Russia is a country that is very new and innovative in many ways. However, it is also a country that is steeped in tradition and superstition. Even the most dedicated former communist can still be ruled by these old traditions that dictate how one should behave in a Russian home or in public. Because so many of these rules may be unknown to foreigners or it might cause some confusion, here is a list of 10 ways to not offend people in while in Russia.
Unfortunately, the English language does not have the same distinction that Russian has with “russkiy” meaning ethnically Russian and “rossiskiy” meaning any citizen living within the borders of the Russian Federation. For all sense and purposes, the term “Russian” in this text should mean “rossiskiy” and it is a general list of do’s and don’ts when visiting people in Russia.
1. Take Off Your Shoes
When entering a Russian home, it is absolutely imperative to immediately remove your shoes. The host will probably provide some tapochki or slippers to wear. Streets in Russia, especially in the big cities, tend to be very dirty. For instance, if you walk around Moscow in flip flops, don’t be surprised if your feet turn black by the end of the day. Therefore, always remove your shoes. It stops the spread of dirt, snow, ice, and sand in the winter time.
2. Bring a Gift
When visiting someone’s home in Russia, it’s important not to show up empty-handed. The host has likely prepared a sumptuous meal and spent money to keep you comfortable at their home. As such, it’s polite to bring the host a gift. You don’t have to bring a gift for everyone, just the hosts. If the host is a woman, flowers, chocolate, or wine is much appreciated. If the host is a man, bring some beer if he drinks or ask beforehand what he would like you to add to the party. But if you are absolutely clueless about what to bring, fancy chocolate will please everyone.
3. Do Not Give Flowers in Even Numbers
This rule cannot be underestimated. When buying flowers in Russia, DO NOT buy them in even numbers. Usually, the florist will say something if an even number of flowers is accidentally chosen but it’s up to you to avoid this faux pas. Giving flowers in even numbers is very rude because they are only used at funerals. Additionally, some see yellow flowers as funeral flowers so to be safe, don’t give these either.
4. Do Not Shake Hands Over a Threshold
When meeting someone at the front door, never shake hands over a threshold. Wait until inside to do so.
5. Forget Something? Look in the Mirror
If you have left something behind and need to return to the host’s apartment, be sure to look in a mirror before you leave again. This is another time-honored superstition and it’s best not to argue about it. Most homes have a place to hang coats by the door which is accompanied by a mirror so it’s not difficult to adhere to this belief.
6. Never Exchange Money After Nightfall
Let’s say that you owe your host mom or friend a little money. Be sure to pay them back, just don’t do it at nighttime. Many believe that any money dealings after nightfall is a bad sign so it’s better to wait until morning to do this.
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7. If Staying the Night, Bring Some Home Clothes
As mentioned earlier, the streets in Russia tend to be very dirty. Usually when people get home, they immediately change into their “home clothes,” usually a t-shirt and pajama pants. This is to reduce the amount of dirt and germs that enter their apartments. Most people in Russia do not own their own cars and must rely on public transportation, which is not always the cleanest. Therefore, when living as a foreign exchange student with a Russian host family or just staying as an overnight house guest, bring some old sweats or something comfortable to change into.
8. Keep Your Cup Half-Full if You’re Not Ready for More Alcohol
This rule isn’t so much about politeness but is a good rule to keep in mind when drinking with Russians. If you’re not a big drinker, be careful with how much they offer to drink. If they see an empty cup, they will automatically refill it to be polite. However, if you feel that you’re reaching your limit, keep your cup half full. Additionally if you don’t drink, the best way to fend off unwanted drinks is to say that a doctor said you aren’t allowed to drink. Works every time.
9. Never Argue with Babushki
The Russian babushki, or grandmothers, are not to be meddled with. Though they are among the weakest members of society financially, they command a lot of respect and power. No matter what they tell you to do, just smile, nod, and do it their way. There’s absolutely no point in arguing with them. You will not win. Additionally, be sure to give them a seat on the metro, tram, or marshrutka bus. They might start yelling at you if you don’t, this particularly applies to young men.
10. Be Sure to Toast
While at a party, especially at a wedding or birthday party, there will be toasts. These generally aren’t that formal and don’t require elaborate Russian language skills to give. Just remember that the third toast is always “to love” or “za lyubov” and that everything else is just “za” and then the word in accusative case. Just be sure not to make any funny toasts that refer to political figures or Soviet times. It might be seen as rude. Stick to classics like “to friendship” “za druzhbu” or “to us” which is “za nas.” You can’t go wrong with those!
How to Live in Russia
Want to feel like a REAL "rossiskiy," even if just for a short amount of time? You're in luck. Beyond being a tourist, there are many ways that you can integrate yourself into Russian society, without sacrificing the sense of adventure that travel can bring. Once you're done "ooh'ing" and "aah'ing" at the ice cream cones better known as Saint Basil's Cathedral, make friends and become a pseudo-Russian with these great ways to travel in Russia:
From education to community service and health care and from it's rural western reaches to the bustling major cities, a volunteer program can help you manage a meaningful, long-term stay in Russia. Consider adding some "good" to your travel itinerary by signing up to volunteer in Russia.
There are language schools, universities, and tutoring centers with hot job markets for paid teaching English jobs in Russia. If you love explaining verb conjugations to eager students, this gig is for you.
Read Ivan Bunin's Nobel Peace Prize work in it's native language before translating the ballet program for your visiting relatives. Signing up for intensive Russian immersion programs is an impactful and productive way to spend your months up north.
If your Russian is already фантастика, consider getting a big-girl or big-boy job in Russia. Job openings at NGO's and international firms are a-plenty for Russian-speaking expats. Earn some rubles as you travel!