RUSSIAN SOCIETY & CONDUCT
With its myriad ethnic groups, Russia has a rich stew of cultures, many of which are discussed in the relevant regional chapters of this book. Many old customs are being revived through the Russian Orthodox Church: Russian women are liable to he pointed at or given a tongue lashing by a babushka if they don’t cover their heads in a church. (Tourists, however, will not be expected to follow this custom.)
Hospitality is a delightful tradition. If you are offered some you can expect to be regaled with stories, to be drowned in vodka, to offer and receive many toasts and to eat loads of food off small plates. This may seem foreign if the only Russians you’ve met previously have been gruff bureaucrats, but if a Russian decides to invite you into his or her home, you can expect a bear hug of an embrace, both physically and mentally. This can be especially true far from the big cities, where you’ll meet locals determined to share everything they have with you, however meagre.
At least 30% of Russians have one of these small country homes. Often little more than a bare bones hut (but sometimes quite luxurious) these retreats offer Russians refuge from city life and as such figure prominently in the national psyche. On half-warm weekends, places such as Moscow begin to empty out early on Friday as people head to the country.
One of the most important aspects of dacha life is gardening. Families grow all manner of vegetables and fruits to eat over the winter. A cherry tree will be fussed over for years; hearty crops of potatoes and cabbage will be nurtured through the summer. Flowers also play an important part in creating the proper dacha ambience, and even among people who have no need to grow food the contact with the soil provides an important balm for the Russian soul.
Should you be lucky enough to be invited to a Russian’s home, bring a gift, such as wine or a cake. Flowers are also suitable but make certain there’s an odd number because even numbers are for funerals. Also be prepared to remove your shoes once inside the door. Once the festivities begin you can’t refuse any food or drink offered unless you wish to cause grave offence. When you are in any setting with other people, even strangers such as those in a train compartment, you should offer to share anything you have to eat, drink or smoke.
Men will find that traditional gentlemanly behavior is not just appreciated but expected, as you will notice when you see women standing in front of closed doors waiting for something to happen. Giving up your seat on the metro or a bus will also garner many favorable nods except from the dolts not giving up theirs.