January 16, 2022

The One Where "Friends" Is Big in Russia

The One Where "Friends" Is Big in Russia
Sitting in your stupid coffeehouse with your stupid big cups...which, I'm sorry, have FRIENDS in Russian letters written in them...

Long after its 1994 premiere and 2004 finale, Friends is one of the most-watched television series of all time, both in the United States and globally. Thanks to mass consumer culture and the glamorous New York life the show offers, it is extremely popular in Russia. According to a Kinopoisk user survey, Friends is the second-most popular show online in Russia, after Game of Thrones.

The show is so popular in Russia that there are two themed cafes/restaurants in Moscow and two in St. Petersburg.

Although Friends did not create the modern coffee shop, it certainly popularized it, with the show roughly coinciding with the rise of the laptop and driving the trend of working and meeting colleagues in coffee shops.

Central Perk
It is almost Central Perk.

The Moscow Cafe Friends locations are at Pokrovka 20/1, str. 1, and Krasnobogatyrskaya 90, str. 2. The same owners have a Big Bang Theory-themed restaurant in Moscow. Joey and Chandler's apartment on Pokrovka features two brown recliners that match the guys' beloved chairs. Reservation on Rosita, anyone?

In St. Petersburg, Central Perk is at Vosstaniya 55, while Monica's Apartment (and part of Joey's apartment) is at Bolshoy prospekt PS (Petrograd Side) 81. The photographs in this article come from the two St. Petersburg locations only. All of the cafes opened in 2018, except for Monica's Apartment in St. Petersburg, which opened in summer 2021.

Monica's Apartment
It is almost Monica's apartment. 

The chain's Moscow (Pokrovka) VKontakte page has an active fan base, with the cafe posting a picture of a cup of coffee in Monica's apartment and a fan joking, "A mug without a coaster? In Monica's apartment?! That cannot be :))))." The page also features an infographic of the Anatomy of a "Friends" Fan.

Signs on the interior walls in English remind guests of memorable quotations like "How You Doin'?" "Delivery for: Miss Chanandler Bong," and, perhaps the most uniquely Friends line of them all, "They don't know that we know they know we know."

Friends memes
How many of these references do you remember? 

Excerpts of Friends episodes play on multiple television sets in chronological order while pop music also plays at about half the volume. When the owner's phone rings again and again all day – presumably it is the business's main phone number – it is The Rembrandts' song I'll Be There for You. The song was written for the show.

For most fans of Friends, a meal at one of these cafes with friends or a day spent there in front of a laptop is the most immersive experience of the show they will ever have. Plus, the food is really good; the menu features quite a variety of dishes. Russians can enjoy American delicacies like mozzarella sticks, and American expats like myself can enjoy familiar food.

Every dish bears the name of a memorable object or person from the show. These include: Ross's Stolen Sandwich (an opportunity that could not be missed), Mockolate (chocolate pancakes), Joey Doesn't Share Food (chicken wings), How You Doin' (fries, no surprise), Spudnik (potato wedges), Richard's Mustache (black bread garlic sticks), Three-Mississippi Suntan (grilled zucchini salad), Moo Point (corn soup), Chandler's Third Nipple (spicy bean, ground beef, and bacon soup), Rachel's Italian Boyfriend (pasta, of course), The Geller Cup (vegetable pasta), Smelly Cat (burger), Holiday Armadillo (bacon burger), Phoebe Buffay (vegetarian burger), Je M'Appelle Claude (ragu), and Ugly Naked Guy (sausages).

Central Perk Food
The Wedding in Vegas (cheese-filled hash browns in mushroom sauce) was exquisite.

The children's menu has four items on it: the I'm Not Hungry, I Don't Care, I Don't Know, and I'm Not Eating Anything. Having lived with a Russian kid for the past year, I can confirm that those are the most popular dishes at my house as well.

You can also buy some unique souvenirs, like a thermal coffee cup made to look like a one-time-use to-go coffee cup with the word ФРЕНДС (FRIENDS in Cyrillic letters) on it. The souvenirs are not advertised online and availability seems to vary by location.

Bags like this one are sold at Bukvoed (Bookeater, Bookworm, or Pedant) bookstores in St. Petersburg. Another bag in this style is labeled Crap Bag. 

These restaurants are possible because Friends is well known by youngish Russians today and appears daily in translation on Russian television. It has been dubbed by several squads of Russian voice actors.

A quick search of "Friends show" on the website of Respublika bookstore chain reveals a host of goofy Friends-themed goodies, including lip balm in the shape of a Central Perk coffee cup and bathtub duckies dressed like the friends. Muscovites can even buy a Russian-language Friends-themed advent calendar.

