|The Russian Mind-Set |
For most Russians, transitioning into new democracy with its associated freedoms has not been an easy task, and for many particularly members of the older generations, the change was not a welcome one. The failure of communism brought with it freedom that many were not prepared to exercise. Not all have welcomed the substantial restructuring of the social order that followed the implosion of the USSR - for mainly apolitical reasons (worsening of conditions for pensioners, state health care patients, educational institutions, cultural organizations, etc).|
Because the Russian personality has so many faces, it is difficult to define. Defeated by harsh weather, a tumultuous history and the general malaise that ensued, Russians seem to value the status quo and are reluctant to change. Security, stability, and conservatism were always held in high regard; but at the same time you will see new phenomena such as the absence of concern about the future, free spending and easy and quick adaptation of foreign practices in the younger generations in larger cities. Many foreigners find the Russian people an enigma - surprisingly nostalgic about their past yet cautiously optimistic about the future - patient but curious about the possibilities of freedom.
As some things in Russia are almost impossible to explain, there is a very good saying that you will hear over and over again as first response to your questions: "Rossiyu umom ne ponyat" which can be translated as "Russia cannot be understood with your mind" (a quotation from the poet Tyutchev).
Russians are strong people, able to endure hardship and extreme climate with submission and patience. Generally, Russians are very well educated and have a sound knowledge of literature, history and politics. The majority of the country's population lives in European Russia (the part of Russia lying west of the border with Siberia) with the largest population centers being Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most families have no more than one or two children, who are the center of the family focus.
The Russian people have traditionally been molded and directed from cradle to grave, creating individuals who assumed little responsibility for themselves. They are slowly learning how to take charge of their own lives, but the chasm between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick and the skilled and the unskilled continues to widen.
Traditional Russian values and core beliefs include: love of children, respect for the old, sense of humour, strong people-orientation, importance of friendship, generosity, pride, patriotism, love of literature and arts, nostalgia, self-sacrifice, apathy, conservatism, aversion to change, caution, collectivism, pessimism and cynicism.
There is widely accepted notion in Russia that there is a "soul" that makes Russians different - a sort of sadness born of oppression that demands a different social order. Whether or not this proud melancholia is fact or fiction is arguable, but the belief is almost universally held with great pride. Acres of print have been devoted to the topic, with no very firm conclusions.
Russians love and value going to the theatre, opera, ballet and concerts. The arts are avidly devoured by all sections of society - the idea that plays or classical music could be "difficult" or unpopular is rarely encountered. They also enjoy attending readings of literature and poetry. Russians love reading everything from classical literature to translations of contemporary foreign authors. They read on the metro, while they wait, and at home. You will find that your Russian friends can easily recite entire poems or passages from their favourite books. They generally have a very good knowledge of world history, geography and the arts, and this is true regardless of the person's education or occupation.
Behaviours You May Find Puzzling
There are some behaviour patterns you may find very different from those you are used to. Some things may shock you initially, but they can usually be explained through Russia's history and your Russian friends will make efforts to help you understand why things are done the way they are. Always remember that what you consider normal behaviour may seem strange to your Russian friends.
Two things that newly arrived expatriates often find particularly troubling are the fact that Russians can seem very rude and that they rarely smile in public. Rudeness in public situations is still common. You may encounter it at supermarkets, at the post office, in public transport. Please do not let this discourage you and always remember that this is nothing personal.
Smiling at strangers is a rarity in Russia. 70 years of history taught people not to trust anybody and to guard their own territory. Just recall the famous Soviet poster "Ne Boltai" (Do not Chatter) and you will understand the roots of not smiling at unfamiliar persons. There is also an inherited notion from "village Russia" that people who smile for no reason must be simpletons. However, while people tend to be introvert or aggressive on the outside, you will find that they are extremely kind and helpful if you get beyond their first suspicion. Keep going to the same supermarket, the same bank and the same dry cleaners over and over again, keep smiling and do say "hello" and "goodbye" every time you arrive and leave - people will eventually start remembering you and most will start smile back. They are often not used to people being polite and nice to them and your efforts will be appreciated. It may just take some time, so don't give up.
