Travel to Russia: Things to Know Before You Go

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  • Communication Styles of Russians
  • Appropriate and inappropriate conversation topics
  • Core values of Russians
  • Government Structure and Politics
  • Important things to note

Compiled by Oleg Ivanov, edited by Michelle Tupy.

Sources: personal observations, Wikipedia, The World Factbook, Encyclopedia Britannica. 

 

Whether you dream of traveling across Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railways or want to explore the culture of vibrant cities like Moscow or St Petersburg - or visiting the country for an international sports event such as FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 - there are some basic travel tips about Russia you should know before you go.

The most important thing you should always remember, however, is that the world’s largest country has plenty to offer travelers, especially those who are looking to learn more about the culture and history of this fantastic destination.

Tourists should always bear in mind that they are guests in Russia. Making value judgments about differences in how things are done can be a barrier to establishing good communication. Most Russians have a strong sense of national pride and foreigners who are respectful and demonstrate an interest in learning as much as possible about the country and its people are appreciated.

Memorizing some basic Russian will help in building your credibility, and you will be quickly rewarded with an invitation into the inner circle.

 

Communication Styles of Russians

Regardless of which country you visit, you will find they all have their own quirks. The locals will have a particular way of communicating which may differ from city to city, or because of their cultural background or ethnicity. The longer you spend in a country, the more opportunity you will have to learn the varying language styles and improve your communication skills in the local tongue.

Russians tend to get straight to the point, and generally, do not hesitate to express their differences of opinion. They respect someone who disagrees with them, so long as that person is perceived as being 100% honest.

People in service industries may communicate in a way that can seem somewhat aggressive at first. They may choose to ask "What do you want?" over the more common and anticipated phrase of “How can I help you?” It is a subtle difference, and purely a cultural one. By no means do they wish to offend.

While disagreements are not feared or avoided, it is interesting to note that the word "compromise" is not native to the Russian language, although they have adopted it for their use. The concept of compromise can have a somewhat negative connotation in Russia and can sometimes be seen as a sign of weakness. However, it is important to note that the concept of compromise and consensus are viewed more positively in business circles.

 

Clarity on the word “nyet”

Use of the Russian word “nyet”, (typically translated in English as "no"), does not necessarily imply a completely negative response. “Nyet” is often an automatic response, given without much thought. It may mean that whatever was requested is not available, or it could mean that the questioner must find another way of obtaining the product or information requested. As a result, Russians may not readily accept “nyet” as the answer; they may continue to try to get a "yes" before the conversation is over. Many Russians feel that there is always a way to get to "yes" as exceptions can always be made. Real refusals need to be firm, so they understand the actual message of what you are saying.

 

Double negatives are common

Particular phrases in Russian can be phrased as a double negative. For example, in English, you would say, “I do not want anything,” while in Russia, you would say, “I do not want nothing.” These two phrases have an identical meaning. Politeness can also often be expressed through negative constructions. An English speaker would opt for, “Would you like some tea?” over the Russian, “Would not you like some tea?” It can be challenging to get your head around it initially, because, for English speakers, the use of double negatives is often thought of as incorrect.

 

Russians are high context communicators

While many Russians are very direct in the way they communicate with others, it is also true that they are often considered high-context communicators. This essentially means that they may not go into enough detail to convey even the most complex of ideas. They may assume that the background information is common knowledge to all and refrain from filling in the gaps. As a result, their speech can sometimes seem cryptic and confusing for a newcomer or traveler to follow. To counteract this, it is crucial for you to observe the context of the communication, including the speaker's body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, location, and hierarchy.


Opt for a formal tone initially

Most Russians will expect, and appreciate, a certain degree of formality. When first meeting and addressing a Russian citizen, it is best to use their first name and their patronymic. The patronymic is the father's first name with either "vich" on the end for males or "na" on the end for females (e.g., Peotervich or Petrovna). Once a certain level of familiarity has been established, Russians may ask you to call them by a shorter name or a diminutive of their name (e.g., instead of Alexander, the nickname may be Sasha). It is always best to wait for the invitation to do this.

