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Russia: Language, Customs, Safety

Living in Russia as an expat will surely be a unique experience for you. Western influences and traditional Russian values form a distinctive atmosphere. We tell you all the important facts for your expat adventure in Russia, from healthcare and education to culture, language, and safety.
Get a glimpse of Russian culture that goes beyond matryoshkas.

The Russian Language: Learn the Basics

We have outlined the excellent quality of the Russian school system and the high level of education in part one of this article. While the 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 large parts of the business world. In the giant expat hubs Moscow and Saint Petersburg, it might be possible (albeit hard) to get by without speaking any Russian at all; however, there are a few large “buts”.

First off, you will obviously face quite a few challenges in everyday life if you cannot read the Cyrillic script. You will probably not come across too many signs or labels using the Latin alphabet. Furthermore, completely lacking any kind of understanding of the local language will not make you a popular person anywhere in the world.

In order to make the most of your time as an expat in Russia, both on a social and intercultural level and also in everyday life, you need to know at least very 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, your busy schedule permitting, look for a reputable language school in your new home city. Ask your employer for contact details!

Everyday Etiquette: Straightforward and Less Restrained

In a professional setting, you can expect most of your coworkers to have a good idea of Western culture. Many smaller faux-pas will be met with understanding 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 about the basics.

Do not feel intimidated of offended if your Russian counterpart is 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. You will be able to confirm this fact yourself when using public transportation. 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 uses of smiling, or rather, 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 acceptable etiquette in the Russian workplace, please see our article on working in Moscow.

Most Important: Feeling Safe

Generally, Russia is a safe country for expats. However, there are ongoing states of unrest in the northern Caucasus region, which could be a cause for concern to you. If you absolutely must travel to or work in those regions, please consult your employer about safety precautions.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for so-called “visible minorities” to become victims of unprovoked 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.


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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