Russians seem to have very different concept of what it means to stand in a line. They tend to be pushy while getting on public transport and in the metro you will find that people try to get on while others are still trying to get off. The same applies to lines at meat and cheese counters in supermarkets, where it can be difficult to figure out where the line starts and who is there first. When you go to pay utility bills at a Russian bank, you may find that when it is almost your turn one or two people show up who had "reserved" a place in the line and then took care of something else at another counter or just sit down while waiting for their turn. It is common practice to reserve a place in a line simply by telling the person in front of you "you are behind them" ("ya budu za vami"). This practice dated back to Soviet times when lines for just about everything were so long that it was impossible to get something done if you just occupied one single line.
Houses entrances, rest rooms and some other public areas may not be well cared for. You may, for example, see a beautiful apartment in a building with a dilapidated entrance and filthy staircase. In Soviet times, this was not the case: the streets and public areas were clean and littering was basically unheard of. Today people do not seem to care for anything that happens outside of the limits of their apartments. However, things are slowly starting to improve.
Drivers in Moscow are generally very aggressive, and you may find this pretty daunting if you come from a country where drivers are polite and abide by the rules. There seems a comprehensive spirit involved in driving - everybody wants to be the first one to take off from a red light.
Russians love to comment and give advice. Don't be surprised to get unsolicited advice on how to dress your children in winter or on the necessity of wearing a hat in cold winter.
People - both men and women - still drink beer in pubic. While this is not publicly frowned upon, the government is trying to change this habit, but so far the efforts have not led to any noticeable results. Restriction of shopping hours for alcohol was never previously known in Russia, but sterner measures have been introduced from 2009 onwards, mostly by individual cities - the results vary from strict (St. Petersburg, 23:00 total ban) via haphazard (Moscow region) to utterly invisible (most of the rest of the country).
While Russians devote considerable time and cost to their own personal wardrobe and grooming, they are relatively unjudgemental about others - figuring that a person' soul is the most important, and taking a very liberal line on allowing for differing customs elsewhere. An odd Soviet throwback, however, is a private habit of awarding unmentioned merit-marks to the quality and shine of the shoes other people wear. You can make a good first impression with very little effort in this field. Sports footwear is poorly regarded in general, and is often cited (by doormen) as fair reason to deny entrance to fashionable clubs or restaurants.
While Russians can be secretive when dealing with foreigners, they can also be very curious. You may find yourself in situations when people just met ask you how much money you make. In the vast majority of cases there is absolutely no criminal interest behind these questions, but you may still not want to divulge too much personal information about your family and yourself unless you know your conversation partner very well. Very often such questions arise from "fellow professionals" who are keen to know how their profession might be valued abroad.
When you come to a Russian home you will most certainly be offered tea or coffee along with something to eat. If you arrive around lunch and dinner time, you may be invited to join the family for the meal. When inviting Russian friends over your house for drinks make sure you have some good food to offer - drinks accompanied by cheese and grapes just don't do.
Concepts of Space and Personal Space
On the one hand, Russians live in the world's largest country and think big in many ways. They tend to make big plans, even if they know that they will never be able to implement them. At the same time, they usually stand very close to each other in conversation or when standing in line. This may be a remnant from the Soviet past when people had to be very careful about what they said and always made sure that no one else was listening. Standing close to each other allows you to speak more quietly and to feel that others aren't able to hear what you are talking about. When someone has something very important to tell you and you are speaking to that person over the phone, you may still hear them say that "this is not a phone conversation", meaning that they prefer to tell you in person because they are still afraid of someone else may be listening. The reason why people stand close to each other in lines is more difficult to explain. It might have something to do with a feeling of getting to the front of the line sooner as there is less distance to the "target". Touching, hugging, and kissing friends and close acquaintance is common. You may find this uncomfortable if you come from a no- or little- contact culture.
