20 May 2007

My Broken Slav-O-Meter

It used to be pretty easy for me to tell the Russians apart from the non-Russians on the Metro and in the streets of Moscow. Seven years ago when I first studied in Moscow, I figure I could identify foreigners (of which I was one) with accuracy somewhere around 95-98 percent. Of course, I never actually stepped up to someone and asked them, "excuse me, are you a foreigner?" so I guess I don't really know my success rate. But I like to think I was pretty good.

Now, the Russians who are reading this blog are probably not impressed. I'm sure they can identify foreigners with 99.999 percent accuracy, and they do most days. How did that waitress know to pull out the English menu before I even opened my mouth? I think it's easier to identify a handful of "the others" when the majority are "the selves," than vice versa. Or, to put that into an intelligible sentence, it's easier for Russians in Russia to identify foreigners than it is for Americans in Russia to identify foreigners (or Russians, for that matter). In a country that was trained for 70 years to view foreigners with skepticism, it's no wonder they're good at rooting us out.

Given this fact (which is really just a guess rather than a fact), I was pretty proud of my high accuracy rate (which was really just a guess rather than a rate). And besides, what else is there to do on the Metro for entertainment besides try to figure out who's Russian and who's a foreigner. It's not like I'm going to pull out my copy of Dostoevsky in English and start reading - then the other bored American in the wagon will be able to pick me out. Even worse, the babushka sitting across from me will start staring at me with alternating looks of intense suspicion and utter revulsion. No, the book stays in the bag. Besides, nobody reads Dostoevsky on the Metro, no matter what the language.

It's best to work by process of elimination. In other words, it's easiest to establish that someone is a Russian using a variety of indicators or "tells." If the person is coded as "Russian" along a sufficient number of indicators, he or she is set aside and the next subject is analyzed. If the individual cannot be coded as Russian along any of the indicators, then he or she is concluded to be "foreign."

Granted, it's not as scientific as it sounds (but what social science is?). Some indicators - fur coats dyed purple with gold trim, for example - are sufficient conditions for declaring Russianness. Others, like squared-toed shoes on men, are simply "probable" indicators, which in conjunction with other indicators might jointly indicate Russianness. Of course, the art lies in those difficult calls where there are just a couple of "probables" but no definite indicators.

I usually start by looking at a person's shoes. I used to sell men's shoes at a department store during summers in high school, which is probably why I'm biased towards shoes as the first indicator. Russian men tend to wear black dress shoes with squared toes. If it's a European-style squared toe, you might have to move to another indicator. If the toe extends out 2-3 inches beyond where a normal shoe would end, getting pointy and even maybe curling up like an elf bootie before squaring off, he's probably a Russian. Oh, and if they're white slip-ons, that's a pretty sure sign too. In the event that it's a European-looking shoe, check for the black dress shoe/blue jeans combination, as that's generally a sufficient identifier.

Among women the shoe trick is usually quite reliable for the simple reason that few American women would subject themselves to the torture of wearing high-heels all the time. All I can say is I'm glad I'm not a Russian woman (and not just because of the uncomfortable shoes...). Additionally, the "super pointy toe that's about 4 inches too long" helps identify Russian women.

At this point I should mention that really we're dealing with the younger generation here. The older Russians on the Metro are, well, unmistakably Russian. It's at the fringes, in the younger generation, where the real identification work is to be done.

If the shoes don't give away the answer, then it's time to move on to another indicator. Next I'll usually move to another reliable one, hair style. Apparently the mullet, whether for men or women, is quite fashionable in Moscow these days. Alas, if you've got one, there's no way you're from America unless you're 1) from the deep South or 2) being really ironic. Similarly, the abundance of bangs, severely cut in a straight line across the forehead of young women, is usually a sign of a likely Russian.

If shoes plus hair haven't given you your answer yet, it's time to move on to clothing. In this category it's easiest if you know what's in fashion or at least acceptable in your own country. Outfits that don't fit into either group are indicators that the wearer is operating under a different set of fashion norms. Examples include: fur, fur, fur. Whereas it's only for the very wealthy in the U.S., even ordinary Muscovites are covered in it in the winter. I even saw a fox shawl that still had the head attached, poor fella! Also, lots of sparkly gold things attached to a matching skirt and jacket with patches of revealing lace. Among young men, the "adiddas" track suit (note the extraneous "d") and the aforementioned blue jeans/dress shoe combo are pretty good indicators.