 

Understanding ethnic groups in Russia

Russia is a multinational country, and communication styles tend to differ depending on the ethnicity of the speaker. Ethnic Russians are the dominant group both in terms of population and positions of power. About 77% of the population is ethnic Russian, comprised of approximately 130 ethnic groups.

The largest groups have over one million people and these include the Ukrainians (Slavic); Tatars, Bashkir, Chuvash (Turkic); Chechens (North Caucasus); and Armenians. Tatars make up approximately 3.8% of the population while Ukrainians stand at around 2%. No ethnic minority makes up a substantial percentage of the national population although, as specific ethnic groups cluster in particular regions, each ethnicity is often seen as the majority group in an individual region.

While the communication patterns of Ukrainians tend to be similar to Russian, the non-Slavic groups tend to be particularly conscious of their national identity. They may heavily distinguish "insiders" from "outsiders", even more so than ethnic Russians. This cultural value can often alter patterns making them more unique and less resistant to change.

The non-Slavic groups may also come across as more direct and less trusting of outsiders or tourists. It can, however, be observed that they have high regard and respect for those within their community, particularly the elders.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many people have migrated to Moscow and St. Petersburg to make a new home for themselves. This means that these two urban centers, in particular, are very diverse and rich in culture.

Migrants from Korea, China, Cuba and Vietnam are not uncommon, and students from other former Soviet republics are encouraged to come to the city of Moscow to study. Despite the rich mixture of ethnic groups, however, Russians still see themselves as central to the country's national identity.

Foreign visitors need to understand that the word “Russian" is generally used to refer to those who are ethnically part of the Russian Federation. The word does not include other nationalities or ethnic origins. In fact, in the Russian language, there is a distinction between the word russky (referring to Russian ethnicity) and the word rossiysky (referring to inhabitants of the Russian Federation as a country).

Using the word Russian to describe minority ethnic groups can cause misunderstanding and, sometimes, great offense.

There was a time in Russia’s history when passports identified the holder's ethnicity. This practice was viewed by many as discriminatory; therefore, current passports no longer identify ethnicity. Instead, Russian passports today use the term rossiysky when referring to Russians and ethnic minorities.

The Soviet Union did, however, celebrate diversity and policies had been put into place in official organizations to reflect the changing national ethnic composition.

While Russians may seem comfortable with ethnic and cultural diversity from an ideological standpoint, they may have varying opinions on concrete matters of economics and governance. In these situations, Russians can be very inflexible. In Russia, there is quite often a “right” view and all other opinions which differ from the mainstream point of view are considered “wrong.” If you find that you don’t share an opinion, then it may pay to keep quiet on the matter as many Russians still believe that "He who is not with us is against us."

Their idea of diversity is very different to the Western ideal that the word implies the obligation to hear and encourage dissenting opinions. This is still very much not the case; so it is recommended that you keep any alternative ideologies to yourself.

 

Regional origins are important

One of the first questions many Russians ask one another is, "Where are you from?" And, of course, this question will be pointed more often than not in your direction. Russians have a habit of judging one another based on where they grew up, although they will be particularly interested in learning more about your culture and way of life.

Residents of Moscow, also referred to as Muscovites, tend to look down on individuals from other regions. As a result, those born elsewhere share a common bond and may struggle to connect as well with those who hail from Moscow originally.

The Russian concept of zemlyak ("from the same land") can create a high level of trust, even after a short meeting or interaction. The power of the connection of zemlyaks on foreign ground often takes precedence over qualifications or rules. However, the zemlyak phenomenon of regional kinship is a double-edged sword. Zemlyak allows the building of quick ties to circumvent official red tape, but it may be a source of uneven privileges and exclusion which could result in workplace factions or dissatisfaction.

 

Rural speech vs. urban speech

Russians living in urban areas tend to be more direct than those living in rural areas. This could be due to the speed of life in big cities – people feel they have less time to "beat around the bush” and are determined to get straight to the point.

