Thursday, March 28, 2013

You Can Never Go Home, Reverse Culture Shock

By Kelly Raftery

As a newly minted Russian Area Studies degree holder, a chance meeting with another student led me to my first job in Russia--representing the western half of a joint venture in St. Petersburg. I had been a study abroad student in the same city a year and a half previously, except at the time it was still called Leningrad. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a great many new opportunities for those of us who spoke Russian. So, off I flew into dark and dreary St. Petersburg with just a duffel bag and the hope someone would meet me at the airport.  

That first job crammed more life experience into nine months than I could have gained stateside in as many years. There was no gradual, planned out progression from one country to fifteen, from a command economy to a free-for-all capitalist system, it all literally happened in the space of months. There were no adequate laws on the books to address all the new commercial transactions, there was no concept of consumer protection, and even if there were laws on the books, enforcement was irregular and arbitrary. Those months in Russia featured experiences like being relieved of every single thing I owned by a robber who politely left me a single pair of underwear, socks, and my toothbrush, becoming acquainted with victims of mafia hits as well as a mafia hit man, and shopping for black market weapons with an engineer friend. Those of us who lived in Russia at that time are a funny bunch; I just recently renewed ties with someone I had known as a child, not knowing we had both lived in Russia during the crazy early 90s. She told me she had been kidnapped, I told her how impressive that was, but that I had been held at gunpoint, she countered with, “I've been shot at and held at knife point, but not held at gunpoint. Yeah my life seems boring now. I never get abducted and tortured by strangers.”  This was the world we all lived in, those of us who worked in Russia and the other former Soviet Republics in the 1990s.

A book of rationing coupons from the 1990s.
The value of the ruble fell daily. I would wait until the absolute last minute to pay my phone bill to ensure that hyper-inflation and devaluation was working in my favor. One memorable month I owned the equivalent of about $250 when the bill arrived. By the time I walked into the payment point a few weeks later, I parted with about $15 in rubles. During the difficult winter months, certain foods were available only with ration coupons, which left out foreigners like me. Instead, my coworkers would obtain cheese and sausage for me via friends with “backdoor” contacts, retail workers who supplied the Black Market.
In summer, the hot water was turned off to sections of the city in turn, ostensibly for maintenance reasons. I remember rotating among friends’ apartments for a rare hot shower and simply steeling myself for the piercing arrows of cold water that shot out of my faucet the rest of the week. Hot showers took on the allure of erotic fantasy. If you had asked my 23 year old self for a definition of ultimate pleasure it would have probably involved a hamburger and fries (a 30 dollar extravagance at the time), a hot shower, inch-thick towels and pajamas washed in a machine with fabric softener. There were no Laundromats, no washing machines or dryers at that time in Russia either. Dealing with dirty clothes boiled down to washing it by hand or paying someone to do it for you and my meager salary did not stretch to household help.         
The first McDonald's in Russia - still the world's busiest. 
Nirvana to my 20 something self.
Eventually, I came home. And after I was home for a while, I went back to Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union many times. Each time I was in the United States, I was struck by an incredible feeling of unreality. If in Russia I was an exotic fish, as professional western women were a rarity there in the early 1990s, at home I was a fish completely out of water. I certainly spoke English with my bland Midwestern accent and for all intents and purposes, I was a twenty-something American woman. I would stand at parties, completely unable to make small talk, confused when the conversation turned to the latest episode of “Friends”, the best bar on the North Side or what music was on the radio that week. It was all so alien and strange. In Russia, making it day to day was a struggle. The rules changed, the money was worth less daily, and nothing was predictable or stable. In America, my counterparts were working cubicle jobs and spent five days a week counting down to the weekend. In Russia, every single day brought a new challenge and the need to think outside the box to overcome it.   

Eventually I came home for good, but brought a bit of perspective with me in my husband. Despite being born and raised thousands of miles apart, we share common values, priorities, and outlooks on life. We have deep gratitude for all that the U.S. has materially, but remember living through a time when a person’s life savings disappeared in a heartbeat. So, on the days when reverse culture shock still strikes me over the head, at least I have someone by my side who understands those blank looks of confusion and shares those memories of struggling to just get by day by day.


  1. Awesome post. I'd love to hear more.

  2. Great post, Kelly. Experiences like yours make US culture surreal in comparison ... well, more surreal than it already is. ;)

  3. My husband actually laughed out loud when viewing the World War II era U.S. rationing board in a photo in a museum this week. "Hamburgers? Pulled pork sandwich? Two eggs and bacon? This is what you people called rationing?"

  4. Really interesting post. Such experiences you've had!

    McDonald's came to Italy in 1986. I lived in the US then, and I actually wept when I heard it (I wrote about that here

    Unfortunately, it's affecting Italian culture. I see obese children everywhere--something that doesn't happen on the traditional Italian diet, despite its reliance on pasta.

  5. McDonald's in the Soviet Union was more of a political thing at the time. During the Soviet Union, bilateral business ties were limited to a deal between Pepsi and Smirnoff Vodka - that was it. The only American product that you could really get legally when I was a student was a bottle of Pepsi. The swap was basically soda syrup for vodka - and it was only a swap, no money changed hands, because the ruble was not floated on international markets, therefore making any international business a barter only proposition.

    Unfortunately, modern Russians have a host of many other public health problems and life expectancy there is one of the lowest in Europe. McDonald's consumption (which is still very much a luxury and not an every day thing) is just a drop in the larger sea of concerns.