As people still pay very little money for electricity and hot water, these resources are literally wasted. Russians will do the dishes under running hot water instead of letting them soak in the sink. Nobody will complain if you take a hot shower for half an hour or a hot bath twice a day. At the same time that electricity is still very cheap, Russians seem to prefer dim lighting. You will notice this in the metro, on the streets, in staircase, and even in people's homes where the lighting could often be a lot brighter. Street lights are not very bright, and often entire yards have no lighting for weeks on end.
These days light bulbs in public areas of apartment buildings usually have to be replaced by residents, who are often hesitant about replacing something that is not for their own use exclusively. If you want the housing department or your neighbours to replace the broken light bulbs, you may be in for a very long (and dark) wait. If you encounter such a problem in your apartment building, just buy some light bulbs and replace the broken ones - Russia has no laws (yet) on expensive energy-saving bulbs, and regular clear-glass bulbs cost just pennies. You may win the friendship or respect of your neighbours if you occasionally mop the landing area between the lift and your door.
FAVOURITE RUSSIAN PASTIMES
Dacha is a term that refers to a summerhouse and can stand for pretty much everything from a small wooden shack without running water, gas or electricity to a lavish multi-story house in the countryside. While not everyone has a dacha, most people have relatives, neighbours or friends who do, and everyone who can normally jump at the opportunity to leave the city on weekends and escape to cleaner air and nature. Dachas are usually big projects that require the involvement of the entire family. Most dachas are not used in winter, but as soon as the last snow has gone people set out to repair and prepare their dachas for the coming summer. The majority of people who have even a small plot of land still plant vegetables and herbs at their dacha and many also have apple trees and berries. These of course require constant maintenance all the way to late autumn when the plots and trees have to be prepared for the coming winter. In short, a dacha is often not a place to relax and lie in the sun but rather a second full-time job.
Shashlyki (barbecues) are a very popular activity on summer weekends when Russians often invite friends to their dacha for a barbecue.
Over the centuries, the Russian banya (bath house) has served people not only as a place where they could clean themselves, but also as a place for restoring health. It is believed that by visiting the banya many health problems can be cured. Among other positive effects, the steam in the banya helps expel fat from the body, restores the tonus of blood vessels and clean pores.
The difference between the Russian banya and the Finnish sauna lies in the kind of steam. The steam in the Russian banya is humid, and in order to reach the best effect, hot water is poured onto hot stones. The temperature inside a Russian banya can reach 60°C (140°F). The steam in a Finnish sauna, on the other hand, is dry, and the temperature can reach up to 100°C (212°F). After having spent some time in the steam room, banya visitors will jump into a pool with gold water as a kind of contrast treatment.
A very important banya attribute is the "venik" (a kind of broom made from dried birch, oak or fir branches and leaves), which banya visitors beach each other with. Apart from a positive effect on health, the banya also is a place where friends get together to relax. While at the banya, Russians like to drink beer, which is often accompanied by "vobla" - a kind of dried fish. Sometimes people have too much fun at the banya - a great example of this is provided in the very funny and highly recommended Soviet comedy "The Irony of Fate".
It is a tradition dating back to ancient times. Russia has a lot of forest areas where different kinds of mushrooms grow in abundance. While mushrooms have always been an important component of the national diet, they have also become a substitute for meat during the Orthodox Christian Lent. Over 200 kinds of edible mushrooms grow in Russia. Apart from protein and fats, mushrooms also contain a number of minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc. However, there are also about 25 poisonous types of mushrooms in Russia, so unless you are very experienced you should never collect and consume mushrooms without consulting with an expert in this field. You can tell that mushroom season has arrived when you see them being sold outside metro stations. While you should never collect and consume mushrooms that grow in Moscow or within a 30 km radius of the city, the Moscow region is considered relatively safe.