Two translated Friends books originally written in English are especially popular in Russia these days: I'll Be There for You: The One about Friends by Kelsey Miller (2018) and Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era by Saul Austerlitz (2019). The former is sold out in most bookstores and online stores.

How You Doin'?
Many Russians think Americans actually ask this ("How do you do?"). Or is this supposed to be "How you doin'?" 

Friends references Russia a handful of times. In Season 6, Episode 22, "The One Where Paul's the Man," real Russian is spoken by a real Russian person – rather than someone with an awful fake accent. A Russian dry cleaner complains that a tape of Joey's acting depicts his "people" ("Dry cleaners?" "Russians!") as creeps and terrorists. The episode makes use of Joey's and ethnic Russians' mutual whiteness to land a punchline related to the dry cleaner's wife. The dry cleaner yells Joey out of his store with the words "А ну пошёл отсюда, козёл, я тебе сейчас голову поломаю!" ("Get out of here now, you jerk, or I'll break your head open!") Check out their entire interaction here:


There is also a pretty stupid repeating Russia reference in Friends that is not a Russia reference at all. Phoebe's on-again-off-again scientist boyfriend moves to Minsk, thus making their relationship off-again. No one bothers to mention that Minsk is actually in Belarus and not in Russia, and there are years of references to Minsk being in Russia. Russia Beyond jokes that the ongoing Minsk-as-Russia reference suggests that the six friends and creators are actually Russian spies. It is infinitely more likely that the creators were completely ignorant of post-Soviet geography. I mean, do any Americans without Russian heritage know where Minsk is? Or had any Americans heard of Belarus before it was all over the news in the summer of 2021?

You don't know about Hugsy, my bedtime penguin pal! 

Elsewhere, vegetarian Phoebe dons a real fur coat in disgust, saying, "Here's Phoebe, sporting, you know, cutting-edge hairy carcass from, you know, the steel traps of wintry Russia!" (Season 5, Episode 6, "The One with the Yeti").

In another episode (Season 3, Episode 15, "The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break"), Phoebe dates a non-English-speaking diplomat whom she met outside of the United Nations building, and Monica dates his interpreter. The name of the diplomat's country is never mentioned, but it sounds like it has a "stan" in it, like several former Soviet republics. The diplomat's name is Sergei and his translator's is Mischa. The "language" they speak sounds like a Slavic language but appears to be made up. They come from a small country, which definitely excludes Russia. There is some debate on the internet about the identity of this country, which was probably a Russia-like figment of the screenwriters' imagination.

Soviet Political Poster
On the way to Monica's checkered-floor bathroom is a real Soviet political poster from the walls of Ross's apartments. ("In order to build - One must know; In order to know - One must study") 

The most obvious Russia reference in Friends is all of those Soviet posters on the walls. Here are a few views of Soviet political posters on set, all of which are also on the walls of Monica's Apartment in St. Petersburg, which includes part of Joey's apartment.

Set designer Greg Grande apparently said that the posters on the walls were meant to convey an eclectic, whimsical, flea-market kind of style, but are Soviet propaganda posters the most obvious, flea-market-available choice for that objective?

One blog argues that the inclusion of Soviet political posters might have been due to warming U.S.-Russia relations in the early post-Soviet 1990s, "as a way to undermine the legacy of Soviet propaganda following the end of the Cold War" – as a way of saying, "We won!" If that is what those posters are trying to say, it is wickedly hilarious that Friends is now so popular in early post-Soviet Russia. (My use of the emphasized adverb so is itself a Friends-ism.) According to the blog, "By the end of the 1990s, the Soviet legacy was reduced to being a mere set dressing on an American sitcom, and even their former leader could be seen selling Pizza Hut when the show broke for commercial." (In case you missed that, watch it here.)

Chandler's Dog
Was the (Halloween-bedecked) dog from Porcelain Safari, I Love Lucite, or Isn't It Chromantic?

The set included many other posters too, most of them French, like the notable French poster above the television in Monica's apartment. For a deep analysis of the Friends posters and decor – and of the commodification of art and everything else – check this out.

If you cannot make it to Moscow or St. Petersburg anytime soon, test your knowledge of Friends and your knowledge of Russian at the same time with this online quiz on the restaurant's website.

FRIENDS in Russian Letters
This is not FRIENDS in Russian (which would be DRUZYA) but rather the phonetic "frends" transliterated into Cyrillic letters. 


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