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Living in Russia

9 Things to Learn After Moving to Russia

Russia is a proud country full of traditional values but also Western influences. Although Russia is rather popular among expats, settling down there can be quite challenging. Fortunately, we have some tips to keep in mind when moving to Russia.

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1. English is Not Widely Spoken

Just 5% of Russians speak English as a second language, which is comparatively low to Germany (70%) or Greece (51%). Learning just a few words of Russian will ease your life inRussia hugely, even if it’s just “Вы говорите по-английски?” (“Do you speak English?”) Similarly, socializing might be tricky at first because of this language gap, along with tackling the sprawling metro in Moscow or St Petersburg. Joining InterNations and attending the events with other expats will help you settle in much quicker. Get the advice of expats that have been there and avoid common pitfalls which newly-arrived expats often make.

2. Thou Shalt Not Mix

Picture this: you walk into your local bar on your first night in Moscow, and order a simple vodka and coke. The rest of the bar turns around (wild west style) and stares you down. You’re going to risk having your visa revoked if you ask for a vodka mixer at a bar — you might just get away with asking for a отвертка (screwdriver, or vodka and orange), though. Vodka is a national treasure and is drunk quickly and in small measures. Take advantage of the “vodka snacks” available at bars, otherwise you’ll be carried out long before your Russian friends.

3. Keep Those Gums Hidden

Smiling requires around 26 muscle contractions to smile. That’s a lot of effort in sub-zero temperatures. This might go some way to explaining why Russians just don’t do it very often. Maybe in western Europe you’d make way for an elderly woman and share an acknowledging smile with her — do that in St Petersburg and you’re going to be met with some seriously strange looks. This is not to say Russians are miserable, they are just much sincerer about their emotions. If they smile at you, then they really mean it.

4. I Can, but You Can’t

Russians can be very critical of their country — after all there is a lot to talk about in their recent history. However, you shouldn’t really join in or agree too much. It’s an etiquette minefield we know, but try to stay as neutral as you possibly can. There is a similar attitude to family here. You and your dad can moan about your sister, but god help anyone else who does. If you haven’t experienced a good few winters then I’m afraid you’re just not at liberty to criticize, not without risking being called an arrogant foreigner.

5. The Sins of the Father

Russian is quite a formal language, and Russians will not drop the formal terms of address until they know you quite well. One such term, which is unique to eastern Europe, is the use of a patronymic. Essentially, this is a middle name which always derives from your father’s name. For men, add -vich to the name and for women, add -na. For example, the great writer Alexander Pushkin is actually Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, or “son of Sergei”. It is a good idea to get to grips with these, as your Russian colleagues are likely to introduce themselves with their patronymic as well, and will perhaps expect you to address them with it.

6. Don’t Come Empty Handed

Inviting someone to your home is a very Russian thing to do, and is more likely than being asked out to dinner by that person. If you’re lucky enough to be invited by a friend or colleague, you’re in for a treat. Like most things in life, Russians take this kind of thing very seriously. Expect belly-busting meals and delicacies (which you should eat whether you like them or not). There is a very small price for this hospitality though, you really need to bring a gift. It’s not particularly important what it is — chocolates or flowers are fine. A failure to do so will not go down well at all and you are unlikely to be invited again.

7. Make an Effort

Russians are good dressers, and they like to show this off frequently. If you thought it was hard to go out in Berlin, then you clearly have never been to St Petersburg. Everyone dresses up for the evening and if you don’t do the same than you’re going to stick out. Pajama shopping is not an option in Moscow, and a t-shirt and jeans will certainly not suffice here. Pack those black turtlenecks as well as plenty of coats and dress hats.

8. Shouting “Girl” Is Fine

We’re of course not suggesting you walk around the streets of Kazan just screaming at anyone who’ll listen, but the Russian language has a curious form of address which is important to understand. Essentially, when trying to attract a female stranger’s attention (let’s say they dropped their hat), it’s normal to shout either девушка (girl) at a younger woman, or женщина (woman) at an older woman. This may sound impolite or even rude, but it really is part of everyday speech — you could even use it to attract the attention of a waitress. It also makes life easier in other ways: do you not know if you’re middle-aged yet or not? Easy, just see which word strangers shout at you when you drop your bag.

9. “How are You?” Is a Serious Question

In English, the greeting of “how are you?” is not to be answered with anything other than “fine thanks, and you?”. A genuine answer on your current mental state will be met with disgust and social isolation. Not in Russia! By asking this question you leave yourself open to a very long reply. You’ll hear all about Uncle Yuri and Auntie Sasha’s awful birthday present, and how little Sergei has been really annoying recently. After all, you asked! Again, this is almost a blessing in disguise — you know that a Russian is being sincere when he inquiries about your life, unlike in other cultures where it’s used more as a greeting.

Updated on: March 03, 2020
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