A mushroom collecting trip usually involves a long car or train ride to ecologically clean area outside Moscow. If you want to get there before others do, you have to leave home in the wee hours of morning. Remember that forest areas are very popular with mosquitoes so make sure you bring sufficient amounts of mosquito repellent and wear long-sleeved shirts. The most common kind of edible mushrooms are chanterelle, oyster mushrooms, porcini and yellow boletus. A mushroom-hunting trip is often an excuse for a fun trip to the country, and if you fail to find any you can always quietly buy some from sellers at the roadside, and claim you found them yourself. Be ready to cook them into dishes or freeze them when you get home - they won't keep more than a day without spoiling. The same trip can also be a good chance to pick some forest wild berries - blackberries, redcurrants, and many others flourish within just an hour of the city limits.
It is a very popular winter activity that often the whole family participates in. Children learn this sport at school from an early age. You can engage in cross-country skiing in any of Moscow's larger parks.
While you will see people fishing in the Moskva River, fishing is not recommended in Moscow due to highly polluted rivers and ponds. You can however go fishing at any of the larger water reservoirs river parts outside of town.
Grandchildren are a very popular activity for any grandmother (and grandfather). It is very common in Russia for grandparents to take care of their grandchildren while their parents are at work. They will take the children for walks, take them to the playground, to/from kindergarten or school, will cook them lunch, and often even supervise their homework assignments. Many grandchildren spend the entire summer at their grandparents' dacha, giving the parents some time for themselves. While this may seem very convenient, it sometimes results in problems as parents and grandparents often have very different ideas on how to best raise a child. Russians traditionally lived in extended families in one big house until very recently, and many of the grandparents involved will have been raised in that way.
It is a less common, but nevertheless very interesting pastime. An extreme way of keeping fit, the ice swimmers (called "morzhi" - walruses in Russian) are very proud of their "sport" and consider it a way of life. Even babies and toddlers are subjected to short immersion in ice cold water to make them strong, and may people in their 70s and 80s still regularly engage in this invigorating activity on a regular basis. The roots of ice swimming date back to pre-revolutionary times and have links to the Russian Orthodox Church as a way of cleaning sin. Every winter during religious festivals, worshippers would submerge themselves in icy waters to erase all sins from their bodies. For contemporary "morzhi", however, ice swimming is part of everyday life rather than a religious practice. When ice forms on lakes and rivers, these enthusiastic sportsmen will cut swimming holes in the ice that are carefully maintained so that bathing is possible throughout the winter. Each session is very short but a challenging experience for the uninitiated. If you want to try ice swimming, please consult with your doctor before jumping into the icy water. While this is a stimulating and energizing activity, it can easily send your body into spasms and causes severe joint ache.
New Russians: Who are They?
As a result of the changes this country has undergone since the early 1990s, a class of so-called "new Russians" has developed. These people acquired a lot of wealth very quickly (whether legally or not is another question) and have become somewhat conspicuous consumers. Very western in their dress and manner, these new captains of Russian commerce are demanding and getting the attention of others who are not in the same position. People who do not belong to this circle of the chosen few usually (and understandably) do not approve of their flamboyance.
These are very influential people purchasing prime property in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Cyprus, France, and many other countries along with soccer clubs and other sports teams. If they don't own an airplane, they will fly first class. They go on dream vacations while their children attend top European private schools and universities. The best customers of Moscow's five-star hotels are Russians - not foreign businessmen.
While many wealthy people abroad try not to show off their wealth in public, rich Russians still like to show what they have and can afford - a habit that isn't always advantageous for them. You will see an amazing number of very expensive foreign cars in Moscow's streets and you may be stunned at the suburban houses these people build - complete with swimming pools, tennis courts, bodyguards and housing for staff. While the gap between rich and poor in Russia is getting wider all the time, recent years have seen the development of a small middle class. Its members are characterized by a good education, relatively well-paying jobs and entrepreneurial spirit.
