written by an Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program student
In Russian, the word “шуба” [shoo-ba], plural: шуби [shoo-bee] has two meanings.
1. A fur coat
2. A salad that consists of alternating layers of mayonnaise, beats, and salted herring fish. The full name of the salad is translated as “Herring under a fur coat.”
To most Americans, both are foreign and puzzling. Here we’re not going to discuss the fishy kind, but rather the furry kind.
Studying abroad for the fourth time in a Russian speaking country (3 times in Russia, once in Kazakhstan), parts of Russian culture are beginning to blend together with my own. At home, people think of me as “the Russian girl” because I often talk about my favorite Russian and Georgian dishes or how excited I am to wear my “ushanka” hat come wintertime. Ironically, I’m not Russian, I just happened to fall in love with the culture.
Having adopted parts of Russian culture as my own, I have learned to stomach the shuba. To most Americans, the idea of a fur coat is at best strange, and at worst repulsive. However, for better or for worse, I have fallen for the Russian romanticism surrounding the item considered essential to any Russian woman’s wardrobe. My first exposure was on my gap year program in Kazan. I was warned upon arrival that in the winter it would be cold, however, I had no basis on which to understand this kind of cold.
On the first day the temperature fell below -30 degrees F, my host mom kindly offered (read: insisted) that I wear her old shuba. This shuba however, was from a past era. Big, brown, and down to the floor, it was the heaviest article of clothing I had ever held. I felt like a bear wearing it. While it wasn’t very flattering, I agreed to wear the shuba to ease my host mom’s mind and her worry that I would literally freeze into an American popsicle. I was pleasantly surprised by how much warmer it was than my down coat. I barely noticed that I had walked out into the tundra, except for the fact that everything inside my nose had frozen solid.
Shuba: 1, Anya: 0.
Now understanding the fact that such a coat really is necessary to stay warm during the coldest parts of the year in Russia, I began to develop a soft side for the shuba. I still didn’t view them as fashionable, but I understood their purpose. In class my teachers explained how Russian woman felt about shubi: that they are the epitome of style, and a necessity for any respectable Russian woman’s wardrobe. I should add that not all Russian or Kazakh women wear shubi, but a large portion do.
By the time I came to Kazakhstan this January my Russification was already well set in. Being in a Russian speaking environment again during the winter months made me look at shubi in a new light. I felt surrounded by them: I saw them everywhere, on everyone, and was beginning to admire them. At first I denied this. The Americanness in me didn’t want to accept that shubi might be growing on me. However, admiring the warmth of fur, I asked my host mom about buying a dublyonka (a coat with fur on the inside). To me, a dublyonka was the way to stay warm and avoid feeling self-conscious about my new coat in the US.
So, in our hunt for dublonki, we went to a fur coat store in the city; however, at the store there were only shubi and I decided to try some on just for the experience. At first I wasn’t very serious about it. I didn’t like the “norka” fur, which is considered the highest quality. The last shuba I tried on made me feel like Cruella Deville and I loved it — the evilness, of course, not the shuba.
With no luck finding dublyonki at the market my host mom suggested we go to the big bazaar outside of the city, in Russian, the “baraholka.” I wasn’t prepared for this, but it seemed as if my entire time living in Russia had been cultural training for this moment. It was the “big league” bazaar. Already far outside the city, I began to notice mall-like buildings dotting the landscape. They continued to appear, advertising what kinds of goods were inside rather than store names. A few miles after I saw the beginning of the baraholka, we got off the bus. I didn’t quite understand just how big this place was, but I knew it was very large. At first, we looked for dublyonki, but I didn’t feel the kind of excitement I had at the fur coat store. I wanted to feel glamorous again, so I decided to start trying on shubi instead. At first I felt like an imposter, surely an American couldn’t willingly want a fur coat. But after awhile I started to simply accept the feeling of luxury and glamour that a shuba gives a woman. I started really wanting one.
Despite that goods and services in Kazakhstan are cheaper than in the US, shubi still are very expensive. I managed to find a shuba that I adored and bargained down to $600. As astronomical as that seems, for the high quality “norkivaya” shuba that I tried on, it was really a good deal. I wasn’t ready quite yet to spend that amount of money and decided to sleep on it. We left empty handed after 5 hours of wandering around the bazaar. However, we had agreed to call the salespeople back if I decided to buy the shuba.
I messaged all my closest friends making sure I hadn’t lost my mind. I was about to buy a fur coat. Having convinced myself, and my mom, that I was getting a “deal”, we told the sellers that we wanted to buy the shuba. On Thursday at 5 they came to our apartment. However, when I tried the shuba on in the mirror something had changed. This was no longer what I wanted. Something was wrong. I stood in front of the mirror for 15 minutes, trying to figure out what to do. I couldn’t just tell them that I didn’t want it after they brought it to our apartment, but at the same time it wasn’t as if it were a small purchase. I made an excuse that I didn’t want to buy the shuba quite yet and afterwards told my host mom I had had second thoughts. We called them back and told them I wasn’t going to buy the shuba. Back to square one.
I spent the following weeks researching shubi, trying to figure out what exactly made me suddenly dislike the shuba I had almost purchased. Did I really want a shuba or did I just like the idea of a shuba? I looked into the alternatives: dublyonki and thick wool winter coats with fur collars. My outerwear choices made me begin to question my future: where am I going to be in 5 years and what kind of coat should I get to live that life? Who knew that a coat could initiate an existential crisis?
After four weeks we returned to the baraholka to look for wool winter coats. At first we stayed on task, but then we veered into a dublyonka stall. Now we were really back at square one. I tried on five or six different dublyonki and one of the them just felt right. I had doubts because after all, this is what I was telling myself I didn’t want a few weeks ago. However, this dublyonka was what I had originally imagined buying: it was sleek and more incognito than a shuba. It didn’t scream, “hey look, fur,” but certainly shows off its beauty.
The moral of this story: follow your cultural instincts, but don’t be afraid to live in the shoes of another for a day. I’ve had great experiences shuba hunting and have most certainly had extra opportunities to improve my language because of it. No matter how strange or incomprehensible a shuba may be to Americans (the furry AND the fishy kind), you should definitely try both (on) once!