Russians who reside in urban areas may also make fewer adjustments to their communication styles – this remains the same regardless of who they are speaking to or what position they may hold.

People in the countryside tend to be more polite and formal, especially when talking with someone older or in a position of authority.

 

Gestures and Body Language of Russians

Russians tend to be extremely physical and expressive communicators. They commonly use body language and facial expressions to add meaning to their spoken words.

At first glance, you may notice that Russians do not smile much. They are likely to begin a conversation with minimal expression, and it can be hard to read feelings or emotions behind their words. Over time, the discussion will become less formal, and their smile will widen as they start to feel more comfortable with the other party.

A grimacing look may be an indication that progress is not being made, or at least, not as quickly as you would like it. Persevere until they begin to warm to you.

Russians also stand very close together, and physical contact, such as touching another person's arm, is common once they feel comfortable in your company. The typical Russian concept of personal space is about half an arm's length, and it is common for people to be in very close physical contact in lines and other crowded public places.

 

Common greetings

A handshake is the usual and most appropriate greeting in Russia. Men who are friends sometimes greet each other by grasping the other's right arm. Sometimes men also pat each other on the back with the other hand while shaking hands.

Women can shake hands with men, although it is best for the man to wait and see if a woman offers her hand. In a formal situation, it is more appropriate for women to exchange handshakes with other women. In an informal environment, handshaking between women is not standard.

Russians formally greet each other only once a day. It can be seen as disrespectful to say "hello" twice in one day as this may be interpreted as forgetfulness.

The greeting privet (hi) is informal and should be avoided in formal or business settings. Instead, use the more formal zdrastvuite, which can be used at any time of the day. Similarly, when parting, use the more polite version of do svidania (goodbye) rather than the informal poka.

 

Typical gestures

Russians are big on gestures, and it can be hard to understand them if you don’t know the meaning behind the action.

A flick of the index finger on the neck is a gesture meaning that a person is drunk or is going to drink tonight.

If someone hits themselves on their chest, this symbols the fact that they are loyal to you or are telling you the truth.

 

Conversation Topics To Use When Visiting Russia

After you have been invited into someone‘s home, it is important that you steer clear of any inappropriate topics. Listed below are subjects which are safe to use as well as ones which you should definitely handle with care.

 

Appropriate topics

Any conversation subject that establishes common ground and helps to build a relationship is appropriate. Stick to topics surrounding the following:

  • General business topics such as the development of local industry

  • Family

  • Hobbies

  • Sports

  • Sightseeing and travel experiences

  • Mutual acquaintances

 

Inappropriate topics

While few topics are considered inappropriate, there are specific subjects that foreign visitors should be sensitive to. Taking the wrong tone or discussing improper topics may come across as arrogant. Never underestimate the education or expertise of those in your company. Also, you should avoid criticizing concepts or institutions in which Russian associates may have invested much of their lives. To do so is being dismissive of their effort or their livelihood.

 

Many Russians, depending on their age, role, and status, may feel they were better off in the past. To understand what is and is not appropriate, you might want to brush up on your modern history.

Foreigners in Russia have a tendency to overlook the immense contribution of Russia during World War II (referred to as the Great Patriotic War in Russia). The Soviet people defended their country from Nazi invasion, and almost every Russian family has someone who served in that war. Many older Russians, in particular, are proud of their personal or family contributions to the outcome of the war and may be sensitive to their contribution being overlooked.

There are also certain aspects of Russian history, such as actions during Stalin's reign, which have only come to light recently. As you can well imagine, many Russians may not be as quick to believe these so-called “new” facts. Therefore it is critical that you discuss the less-debatable facts about the country’s history and let your counterparts express their opinions before you do.

It is also important to note that some Russians may be uncomfortable openly discussing their religious beliefs.

 

Joke Telling

Russians enjoy telling jokes, and you may find you are waiting a while for an exact point in the story to laugh. If it is an informal meeting between acquaintances, you can ask for clarification, although in most cases it is better to be patient and wait for the cue. By watching others around you, you will be able to see when to react.

