Russia is a nation embracing its newfound freedom and future potential, whilst enjoying a renewal of the rich cultural heritage of its past. Despite the visible effects of hardship, and its previous isolation from the rest of the world, travellers will encounter a country of enormous diversity and vitality, with cultural treasures, historical monuments, and glittering cathedrals. Adam Barralet shares some helpful etiquette tips when visiting this enchanting country:
The Russians are proud of their country. Although life may not be as easier as elsewhere in the Russia’s people are proud that they can flourish amongst such challenges when others cannot. For generations until the 1930’s, Russian life centred on the agricultural village commune, where the land was held in common and decision-making was the province of an assembly of the heads of households. This affinity for the group and the collective spirit remains today. It is seen in everyday life, for example most Russians will join a table of strangers rather than eat alone in a restaurant.
However tourists may not get as friendly a reception at first. Old communist habits can die hard so if you try smiling or striking up a conversation with someone on the street or shop keepers you may not get a warm reciprocation. When meeting Russians use your strongest, firmest handshake. The stronger the better when two men are shaking hands. It can be gentler with women. You should shake hands ever time you meet.
In Russia, several generations of family usually live together, often in small residences. Thus the family members can be quite dependent on each other. This also means they value the family unit. Showing a Russian a picture of your family can be a great icebreaker.
Russians will often use hand signals which can be quite confusing to Westerners. They will wave their fingers in a horizontal line across their neck. They are telling you that, “you’re dead meat”. In Russia it means “stop” or “I am full”. Taping the index finger on your neck is referring someone is drunk or is an invite for you to drink. This is similar to the gesture Westerners use when they imitate brining a glass up to their mouth.
If you are invited to a Russian’s house dress in clothes similar to that you’d wear in an office. You should arrive with a small gift. Men are expected to bring flowers (except yellow flowers). Never bring a gift for a baby before it is born though as it is considered bad luck. Russians often protest when they are offered a gift. Reply that it is a little something and offer the gift again and it will generally be accepted. Once there offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up after a meal is served. This may be turned down out of politeness. Asking ‘are you sure?’ allows the hostess to accept your offer.
If dining out keep in mind that water quality is variable throughout Russia. If you are overly concerned use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth and avoid raw vegetables and salads. Drinking vodkas is unavoidable unless you have a darn good reason ie. medical or religious. Don’t forget to toast the host every time and down it in one mouthful. The male host pays the bill but if you are male you should make a token offer. Tipping used to be illegal but now a ten percent service charge is generally added. Tip more if you find the service outstanding. However don’t over scrutinise the bill. It suggests distrust.
At the end of the day in Russia, everybody’s business is also everyone else’s, so strangers will stop and tell someone that they are breaking the rules.
Most letters in our transliteration correspond to their English equivalents except a few:
zh: as in the ‘s’ in ‘measure’
kh: as in the ‘ch’ in ‘Bach’
ts: as in the ‘ts’ in ‘bits’
shch: as in ‘sh-ch’ in ‘fresh chillies’
Good afternoon: dobryy den
Good evening: dobryy vecher
Goodbye (inf.): paka
Pleased to meet you: ochen priyatna
Pardon me: prastite
I don’t understand: ya ni panimayu
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