With all it luxurious new VIP residential buildings, expensive stores and restaurants, you may be under the impression that people in Moscow are quite well off. In reality this is not the case. While the country's elite tends to settle in Moscow and there are a lot of rich people living here, the majority of Muscovites (and those in the rest of Russia) are struggling very hard just to feed and clothe themselves and their families. And just as New York isn't the USA, Moscow isn't Russia. If you want to see what the real Russia is like, you have to travel to the provinces and villages outside of Moscow, in Siberia and the Far East - although these regions have their own "new rich" too.
The mindset of the younger Russian generation is not as much pro-anything, as it is anti-communist. Difficult times and general uncertainty are accompanied by the feeling that democracy is better. This does not mean that Russians are not complaining. While they are critical of the slow pace reform and of the new leaders, they are nonetheless loyal and optimistic about the future of their country.
Making the transition from a society completely dependent upon the state to one in which the individual shares responsibility has been a very difficult and traumatic process for Russia and her people, and the Russians don't yet seem to have a clear picture of their selves. The demise of communism has hugely affected life in Russia, and the sometimes-halting democracy that has taken its place is still developing. Under communist rule, the State was responsible for everything - even for piffling things. Today people must make decisions and take responsibility for them - not an easy task for those who have been raised to follow, not to lead.
Attitudes in the Workplace
The older generation of Russians - although for the most part well-educated, hard-working and disciplined - is a product of the communist system in which workers were not rewarded for personal incentives nor punished for being non-productive. Not having been raised to "get ahead" and to amass personal fortunes, they may respect these traits in foreigners but generally abhor them in their Russian colleagues. You may hear the phrase "initiative is punishable" from members of the older generations and it can be difficult to convince them that personal initiative and doing your own thinking is not only welcomed, but is a necessity in the new Russia.
The attitudes of the younger generations are for most part, very different. Achievements in the workplace are highly regarded. You will find many highly trained young Russians who, on top of having an excellent education, speak fluent English and/or other foreign languages. Many choose to further their education and qualifications voluntarily at evening classes at their own expense.
Attitudes toward Foreigners
Russians generally respect and admire the business expertise and technology skills and tools of European, North American and Asian companies and are interested in doing business with them.
In some quarters Russians tend to blame Western influence for the hard times brought about by reform. The economic disparity between foreigners and themselves may also raise the hurdle of understanding. Russians have historically feared and distrusted foreigners, but today's foreign community in Moscow lives in relative harmony with the locals. Some Russians may respect their presence, but most appreciate the efforts of foreigners to modernize the local economy.
While Russians are well aware of the fact that things in Russia aren't perfect, they do not appreciate it when foreigners criticize their country, or boast excessively about the alleged superiority of their homelands. Very often questions about how things are managed overseas will actually be a delicate appeal for some positive comments about how things are by comparison in Russia - a tactful reply, without toadying, will be appreciated. It is useful to have some pre-prepared compliments about some neutral topics - the affordability and frequency of public transport, the low cost of public amenities, etc.
Attitudes towards Women
The communists maintained the equal status of men and women in the classless society, and many women had (and still have) the dual responsibility of adding to family income through a full-time job and of caring (shopping, cooking, cleaning) for the family. In the workplace opportunities for women have been slow to surface. While women in Russia have always had the opportunity to pursue higher education and many have at least one degree, they do not typically fill leadership positions yet.
Foreigners working in Russia often find that Russian women who have reached managerial positions are more serious, harder working and more creative than their male counterparts. However, radical changes must occur for the Russian mentality to accept women in positions superior to men. The male network in business is unwilling to allow women to progress.
Foreign businesswomen might encounter some resistance. Conservative dress and demeanour and a serious attitude will be helpful in dealing with Russian men, keeping a certain distance rather than being too friendly is advisable. It is also best to ignore the inequality between the sexes that exists in Russia, instead behaving as if business were transacted in the west.