Taking the time to ask for an explanation may prove to be a waste of your time and it may not add much value to the relationship you are trying to foster with the locals.

 

Core Values of Russians

For generations, Russians have been brought up with a strong sense of national identity. For some people, being Russian is actually a conscious part of their personal identity.

They pride themselves on being loyal, reliable, and self-sacrificing and will do everything in their power to protect the motherland, whether you mean the ‘big motherland’ of Russia, or the ‘little motherland’ of their hometown.

 

Pride (Gordost)

Russians can be very critical of other Russians (and themselves) often referring to them as lazy, heavy drinkers, uncommitted, or easy to take advantage of. These words will often be uttered during informal chats around the dinner table as an example.

These terms are reserved FOR Russians BY Russians. It will not be looked on too kindly if you, as a foreigner, use these terms against fellow Russians. You run the risk of quickly becoming known as a besserwissers (a know-it-all) if you do. If you hurt the Russian pride, even without meaning to, your credibility could be severely undermined.

 

Ethics

For many Russians, the world is divided into two categories: svoiji and chuzhije (insiders and outsiders). Russians typically see themselves as members of groups (e.g., a family, circle of friends, fans of a team, members of a club, city, or country) and each group naturally opposes other groups. The ethical standard one is expected to uphold, the way to get something done, the way to treat others, and the support one expects to receive are all largely dependent on whether someone is dealing with insiders or outsiders.

Within the group, Russians can call upon each other at any time for anything, loan each other money without question, and confide in one another regarding personal and professional problems.

Outsiders are often treated with less warmth and are regarded as suspicious. It is an essential skill for anyone working in or visiting Russia to build personal relationships founded on common ideals or groups.

 

Hierarchy/Order (Poryadok)

Russian society is based on a series of unwritten rules that are shared and enforced by everyone. For every situation, there is a certain accepted set of behaviors, rituals, and symbols which cannot be deviated from. Interestingly enough, the hierarchy may be seen as more important than internal organizational charts and may affect seating arrangements, forms of address, greetings, and body language.

Anyone who does not comply with poryadok is considered uncultured or uncouth. However, as a foreigner or traveler wanting to learn how to do it the Russian way, you will find that you will have many willing and happy teachers to guide you.

 

Idea-Oriented

Russians are incredibly idea-oriented, and love nothing more than to deeply examine concepts in great detail.

Many of Russia’s most celebrated writers have written at length about the major ideas of human existence, and it is very common for Russians to sit around for hours reflecting on life and other relevant topics.

Funnily enough, however, Russians tend to prefer that their contracts or agreements are written in more general terms avoiding the specifics of the matter. Therefore if you are entering into a contract or agreement of any kind, make sure that it includes enough detail so that both of you have a clear understanding of expectations in order to avoid problems further down the track.

 

Honor and gratitude

An invitation to a Russian friend's home should be considered an honor, and should not be refused if at all possible. When visiting the home of a local, you should always bring a gift. Wine, sweets, and flowers are appropriate; although, if you opt for flowers, they should be always given in an odd number as even numbers are reserved for funerals or graveside visits. Avoid sending yellow roses or carnations as they can be seen as an omen for separation.

It is rude to say no to whatever food or drink is on offer, so be prepared to accept all food and beverages if possible. If you happen to say no, then it is vital that you turn down a dish or a drink very tactfully so as not to offend your host.

Toasting is essential in Russian culture, and each toast should be unique (e.g., the first one is to the people present in the room, one is for those not present, one is to women, and one is to love, etc.) Be prepared for the fact that dinner can go on well into the night, and there may be quite a bit of drinking and talking involved.

 

Government Structure and Politics

Russia has both a President and Prime Minister. The President is elected and then appoints a Prime Minister to form the Government. Similar to France, the Prime Minister does not even need to be an elected Member of Parliament.

 

Government structure

Russia is a federal republic where the President is the head of state, and the Prime Minister is considered the head of the government. Executive power rests with the President (currently Vladimir Putin).

