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Russia: Language, Customs, Safety

Living in Russia as an expat will surely be a unique experience. Western influences and traditional Russian values combine to create a distinctive atmosphere. Check out this InterNations guide for all the important facts for your expat adventure in Russia, from healthcare and education to culture, language, and safety.

The Russian Language: Learn the Basics

We have outlined the Russian school system and the high level of education in part one of this article. While the educational focus tends to be more on scientific and technological fields, you are likely to meet people with a good grasp of the English language in most parts of the business world. In daily life, however, it will be very difficult to get by without speaking any Russian at all, even in the expat hotspots of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

First off, you will obviously face challenges in everyday life if you cannot read the Cyrillic script, as there are not many signs or labels using the Latin alphabet. Furthermore, completely lacking any understanding of the local language will not endear you to local residents anywhere in the world.

In order to make the most of your time as an expat in Russia, not only on a social and intercultural level, but alsoin everyday life, you need to know at least basic “survival” Russian. We strongly advise you to pick up at least a few basic words and phrases prior to your relocation to Russia, and, if your busy schedule permits, look for a reputable language school in your new home city. Check out the popular chains Liden & Denz or Language Link, or ask your employer for contact details!

Everyday Etiquette: Straightforward and Less Restrained

In a professional setting, it is likely that  most of your co-workers will already have a good understanding of Western culture. Many smaller faux-pas will be met with sympathy or forgiveness, and there is usually little need to be concerned about seriously offending someone if your misbehavior is not too glaring. Even if you experience a somewhat rocky start in your first few days or weeks, stay motivated to interact with and learn from your new coworkers and neighbors, who will be happy to teach you the basic etiquette.

Do not feel intimidated of offended if your Russian acquaintances are very straightforward in conversation. They are not rude or trying to offend. It is simply the norm to bluntly ask about somewhat personal things, such as finances or political viewpoints. Also, behavior in public tends to be more aggressive and less restrained than you might be used to. This will become apparent when you use public transportation, where being pushed by strangers is part of the daily grind.

Do not feel alienated if you are not greeted with smiles everywhere you go. The situations in which smiling is acceptable are a lot less numerous in Russia. Smiling at every greeting might come across as a sign of insincerity, and usually, people only smile as a sign of friendship or if something amusing happens.

For a brief overview of business etiquette in the Russian workplace, please see our article on working in Moscow.

Most Importantly: Feeling Safe

Generally, Russia is a safe country for expats. However, both the US Department of State and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against travel to the North Caucasus region or to the Crimea, due to ongoing political unrest in these areas. If you absolutely must travel to or work in those regions, please consult your employer on safety precautions. Check the websites of both governments regularly for security updates.

Furthermore, it is important to be careful when out and about, as tourists and expats are often targeted by criminals and pickpocketed or worse. Never take an unmarked and unregulated taxi off the street, as passengers can often become victims of mugging. Be careful when around large crowds and demonstrations or when out at night, especially if you are consuming alcohol. Corruption is widespread throughout society, and it is not uncommon for law enforcement to exhort money from tourists for little or no reason. If this occurs, note down the officer’s name, badge number and patrol car number, so that it can be reported later on. The national emergency number is 112, and it is also worth noting down the contact details of your national embassy.

In 2013, an “anti-gay propaganda law” was introduced in Russia, making public expressions of homosexuality illegal. Although same-sex relationships are still legal, this law has led to an increase in homophobic attacks, and if you identify as part of the LGBT community, it is advisable to refrain from showing affection in public or displaying any pride flags or symbols. Attitudes towards same-sex relationships are still hostile in Russia’s conservative society.

On a similar note, it is unfortunately not uncommon for so-called “visible minorities” to become victims of unprovoked xenophobic violence by right-wing extremists. This is a known problem throughout the Russian Federation. If you are a member of a visible minority, please be alert and aware of your surroundings and take any necessary precautions.

 

We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

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