Russian usually shake hands when greeting one another. The famous bear hugs and kisses are usually reserved for good friends and family members after a long time without seeing one another. Russian men usually shake hands with a firm grip. When men and women shakes hands men adopt a gentle grip. During the winter, make sure to remove your gloves before shaking hands. [Source: The Traveler's Guide to European Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti.
Russians often greet and refer to one another using their first and middle names. Yeltsin was often called Boris Nikolayevich. Lenin was referred to as Vladimir Ilyich and Gorbachev is greeted as Mikhail Sergeyevich. Using the first and middle names is a sign of respect. You should avoid addressing a Russian person by their first name until you are on fairly friendly terms.
A gift of bread and salt, sometimes accompanied by a bear hug and a kiss, is the traditional Russian gesture of welcome. Russian farewells are often time-consuming. In addition to various kinds of goodbyes and pleasantries Russians make elaborate plans on when and where to meet next since Russians have Buddhist not liked using the phone.
Hugs and Kisses and Russian Leaders
It is a Slavic custom for a man greeting another man to grab him in a bear hug and kiss him three times on the cheek. Some Russian men even go as far as kissing each other on the lips. One American doctor who formed a close friendship with a Russian man and kissed on mouth as expression deep friendship told the Washington Post his Russian friend tasted like vodka and pickled tomatoes. The practice reportedly has origins in the Russian Orthodox custom of kissing icons and fellow church members.
Russia author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once called kissing "a habit of the Russian people when they become famous." Nikita Khrushchev is crediting with launching the custom among the Communist elite. This custom seemed especially visible in the Brezhnev era, when it was also picked up by Eastern European leaders, Third World Strongmen and Western Communist bosses such as France' George Marchias.
Brezhnev once jumped off the ground to kiss the taller American actor Burt Lancaster. He also kissed Khrushchev shortly after kicking him out of office; planted a light smooch on the cheek of U.S. President Jimmy Carter after signing the SALT I treaty; and kissed every member of the Politburo after commemorating the decision to send troops to Afghanistan and assassinate the Afghan president.
The custom kissing waned during the Gorbachev years but not before Gorbachev was caught on camera kissing East German leader Eric Honecker on the lips in a photograph that was printed in newspapers around the world. Yeltsin was photographed ice fishing, dancing and drinking, but rarely kissing.
Public and Social Customs in Russia
Russians often keep their coats and hats on in a theater even when the heat is turned on. Sometimes there is steamy wet-wool smell. To keep thing warm in the freezing weather they stuff the things in their pants.
Russians are used to jostling and pushing and shoving one another in crowded places. Women sometimes walk the streets holding hands. Whistling in public and displaying the sole's of one shoes are regarded as rude.
A thumb between the index finger and middle finger is an obscene gesture. Women spurn unwanted advances or express nervousness by narrowing their eyes. Hitchhiking in Russia is done with an outstretched hand facing the road. A flick to the throat signifies that someone is drunk.
Russians in social situations are generally warm, hospitable open, frank and opinionated. They are pretty much open to talking about anything: soccer, hockey, other sports, culture, literature, music, family, life stories, politics, food and drinking. Be prepared for some strong opinions about foreigners and members of certain ethnic groups. Even so, avoid saying anything that Russians might regard as insulting.
Russians tend to fairly punctual and sometimes ask a lot of personal questions when meeting someone for the first time. Russians stand or sit very close together when they converse or socialize. Women friends often sit side by side and touch each other a lot while talking.
Russian Home Customs
Russians often visit one another by showing unexpectedly at a friend’s house rather than calling ahead. This is done because many Russians traditionally have not had phones and those that did often had trouble getting a call through.
Russians generally remove their shoes before entering a home and slip into slippers once inside. Some guests bring their own slippers. Make sure to take off your coat. In Russia it is considered rude to wear a coat inside. It implies the house isn't warm enough.
Homes are often cramped and there is little privacy. The sofa often doubles as someone's bed. It is customary for hosts to meet their guests at the elevator or even the entrance to their apartment building. This is partly because halls are so poorly lit. Appreciated gifts from guests include cigarettes, foreign alcohol, designer clothes, foreign cosmetics, toys for the children and CDs or cassettes by popular Western pop stars.
Hanging Around the Kitchen
Meals in Russia are typically eaten in the kitchen. During the Soviet era people did not go out to restaurants much. It was customary to visit people at their homes and eat and drink there. Since space was at a premiums people often sat packed close together around the kitchen or dinning room table.
