There are quite a few anti-fur slogans out there.  “Fur is murder”, or perhaps “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”.  Somehow the internet doesn’t seem to have come up with “I’d rather bare than bear”, which I just don’t understand.  So I’m going to claim that one..

I’m not quite used to seeing people wear fur all the time.  I find it really repellent, and am pretty close to girly shrieks if someone brushes their fur coat against me on the metro.  I’m okay with leather – people can eat the animals – and with wool of course, but fur horrifies me on some kind of level I don’t really understand.  I don’t know if it’s because of my generally hippy tendencies, or just long-term brain-washing!  Either way, I understand why people wear fur here – it’s a bit cold, and fur is warm – but there is no way I could bring myself to wear it.  So, as you can imagine, trying to buy a coat today was a disproportionately traumatic experience.

I’d been looking a few times with Naz, but with no luck.  Today I went with the lovely Anya, which was awesome on several levels.  One was that she’d hold my bag while I tried things on; another was that I didn’t have to talk Russian at all today (and in fact was completely lazy and didn’t even listen to the shop attendants), and the other was that she saved me from the fur!  Before entering one particularly bad shop, she stopped and told me to “prepare yourself” because there would be a lot of fur in the store.  (On a side-note, has anyone ever used the word ‘fur’ so much in such a short space of time?  I just looked the word up in a thesaurus and one of the alternatives was ‘down’.  Oh my god – have animals been killed to create my sleeping bag??!  My doona??  Is nothing safe?!?!)

Anyway, Anya would ask shop assistants if there were any coats without fur, or where the fur could at least be taken off.  Unfortunately, all of the decent warm coats have fur trimmings.  At one point I put on a coat which had fur inside the high collar, trying it on for size, and I literally became nauseous and just about panicked in getting it off again.  Anya said how ridiculous the news article would be – ‘girl dies from mysterious illness after unwilling contact with fur’.  She and the shop assistant then took the fur off for me, and in fact Anya went out of her way to prevent me from touching any pelt (thankyou, after that.

“You are nothing like a Russian woman”, she said to me later.  No kidding – I’m pretty sure I’m the complete antithesis of a Russian.  “Here, every woman dreams of having a fur coat – they say that ‘I’ll marry you if you buy me a fur coat’…  I’d never thought of it before, that animals were killed to create them – I just figured they collected fur from dead animals…
“The thing is Laura, people here don’t have time to think about things like animals and fur – they are too busy thinking of their lives, of getting food, of having enough work, of staying warm”.

This is something I’ve been thinking of a bit actually.  Things like the environment, treatment of animals, human rights and copyright law aren’t given much thought here.  (‘Copyright law’ may seem like an odd inclusion, but a Russian ex-friend and I fell out over it perhaps a week ago – I’ll write about it when it’s a little more distant).  People have to devote far more thought to more basic needs.
I have a lot of love for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (shown), and the things mentioned are all near the top of the pyramid.  It’s the privilege of those who are warm and have enough to eat to think about things like rights or morality.

Incidentally, I’ve just learned that Maslow’s parents were emigrants from Russia.  How appropriate!

I’d like to finish with, firstly, my students’ “Claim of the Week” – discovered while marking online written assignments last night-, and secondly, one of many hilarious youtube videos about Russia.

And yes – I did buy a coat.  I’m just not yet sure what to do with the rabbit pelt that came with it.


Bread and bears

There are some things my students would like you to know about Russia.

This all started because we were doing a mind-mapping exercise as a warm-up.  Basically, you write something in the middle of the page (in this case, ‘blue’ – which was a bit funny as it’s slang for ‘gay’ in Russian) and then write things you associate with that word around it.  I wrote blue>French flag>bread, and my students were outraged.  ‘Why France?’ they asked, ‘bread is from Russia!’.  I said that by no means did I associate bread with Russia, and they objected, saying that bread and bears are how the world sees Russia.  I said that that is absolutely not the case.

I then drew a mind-map with ‘Russia’ in the centre.  The first thing I wrote was ‘vodka’.  Then ‘tanks’, ‘Cold War’, ‘bad guys in movies’, ‘evil accent’.  Not tolerant nor educated, but they were the first stereotypes I thought of.  My students were incredibly confused.

I next sat down and explained that I had only met my first Russian eighteen months ago, and up until that point my knowledge of Russia was pretty much limited to the above.  Russia had always seemed irrelevant to me, boring, more a cliché than an actual place. It’s all like Siberia, they’d had a Communist government, they’d been the ‘other side’ in the Cold War, and, yes, they’re the bad guys in movies.  Russian guys are ‘hard’ and Russian women are mail-order brides.

Siberia??  (Photo:

Of course, since then, it’s like a world has opened up before me.  An alien world to be sure, but a world I feel the richer for starting to know.

My students then asked me at least a million questions about how Russia is perceived in Australia and the UK, the only two other countries I’ve lived in.  I told them, and they were horrified.  Not angry in their patriotism – and not even patriotism, but national pride – but sad.  They really were distraught.  All they could say was ‘but that’s so sad’.  They then almost pleaded, ‘but Laura, you’ll go back and tell everyone what Russia is really like, won’t you?’.

So, here are some of the things that my Russian students would like you to know about their country:

  • Some of history’s most important and well-known scientists are Russian.  Studied chemistry?  Mendeleev, who invented the periodic chart, was Russian.  As were the inventors/discoverers of Google’s search engine, the videotape recorder (Paris should pay royalties), oil tankers, the fields of aero- and hydrodynamics, MiG aircraft, glucose and artificial sweetener, vodka (lol), Chanel No 5, and at least a zillion more things.
  • Russia defeated Napoleon.  They play a huge and current role in containing conflicts in the Stan area from the Middle East to India.  In World War 2, for the whole war there were approx 70 million deaths.  Around 5 million of those were Jews, and people are still sensitive to the extreme about even mentioning the Holocaust.  The United States lost nearly half a million people, the UK around the same, representing 0.32% and 0.94% of their populations respectively.  Just over 40,000 Australians were killed, so around 0.57% of the population.  More than twenty-three million residents of the Soviet Union were killed, representing 13.88% of the population. And yet these are the ‘bad guys’ in movies.
  • On the topic of movies, there are some brilliant Russian films.  My students think you should check out films such as ‘12‘ by Nikita Mikhalkov, and I definitely agree!
  • Ok, so bread and bilberries are great (they insisted).
  • ‘America’s history is like a page, Russia is a whole book’.
  • Russian students study the history and geography of the whole world.  Mine today could tell me the history of the UK, of America, of Australia, and major geographical features of any country I’d care to ask about.  By comparison, at school I only studied the history of Australia and of the UK.  Granted, I work for private language schools and the students who attend are those who can afford to, but I’ve found all of my students educated, opinionated and brave.
Now, to lighten things up, here’s one of my favourite Soviet cartoons.