Men are still the "dominant" gender in Russia and many Russians are uncomfortable with very strong women. A woman who stays aloof will be respected, whereas overly friendly behaviour may be misinterpreted.
Attitudes towards Human Rights
Although the 1993 Constitution guarantees basic human rights, the progress toward internationally-recognized human rights for all citizens is by far not yet complete. Large gains have been made on the domestic side, but abuses have been reported within the military and police forces. Conditions in Russia detention facilities are far below acceptable standards. While reforms are ongoing, the process is slow.
Attitudes toward the Disabled
Moscow and Russia on the whole is not a great place for physically disabled or mentally challenged children and adults. If you have a child with a severe physical or mental disability, you should think twice before moving to Moscow.
Generally attitudes toward disabled people in Russia aren't very good. As there aren't many opportunities for the disabled, they usually stay at home. You will, therefore, hardly ever encounter disabled people on the streets. It is not uncommon to encounter disabled people begging on public transport - particularly military veterans. You may want to prioritise generosity over any feelings of "patronizing" them - they get little other help in their lives.
State assistance to people with disabled family members is very limited. Consequently, a large proportion of women who give birth to a disabled child decide to give it up right after the child is born. These children are then condemned to a sad existence in state-run orphanages and will receive little to no physical or mental development support.
Educational opportunities for disabled children and adults are extremely limited. Even the private foreign schools in Moscow will only accept children with very minor disabilities. It is almost impossible to get around Moscow physically in a wheelchair as building entrances; sidewalks and public transportation are mostly not wheelchair-friendly.
Russian Names and Titles
Russian names have three parts: a first name (forename), a so-called "patronymic" middle name, and a surname. The "patronymic" derives from the father's name followed by the suffixes. These are "evich" or "ovich" for a son (meaning son of) or "evna" or "ovna" for a daughter (meaning daughter of). Example: A woman's full name might be Tatiana Ivanovna Smirnova. This means that her father's first name was Ivan. Her brothers' name could be Sergey Ivanovich Smirnov. Patronymics refer strictly to the child's biological father, and would not change on the mother's remarriage, on adoption, etc. (In the old Russian villages, where perhaps just 2-3 families and their descendants made up the whole village (the law forbade peasants to leave their owner's employ or land - so people didn't travel) a person's surname was almost immaterial - it was more useful to say you were "Pavel, Ivan's son", or "Irina, Ilya's daughter" by way of introduction.)
An "a" is added to the end of most (but not all) surnames of Russian females.
It is common and considered polite to address people you do not know very well and/or that are older than you by their first name and patronymic. Russians rarely refer to each other by their first and last names, although some - especially the younger generation - will call each other by their last names. You might hear children shout something like "Hey Smirnova" or "Hey Smirnov". If you are trying to find someone and only know that person's first and last name, you can ask for "Gospozha Tatiana Smirnova" (Mrs. Tatiana Smirnova) or "Gospodin Sergey Smirnov" (Mr. Sergey Smirnov).
A Russian woman usually adopts her husband's last name after marriage, but there are exceptions.
Common female names are Anna (Anya), Ekaterina (Katya), Elena (Lena), Irina (Ira), Yulia (Yulya), Maria (Masha), Natalia (Natasha), Olga (Olya), Svetlana (Sveta), Tatiana (Tanya), etc. Names of females are often altered even further, especially in terms of endearment between close friends. Thus Masha can turn into Mashenka, Lena into Lenochka, and Anya into Anyuta. Lyuba can become Lyubochka, and Yulia is often called Yulka or Yulechka. Coining these "pet-name" versions is an art in itself, and the mutual freedom to use them is considered part of the friendship bonding process. You may find your own (foreign) name converted to a nickname version - don't be offended, it is a sign of warm friendship.
