Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits

Learning about the Russian culture is an excellent way to improve your Russian and understand Russian-speaking people. Russian culture has a rich history, strong traditions and influential arts, especially when it comes to literature, philosophy, classical music, ballet, architecture, painting, cinema and animation. These resources will help you to learn about many aspects of the Russian cultural heritage and make learning Russian more fun.

The People

Russia has had a long history of totalitarianism, which has resulted in a rather fatalistic approach to living. The desire to work individually under personal initiative was suppressed by the Czarist and Communist states. With the advent of perestroika (restructuring), the Soviet/Communist value system has been scrapped, but the pace of reform has been slow and many are finding it very difficult to adapt to the Western values of individualism and profit maximization. Older Russians are generally quite pessimistic and don′t have much faith in a better life in the future. Younger urban Russians have adopted a more Western outlook on life.

           Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits                 Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.  

Corporate Culture

- Russians appreciate punctuality. Business meetings generally begin on time.

- Under Communism there were no incentives for bureaucrats to perform well or to even be pleasant toward clients; this meant that the usual answer to any question was "No." This practice is still found in Russian society today, but "No" is usually not the final word on an issue. One has to bargain and be persistent to get what he or she wants.

- Business cards are handed out liberally in Russia and are always exchanged at business meetings. The ceremony of presenting and receiving business cards is important. Don′t treat it lightly.

- Representatives of the Russian company or government body are usually seated on one side of a table at meetings with guests on the other side.

- Your company should be represented by a specialized team of experts. Presentations should be thoroughly prepared, detailed, factual and short on "salesmanship."

- Russians usually negotiate technical issues very competently, directly and clearly but, being newcomers to capitalism, often do not fully understand Western business practices and objectives. You may have to explain the reasoning behind some of your demands.

- Russians find it difficult to admit mistakes, especially publicly. They also find it difficult to risk offending someone by making requests or assertions.

- Trying to do business in Russia over the telephone is generally ineffective. The Russian telecommunications system is inadequate, but improving quickly. The telex is widely used.

- Personal relationships play a crucial role in Russian business.

- Business negotiations in Russia are lengthy and may test your patience. Plan to be in for the long haul.

- No agreement is final until a contract has been signed.

               Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.                 Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.  

Russian Samovars

Samovars and tea-drinking are an indispensable element of Russian culture. In modern Russia, samovars are rarely used to boil water for tea as originally intended, however many families place samovars in the center of the table during holiday celebrations. Reserving pride of place for a samovar at the festive table is both a tribute that Russians give to their ancestors and a ceremony that embodies warm-hearted hospitality.

Matryoshka – The Russian Nesting Doll

It′s hard to find a symbol of Russia more popular than the traditional Russian nesting doll. These decorated wooden dolls "with a secret" are also called matryoshka dolls or babushka dolls. They are recognized even in the countries thousand miles away from Russia. Taking a Russian nesting doll back home is a must among tourists from Europe and the United States alike. The lovers of exotics collect matryoshkas in Australia and South Africa. The simplicity and originality of matryoshka dolls attract the fans of Russian folk art from around the world. Bright and picturesque Russian nesting dolls decorate the fireplaces and bookshelves in the homes of thousands of Russians.

                 Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.               Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.             Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.

Russian Hospitality

There is a big difference between the Russian tradition of hospitality and a friendly attitude towards guests in other countries of the world. The legends about the breadth of the Russian soul have a very good reason to exist. Russians love to accept guests and make great hosts. When in Russia, you don′t need to wait for a special occasion like a birthday or a holiday to visit a friend or a neighbor. Russians like visiting each other, meeting in friendly companies for dinner, or just stopping by to catch up on what′s going on. The latter is called "to drop in for a cup of coffee" (забежать на чашечку кофе). 

Russians often visit each other′s homes without a special invitation. Just let the hosts know about your plans in advance and they′ll be very happy to accept you. It is considered rude to leave guests without a treat. A host may offer the guest a cup of tea with cookies or set the table with snacks and serve cocktails—everything depends on the company, the time of the day, and the financial well-being of the host. In the least, you will always be offered something to eat or drink when visiting Russians at their homes.

Theme parties

A good way to get together with friends is to organize a "theme" party. Theme parties are quickly gaining popularity among young Russians. For example, the increasing number of Russians are becoming interested in Japanese cuisine. A company of friends may choose to organize a sushi night at someone′s house and order sushi delivery or make their own sushi rolls. Other Russians like to meet up for beers ("на пиво") which usually involves boiling shrimp or crawfish and tasting different types of beer while watching a movie or a soccer game in a company of friends.

Holiday Celebrations

Russians like to serve a festive dinner for the guests on occasion of such holidays as birthdays, New Year and Easter. The necessary attributes of a holiday dinner include meat and cold appetizers (jellied minced meat known as "kholodets" is very common), one or more hot dishes, and cake for dessert. Russian housewives prefer to cook everything themselves and it is expected that a real Russian woman should be a good cook. Alcohol is another important attribute of a holiday dinner. Russians do not usually follow the habits of serving wine with meat dishes or hard liquor with dessert. Instead, all types of alcoholic beverages are served on the table and guests may pick their favorites themselves.

Dining and Entertainment

- When dining in a restaurant, arrive on time.

- Russians are great hosts and love entertaining guests in their homes. They will often put more food on the table than can be eaten to indicate there is an abundance of food (whether there is or not). Guests who leave food on their plates honor their host. It means they have eaten well.

- If you′re invited for dinner, don′t make other plans for later in the evening. You are expected to spend time socializing after the meal.

- An invitation to a Russian dacha (country home) is a great honor.