 

The 628-member parliament, termed the Federal Assembly, consists of two chambers, the 450-member State Duma (the lower house) and the 166-member Federation Council (the upper house).

 

Politics

The following four political parties maintain representation in the national legislature:

 

·         United Russia (ER)

·         the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF)

·         the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (Political Party LDPR)

·         A Just Russia (SR).

 

Geography

 

As the largest country in the world, the landscape of Russia is diverse and sometimes quite surprising. With a total population of over 143,000,000, it isn’t so hard to imagine that many of the cities have quite a large number of inhabitants.

 

Urbanization

Russia is very urbanized with about ¾ of the entire population living in urban areas. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that approximately 35 cities in Russia have populations of over 500,000 people.

Moscow is, of course, the largest city, with 10.3 million inhabitants, followed by St. Petersburg which is the second largest with five million inhabitants.

 

Other lesser well-known urban regions include:

 

Novosibirsk

Novosibirsk is Russia's third largest city, established in the late 1800s. It is located approximately halfway between Moscow and the Pacific coast of Russia, in the center of Western Siberia. Novosibirsk is famous for its Academic City (Akademgorodok), a science town with industries such as machine manufacturing and metallurgy. Novosibirsk has recently become widely known in the semiconductor industry as a base of research talent and boasts the most highly developed educational infrastructure after Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Novosibirsk Zoo, a popular tourist spot, holds over 11,000 animals and is an active participant in over 30 breeding programs for endangered animals.

 

Nizhny Novgorod

Nizhny Novgorod is located 250 miles east of Moscow on the Volga River. It is one of Russia’s oldest cities, established in 1221, although you may be more familiar with the previous city name of Gorky (1932-1990). Nizhny is an industrial city known as the "Russian Detroit" because of its large automotive factories. The city is also famous for its five universities and 50 colleges. Many visitors enjoy taking a tour of the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin built in the 1500s while visiting the city. It is open to the public daily and bears a striking resemblance to the Kremlin in Moscow.

 

Ekaterinburg

Ekaterinburg, also known as Yekaterinburg or Jekaterinburg, is located west of Novosibirsk on the Asian side of the Urals. It is the fifth largest city in Russia and is known for industries such as gem cutting, heavy machinery, steel, chemicals and petroleum. One of the highlights is its gold-domed church with the fascinating name of the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land.”

 

Tomsk

Tomsk is located in the southwest of the Siberian federal district and is located on the Tom River. It is an important administrative center with a history that goes back to the 1600s. Tomsk has expanded quickly because of the growth of mining, particularly for gold, in Siberia. The city's surroundings are rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, metals, and timber. You will undoubtedly enjoy your visit to Tomsk as there are many beautiful parks and gardens to wander around in.

 

Hi-tech industries

Russia has many cities specializing in hi-tech industries. These cities include Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk, Omsk, and Tomsk. All of these cities have universities and other institutes that consistently produce skilled physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. This talent pool has helped establish Russia as a significant source of highly skilled and experienced software engineers, programmers, and other IT experts.

 

Market economy

Russia's major cities have managed the transition to a market economy relatively well and, thanks to the population and size of the city, industrial diversity has ensued. Smaller industrial centers have unfortunately not fared as well as some of the more popular urban areas, and entire local economies are often based on one large factory or a group of related enterprises. This dependence on ‘one’ business, and the absence of unemployment benefits, makes closing bankrupt enterprises a politically difficult decision. Siberia and the far eastern regions of Russia are less industrialized as they have traditionally served as a source of raw materials, namely oil, gas, timber, metals, and fish.

 

Oil and science

Russia's natural resource sector is absolutely thriving at the moment, and seven of the top ten industrial companies in Russia produce oil or gas, or both. The major oil companies are based in Moscow, but oil extraction and exploration activities are found in widely dispersed locations such as the Caucasus region, Siberia, and the Russian Far East.

Closed cities

One legacy of the former Soviet Union is the aptly named "closed cities" where the best and brightest scientists were sent to work on secret military projects.

