Before an international trip or vacation, it’s a good idea to look into the culture of your destination. How do people generally act? What are their norms of behavior? Do they have any special greetings or sayings?
This can help you avoid some potential misunderstandings, but more importantly, it can help you avoid looking like a fool in front of the locals.
If you’re traveling to Russia, it’s even more important to do your research given that Russian culture is so different from U.S. culture. And of course, you can’t overlook the fraught history the two countries share, which might put you under extra scrutiny as a tourist.
So make sure you follow this list of Russia travel tips, and hopefully, you’ll make it through your trip unscathed!
Stop being so friendly
Russians aren’t as inclined to be nice to strangers are we are here in the United States. Smiling at people walking by? Never. Making too much small talk with the cashier? Kind of weird. You must certainly avoid smiling at places of worship or monuments as it can be seen as a lack of respect, on top of being stupid.
That’s not to say Russians aren’t nice – once you’re a part of their ring of friends you’ll likely be welcomed like family – but keep those lips sealed when out running errands or exploring the city. Otherwise, a smile can be a dead giveaway of your foreigner status, and will probably turn people off.
This also applies to cracking jokes. The Russian sense of humor is not quite as, shall we say, forthright as the American one tends to be, and things can quickly go south thanks to misinterpreted sarcasm or teasing. It’s wiser to wait until you get to know a Russian person, or at least until they make some jokes first, so you can get a feel for what they find funny and what they don’t.
Chivalry is most certainly not dead
On the other side of things, Russians expect a certain level of politeness from good, respectable people. Simply because they don’t smile at strangers doesn’t mean they don’t value manners – they just have different ones.
For example, men are still very much expected to do things like: open a lady’s car door, help her down steps, lend her a jacket when it’s cold and pay for her dinner when going out. Sure, to those of us who grew up in the U.S., splitting the bill might seem like a progressive and practical way of doing things. But try to split the bill in Russia? You’ll likely get dumped.
There are also cultural norms when it comes to visiting another person’s home. First, you must never come empty-handed. A small gift appropriate to the occasion should be brought inside with you, like a bottle of alcohol or a bouquet of flowers for the lady of the house.
When you visit, you must also remember to remove your shoes at the entrance. And when they offer you alcohol, never refuse, as it can be seen as a sign of rejection to the one offering.
Don’t ignore their superstitions
According to the Moscow Times, 52% of Russians believe in omens, astrology, and prophetic dreams. As a result, they have certain behaviors that have emerged from superstition, and that you as a tourist would do well to get to know.
For example, you should never whistle indoors since it’s considered bad luck and a bringer of financial misfortune. Similarly, leaving an emptied bottle of alcohol on the table could also lead to financial ruin, and custom says they should be placed on the floor. Be careful where you sit, too! Never take a seat on cold ground (or the ground in general) as it is believed to cause infertility in young women especially.
While perhaps not every Russian believes in such superstitions, it’s better to air on the side of caution. At the very least, you will impress them with your knowledge of Russian culture.
Be culturally aware
This one is applicable to any place you’re visiting, and should really go without saying.
Firstly, don’t assume that everyone speaks English. Russia Beyond reported in 2015 that only 30% of Russians speak English, with a tiny 3% of them actually being fluent. This means you should pick up a phrasebook and be prepared with simple sentences for maneuvering transportation or ordering food in a restaurant.
If something’s really not coming across, then you can shift to speaking English, but showing the effort to speak their language first goes a long way in gaining (and showing) respect.
Also, don’t talk down about Russia, whether it be in reference to government, education, agriculture, or anything else. Even though locals might spend all afternoon complaining about their country, no one ever wants to hear it from a foreigner. Be conscientious, and keep your opinions to yourself.
As you can see, visiting Russia presents many difficulties in terms of breaching that cultural divide. It can be hard to get past the tourist – local dynamic to start to really get to know people, but if you educate yourself and follow these Russia travel tips, it will be that much easier.
Most of all, understand that despite your best intentions and hours of research, you might still offend someone unintentionally. Should this happen, be quick to apologize and simply don’t do it again. Because in the end, everyone is capable of forgiveness, even Russians.