Here we're starting to run out of options. Facial structure is occasionally helpful, as there is a classic Slavic look. But many Russians don't really have the look, nor is it impossible for foreigners to have it too. Maybe take a look around for accessories: does the person have a book bag or a fancy Jansport backpack? Is he reading a book? What language is it in (actually, you should have noticed this long ago, shame on you for being inattentive!). Is she smiling on the Metro (definitely not a Russian, unless it's a girl who's giggling because her boyfriend has her hands all over her). Are he and she locked in an epic battle, each apparently trying to suck the other's face off? Public making-out (which is really too gentle a term for what goes on) should probably be declared a national pasttime.

If all else fails, you can hope that he or she has a friend there. Is the friend unmistakably Russian? Better yet, are they speaking fluent Russian to each other? (again, if you missed this from the beginning and have been wasting your time until now, you need to refine your observation skills).

If, after all this, the individual cannot be coded as "Russian," chances are he or she is a foreigner.

But that was 7 years ago. The thing is, it seems my Slav-O-Meter, my ability to tell (with 95-98 percent accuracy, I think) Russkiis from innostrantsy isn't working very well lately. I'm having a much harder time telling Russians from foreigners these days.

It's not that the foreigners are cleverly blending in now, adopting pointy shoes and gaudy coats as camouflage in Moscow's subterranean jungle. No, the foreigners are still foreigners. Rather, it seems that the jungle is starting to resemble the invaders. That is to say, the Russians are starting to look more and more like westerners, which really throws a wrench in my system.

Sure, a good portion of young Russians still are characteristically Russian in appearance. But it's getting harder to tell, as some of them have undergone complete and convincing transformations. Black dress shoes and pointy heels have been replaced by Reebok and Adidas (one "d") athletic shoes, sparkly sweaters replaced with hooded sweatshirts. Columbia parkas are taking the blace of furs and black leather coats, while brightly colored backpacks are slung over shoulders. While mullets, tragically, are still the rage, at least there are gelled and spiked dos interspersed among the guys these days.

This has all been a bit disconcerting for me. On several occasions, I've been convinced that a young woman across from me was an American, probably a student studying abroad like I once did. She even has a friend, also clearly an American by the looks of things. Maye I should go introduce myself and fidn out what they're studying. Yep, there they are, two Americans...that speak flawless Russian. Well, so much for the system. Glad I didn't make a fool of myself.

I was about to give up hope of recalibrating my system when the most magical event happened: it hit 80 degrees in Moscow last week. Apparently heat is the great Russifyer, as all those Russians who were cleverly disguising themselves as westerners showed their true colors once summer struck hard. Out came the see-through shirts that reveal everything down to the lace pattern of her bra. Unfortunately, my first sighting of such a shirt was a rather doughy woman who's been hitting the smetana a little too hard it seems. I thought this pudgy princess couldn't be topped until I saw a woman wearing a similar transparent shirt the next day, only she was about 8 months pregnant. Where pants and skirts once resided there are now little strips of fabric too small to really be called skirts. More like "rts," since they're only half-skirts (fortunately most "rts" wearers do have the assets to back up their fashion statements...) And it seems that shirts have been replaced with silky napkins stolen from the Chinese restaurant, delicately laced to one's body with a couple of strings.

Nor has the revealing power of summer been limited to Russian women. Among men there has been a sudden proliferation of the ubiquitous sleeveless t-shirt, allowing the wearer to show off his pasty white guns. And as he clings to the bar above his head on the Metro, it allows us to remember that Russians have yet to become obsessive about deodorant like Americans. You can imagine what July on the Metro smells like...

And so, while it has traditionally been the Russian winter that has destroyed the foreign invaders, now it seems that the Russian summer can take some credit for allowing the Russian people to throw off their foreign chains (by which I mean sweatshirts) and be who they really are: Russians, through and through.


Anonymous said...

A good laugh to start the day... you didn't mention the "murse". Spent a couple of hours outdoors last night at Monya watching the Russian world go by and dissecting the clothing - starting with shoes.

Platforma Mark: Open Saturday and Sunday, beginning early

At least 3 ways to get there:
http://www.go-magazine.ru/articles/show/372 -- directions at the bottom of the article. I haven't been this way.

Electrishka from Savyolovskaya - about a 20 minute ride to Mark. You can't miss the stop. The woods full of people and "junk" are evident.

Driving - essentially where the MKAD and Dmitrovskoye Chaussee meet. Driving works well if you are into buying the most unusual [for us] assortment of stuff. Bring small bills.

