I was given at birth for two reasons. First, it’s hard to spell and pronounce for non-Russian speakers. Second, after a few years of living in UK, I got tired of getting frowned upon or getting that commiserative look.
I quickly realised that acknowledging that you’re Russian in the UK is like admitting that you have a deadly disease and you have only few weeks to live. And it’s contagious. “Oh…” as a response to me talking about my national identity became the norm. I started to use my last name less and less. And eventually I completely dropped it.
Losing my last name didn’t mean the end of the troubles, but at least I managed to avoid that look when my name was called for a reservation in the restaurant or when visiting a beauty salon. I stopped being a hooker or a criminal coming to laser off her nasty Russian pelage. I became Ms Stark, the woman with a few unwanted hairs.
However, my social life wasn’t as smooth as my legs. Even though I wasn’t the most social creature on planet Earth (mostly due to my workload), I definitely used to have a pool of people back home. People who I could call in the evening after a hard day at work and pop to their place with a bottle of wine on very short notice. And a couple of very close friends who didn’t need any notice at all but needed two bottles of wine.
Things in London were very different. I struggled to make friends, and my nationality seemed like it was one of the main contributors to this problem. In fact, it started from day one when I arrived in London. I settled in the hotel, and after a short, refreshing walk, I went to the restaurant to have dinner. As I was waiting to be seated at the bar, I sparked up a conversation with two British men in their mid-twenties, and it was just a lovely chit-chat. Well, at least it was up until they asked me where I was from.
I don’t have that prominent Russian accent we’re all familiar with, and most of the time people struggle to detect it. I told the boys that I was born in Moscow and expected some cheesy, tipsy comment about polar bears or vodka. But instead, it was, “For f**k’s sake. Not Russian!”
I was shocked and, for a second or two, I tried to gather myself together to ask them why. But by that time, they were already gone.
Similar situations kept occurring, and each time they were more painful. At a yoga retreat, I was told by a yoga buddy to explain why “all Russian women dress inappropriately”.
A physiologist who I went to see for my pain in the neck (and I don’t mean my nationality here) asked me if I was Russian as she was manipulating my C-3. Her response after receiving yes as an answer made my trust in her, as someone who I wanted to work on my vertebrae, quickly disappear. Her words still stick with me today: “So many Russians with lots of money come here and buy all these expensive houses. You know we don’t like each other. Well. You might not remember, but your mother definitely does. Cold War and everything.” It was like a flow of really nasty diarrhoea coming from her mouth. She finished the session. I paid and walked away, and never went back.
Before moving to the UK, I had the impression that America and Europe were all about tolerance. Now I was coming to realise that tolerance and love towards other cultures isn’t something that comes together with a certain citizenship or upon completion of a yoga retreat. Rather, they’re achieved through education, life experience and challenging one’s own hypocrisies. Thinking that you’re better than someone else because you were born and raised in a particular country that is now boasting its tolerance is a big fat myth.
There used to be such a thing as Clause 28, a law which existed in Britain up until 2003 that prohibited “promoting homosexuality”. Only 15 years ago, then, Britain was homophobic.
I understand that Russian culture might have been tainted by the revolution, Stalinism and the Cold War, and that the current political climate is very intense. I also appreciate that Russia still has a law similar to Clause 28, and that just few weeks ago the State Duma’s Ethics Committee exonerated the chairman of Duma’s International Affairs Committee who sexually harassed several female journalists.
Later, the Moscow State University dean, during his lecture at Novosibirsk State University, concluded that “decent men can touch women anywhere”. Yes, that’s what he said, and that’s a sad reality – but only if you compare it with reality in the UK or the US. Many Arab or Asian countries wouldn’t even let harassment cases come to light.
I’m also proud that half of the students walked out of the lecture hall in protest and that those young female journalists stood up for themselves. This would have been hard to imagine 10 years ago, and it’s happening now. Russia has long way to go when it comes to tolerance and equality, but this is due to entrenched prejudices from a long and painful Russian history. Things are changing, whether you want to believe it or not.
Even without going back in history, I can tell you that there are so many wonderful and talented Russians who are not only known in Russia but widely acknowledged internationally. Take Vika Gazinskaya, who designs clothes and recently launched a collection of vegan leather items which are sold everywhere, from Browns to MatchesFashion.com. Natalia Vodyanova is a renowned model, actress and philanthropist who runs the Naked Heart Foundation, which helps children with special needs and constructs play parks. Elena Shifrina founded BioFoodLab, which sells her healthy vegan Bite bars across the globe.
There are many more of amazing Russians who are definitely not “criminals and hookers” and who feel sad when they are being profiled and judged just because they are who they are.
Don’t get me wrong –both I and many other Russians living in and outside the UK absolutely adore British culture. There is a cult of British literature, movies and Britain itself in Russia. Russians obsessively read Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dickens, Wilde, Austen, Tolkien and, of course, J K Rowling. Our publishing houses reprint the works of Lewis Carol with handwriting and sketches inside and then cover the edges of the pages with gold. I have never seen one of those in the UK.
We love Charlie Chaplin, discuss every outfit of Kate Middleton, have multiple geeky communities who dress like Beowulf and Grendel and even some which speak Elvish. We listen to Robbie Williams and want to marry David Beckham, though only if he comes with Victoria’s wardrobe.
I myself studied the History of Western Europe while living in Russia and then comparative literature and Anglo-Saxon history for my BA and MA in the UK. I also met many wonderful Brits, including my favourite history teacher, Robin Anthony, who also knows how to speak Elvish and tells the best stories about Henry VIII.
But unfortunately, and despite my love of Britain, my nationality still plays a big role in how people treat me. I decided to write this opinion piece after being sent messages including “Glad you’re going back to Russia soon” and “Russian whore”. Recent political events have dialled up the Russian-hating to 100.
I want people to hear about my experiences first-hand and not to buy into media speculations about Russians in Britain. What we need is more stories about self-made Russians who have assimilated happily into British life in the press, rather than articles and TV series which portray Russians solely as gangsters and corrupt oligarchs. We need movies about Russian culture, people and maybe even superheroes, rather than the same old storylines about spies and prostitutes. We need some of your love and respect and I believe we, as anyone else in this world, equally deserve it.
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