Don’t: Give Yellow Flowers
Whether you’re bringing them as a gift to the couple hosting you for dinner, or giving them to a lovely lady before a date, everyone all over the world appreciates receiving a beautiful bouquet of flowers. But in Russia, you have to be careful about what flowers you give to people. Make sure that you never give yellow flowers – they symbolize loss and are often used at funerals. Additionally, always give an uneven number of flowers in the bouquet.
Do: Give Up Your Seat On Public Transport
In Russian culture, there are very clear hierarchal standards for who gets respect and preferential treatment in society. The elderly are supposed to be helped whenever they need it, and part of that means standing up on the public bus or metro if an older person needs to sit. It’s considered extremely poor form to sit while a senior citizen stands, especially if you’re a man (though young women give up their seats as well).
Don’t: Keep Empty Bottles On The Table
This is another Russian tradition whose origin we’re not exactly sure of. The important thing is that, according to Russian superstition, keeping empty bottles on the table is a harbinger of bad luck. Some people say empty bottles bring evil spirits and tragedy. So once you’ve finished off that bottle of wine or vodka with your friends, be sure to put it on the floor. Then you can move on to opening up a new one.
Don’t: Leave Your ID At Home
In the USA, if you’re taking a stroll around the neighborhood or walking the dog, it’s easy to leave your wallet and ID at home. In Russia, as a foreign tourist, you’re required to keep your identification and permission to be in the country, AKA your passport with your visa in it, on you at all times. It’s not uncommon for the police to randomly do identification checks of pedestrians, so it’s important to be prepared.
Do: Expect To Spend
Despite all the stereotypes about Russia being a poor country, it’s not the third world where you can get a meal for just a dollar. Moscow is actually one of the most expensive cities in the world – a night in a 3-star hotel will run you at least $100 a night, and dinner at a mid-tier restaurant will probably be in the $50 range per person. And don’t even get us started on the nightclubs! Have your cash ready.
Do: Dress Up
Russia is one of the most fashionable countries on the planet. You may think of it as the land of gopniks in Adidas tracksuits and old women in babushkas, but nothing could be further from the truth. In Russia, people do judge a book by its cover, and showing up looking sloppy will reflect poorly on you. Being sharply dressed is standard in Russia, and people will treat you better if you dress like you respect yourself.
Do: Take Your Shoes Off
It’s standard procedure in Russia to take off your shoes when entering a home, and hosts even keep house slippers available for their guests. Many people in Russia rely on public transportation in their day to day lives, and crowded buses and metro trains aren’t usually the most hygienic of places. The streets are full of snow, dirt, and sludge, so it’s best to leave such things outside the front door instead of dragging them into the house.
Don’t: Shake Hands In A Doorway
Every culture has its own superstitions – things that are believed to be bad luck, without a clear explanation as to why. The important thing is that these beliefs go back generations (and centuries) so while you’re traveling, it’s important to respect the local culture. In Russia, it’s considered bad luck, as well as bad manners, to shake hands in a doorway. Why? We’re not exactly sure, but all you need to know is that before shaking hands, cross the threshold.
Do: Wear Black
Nightclubs in Russia, especially in the big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, rival anything else you’d find in the international nightlife scene. This means that formal dress is important to gain entry. Unlike in the USA, where you can show up in a white T-shirt and shorts and be admitted to a club, in Russia, the dress code for men is slacks and a button-down shirt tucked into the pants. All black is highly recommended.
Don’t: Sit On The Ground
Russians don’t sit on the ground ever. If they’re picnicking, you can be sure that they’re sitting safely on a blanket. Why? In Russian culture, sitting on the ground is taboo as the ground is considered to be filthy. It’s also widely believed that sitting on the ground can cause reproductive organs to “freeze,” which would create issues with fertility later on in life. Even if plopping down on the grass isn’t a big deal to you, respect the local culture.
Do: Greet Others Formally
At its core, Russian society is much more old-fashioned and formal than American culture, or even the cultures throughout the majority of Europe. What this means is that when greeting people, whether they’re old friends or new acquaintances, you should take care to greet everyone formally. This means shaking hands and, for two women, exchanging air kisses. Also important to note is that a man never shakes a woman’s hand unless she offers her hand first.
Don’t: Put Money In Your Back Pocket
When in Russia, do not put your money in your back pocket! Why? It’s risky for several reasons. You’re a target for pickpocketing and other clever criminals looking for an opportunity, It’s also considered to be bad luck and an omen that you will soon lose your money. Although we’re including this as a travel tip for Russia, we believe that no matter where you live in the world, it’s best to keep your valuables in your front pockets.
Don’t: Put Your Elbows On The Table
Russia is definitely old school, and having proper table manners is an important part of Russian culture. While the USA is known for being casual – we invented fast food and “fast casual” restaurants – dining out in Russia is much more formal and serious. You should at least have a vague idea of what fork to use, but the most important thing is your body language. Sit up properly, and never, ever put your elbows on the table!
Do: Tip The Waiter
Tipping etiquette has got to be one of the most awkward parts about traveling. In some European countries, if you leave a tip, you’ll get a serious case of the stink eye from the waitstaff. In the United States, if you pay your bill without giving a tip, you can expect your waiter to be super offended. In Russia, tipping is standard for waitstaff in restaurants. However, the tip is only about 10%, less than the 18% we do in America.
