There’s a stereotype in America that Russians are very cold and serious people. I try not to put to put too much into stereotypes about large groups of people until I am able to get firsthand experience. Based on my time in Russia, I can now say there is a good amount of truth behind this particular stereotype.
It isn’t that Russians don’t know how to smile; it’s just that Russians don’t smile at strangers. Occasionally, I would see two friends laugh while just walking down the street, and I would actually get a bit excited. It was very uncomfortable being in this kind of rigid atmosphere. Whenever I would try to communicate with anyone, my American instincts would kick in, and I would crack at least a half smile. Not once did a Russian smile back at me.
One memory sticks out in particular. The Red Square was closed off for a huge military event, so the place was littered with men in uniform. As I was walking away from the Square, I shared a laugh with my friend while looking over my shoulder. I turned to see where I was walking and caught eyes with an older gentleman that had a number of insignia on his jacket walking towards the Red Square. We locked eyes, and it was completely jarring. Never in my life had I gotten a death stare so terrifying. Furthermore, it seemed like Russians were very keen on holding eye contact, which made it all the worse. I can’t recall a time when a smile had been wiped off my face so quickly.