Tips for Surviving Russia

If you're reading this, then there's a pretty good chance that you are interested in coming to Russia.  Good for you.  This place takes a special type to enjoy it, and an even more special type to thrive in it.  I will attempt to expound the bits of wisdom I have gained from my time in Russia.  This list is by no means comprehensive, but should serve as a good primer on Russian life. 

1. Patience, patience, patience...

If you come here expecting to find Communist ideology and bread lines, you will be sorely mistaken.  Russians now have not only decent salaries, but also wide selections of consumer goods.   But just like in the old days of the USSR, some things have not changed a bit.  You will have to wait in a line to purchase said consumer goods, and they will be long.  Furthermore, while dealing with any type of service, be it in a restaurant, store, train station, or what-have-you, be prepared to wait.  Customer service doesn't really exist, and you will often be treated as if you are there to entertain them...that is if they allow you to distract them from whatever it is they find more important than their jobs.   

Interestingly enough, from the ashes of the extinct socialist breadline has arisen the spectre of the traffic jam.  Droves of Russians, flush with money from the aforementioned improved salaries, as well as the recent phenomenon of credit, have found the automobile highly desirable.  Sadly, the ever beloved Russian roads were not built for such an influx of vehicles, and are now routinely choked with traffic.  The jury is still out on whether or not suffocating in traffic is worse than being packed into overcrowed buses, as was the case ten years ago.   

Oh, and did I forget to mention that they love paperwork?  They even have a holiday for book keepers!  As you can probably tell from getting your visa, doing anything here requires documents, documents, and more documents.  This is a holdover from the Soviet days, which were in turn a holdover from the Tsarist days...well, you get the picture.  Beaurocracy is everywhere, but luckily Russians dislike it as much as you will.   

Your main proof of identification is your passport.   You should always carry a copy of it, as well as a copy of your visa, a translated and notarized copy of your passport, and your registration with you (don't take the actual documents, in case you lose them), as the police will demand it if they choose to stop you for something.  By the way, the police will usually be quite polite to you, so behave!   

The first rule to surviving Russia is patience, careful planning, and a flexible schedule.  If you can properly deal with all of this, you might possibly become a true Zen Master.  

2. Keep your foreign-ness on the DL

There are occasions when being a foreigner is really helpful.  Being invited to dine with relative strangers.  Catching the eye of a member of the opposite sex.  Getting a job teaching a foreign language.  Being offered free shaurma from an Azeri street vendor because he loves Canada.  Or even being allowed into a club based on the fact that you are not from here.  But there are some good reasons to keep a low profile.   

While it's practically unheard of that anyone will target someone simply for being from the West, blending in with the crowd has its advantages.  The most benign side effect of being a foreigner is that people will stare at you.  Some will stop you on the street, at the cafe, or wherever, and try to have a random conversation with you.  As a person who values privacy, I find this extremely irritating.  More extroverted people may not.   

On the unsavoury end of the spectrum, criminals may assume that because are a foreigner,  you absolutely must have a lot of money with which you would like to part.  Drunks in discotheques may want to fight you, for no other reason than they find you interesting and irresistible.   

If you are trying to learn Russian, or improve your Russian skills, the eagerness of Russians to practice their English will only be amusing the first 500 times it happens.  After that, generous offers to help you read menus and navigate public transportation will become a little irritating.  

3. Party Etiquette

Russian hospitality should be the most obvious characteristic of Russia.  If you've never experienced it, be prepared for unparralelled generosity.  Russians will really roll out the red carpet for a guest, especially for a foreigner.  Even if you are just being invited to someone's house, dress up a bit.  I don't mean suit and tie, but a nice shirt and trousers will show your hosts that this is a special occassion for you as well.  Russians generally dress up more than Westerners, so when an special occasion arises, don't hesitate to do the same too.   

Upon arrival at your host's apartment, shake hands only after you have crossed the threshold.  Then take off your shoes.  I repeat: take off your shoes!!!  In the West, there is a stereotype of Russia being a drab, dirty place.  Whoever thought up that stereotype has never been inside a Russian family's flat, which is usually kept squeaky clean and comfortable.  Certainly, Russian roads are rife with dust, mud, and slush, so to keep any given apartment livable requires the removal of footware.  Usually, your host will offer you slippers, sometimes his/her own!   

Inside, expect to find tables groaning under the strain of numerous mayonnaise rich salads, bottles of vodka, and lavish desserts.  For such an event, one must exercise strong will power, so as not to stuff oneself on the first course.  The pacing of an Olympic athelete is also paramount to successfully surviving a Russian dinner party.  On many an occasion, I have dined myself silly on an exquisitly garlicky calimari salad, or barbecued chicken wings, before realizing that I had yet to dive into the main course...and inexorably, the dessert as well.   

As a guest, you have a resposibility to your hosts.  Thanking them is certainly mandatory, but you should always bring gift of some sort as well.  You don't have to wrack your brains over it; a nice bottle of wine, some flowers, or chocolates will do nicely.   