Common male names are Alexander (Sasha, Shura, Sanya), Dmitry (Dima), Eugeny (Zhenya), Ivan (Vanya), Mikhail (Misha), Nikolai (Kolya), Sergey (Seryozha), Victor (Vitya), Vladimir (Volodya, Vova), etc. Often the names in parentheses are shortened even further, Seryozha can turn into Seryozh or Seryoga, Mikhail into Mish or Misha.
A modern friendly jokey way of referring to friends (rather than merely "colleagues") at work (but not superiors!) is to employ 19th century habit of using a shortened version of their patronymic - the way 19th century employers would talk to their servants. Thus Nikolai Ivanovich might be "Ivanych" to his work chums, and "Elena Ivanovna" might be "Ivanovna". Wait until you are proficient in Russian before using this in practice. If you can pull it off in practice, it will win you friends. Obviously it has to be done with a sense of fun - or it would cause offence.
The shortened names given in parentheses are commonly used, but you should never use them without asking permission. Not every Elizaveta wants to be called Lisa and not every Vladimir likes being addressed as Vova - it would be considered as "excessive familiarity". Beware of using them to people "lower in the pecking order" than yourself - you might end up patronizing people instead of befriending them as you hoped.
The shortened names Sasha and Zhenya are used for both females and males.
Another important thing to remember is that the Russian language - much like French and German - has two separate pronouns for the second person singular, differing in degrees of politeness. Technically, there are two words for the second person singular: "ty", which is used in the same sense as the French "tu" and the German "du"; and "Vy". Note that this word starts with a capital letter, which is similar to the French "Vous" and the German "Sie". Except for children you should never address anybody with the personal "ty" without asking for their permission. The word for the second person plural pronoun is also "vy" but it is spelled with a small letter.
The best way to avoid unpleasant situation is to ask individuals how they would like to be addressed. If you would like to address someone as "ty" instead of "Vy", you should ask "Mozhno na ty?" ("Can I call you "you"?")
The most common form of address in today's international office environment is first names in combination with the formal "Vy"; colleagues occupying the same rank may also use the personal "ty".
Russian Customs, Etiquette, and Popular Superstitions
Even if you are not planning to be in Russia for long, you should make every effort to learn at least a few basic words and phrases in Russian. You colleagues, neighbours, friends, and others will be impressed and the gesture will be highly appreciated. Russians generally consider their language to be a very difficult one for foreigners to learn. With the exception of your Russian teacher, they will not expect you to become fluent in Russian, but they will be amazed if you are able to carry on a simple conversation a few months after your arrival.
Even if you fail to learn much Russian, learning the alphabet (there are only 31 letters plus two silent symbols) will make a quantum improvement in your ability to move around independently. Russian is laden with imported words from other languages - once you can decode the letters, these words ("bar", "restoran", "stadion", "musey") appear to you, as if by magic.
Never shake hands with or kiss someone over the threshold of the doorstep or you will quarrel with this person (an old superstition).
Take off your gloves when shaking hands.
Returning home if you forgot something brings back luck. If it happens that you must return for something, looking in a mirror before leaving again dispels the "bad luck".
Before leaving the house on a trip, it is customary to sit down on one's suitcase for a minute or so to reflect on the trip (silently, for 4-5 seconds) and to recall whether you have forgotten anything.
It you are not married, never sit down at the corner of a square table. If you do, you will not get married for seven years.
Spitting three times over your left shoulder prevents bad luck. (You my hear Russians say "tfu-tfu-tfu" - a "spitting" incantation against bad luck.) So does knocking on wood.
Do not put your hands in your pockets.
Do not sit with your legs wide apart.
Do not cross your legs with the ankle on the knee or put your feet on the table. It is considered impolite to show others the soles of your shoes.
Whistling is regarded as a sure way to guarantee that you will soon part with all your money.
Never light a cigarette from a candle. This is also said to bring bad luck.
Never pour wine backhanded. It is impolite and also signifies that you will "pour" your money away.
If you spit salt on the table, you will be plagued by bad luck unless you throw three pinches of salt over your left shoulder immediately.
