Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. Russia is a vast country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your Russian language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, Russians have been developing a deep appreciation for fine cuisine while also using meal time as an opportunity to reconnect with family.
If you’re in the market for food, your shopping trip is not complete without a stop at the “рынок” food market. Although you may pay more for the products that you purchase here than with other retailers, you’ll find the foods higher-quality and fresher. “Рынок” has a bountiful offering and consists of everything from fruits and vegetables to honey and eggs. Usually it’s also surrounded by a clothing market where you’ll find less costly Chinese and Turkish clothing copied from many of today’s most popular designer brands and a market with all kind of new and used things called “барахолка.”
The long tradition of Russia’s “ярмарка” fair has been updated. At times of religious celebrations, you can peruse goods from the various temporary stalls. Most often items sold consist of sausages, fruit, drinks and more.
At the exits of the railway stations or metros are food kiosks. Some are even open 24 hours and offer a variety of snacks. While the government wishes to eradicate the vendors, their efforts have been fruitless so far. When removed, they set up house again a mere hundred meters from their original space. Such kiosks are often called “ларёк” and you will find those everywhere.
For shopping enthusiasts, you haven’t experienced Russians version of shopping until you’ve ventured underground. Underneath the metro network you’ll find life burgeoning. Simply navigate your ways downstairs, and you’ll be met by a mix of snack, flower and retail vendors. You’ll also find video shops, musicians and newspaper stands. One of the reasons the center underground does so well is because of the weather. In the winter, you won’t even the notice the cold when you’re nestled in a warm spot downstairs.
Russian restaurants were the first attempt at private enterprise after “перестройка,” and have evolved from the bland, cold soups they began with to high-quality options for everything from sushi to “шаурма.”
For Russia’s famous extravagance try Moscow’s “Турандот” for its lavish décor and atmosphere of surreal decadence. Chinese food is served by waitresses who float around in eighteenth-century-style dresses like so many porcelain dolls.
A less expensive option is the “закуски” from the mid-range “Ёлки-палки” chain, or Uzbekin cuisine and a “кальян” (hookah) from the “Чайхана” chain.
For more traditional Russian fare try “пельмени,” the meat dumplings sold frozen. A variety of pickles are also popular as they offset the sharpness of “водка.” The Russian diet is heavy on foods like mushrooms and berries in the summer and pickled or preserved vegetables and hot soups in the winter paired with slow-releasing carbohydrates like porridge – “каша,” its variation “гречка” – buckwheat, and rye bread for energy. There is also the Russian salad known as “салатОливье” after the French chef who created it at the Hermitage restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s. If you want a vinaigrette dressing though, be sure your request is clear, or you might end up with a salad “винегрет”: a vegetarian’s dream comprised of boiled beetroots, carrots, onions, peas, gherkins, and potatoes. Also try little Russian pies called “пирожки,” a popular street snack with all sorts of fillings.
Dishes from other soviet republics are also popular, including Georgian grilled “шашлык,” Ukrainian “борщ,” and Uzbek “плов” (rice with lamb slow-cooked with onions and spices).
Russia is famous for its “водка,” but that’s not the only popular drink you should try while you are there. Other famous options include softer alternatives such as “квас,” a fermented drink made with rye bread, and “кисель,” which is made with berries, sugar, and corn starch. Cranberry “морс” and fruit “компот” are also tasty, refreshing choices.
Russia is also famous for food and literature. The combination of the two was hilariously demonstrated when Russian writer Joseph Brodsky helped his friend Roman Kaplan with the opening of his Russian Samovar restaurant in New York. Brodsky created a collection of gastro-rhymes which included menu food terms like “pelmeni for many,” “beef stroganoff if you’re strong enough,” “vinegret – you won’t regret,” and “you won’t be erring with Russian herring.” The ploy worked and the restaurant’s popularity soared. Two decades later you can still order the same dishes there today. While in Russia, be sure to try the original dishes in the land where the famous rhyming foods originated.
