Steamy banyas, rainbow onion domes, vast frozen landscapes, quaint gingerbread cottages, epic cross-continental train journeys, prodigious artistic riches, and vodka-fuelled exploits – Russia is a place of ample old-world charms for curious travellers to uncover.
But with those old-world charms comes an array of old-world customs, waiting to trip up a less-than-savvy tourist. Russian culture boasts a unique collection of traditions, superstitions, and social taboos that can be confusing for visitors to navigate.
Those willing to solve Russia’s riddles will discover a multi-faceted country and opportunities for adventure so endless they’ll make your head spin. Here’s the Russia etiquette you should know before you go.
Don’t Smile At Strangers
You think it’s friendly, they think it’s freaky. Russians are notoriously stoic people, and that stoicism extends to strangers on the streets. Passersby do not smile at each other or make small-talk without good reason. Doing so might make you seem foolish, drunk, suspicious, or flirty – at the very least, it will stamp “TOURIST” across your dumb grinning face in invisible ink. If you do flash your pearlies, don’t be offended if it isn’t returned. It’s not rudeness, it’s just the Russian way.
Bring Gifts For Hosts
Manners matter. It’s a sign of good taste and breeding to bring a gift for the host if you’re invited to someone’s home, though it doesn’t have to be extravagant for the gesture to count. The standard options – chocolate, wine, vodka, flowers, a small souvenir from your country – will suffice. Overachievers can also bring a treat for the host’s children if they want to go the extra mile. The more valuable the connection, the higher the value of the gift should be.
Dress To Impress
You need only spend a single day in Russia to notice that the natives like to dress up. Russian women don’t think twice about tip-toeing around the supermarket in stilettos, and Russian men happily sport casual business attire even when out of the office. You’ll notice looks of disapproval if you’re not suitably clothed, and many restaurants and nightclubs practice “face control” – which means they won’t let you in if they don’t like your look. Don’t venture out in sweatpants unless you’re headed for the gym.
Remove Your Shoes
Get to know and love the tapochki. Tapochki are Russian house slippers that should be worn whenever inside someone’s home. Outdoor shoes, bare feet, and sometimes socks are considered uncouth. You may bring your own tapochki if you wish. Otherwise, you will likely be presented with a pair by your host at the door.
Be A Conscientious Tourist
No one wants to be that tourist. The touristy tourist. The one wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a camera around his neck, consulting a map and talking too loudly. In Russian, being a bad tourist means something a little different. Think twice before photographing official-looking buildings and military structures. Travellers have been arrested for such seemingly-innocent behaviour. Carry photocopies of your official travel documents and present them whenever asked to by authorities.
Don’t Trash Talk The Country
Russia takes itself seriously. Some would say too seriously. That hilarious cartoon you saw mocking Putin? This is not the time to mention it. Do not criticise or make fun of Russia while visiting. You risk causing deep offense (and earning a punch in the face, as a Polish journalist learned the hard way). Stick to positive subjects even if you’re with Russians who are complaining. They live there and they’ve earned the right to whine. You do not and have not.
Learn How To Shake Hands
Russians observe a few points of hand shaking etiquette. First, when visiting someone’s home, wait until you’re inside the door to greet them. Russians believe that shaking hands or communicating across the threshold is bad luck. It’s also considered rude to shake hands while wearing gloves, so remove them before extending your hand.
It’s customary for Russian men to greet by shaking hands. The rules get more complex when it comes to shaking hands across genders. A man generally won’t shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. Shake hands both upon arrival and when departing.
Don’t Whistle While Indoors
Your whistled rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” might kill during your morning showers at home, but a Russian audience won’t be so thrilled. An old Russian superstition holds that whistling indoors results in bad luck and financial ruin. Save your warbling for another time lest you want everyone in the vicinity shooting you dirty looks.
Consult The Chivalry Playbook
Old notions of chivalry may be dead back home, but they’re alive and well in Russia. Gender relations take a decidedly vintage approach. As a man, you will be expected to surrender your seat on public transportation to women, elderly people, and parents with children. Do not allow women to carry heavy items without offering to help. Hold the door. Offer your coat. Always pick up the tab. Don’t go on a date without bringing flowers (odd numbers only – even numbers are reserved for funerals). Whip out every white knight trick in your arsenal and maybe, just maybe, you’ll make it to a second date.