Cities such as Zelenograd, Arzamas, Obninsk, Chernogolovka, Sarov, and Dubna carry the name tag of being solid scientific education cities and have a history of working for the military under extreme pressure and in complete secrecy.

Many entrepreneurs have attempted to harness the knowledge and technological expertise found in these cities for the development of commercial goods and services.

 

Important Things To Note

Depending on where you are traveling from, Russia may seem a long way removed from your own culture. Just be patient and embrace the differences as best as you can.

 

Names and titles

Russians generally have a first name, a surname, and a patronymic which is derived from their father's first name. For men, the patronymic will end in either -evich, or -ovich. For women, the ending for their patronymic will be -ovna, or -evna. Thus, Petr Evgenievich would be Petr, son of Evgeniy, and Maria Vasilievna would be Maria, daughter of Vasiliy. It may take time to get the hang of this, so be patient.

 

It is important to note that the -evich and -evna patronymics are used when the father's first name ends with -iy like Vasiliy, "Evgeniy, Gennadiy. Also, some patronymics, based on less common Russian names, like Luka or Foma, have the short endings for males: -ich (Lukich, Fomich), and long endings for females: -inichna (Lukinichna, Fominichna) with the stress on the first i.

People in Russia are generally aware that foreigners have a hard time with patronymics. Knowing this, and following the habitual "Western" usage of first names, Russians usually allow foreigners to address them in this way. However, refrain from shortening their name into a nickname as that can seem very impolite, particularly on a first meeting.

The use of first names is mostly reserved for informal situations between friends and people close in age and status, although a person who is older can use the first name when addressing a younger person.

 

While many Russians do have nicknames, it is not common to use them until you become friends. To avoid being seen as disrespectful, a foreigner should not use them at all unless invited to do so. If you are addressing a Russian by their first name, use Victor (not Vitya), Alexander (not Sasha), Margarita (not Rita), Elena (not Lena), and so on.

Russians do not generally use professional titles when addressing one another, although it is acceptable for foreigners to use these titles on occasion. Gospodin (Mr.) and Gospozha (Mrs.) are common phrases you may come across or need to use during your travels.

 

Business hours

Business hours vary, but as a general rule, most people work from 8:00 am or 9:00 am to 5:00 pm or 6:00 pm, Monday to Friday. Government offices are generally open from 9:00 am or 10:00 am to 5:00 pm or 6.00 pm at the latest, on Monday to Friday. They are rarely open on the weekend.

Banks are typically open from 9:00 am to midday on Monday to Friday and from 1.00 pm to 6:00 pm. The hours may differ slightly depending on whether the bank is located in a major city or a more rural area.

A standard lunch break is typically one hour in length taken somewhere between 12:00 pm and 3:00 pm. Banks and even some stores may close for an hour during this time. Many offices take an afternoon tea or coffee break as well. Some businesses will have hot beverages, cookies and snacks on hand at all times and it is often expected that guests will be offered tea, coffee and snacks if they are visiting during that period.

 

Tipping in Russia

In restaurants, it is common to tip between 10% and 15% of the overall bill. Tips should be given directly to the server.

In taxis, small tips are appreciated. It is common to round up the fare to the nearest 100 rubles.

In hotels, tips are often given to bellboys for carrying luggage (approximately 30 to 90 rubles per bag), and to housekeepers (approximately 60 to 120 rubles per day). Tips for housekeepers are often left in the ashtray or on a bedside table on a daily basis.

 

Religion

While many in Russia are religious, religion itself is diversified. The statistics can be broken down as follows:

 

  • Russian Orthodox: 15-20%

  • Muslim: 10-15%

  • Other Christian: 2%

 

(Source: The World Factbook)

 

The estimates listed above are of practicing worshipers as many Russians describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious," "non-religious," or "undecided.” During the Soviet Era, the practice of religion was very much repressed. Since then, religion has had a resurgence, and many Russians now consider themselves to be religious.

 

Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following breakdown -

  • Russian Orthodox: 53.1%

  • Muslim: 8.2%

  • Other Christian: ~5%

 

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