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How to Be Like Russians - Customs, Business Etiquette and Laws

Russian Character and Customs

Most Russians are not very different from most westerners in the way they perceive things or in their desired lifestyle. However, there are certain peculiarities, which may emerge when you get to know your Russian friends closer. Mainly they emerge from the old times, as well as the communist upbringing. Below we tried to list the most common traits of the Russian character. It doesn't mean that everybody is like this, but you have quite a good chance of noticing at least one thing in your average Russian's behaviour. If you are lucky enough to meet a person whose character incorporates all of the items from the list below, we can assure you that this person possesses the pure Russian character and should be treated with high respect. If you decide to become a Russian, you can use the list below as guidelines.

• We are a free nation.
Here we despise all the rules. It’s an honor for our drivers to move on the red light or to bother other drivers and scorn pedestrians.

• It’s cool to do nothing
and to just lie on the sofa thinking about how great you are. Really, Russia is such an amazing country and we have given the world so much, that we can rest a bit.

• If you're invited for a meal
, expect that the hosts will feed you until you feel completely full and not capable of moving. If you think that's dangerous for your health,
or you're on a diet, we advise you to emulate satiety, otherwise you will end up badly.

• We value generousity. We can give you the last piece of bread we have if we believe you really need it. And we expect the same in return.

• Some of us are naturally indifferent
; we don’t care too much about dirt on the streets, saving money, the war in Tchechnya, breaking the rules, risking without particular reason, drinking too much...

• ... and most of us are very proud.
Don't talk to us about our vices, we won't listen anyway. And don't dare to critisize the way our country is -- Russia is the best place and we will prove it to the whole world very soon.

• Some of us are quite emotional
, but somehow it’s all kept inside most of the time. We may seem a bit cold and too much to ourselves at first, but when you get to know us better, we're like a volcanoe.

• We are not politically correct
, we take pleasure in talking our opinions out loud and we will not use fancy words to conceal our real feelings.

• We don't feel easy about talking to strangers on the street,
but if you start conversation saying that you're from another country or ask for some help, there's a good chance we will be very open, because we are naturally curious about foreigners.

• Some of us think that foreigners are bloody rich
; so if we spot a foreigner, we try to make some money on him, because we still have this communist idea that everybody should be equal.

• Women and old women are very respected
here. It’s considered polite if while being in the metro and seeing a woman or an old woman coming in and there’re no free seats, man offers her his seat.

• Beware of the babushkas
(old women). They are active, pushy and very proud of themselves, so if you do something not the way they think you should’ve done, better disappear.

When you are invited to the party bring something with you - beer is usually accepted with pleasure.

If you invited a girl or a woman somewhere be prepared to pay for her everywhere. If you invited a man, he’ll pay for himself, and there's a good chance he'll pay for you as well without telling you about it.

Men should be strong and assertive and women should be smart and beautiful. That's just one of our stereotypes.

No, Russians are not racists. We were grown up in the world, where everybody is equal and where the friendship of nations is an important part of our agenda. If you notice one of us staring occasionally at a black person, it's just because we are curious -- there's not many black people in Russia... The only word of warning is about older people, who are sometimes too much patriotic, so be careful: don't offend their feelings.

Yes, we love vodka, but we're not alcoholics. Despite what some people think, Russians are not drunkards, they just have a special resistance to alchohol, that's why they can drink so much. And we actually get our strength from it and it warms us during the cold winters. By the way, if you drink with us, you'll have to drink as much as we do, or we will be offended.

Russians are weird. We think that a sudden change from communism to capitalism has something to do with it, but this topic deserves a more thorough exploration. The only smart explanation that can be proposed here is that some of us jumped too deep into capitalist world, while some stayed too far behind.

Russians are hooligans. It's not because we're bad - we just like everything extraordinary. But too often we don't express this feeling enough, so when it comes out, it's like a volcanoe. That's why you hear our tourists singing folk songs at 3am and that's why we make a revolution every 80 years.

We believe in magnetism. The thing is, that every so often the sun sends some electro-magnetic signals and this affects the whole course of events on the earth, including our mood and feelings. So, if you see two housewives discussing how bad their day went because of the electro-magnetic storm that happened in the afternoon - don't think they are adepts of some sort of new age philosophy, it's completely normal here.

Yes, we are superstitious. And if you want to shake our
hand, you can never ever do it through the door: you have to come in, otherwise we will quarrel. If you come back to your house just after you left - look at the mirror, it's for your own good. If you're sitting at the corner of the table, you won't be married for 7 years. If a fork falls, a woman is going to come, if a knife falls, a man will certainly appear.

Most of us know a few words in English, but we are too shy to speak - no practice, you see... However, you will be surprised at how many things are written in English on the streets: it is used to show a shop or a cafe, to advertise a new product, and there's a lot of foreign goods. Also, almost more than a half of Russian products have their ingredients listed in English.
Russians learn English at school, and many people can understand the basics, but are shy to speak to a stranger. We estimate about every one out of five Moscovitans can speak English well enough, and there's a higher chance among younger people.