- Do not turn down offers of food or drink. Given Russian hospitality, this can be difficult, but to decline such offers is considered rude.

- At formal functions, guests do not usually start eating until the host has begun. At such functions, no one should leave until the guest of honor has left. If you are the guest of honor, do not stay too late.

- Know your limits when drinking alcohol in Russia. Drinking is often an all-or-nothing affair -- moderation is not understood.

- Toasts, which are sometimes lengthy and occasionally humorous, are common. The host starts and the guests reply. Do not drink until the first toast has been offered.

- After a toast, most Russians like to clink their glasses together. Do not do so if you are drinking something non-alcoholic.

       Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.          Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.          Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.  

Body Language

- Russians are a very demonstrative people, and public physical contact is common. Hugs, backslapping, kisses on the cheeks and other expansive gestures are common among friends or acquaintances and between members of the same sex.

- Russians stand close when talking.

- Putting your thumb through your index and middle fingers or making the "OK" sign are considered very rude gestures in Russia.

Gifts for the Hosts

Just like it would be rude to leave a guest without a treat, it is considered rude to make a visit without a gift for the hosts. Russians even have an expression "придти с пустыми руками" that literally means "to come with empty hands". It is used to describe guests who didn′t bring any gifts to the hosts. You don′t have to buy expensive souvenirs when being a guest. A box of chocolates or a bottle of fine wine will make a good gift. If you are visiting a family with children make sure to bring a treat for the kids—a candy, a chocolate bar or fruits.

- A small business gift is always appropriate, but its value should correspond to the rank of the Russian businessperson with whom you are meeting.

- As a general rule, do not give items that are now easily obtainable in Russia.

- Bring a gift for the hostess when visiting a Russian home. A small gift for a Russian child is always appropriate (and appreciated).

Meeting and Greeting

- Initial greetings may come across as cool. Do not expect friendly smiles.

- A handshake is always appropriate (but not obligatory) when greeting or leaving, regardless of the relationship. Remove your gloves before shaking hands. Don′t shake hands over a threshold (Russian folk belief holds that this action will lead to an argument).

Russian Banya

Banya (a Russian type of sauna, a kind of steam bath) is one of the oldest Russian traditions. Despite the fact that this tradition is several centuries old, the banya is popular even today. You can find banyas in large cities and small towns. Usually those Russians who have summer cottages, almost always build their own banya there.

     Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.        Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.        Russian Manners, Customs, Traditions and Habits.

A Russian banya (ба́ня) has a special room, where a large amount of hot steam is created with the help of water and hot air. A classic Russian banya is heated with firewood, but modern versions might use electric heat as well. Inside the banya, which is usually built of wood, there are wide wooden benches along the walls. They are built up one above the other like steps. You can sit or lay on the benches. The higher up the bench the hotter the air is. Once someone has warmed up well enough, he or she leaves the steam room (it is called the парна́я in Russian) and dips into a pool of cold water. You can also pour water over yourself from a tub (уша́т), while in Siberia it′s common to walk right out of the steam room and jump into the snow.

The Russian Family and Marriage

Russian families are large and friendly. The meaning of the family in Russia is not limited to the husband, wife and children. It stretches to include grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. The members of the Russian family closely communicate with each other and frequently get together, especially on such family occasions as birthdays and anniversaries. Just like in any family, there might be misunderstandings and even quarrels among family members, however one thing is certain: Russians cherish their families and are always ready to help their relatives in difficult times. The tradition that everyone should love their own home and protect their family is instilled into Russians since the early childhood.

Traditional Russian Wedding

Russian weddings are celebrated on a grand scale. The extent of celebration and thoroughness of preparation are only limited by the financial situation of the family. Some couples choose to adopt western traditions, including the priest, marriage vows, staged shows and special tents for guests. Famous performers may be invited and celebration scripts may be written by professional directors. However, such celebrations are more of an exception in modern Russia. The traditional Russian wedding is, on the contrary, affordable to most newlyweds.

Russian Women

The charms and beauty of Russian women are known all over the world. However, the natural desire to take care of themselves and look their best is not the only trait that sets Russian women apart from everybody else. Every Russian woman knows how to stay abreast of the latest fashion trends, apply the make-up the proper way, and groom her hair to look her best. But the physical looks of Russian women is not the decisive factor when it comes to attraction with men. Russian women have something more that helps them to conquer the hearts of men not only in Russia. This precious thing is a "mysterious Russian soul" (according to the Russian classical writers, загáдочная рýсская душá), family values, personality traits, and a very traditional outlook on life.

Russian Men

Most Russian families prepare their boys to become future men since the early childhood. Parents encourage their sons to play with toy guns and rejoice when boys can stand up for themselves. Every Russian man internalizes such principles as not letting others to hurt himself or his family, being able to physically challenge an attacker, protecting the weak, and always resisting an urge to cry.


- A "serious" businessperson is expected to look formal and conservative. Wearing very light or bright colors might make you appear lazy or unreliable to a Russian.

- Men should wear suits and ties. Women should wear suits and dresses or pantsuits. 

Helpful Hints

- Russians are very proud of their culture and enjoy opportunities to talk about their music, art, literature and dance. Knowledge about art, music and some Russian history is appreciated.

- Learn Russian! Learning the language is of incalculable value, and is the best way to win friends for yourself, your company and your country. If that simply isn′t possible, try to learn at least a few phrases in Russian. It doesn′t have to be perfect; Russians greatly appreciate any attempt by foreigners to speak their language.

- Never refer to a Russian as "Comrade."

- Do not expect to find smoke-free areas anywhere. A standard joke among foreign businesspeople in Russia is that Russian buildings have two sections: "smoking" and "chain-smoking."