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Customs & Traditions in Russia

General Etiquette

  • Always show high respect for those who are older than you. It’s common to adopt a more formal attitude.

  • Offer your seat to an elderly person, pregnant woman, or woman with a small child if they do not have one.

  • If anyone elderly is present, direct your attention and respect towards them.

  • Men are expected to open doors for women, pay for their food, help them carry items, etc.

  • People do not always wait in line. For example, Russians may start entering a train or bus before those on board have had the time to exit.

  • Commonly, one may be in line without actually standing there and will just inform the person in front of them they are behind them so that they can notify anyone else that arrives in the meantime. This ‘reserves’ their spot so they can do something else until it is their turn.

  • Dress neatly and tidily. Footwear for sporting activities should not be worn to enter restaurants or bars. One may be refused entry if wearing these shoes.

  • Talking to someone whilst keeping your hands in your pockets is rude.

  • Do not spread your legs wide apart when sitting.

  • It’s normal to be actively pushed when standing in crowds, lines, or public transport.

  • It can be very rude to act too casual and informal towards a stranger. It’s not always appreciated to assume familiarity before you are close with them.

  • Engagements and appointments usually run longer than expected, and deadlines are not always met.

  • If a Russian asks you a favor try your best to do it. To request a favor from you indicates they feel you are trusted.

  • When pointing out a mistake or critiquing something, do so privately and directly. The best approach would involve offering your assistance to help solve the problem as you point it out.

  • Any criticism is also likely to be appreciated more when it is delivered as the problem is occurring, as opposed to later on when the person can no longer do anything about it.

  • Avoid criticism about Russian, its politics, or the president.

  • Do not make jokes about Russians being drunks or women being mail-ordered brides for foreign men.


Family

  • The Russian family is dependent upon all its members.

  • Most families live in small apartments, often with 2 or 3 generations sharing little space.

  • Most families are small, often with only one child because most women must also work outside of the house in addition to bearing sole responsibility for the household.


Naming

  • Russian names are structured as first name, middle name, and surname.

  • The first name, which is the person's given name.

  • The middle name is patronymic, created by using the child’s father’s name with the suffix “vich” or “ovich” for boys, and “avna” or “ovna” for girls. This means ‘son of’ and ‘daughter of’.

  • Last name, which is the family or surname.

  • An ‘a’ is added to the end of almost all female names.

  • In formal situations, people use all three names.

  • Friends and close friends may refer to each other by their first name and surname.

  • Close friends and family members call each other by their first name only.

  • Titles such as "Mr.", "Mrs." and "Ms." are not used.

  • Women customarily take their husband’s surname at marriage, although not always.

  • People commonly use diminutives as nicknames to address one another.

  • Ask a Russian’s permission before calling them by a nickname – especially those that shorten their original name. As Russians are more formal in the initial stages of meeting someone, moving on to this basis too soon can be seen as excessive familiarity or even patronizing.

  • Close friends may jokingly refer to one another by using a shortened version of their patronymic name. For example, calling Nikolai Ivanovich by "Ivanych". It is best not to address people in this way if you have a limited background in Russian as you may not be able to deliver the name in such a way that it is taken as a joke.


Meeting & Greeting:

  • The common greeting among strangers usually involves a firmly held handshake with direct eye contact. 

  • Take off your gloves to shake someone else’s hand.

  • You should not greet across a threshold. This is seen as impolite, giving the impression that the person is not allowed to enter.

  • Also, an old superstition advises that you should never greet someone by shaking hands or kissing them whilst on the threshold of the doorstep. This is thought to cause you to argue with them.

  • Women generally kiss people three times on alternating cheeks starting on the left.

  • Male friends may hug one another or give each other a pat on the back.

  • People give the appropriate formal greeting depending on what time of day it is: “Dobroe utro” (Good morning), “Dobriy den” (Good afternoon), or “Dobriy vecher” (Good evening).

  • A more casual greeting is “Privet” (Hi).

  • Address a person using their first name and patronymic (middle) name if they are older or of higher status than yourself.


Visiting a home

  • When visiting a Russian home, bring flowers, wine or sweets as a gift for the woman of the home, and hard liquor for the man.

  • Remove your shoes before entering the house as you may be given slippers to wear.

  • Expect to be offered tea or coffee along with some food.

  • If you arrive at the house around the time of lunch or dinner, you may be invited to stay for the family meal.

  • Try to exchange these same gestures if inviting Russians over to your own home.

  • You should accept all food and drink offered to you if possible.

  • Offer to help the hostess with the preparation or cleaning up after any meal or stay.

  • Arrive on time or no more than 15 minutes later than invited.

  • Dress formal as dressing well shows respect for your hosts.

