Russians are reserved and well-mannered people.
In Russia, smiling is traditionally reserved for friends, and smiling at a stranger can make them feel uncomfortable. If you smile at a Russian in the street, there is a good chance that they will not react in the same way. An automatic American smile or a romantic European smile is generally considered insincere. This tradition is slowly changing, as Russian smiles are still very rare in customer service. Salespeople, civil servants and others are expected to look serious and professional. Hence the common misconception about Russians that they are a very sinister people and never smile – they do once they get to know you and become very welcoming and friendly.
If you approach a foreigner with a question, try speaking Russian first and ask if he or she speaks English. Russians are very proud of their language and people will be much more distant if you address them in English. Just using the Russian equivalents of “please” and “thank you” will make a noticeable difference to people.
Women are traditionally treated in a chivalrous manner. Female travellers should not look surprised or indignant when their Russian male friends pay their bills in restaurants, open all the doors in front of them, offer them their hand to help them down the small step or help them carry something heavier than a handbag – this is not meant to be patronising. Male travellers should understand that Russian women expect the same from them.
The “OK” gesture is good.
Russians have a wonderfully quiet and intimate way of talking to each other in public. It’s best to try to do the same to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb and making people around you uncomfortable – stand a little closer to the person you’re talking to and turn down the volume.
We have to be very careful when we talk about the Second World War and the Soviet Union. This conflict was a great tragedy for the Soviets and every family has at least one relative among the 25-30 million people who perished (more than Western Europe and the United States combined) and the scars of this conflict are still felt today. Also avoid talking about the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Avoid talking about relations with Georgians or Ukrainians. Talking about these issues can lead to hostility and perhaps even heated debates. Tense relations between neighbouring countries have led to many conflicts, and in Georgia and Ukraine there is a strong sense of national pride in the actions of the respective governments.
Homosexuality is a sensitive issue, with official government policy increasingly restricting the rights of the LGBT community.
Also keep your political opinions to yourself. Ask as many questions as you like, but avoid statements or comments about your past and present political situation. Russia and the Soviet Union had an often violent history and most Russians are tired of hearing from Westerners “how bad the Soviet Union was”. You lived through it, are proud of its triumphs and tragedies, and probably know much more about it than you do. You should also avoid criticising the conflict in Chechnya. The war in the Chechen Republic was terrible for both sides. The separatist forces are seen as Islamist terrorists after the mass terrorist attacks of 2000-2005. Political opinions in Russia are very polarised and political discussions are still very tough. It is best to avoid them.
Consider also that many Russians are ashamed of the country’s stagnation under Boris Yeltsin’s pro-Western regime and proud of the role Putin has played in restoring Russia’s international influence.
- If you are invited to someone’s home, bring a small gift as a sign of respect. However, most people will protest at some point if they are offered a gift. Reply that it is a small thing and offer the gift again and hopefully it will be generally accepted. It is useful to bring a bottle of alcohol if you plan to spend the evening in a less formal way.
- If you bring flowers, do not use yellow – in Russia this colour is considered a sign of betrayal in love and separation and is never used for wedding bouquets. Another superstition related to flowers is the number of flowers. This number must always be odd, i.e. three, five, seven, etc. An even number of flowers is always brought to the funeral.
- Do not give a birth gift until the baby is born into a particular family. It is bad luck to do it earlier. Verbal congratulations before a person’s birthday are often taken as a bad sign.
- When you arrive at someone’s house, take off your outdoor shoes. Maybe they will give you some slippers to wear.
- In someone’s home, dressed in evening dress. Dressing well is a sign of respect towards your guests. However, this rule may not work for young people.
- If you are eating with guests, do not get up until you are asked to leave the table. This is not considered polite.
- Guests can be quite insistent when they offer an alcoholic drink. You will often have to be very tough if you want to refuse that second (or third, fourth, tenth…) hit. Faking problems with medication or pregnancy is always an imperfect option. Simply and sinisterly declaring that you are an alcoholic can also do the trick, but it will depress your hosts.
- You are often asked to take second helpers, ad infinitum. If so, take it as a form of respect. Besides, they will really love you if you keep eating.
- Do not put your elbows on the table. This is considered rude (to children).