We like all things fancy. But our understanding of it is very original. You will often see men in suits or tucked-in shirts and office trousers (even in clubs on Friday night), while women prefer noticeable and sexy outfits. The colors for men are usually dark or grey, while women like light and white colors. This is a generalization and of course you'll see a lot of different people and outfits.

A club is not a place to party - it's the place for the chosen ones.
If you want to visit clubs, they have this thing called "dress code" where you might not be allowed because you wear Nike sneakers, old khakis or a fleece coat. However, the rules are more lax for foreigners, so if unsure about your appearance just speak English while you're passing the club's entrance, and you're guaranteed to get in.

We express what we feel, but we're not extrovert. We shout in public and we kiss in public. It's acceptable to show affection in public (look at how many kissing couples there are on the long escalators in Moscow metro!) but extrovert behaviour may be resisted. You won't see a lot of people sitting in public places with their legs stretched or crossed
(in an American way) and Russians do not gesticulate much when they are talking.

Most Russians feel a bit strange about gays and lesbians, but prefer not to talk or express their feelings about it. There is however, quite a large gay & lesbian community in Moscow and St. Petersburg and specialized websites have thousands and thousands of profiles featuring gorgeous queer men and women.

Smoking is a national sport, but many people understand it's not good for health and will always agree to turn off their cigarette if it bothers you.
Many people have a positive attitude towards healthy lifestyle and have a daily morning exercise routine or run in the park.

We believe that if you are a vegeterian, chances are you are one of those Hare Krishna guys or you have problems with digestion. (However, we should say that the creators of this site were vegetarian for two years... until we traveled to Siberia and were presented with the choice of either making a good travel guide or not eating the meat that was offered)

Business Etiquette

Business is conducted in quite a professional manner. Gone are the times when you could be screwed up at any corner, nowadays businesses strive for long-term reputation and loyal customers. Avoid unregistered companies, salesmen from the streets, those who only provide a cell phone for contacts, and don't choose whom to deal with through shady Russian classifieds newspapers. A reputable company will usually have an office or two in the center and give the landline (city) number (not only a mobile) and an e-mail or web address as contacts.

If you're coming for a business meeting or a conference, it is usually
considered polite for the inviting company to "attach" a special person to you, who will show you the city, take you to the most important sights, help you with your Russian, and get you the best room in the hotel. You might also be offered traditional Russian adventures, such as a visit to a public steam-bath (Russian sauna - banya) and a few shots of vodka in a local bar or at somebody's place.
The attitude towards time is normal: it's polite to be on time, 5 minutes are tolerated, while nobody will wait for longer than 15 minutes.

Russian Laws & Regulations

Here's some information about what might happen if you make a small infringement in Russia and how to deal with it:

Not having a visa registration: the fine is usually around $5-30 US and one has to spend time in police station (not more than 3 hours). The chances you get checked are not high. What you can do in case a policeman stopped you, is to pretend naive, not to speak Russian, not to show you have money. Another strategy is to propose to go to your hotel or to the police station to make an official fine, and contact your embassy afterwards (thanks to Ben Parke for the tip!). In any case, there's a law that a policeman can only look at your passport from your own hands. If you show you know the law, the policeman will know you know the rules, and will not make problems.

After a cop realizes he won't get much from you (money is what they want), he'll let you go and try to find someone else, who'll agree to help them towards their living.

Recently the rules have became stricter in Moscow (because of the terrorist attacks), but the checks are targeted more towards people from CIS and Caucasus (so, if you look like you might be from there, you will be stopped more often, unfortunately). Don't worry, it's just a check-up.

Stealing can get you from $600 fine up to two years in prison. So if you feel some kind of strange excitement about stealing, it's still not a good idea to try to steal something in shops or somewhere else, even if you think nobody's watching you.

Drug posession (including marijuana) All drugs are illegal in Russia, but still are widely in use. The law has changed in May 2004 and now if you carry maximum 2 grams of marijuana or 0.5 grams of hash and can prove it's for your personal use, nobody can fine you, but you may be put in as a patient in a drug clinic and also asked where you got it. If you carry less than 10 times this amount, the maximum fine is $35 US (in addition to various unpleasanties). Same for growing up to 20 plants of marijuana.

If you carry more than that, you will most surely get into prison for at least 2 years up to 7 years. Having read about all these rules, keep in mind that not all policemen in Moscow may yet know about these new regulation (#115), so it's better to avoid troubles, if you can.

The laws on drugs are strict, and it's better not to take chances and surely you're not allowed to bring them over the border. This also concerns strong medicines and you should seek advice from the Russian customs before bringing them in.