The tropical warmth and natural beauty of Costa Rica brought Виталина Матросова (Vitalina Matrossova) and her family here from Russia 12 years ago, at the age of 20.
Matrossova, along with her parents and brother, immigrated from the Republic of Karelia, a federal subject of Russia located near Saint Petersburg. The family had first visited Costa Rica four years earlier to escape the cold and explore the beaches of Guanacaste, which they had discovered on a travel program on TV in Russia. They liked it so much that they eventually decided to make a permanent move.
Matrossova was able to adapt quickly by learning Spanish and speaking it fluently. She studied law at the University of Santo Tomás, although she never worked professionally as a lawyer; she’s now studying fashion design and creating her own clothing line. She married a Costa Rican and they have a daughter who shares both Costa Rican and Russian culture; they live in Santa Ana, west of the capital.
The Tico Times sat down and spoke with Matrossova about her life. Excerpts follow.
Why did your family come to Costa Rica?
We first came here to travel and [my parents] loved it because of the nature, the beaches, the ocean… They thought that they could build their own business here, and slowly, the idea of leaving everything behind developed. My parents decided to sell everything in Russia and come to Costa Rica, after my brother and I finished high school.
I didn’t know that economically and politically things were very difficult in Russia. At the time, some of my parents’ lands were taken away and they feared communism. Those political issues [probably] made them think about moving… My father always had a business of his own, so he knew that sustaining a business here would be easier.
What type of business was your father in?
He used to sell all sorts of things. My father has always been very entrepreneurial, so he used to sell clothes and jewelry. Here, he opened a jewelry store in San Pedro [east of San José]. He sold jewelry with semiprecious stones at different prices that were accessible for everyone. Some were semiprecious stones mounted on silver and gold and others were fantasy jewelry, but all of them were brought from Russia.
What about Costa Rica caught your family’s attention?
The nature and the warmth all year round. In Russia it’s winter all the time and it’s very cold. The temperature can reach -30 degrees Fahrenheit and the heating system doesn’t always work… if there are gas problems in Russia, the heating system won’t function. Here in Costa Rica we loved the warmth and the people. The people here are very friendly and welcoming, whereas in Russia they’re colder. People here enjoy life more, the smaller things.
What cultural changes did you notice between Russia and Costa Rica?
It’s a big change. I love the people here in Costa Rica, but I did notice that men are sometimes machistas. At the beginning, when I went to San José, men would not respect my space. Maybe it’s because I was used to the culture in Russia: people are strict. People probably became that way after the war, because people learned that everything must be done no matter what, and that it’s often hard to get things. Maybe it’s also something family-related. I was taught to do things correctly and comply with what I was told to do.
Now that you have been studying fashion design, which are some of the things that you’ve noticed about the way in which people dress here?
When I came here I asked myself: if in Costa Rica it’s summer all year round, why don’t women use summer clothing every day? I noticed most of the time they were wearing pants, boots or jeans. That surprised me a lot when I arrived here, especially when I went to Avenida Central for the first time. In Russia we’re always waiting for summer to come in order to use our summer clothes and put away our coats.
People in Russia are also very classist. Here, people dress simply, in shorts and flip flops. You can see a politician or doctor, relaxed, wearing these types of clothes. In Russia, people from a certain social status would never allow themselves these types of things. Things are more rigid over there, and these things influence your conduct directly, because if you don’t comply with certain standards, they’ll value you based on what you wear, live or have… not on who you are. In my opinion, it’s very different here.
What are some of the benefits you’ve obtained from living here in Costa Rica?
Here you can build and sustain businesses very easily. There are not as many bureaucratic [requirements] as in Russia. In Russia you’ve got taxes all over the place for every single thing. Besides that, here you can go to the beach at any moment.
Right now in Russia there are many programs about Costa Rica, so I’m always asked about the crocodiles, beaches, Guanacaste, the birds, and exotic flowers. Only now have people in Russia started to learn more about Costa Rica. Before, you’d say Costa Rica and no one knew where it was.
When my father told us we were going to Costa Rica, I asked him were it was. I was surprised when I found a really small country on the map, but I think Costa Rica is a really blessed country. There’s no military and that’s very important because in Russia many people lose their loved ones due to that. It’s obligatory and your family can’t escape it. Here, I sometimes feel that people don’t appreciate that [there’s no military]. It’s a peaceful country and people don’t know what a war is truly about, or [what it’s like] when a son goes there and dies. They’re 17 or 18 years old when they leave, so they’re basically children.
How does the military influence Russia?
They teach you that you’ve got to honor your country and patriotism, but as things have changed in the world, the values are not the same anymore. Patriotism is not the same as it was before. The main purpose behind this was to prepare men to defend their nation… But people suffer… mothers, siblings, and the men themselves who go to war. These men sometimes go without any warning, so it’s very difficult for families.
Thankfully, there are no wars going on right now. My cousin is in the military now and he’s very happy. He says that it’s not the same as it was before. He says they’re not scaring him, and he learns lots of things.
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Read more stories of Costa Rican immigration here.