Many people have said that Russians are happiest when they are sitting around their kitchen table gulping down vodka, eating dark Russian bread and drinking tea. During the Communist era it was the only place they could be free and speak their minds without having to worry about up ending up in Siberia for insulting a communist official.♦
"In Soviet times," Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times, "the real living room was in the kitchen, a cramped, dingy space where friends laughed, drank, smoked, sang, quarreled and talked intensely into the night...Back in the days, when nothing was permitted, only relationships could really flourish. Russians cultivated those friendships with fierce attention, focusing their ample free time and creative energy on the never-ending conservation in the kitchen."
One Russian told Stanley, "The kitchen was a hiding place, our only permitted pleasure...so many years did we waste in that kitchen."
Now Russians are so busy trying to get ahead or making ends meet they have less time to socialize. One successful Russian office manager told Stanley, "So often I used to have dozens of people squeezed around the table in a kitchen the size of a closet. And now I have a big modern kitchen but I don't have the time or energy to invite friends to dinner."
Domovoi and Shaking Hands at Thresholds
A common Russian superstition is that one must never shake hands, kiss, sleep or sit near a threshold such as a door. Thresholds are where brownie-like creatures known as domovoi dwell and kissing or shaking hands is regarded as an offensive invasion of their space.
Non-Russians visiting the home of Russian friends often violate this superstition by greeting their hosts with handshakes or embrace at the doorway. Some Russian believe that the misfortunes on the MIR space station began after arriving American astronauts shook hands with Russian cosmonauts when they entered the station.
Domovoi are believed to follow the head of the household when a family moves. There are elaborate rituals to attract domovoi when a new household is established after marriage. A newlywed groom, for example, does not carry his bride over the threshold, but rather lets loose a cat call which is supposed to summon a domovoi. Cats are the only creatures that can communicate with domovoi.
Russian Eating Customs
A typical place setting at a Russian home has a large plate for the main course, a small plate for hor' d'oeuvres, a shot glass for vodka, a glass for wine and a glass for water or juice. People generally help themselves from plates that are passed around. If your plate is empty your host will encourage you to eat more.
Meals are typically eaten in the kitchen. Meals at people's houses often begin soon after guests arrive. It is considered rude to eat and run. Guests are expected to remain for several hours after the meal is finished and drink and party.
Russians often smoke during their meals. Sometimes they spit bones onto their plates and go into long-winded description of their illnesses or technical skills at the dinner table. It is a custom to have a picnic with the car door open and the car radio or stereo on blasting out music.
At formal state dinners in the Place of Congresses the guests eat standing up. Chairs are considered a nuisance and Russians like the system because it allows them to move around and socialize.
Russian Drinking Customs
Meals are often repeatedly interrupted by toasts, speeches and shots of vodka. Russians like to make lots of toasts. They make toast to your health, to your mother, to the moon, to Russia, to America, to world peace, to beautiful women, anything. They toast a birth in a ritual called "washing a baby" in which a military medal or something else of value is placed into a glass of vodka and passed around the table.
Russians typically begin a meal with a toast and shot of vodka downed in one gulp. To take a drink before the first toast is the height of uncouthness, Toasts are then repeated through the meal and afterwards. The word droog ("friend") comes up often. Foreigners are often asked to make a toast. It is a good idea to have one ready.
Russians often drink communally from the same cup or glass which is passed around. They often eat bread, snacks and other food when they drink, reportedly to keep them from getting too drunk. They don’t take kindly to people who don't join them for a drink. Refusing a drink can be quite difficult. To avoid getting completely wasted, some Westerners take a shot and then spit it into the chaser cup.
Vodka Drinking Customs
Vodka is often consumed straight and cold. It is swallowed in one gulp. No sipping allowed. Three glasses in a row---for starters. The night is not considered over until all the bottles of vodka are empty. Vodka is often consumed with a chaser, often juice. Many beer drinkers add a shot of vodka to their pints. During banquets, guests sometimes pour their vodka into their water glasses.
Traditionally the difference between a vodka and alcohol drinker was that the later waits until 5:00pm. Two-hour vodka lunches are popular with some people. Others drink vodka for breakfast. Sometimes it seems like the smell of stale vodka is on everyone's breath. Shops that sell vodka don't open until 2:00pm to keep workers from drinking it on the job and some people from drinking it all day.
A common superstition among vodka drinkers is not to eat after the first glass. But most Russians seems to ignore the custom and consume things like jellied meats, fish, salted gerkins and sauerkraut. A popular evening dish is vodka and water poured over a bowl of red berries. Many Russians become excited just by the thought of eating pelmeni (dumplings) with their vodka.
Balancing a glass of vodka on one's chin is a popular party trick. The Vodka Open, the first ever sport-drinking championship, was held in Moscow in 1997. The so called cultural event featured athletic exercises, workshops and tests as well as drinking contests.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016