Mark has been closed since early April - digging a huge muddy pit right in the middle and we have yet to determine if it is open. The administratrive web site for that area of Moscow did note that it was closed and now the same website says nothing so..... if you go this weekend let me know if it is open.

Mait said...

Living in tourist city does have it's strange sides.

I used to wonder at my friends' ability to call random people on street Russian, Finn, Swedish, Italian, American... until I had lived there for a few years, my own perception honed and my own radar activated.

Shoes. Glasses. Hairdos. Body language. Sitting in outdoor cafes at lunch breaks, what else is there to look at?

Rubashov said...

Good point, Anonymous. I forgot about the "murse" (man purse for those of you who don't know the lingo). And of course, when I was out walking today I was reminded of several others I had forgotten: leopard print outfits, men in white pants, and guys in shorts that are even too short for ladies to be wearing.

In case you haven't checked it out, you should look at the eXile's field guide to Moscow, a comprehensive guide to the many characters you're likely to see on the streets of the city. I read it when I first got here and got a few good chuckles. Then I re-read it a couple days ago and nearly fell out of my chair laughing. I guess you have to live here a while to appreciate how dead-on the descriptions are...

And thanks for the P. Mark directions. I'm out of town next weekend, but maybe I'll go on an expedition in a couple of weeks.

And Mait, don't forget to look at the "rts."

Lyndon said...

Very insightful. I have had conversations about this with people in Moscow for sure. Just imagine how precise the intourist detector could be back in the pre-1991 days. I recall losing faith in my ability to spot the foreigner circa 2002 or 2003, when I saw a Jansport-toting youth burst into fluent Russian. The Jansport had been an unmistakable indicator of an Amerikos, but no more, it seems (though it's still probably one of those "probable" indicators). But I've pretty much given up playing this game with anyone under 30, because the globalization of fashion trends among the younger generation makes it impossible.

And there _are_ some Americans who "go native" in some aspects of their fashion, but they are few and far between and are usually the long-long-term expats. Although I have been known to rock the blue-jeans-with-black-dress-shoes look...and I did find myself dressing with greater concern for my appearance the longer I spent in Moscow. Thankfully I had American colleagues to keep me in line and give me grief when my shoes got too pointy (American men's shoe norm: too square = not good; too pointy = not good either). Basically, one can sum up the footwear thing by saying that practical, comfortable, non-gaudy footwear often indicates that the wearer is a foreigner.

Another fairly good (though not always reliable) foreigner indicator is wedding ring on the left hand, though again, this won't help as much for the youth demographic.

In a country that was trained for 70 years to view foreigners with skepticism, it's no wonder they're good at rooting us out.

Well, I think people can be trained in this art for many, many reasons - spotting tourists is a money-making activity for pickpockets and souvenir salespeople all over the world - or for no reason at all other than just being weary of tourists, as sometimes happens to native Washingtonians, for example.

Anyway, thanks for this post. Scrolling through the younger fashion (and anti-fashion) victims at this website reveals how difficult the spot-the-foreigner game is to play with anyone under 30 in today's Moscow.

Sean Guillory said...

If the toe extends out 2-3 inches beyond where a normal shoe would end, getting pointy and even maybe curling up like an elf bootie before squaring off, he's probably a Russian.

An Armenian friend here in LA refers to the elf shoe as the "Sultan." I love when the toe starts curving up. My Slav-o-meter also got really good in Moscow. So good that I have a knack for identifying Russians in LA. Believe or not they pretty much dress the same as they do in Russia--minus the big colorful furry coats of course.

I've been amazed at the Russian skill for spotting Jews. It's uncanny.

But a real observer can tell the differences between non-Russian ethnic groups. Now that is a skill that I think will always elude me.

The differences between how Russian and American youths dress are enough to easily tell the difference. Russian and European youths, that is much harder.

But I have to say that Russian goths dress different than American and European goths. Russians tend to dress far more elegant and elaborate. Most American goths tend to just wear black and a Bauhaus t-shirt or something. European goths just look like club kids dressed in black.

People watching in Moscow is the best. My favorite spots are Chistyi prudy for the punks and goths and Aleksandrovskii sad for devs. Both are good places for honing one's skills.

Oh, and one last thing, the Exile field guide is so right on, its scary.

Sarokina said...

For the record (and this is coming from Belarus, not Russia):

I read Dostoevsky on the metro. In the original.

I smile. A lot. On the metro.

I've seen very few square-toed shoes on men - they're pointy. Definitely pointy.

Rubashov said...

Yes, well when there are only about 10 Americans in Belarus, it's not too hard to pick out the natives!