Don’t: Give A Baby Shower Gift
In American culture, before a baby is born, we have a party for the expectant mother where we shower her with gifts she can use once her infant is born. However, in Russia, the concept of the “evil eye” is still strong, and celebrating the birth of a baby before it actually happens is considered to be extremely bad luck. Therefore, one should never give baby gifts to an expectant mother. Wait until after the delivery happens.
Do: Be Careful Where You Change Money
Russia is a place where you should exercise caution. Like in almost all tourist destinations in the world, you’re probably going to get ripped off when exchanging money. Unfortunately, clever counterfeiters are also eager to take advantage of tourists, and the rates at legitimate exchange places are usually out of this world. You should stick to exchanging money only at the bank – or even better, do the exchange at your local bank and bring the rubles with you.
Don’t: Mix Your Vodka
All around the world, people are used to mixing their vodka. Whether it’s a screwdriver (orange juice and vodka) or the classic club drink Vodka Redbull, you probably don’t drink your vodka straight. Well, in Russia, mixing your vodka with another drink is considered taboo. In Russia, you best drink your vodka straight up and appreciate its flavor, lest you become the laughing stock of the whole group. Hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans do!
Do: Be Respectful In Churches
Despite the fact that as part of the USSR Russia was officially an “atheist” country, Eastern Orthodox Christianity plays a major role in the lives of millions of Russian citizens today. Churches are sacred spaces and tourists should be as respectful as possible when visiting them. That means that women shouldn’t enter the churches with their shoulders, knees, or midriffs exposed, and men should avoid wearing shorts or tank tops. Be sure to put your cell phone on silent.
Don’t: Photograph Government Buildings
Russia is a country with serious security concerns, and taking photos of government buildings (police stations, military installations, and even bureaucratic buildings like the tax authority) can lead to grave issues with the police. Even tourists meaning no harm have been questioned for hours after photographing things that the Russian government considers to be “sensitive.” Respect the local laws, and when in doubt, it’s best not to snap a pic. You can take a mental photograph instead.
Do: Be Cautious On The Street
While you may be distracted by the amazing fashion of the local women walking in the streets, it’s important while visiting Russia to stay alert while in public. This means not wandering down any back alleys late at night, and definitely not falling for any street hustlers’ scams. The guy offering to sell you a brand new iPhone outside the Metro station? Best to ignore him. If it’s too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
Don’t: Take Everything At Face Value
Every culture has its own social norms. Think of the way that Americans often say “See you later!” to end a conversation with casual acquaintances, even though they don’t really have the intention of seeing that person again. The same goes for Russia. If you compliment something belonging to a Russian (their necktie, their bracelet, even home decor!) the polite thing is to offer to give it to you. Remember it’s not a sincere offer, and you shouldn’t accept it!
Do: Toast At Every Opportunity
Despite appearing to be serious on the outside, Russians are incredibly light-hearted, and celebrating life is a major part of Russian culture. A big part of having fun in Russia involves social drinking, and toasts are an important part of that. Toasts are given before every new round of drinks, and one should take the time to listen to them, laugh (they’re often funny!) and definitely not steal a sip until everyone’s glasses have been clinked!
Don’t: Talk Politics
While asking who you voted for in the last election and what your political affiliation is may be a standard discussion in some countries, such conversation is absolutely off limits in Russia. You especially should avoid talking about the country’s current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his government’s policies – most Russians are very patriotic and will take criticism about the nation’s administration as personally offensive. And if you absolutely must talk politics, make sure to do it behind closed doors.
Don’t: Smile At Strangers
While in the USA, we tend to smile at anyone we lock eyes with, in Russia this behavior is considered odd.
Do: Bring Gifts
If you’re invited to a Russian’s house for dinner, make sure that you don’t show up empty handed – being a guest without bringing something along with you is a major faux pas in Slavic culture! Make sure to show up with a bottle of wine or vodka, or even something as simple as flowers (but not yellow flowers – more on that later). Gifts are a universal gesture of appreciation all over the world, and Russia is no exception.
Don’t: Ask Personal Questions
In many cultures, asking personal questions is normal. In the Middle East, asking if a woman is married within the first minute of talking to her is pretty much par for the course. In America, we may chat and make friendly conversation with strangers while in line at the grocery store. This is not the norm at all in Russia and will be taken as strange. Definitely don’t ask a woman’s age and don’t ask people about their salaries.
Do: Leave Food On Your Plate
Russians absolutely love hosting guests for dinner, and if you’re invited to a Russian home for an evening meal, be sure not to eat beforehand! Russians will break out the big guns and set the table with everything you could ever imagine – abundance is key. In some countries, it’s customary to clear your plate. But in Russia, you should always leave a little bit of food leftover on your plate to show your hosts that you’re satisfied.
Don’t: Try To Compete In Drinking
Sometimes stereotypes are based on truth, and we have to admit that yes, Russians do love to drink. Toasts and rounds of drinks and endless shots are par for the course when friends go out for dinner or host at their homes, and you should indulge – but know your limits. Despite how much you think you can drink, there’s a 100% chance that your Russian friends can out drink you. Don’t try to keep up with them.
Do: Help Out
While in the United States we would probably try to avoid bothering a complete stranger carrying a heavy load, in Russia, it’s considered extremely poor form for a man to let a woman carry big items. So, even if she doesn’t know you from Adam, it’s perfectly acceptable to approach a woman that you don’t know and take the load off her hands – without even necessarily exchanging more than a few words! Who says chivalry is dead?