Not everyone in Russia is a drunk, and not everyone likes vodka, but nearly everyone drinks to some extent.  Fratboy chug-a-lugging and getting blotto drunk is not acceptable here, although a dinner without alcohol is unheard of.  While keeping yourself sober enough to remain respectable is simple enough, you must be on constant guard against your host, who will inevitably try to impress you with his/her/their hospitality by wining and dining you until you burst. 

If, on the other hand, you do not drink alcohol whatsoever, be prepared to hone your skills in diplomacy.  Refusing alcohol may offend your host, and saying simply "I don't drink" is usually interpreted as "I don't drink hard alcohol," or "I will only drink a few shots of vodka."  You'll have to come up with better excuses, intricate reasons, and apologies for not drinking.  Most Russians do not even consider beer to be alcohol, by the way.   

Another aspect of Russian hospitality that is somewhat baffling to Westerners, is that they will sometimes insist on giving you quite valuable possessions.  This is a gesture to demonstrate their hospitality.  Think of that if your hosts offer you an original Shishkin painting or a Faberge egg.  You don't have to take it.  In fact, refusing it will be polite, even if you have to do it several times.  After all, imagine the nightmare of trying to smuggle that thing through customs when you go home! 

4. Learn Russian

Foreigners are unnaturally intimidated by the Russian alphabet, which consists of 33 letters.   A good third of it is composed of Roman letters, another third from Greek, and the other third which are purely Russian.  And the good thing is that, unlike English, the alphabet is entirely phonetic.   

Compare this to Chinese characters, which number in the thousands.  Or the Hebrew and Arabic scripts, which leave out short vowels, and are written right to left.  Yes, you really can learn the Cyrillic alphabet in minutes!  So do yourself a favour, right now, and learn the Cyrillic alphabet.  Being able to read signs and tell where your bus is going will be immensely helpful.   

Russian grammar, on the other hand is daunting.  Most Russians will even admit to having had difficulty in Russian class as school children.  So, if you really have no aptitude for languages, just learn a few key phrases.  That way, if you are lost or in an extraordinary situation, you will be able to reach some sort of resolution, even if you can't make heads or tails of what is going on.  As I've said before, some people speak English, but you might not be able to find them when you really need them.   

Learning a new language is an incredible endeavour, but a very rewarding one.  Not only will you be much more independent with Russian skills, you will make interesting friends, and get a much richer experience than you would without speaking Russian. 

Oh, and by the way, no one calls each other "comrade" here.  And they don't toast with "na zdrovie."   

5. Sex and Age

Of all Russian stereotypes, the grandmothers are probably the most ubiquitous.  And they elderly occupy a revered place in Russian society.  After all, many of them survived the horrors of World War II.   

Russians take care of their elderly.  When parents get old, they usually go to live with their children, not to a nursing home.  While you will not be asked to tend to the eldery, you should remember to extend coutresy to them.  Open doors.  Help the little old ladies cross the street (they might even ask you to do this!). Offer to carry heavy things for them. And always give up your seat on public transport if you see an old person standing.  To not do so is extremely rude. 

Old fashioned rules of etiquette apply to women as well.  If you're a dude and you want to take a Russian lady out, you had better be ready to foot the bill.  Some "forward thinking" women may offer to go Dutch, but asking your date to pay will keep you a single man.  Be as chivalrious as possible: open doors, pull out her chair, take off her coat for her, and furnish her with flowers and chocolates.  Also make sure to make the first move.  Otherwise you most likely won't go on any dates.  

And don't think that these rules of courtesy apply only to just the women you want to date: pregnant women, middle aged women, business women, little women, and every woman in between should have doors opened for her and seats on public transport given to her.   

6. Crime and Punishment

Despite its image in the West, Russia really isn't as dangerous as it looks in the media.  And even better, the Russian Mafia is no threat to the average foreigner.   

What you do have to watch out for is petty street crime.  Pickpockets, theives, and muggers are the most common problems, but avoiding them just requires a bit of common sense.  Don't talk to strangers.  Find out what areas of town are dangerous, and don't go there.  Don't walk alone in dark places at night, especially parks.  Don't trust people you don't know extremely well.  Avoid drunk people.  You get the picture.   

There do exist some scams and schemes, but these can be avoided if you simply don't talk to suspicious people.  

7. Be Objective!

Russia straddles the line between Europe and Asia, and since it doesn't exactly fit with either, it's taken on a life of its own.  You will see and experience things that you will not understand.  You will hear points of view that are very different from your own.  This does not mean that Russians are backwards, evil people, it's just that their history is radically different from your own, and has thusly molded their world view.  

Remember that you are a guest in this country.  The visa in your passport should remind you of that.  Instead of defending your own opinion with a knee jerk reaction, ask them why they think a certain way.  Usually they'll be eager to tell you, and you can learn something in the process.  Luckily, if you're talking about bureaocracy, Russian roads, or traffic jams, those subjects are fair game.  Fire away.  No one likes those things anyway.   

You don't have to like or understand everything here.  But you do have to accept it.