Russian customs and habits are sometimes very different in individual parts of the huge state. However, there are also uniform rules for the whole country with all its contrasts – the big, pompous palaces, the small poor huts, the steppes, beaches and mountains.
Russian customs: strict separation between public and private space
Russians often appear harsh, closed and cool to strangers. This mentality is explained by their strict separation between their public and private space. However, if you get to know them better, you will notice their warm and welcoming nature. In principle, they attach great importance to hospitality. Whoever is invited by them should never refuse. If a meal should then be arranged, this turns out very luxuriantly. Also the alcohol flows in the rules in streams.
The first rule that foreigners in Russia should know is how to address each other. Russian names consist of the three elements of first name, patronymic and last name. Usually a person is addressed by his or her first and patronymic. Thus, the politician Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is not called “Mr. Gorbachev” in Russia, but “Mikhail Sergeyevich”. A greeting takes place as in Central Europe by handshake, however only among the men. Women, on the other hand, merely greet with a smile when they meet an unfamiliar or less familiar person. Only in the close circle of family and friends it becomes then very cordial: Both men and women greet each other with cheek kisses and hugs. When invited into a Russian home, this greeting (of any kind) must never take place over the doorstep because, according to Russian belief, this would bring bad luck into the house.
Another superstition is that whistling is not allowed in apartments because it brings money problems into the house. Now let’s return to the difference between public and private space. This could hardly be greater, because in public Russians appear consistently aloof, while in private they are effusively cordial and emotional. Their physical distance from each other is smaller than ours, and people often touch each other during conversation.
Russian everyday gestures
As in any culture, there are small everyday gestures in Russia, the knowledge and observance of which undoubtedly promote friendship. They include these:
- Blowing one’s nose in public or even near other people is considered an absolute taboo. We don’t like this in Germany either, but in Russia it is a real no-go.
- Towards women, the greatest politeness is required. You hold the door open for them (as you do here) and take their coats, but that’s not all: gentlemen are also allowed to be very charming towards the ladies, but they should never cross the line into salaciousness.
- Same-sex couples should not come out in public. The Russians are more illiberal in this respect than the Catholic Church. Gay “propaganda” towards children and young people (in our sense, actually: sex education) is even punishable by law.
- In case of invitations to a house, the invited person should definitely bring a small gift. Here the gesture is sufficient. Among other things, sweets and flowers are very popular. The latter may be only in no case yellow roses, because these stand for infidelity. In addition, the number of flowers must necessarily be odd, because an even number is given away in Russia only in case of mourning.
- The own street shoes remain in front of the door when inviting to an apartment. The hosts then offer guest slippers.
- Everyone is free to help themselves to the set table. Too much restraint is interpreted as impoliteness. Even asking whether one may take something else is frowned upon.
- As mentioned before, alcohol (mostly vodka) is simply part of a Russian meal. If you really can’t or don’t want to drink, you have to refer to health problems, which are accepted.
The Russian Restaurant
Russian cuisine offers delicious and hearty dishes, which are also explained by the sometimes extreme climate of the country, which demands a lot of calories. These include borsch (a hearty stew, very spicy and with beet), pelmeni (something like Russian tortelloni or Maultaschen) and blini (small, either sweet or savory egg cakes).
Russian eggs are filled with a hearty marinade made from the yolk, and pirogi are dumplings with potatoes. Salat Olivier is a special Russian potato salad, and vatrushki are quark pockets. The seasoning is always strong and whets the appetite for more. Accompanied by alcohol, Russian food stimulates sociability, which is why in a Russian restaurant you are easily placed with other guests, which is rather unusual in our country. Immediately, stimulating conversations arise. However, their content should exclude politics. This has been the standard in Russia for over 100 years.
Even a foreigner who has nothing to fear from critical remarks would have to reckon with extreme alienation among the interlocutors and would thus inevitably destroy the mood. Foreigners should not be deceived by the fact that Russians, like everyone else in the world, rail against their government. However, they never rant about the really sensitive issues such as wars or political resistance, but at best about prices, the metro timetable or similar trivialities. At the end of a restaurant visit, there are often reciprocal invitations, which must be handled tactfully (optional acceptance of individual bill components). The usual tip for the staff is 10%.
Typical souvenirs from Russia
The two most famous souvenirs are the matryoshkas and the Fabergé eggs. The matryoshkas are small, very beautifully painted wooden dolls, which can be inserted into each other, which is a symbol of fertility for generations (in each doll there is the potential for more offspring). The Fabergé eggs are replicas of a famous series of 52 eggs created by the artist Peter Carl Fabergé between 1885 and 1917, commissioned by the Russian imperial family. In addition, there were four commissioned eggs and seven goblet eggs made by imitators. Today, the eggs are exhibited in museums all over the world. Their replicas are considered as typical souvenirs as the matryoshkas. Painted wooden vessels are also a popular souvenir from Russia. The most famous painting technique is chochloma with floral patterns painted exclusively in red or black on a golden background.
- January 1 to 5: New Year’s Festival
- January 7: Christmas
- March 8: Women’s Day
- May 9: Liberation Day (victory in World War II)
- June 12: Russia’s independence since 1990
- November 4: since 1612 (liberation of Poland-Lithuania) Unification Day
The dates for Christmas and New Year’s Day result from the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church still adheres to the older Julian calendar, at least for holidays.
Russian culture has produced some of the greatest achievements in world cultural history, if we think of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, the Bolshoi Theater and other protagonists. Many Russian performers (instrumentalists, singers, ballet dancers) were and are world stars.
Russian folk music seems melancholic because it uses many minor keys, but composers like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov were harmonic and melodic revolutionaries. Russians love and admire their artists very much, and for a foreigner any criticism of them is forbidden, and most of the time it is superfluous. It is also superfluous to mention that these cultural achievements cannot be damaged by any kind of dictatorship or aggression that has always emanated from Russian soil.
We Germans can sing a song about it: We have Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Wagner, but also Hitler. But artists cannot help dictators who come on the scene centuries later and may even misuse culture for their own purposes. A cultural task of the 21st century will be to emphasize this aspect and therefore currently (March 2022) not to ostracize Russian culture.
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