Always bring a gift for the hostess if invited into a Russian home. A box of candy and/or flowers are traditional gifts for the hostess, as is a bottle of good wine, cognac or vodka for the host. Arriving "with empty hands" is considered the poorest manners.
Never give an even number of flowers to someone - even numbers are for funerals only!
When entering a Russian home, offer to take off your shoes. In most cases your host will provide you with slippers (called "tapochki" in Russian).
Be prepared to accept smoking.
Be prepared to accept all food and alcohol when visiting friends. Refusing a drink or toast is a serious breach of etiquette. An open bottle often has to be finished. However, Russians will understand if you do not drink at all (e.g. for health reasons or because of religious beliefs, or because you have to drive later).
Be prepared to give toasts at dinners and presentations. Do not say "Na Zdoroviye" ("To your health" - this is actually a toast only in Poland) - the correct form is "Vashe Zdoroviye" ("Your health"). Russian toasts can be very long and elaborate. For birthdays, weddings and other important events, friends and colleagues often write poems for the person they wish to congratulate. You don't have to do that of course, but it helps to be prepared to at least say a few sentences. While the toast is being sad, do not continue eating or drinking. You are expected to listen, regardless of the length of the speech. An easy and amusing toast a foreigner can make is that the host's fame has spread abroad, and they are now known in your country too. Chinking glasses with everyone else (or as far as you can reach) is considered usual.
At birthday parties, by tradition, all the toasts are to some aspect of the birthday boy/girl - try to think of some witty compliments. There may often be a toast to their parents, "who gave him/her to us" - even if they aren't present. If one or other of the parents is no longer alive, you don't chink glasses for this toast.
If you plan on visiting a Russian Orthodox Church, dress conservatively (no shirt skirts or shorts). Women must cover their hair before entering the church, so bring a headscarf. Men, on the other hand, must remove headwear (hats, caps). Some extremely severe monasteries may insist on women donning a wraparound long skirt - if so, these will be provided on free loan at the gateway entrance, and using them is obligatory. Better to wait outside if you don't wish to respect their dress code requirements.
On public transportation, younger men and women should give up their seat to mothers with small children, pregnant women and elderly people. Certain seats may be marked for the use of these categories of people anyhow.
Men should offer to carry parcels and heavy bags for women they accompanying. This is local custom, regardless of what you may be used to or believe in at home.
That conveniently free seat on the jam-packed tram or bus is for the conductor - you are not allowed to sit there!
When going to the theatre or a concert, you are expected to check your coat and any larger bags at the coat check. When squeezing past others into your seat, take care to face them as you pass - doing it "the way you are used to" is regarded as "shoving your ass in their face" in Russia, and is a social no-no.
Always emphasize the good and the beautiful things you like in Moscow and Russia, try not to criticize and compare. Russians know that there are a lot of problems in this country, but they are also very proud of their history and culture. They will highly appreciate it if you show them that you like it here - or at least like some of it!
Small gifts are much appreciated. Keep a list of people who have been nice and helpful to you, such as your concierge, parking lot attendant, your favourite vendor at the supermarket, a friendly neighbour, etc. Give them a small gift such as a box of chocolate or candy or a small souvenir from your home country for major holidays, such as New Year's. Only women are given gifts on March 8th and flowers will be much appreciated, along with a nice card. Pretty calendars and company gifts such as coffee mugs and pens are also good. And, of course, don't forget about your driver, nanny, housekeeper and other friendly helpers. Along with a "real" gift, they will also appreciate a cash bonus.
Along with your baggage, bring a good amount of patience, sympathy, tolerance, and your sense of humour. These should get you through most difficulties. Russians are used to long centuries of foreigners bringing their eccentric habits and peculiarities with them to Russia - and they will tolerate almost any accidental indiscretions if you can manage a friendly grin as you commit them.
Based on the materials from the book "Living in Moscow" by Barbara Spier.