Why don't Russians smile? Nastia Liukin answers our burning cultural questions

Scott Halleran / Today
Retired Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin in Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia.

There are a lot of stereotypes about Russians and Russian culture, and since the Olympics are being held in this faraway land, we decided we needed to be schooled. Olympic gymnast and NBC Olympics contributor Nastia Liukin, whose family is from Russia, graciously answers some of our weird questions.

Q: Do Russians have a special alcohol tolerance, and do they all love vodka?

Nastia: "Growing up and while I was training, obviously I never drank and that kind of stuck with me. I hardly drink—occasionally I’ll have a glass of wine. But everyone says, ‘You’re Russian, you HAVE to drink vodka!’ Nope, I don’t drink vodka! Russians aren’t even the No. 1 drinkers—that goes to the South Koreans—so it’s all about perception. I think it’s because they make such great vodka here. But it’s not in my genes. My parents aren’t even vodka drinkers, they’re wine drinkers."

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Q: How do Russians say good luck?

Nastia: "Russia is a very superstitious country, so when someone says good luck, you have to take it back so you actually don’t get bad luck. You say 'ni pukha, ni pyera!' which translated means, “have neither fluff nor feather,” and you have to respond by saying 'k chyortu,' which means 'to the devil.'"

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Q: Why don’t Russians smile?

Nastia: "It’s funny because through my whole gymnastics career, I wasn’t a bubbly, smiley person because I was always so focused. And everyone always says, 'Well, that’s because you’re Russian,' and I never really thought about it. My dad was a gymnastics coach and he had that Soviet mentality that when you’re in the gym, it’s business. You’re competing, you’re training. You’re not trying to have a good time and socialize. In general though, in my family it’s different, there actually is a lot of smiling and laughing. But in Russia, it’s just not a cultural thing for people to be warm and bubbly—that doesn’t mean they aren’t nice."

Q: Tell us about a phrase or sign you've seen that’s gotten lost in translation.

Nastia: "Somebody showed me a sign with dead cockroaches on it; it said something like, 'No drugs or smoking here, and if you see someone doing it, step on them like a cockroach.' It was so bizarre. When I translated it from Russian to English it made no sense, so I had to interpret it for them."

Q: What’s one thing you want Americans to know about Russian culture?

Nastia: "It’s a very family-oriented culture. I’ve always been extremely close to my family. My grandparents are in Russia and I speak to them two or three times a week. Everybody is always coming together, and friends become family. Interestingly, you always have to spend New Year’s with your loved ones. Growing up, I was never allowed to go out or spend it with my friends. I always had to spend it with family. I was annoyed with it sometimes when I was younger, but it’s tradition, and something I still continue."