  • Expect to be treated with honor and respect.


Giving gifts

  • If invited to a Russian home for a meal, bring a small gift.

  • Male guests are expected to bring flowers.

  • Do not give yellow flowers as it implies disloyalty.

  • Flowers are given regularly when visiting someone, going on a date, or even for a child’s first day of school. If giving flowers, an odd number should be given for an occasion (unless it’s a funeral).

  • Do not give a baby gift until after the baby is born. It is bad luck to do so sooner.

  • When offering a gift, expect a Russian to protest it initially. Insist a second time and it will generally be accepted.

  • Blue is a good color for friends’ gifts.

  • Avoid gifting carnations as they are associated with funerals and Soviet holidays.

Dining & Food:

  • Any bottles of alcohol that have been opened are usually finished before the end of a meal.

  • It is impolite to pour a bottle of wine backhanded.

  • Men pour the drinks of women seated next to them.

  • Leave a small portion of the meal on your plate when finished to indicate to the host you are full.

  • Russians may make toasts during meals, Sometimes, the gesture can be long especially on big occasions. It is disrespectful to drink or eat while the toast is being said. You are expected to give your full attention and clink your glasses with everyone else’s at the conclusion of speeches. 

  • Refusing to drink at a toast is impolite and can lead people to think that you don’t like the person who spoke or agree with what they said.

  • Table manners are Continental the fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right while eating.

  • The oldest or most honored guest is served first.

  • Do not begin eating until the host invites you to start.

  • Do not rest your elbows on the table, although your hands should be visible at all times.

  • You will often be urged to take second helpings.

  • It is polite to use bread to soak up gravy or sauce.

  • Do not get up until you are invited to leave the table. At formal dinners, the guest of honor is the first to get up from the table.


Communication style:

  • Russians are generally comfortable with directness, they may not hesitate to correct people and can deliver criticism rather honestly. While they may soften their tone when talking about sensitive topics, they usually speak to the point and keep their words concise. This can give non-Russians the impression that they are being quite blunt when that is not intended.

  • It is common for Russians to swear in casual situations.

  • Russians tend to sit and stand quite close to one another.

  • To reach out and touch another person during a conversation (e.g. an arm around the shoulder or a pat on the back) is a sign of confidence in the relationship.

  • Strong physical affection is generally only seen between couples of opposite genders.

  • Russians, particularly men, often have a serious front towards strangers that softens once they build familiarity with a person. While they are known to be very animated with friends, smiles are not often exchanged between strangers on the street. There is an old idea that people who smile for no reason must be fools.

  • The symbol for ‘Okay’ (with the forefinger and the top of the thumb meet to form a circle, with the other fingers stretched out) has offensive meanings.

  • Another bad sign is to make a fist with the thumb pointing between the middle finger and index finger.

  • It is also a very rude gesture to place your wrist or arm on the inside of your opposite elbow and then bend the elbow with a hand closing in a fist.

  • Traditionally, Orthodox Christians cross themselves by using their index and middle finger to touch their forehead, followed by their chest, right shoulder, and left shoulder. However, today, people generally perform the same gesture using three fingers (middle finger, index finger, and thumb) pinched together. This is a Russian Orthodox silent prayer to bless oneself throughout the day.


Other considerations


  • Being visibly drunk in public places is a legal offense in Russia. While Russia is famous for having a strong drinking culture, it’s not as honored in Russian society as many foreigners believe.

  • The public is very aware of the negative effects of alcohol dependency Some may even see it as a sign of weak character.

  • It is also illegal for certain worldly words to be spoken publicly or written in the media.

  • Being very drunk is not regarded positively in Russia.

  • The number 13 is considered unlucky in Russian culture. Celebrations may be organized so that they do not coincide with the number.

  • Homosexuality is not widely accepted in Russia and people from the LGBTQI+ community may encounter negative attitudes.

  • You may find that Russians were quite moderate and ‘politically correct’ tell jokes that you believe to be inappropriate (i.e. sexist undertones or slurring racial/ethnic minorities). Consider that this kind of humor is quite common in Russia.

  • The media tends to circulate insulting stereotypes of Siberian natives, Koreans, Asians, Ukrainians, people of the Caucasus, Jews, and those of other ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

  • ‘New Russians’ is a term that has arisen since the 1990s to caricature those who got rich in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It implies that a person gained their wealth through possibly corrupt means. This reflects a cultural skepticism of the wealthy.

  • Smoking cigarettes is a common habit and older Russians are likely to smoke in public places frequently. 

  • Some elderly Russians may be suspicious of anything related to government and bureaucratic processes.

  • Free speech is inhibited in Russia; the Putin government is known to harshly punish journalists, activists, and other forms of opposition that resists its authority.


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