After all of this drinking and eating, don’t forget to tip! Tipping can be tricky, as what is considered appropriate varies from person to person, and even culture to culture. In some countries such as France the tip is automatically included in the bill, while some Asian cultures find it offensive if they are tipped at all. In Russia, tipping isn’t just a good idea, tips are expected if you enjoyed your service and it is rude not to leave a tip or to leave a tip of less than 5%, whereas 10% is the most common tip. For many waiters tips make the salary. Also, always round up a taxi fare and tip hairdressers.
To Westerners, going out for coffee is just that, a prearranged appointment to share coffee and engage in some light conversation. Going out for coffee takes on an entirely different meaning in Russia, however. To go out for coffee in the Russian culture is more of a euphemism that implies the need for a more serious conversation. The coffee date is expected to be a long and involved appointment, so you can expect it to last well past the lunch hour. On the bright side, your host will likely provide lunch, so you may want to skip your mid morning snack.
“Чай”(tea) plays an important role in Russian culture. Russians love tea and black tea is the usual preference among most of the country’s citizens. However, in the cafes and restaurants you will often find a great selection of tea, including tea with fresh ginger, mint or sea buckthorn. The tea is usually supplemented with generous helpings of sugar and Russians love to have their tea with honey. Additionally, lemon slices are used to add some bite to the tea’s flavor. Cookies and sweets, along with a variety of jams, are generally served as well to add a more social ambiance to the planned conversation. Russians rarely have tea without something sweet.
Much like vodka, tea has a long history in Russian culture, dating back to the sixteenth century, when the first shipments of tea were imported from China. By the 19th century, black tea had become such a popular drink that Russians at every economic class had taken to drinking it. Aristocrats and businessmen were just as likely to indulge in tea as the neighboring peasants. It didn’t take long before Russia started growing and manufacturing its own tea. Facilities were built in Krasnodar and Georgia and it wasn’t long before Russia became the foremost producer of tea in the world, even beating out China.
Today, one’s choice of tea is dictated by the individual’s social standing. Whether you choose Lipton’s or traditional Chinese white leaf tea reveals more about your personality than you might realize. In older times, “самовар,” a heated metal container was used specifically for brewing tea instead of using traditional stove top tea kettles. This speaks to the fact that Russian society always took its tea drinking seriously. Nowadays they are only reminders of the past and serve as a decoration in tea rooms but sometimes you can have tea from “самовар”in the more traditional Russian restaurants.
So you are invited to a Russian dinner party, and you have the time of your life. You eat as much of the excessive amount of food served as you possibly can until you can hardly speak, join in all the toasts that are made, after which you down every drop of alcohol to the lees, and join in to sing a few traditional songs. You leave satisfied with the bonding and forging of new friendships. In addition, you follow all the right protocols, such as not greeting at the threshold, removing your shoes, and complimenting the hostess on her cooking skills. You even remember to bring sweets for the kids and an odd number of flowers for the hostess. So you leave feeling confident, admirable and totally satisfied.
Because you have enjoyed the evening a great deal, you decide to write a “thank you” letter expressing your gratitude and complimenting your friends for hosting a spectacular event. To your surprise, your friends receive the written thank you card with surprise at best, suspicion at worst. In fact, a letter claiming “the food was delicious and the company was wonderful” might lead your friends to wonder if in fact the food was delicious and the company wonderful. This is because giving a card is too formal. However, this does not mean you shouldn’t compliment the host and hostess the next day. It’s perfectly fine (and preferable) to do so informally.
After you’ve aced the initial protocols by greeting in the proper location, presenting the appropriate gifts, and removing your outside shoes, you will more than likely be led to the dinner table where you’ll be presented with a smorgasbord of “закуски,” or appetizers, before the main meal is served. Russian parties do not usually contain aperitifs, or drinks served before meals. Закуски will contain different salads, pickles, cheese and cold meat. Feel free to help yourself. Just know that Russian hosts expect you to eat whatever you take.
Try to come with an empty stomach since Russian housewives will think you’re unhappy if you don’t stuff your belly until you can hardly speak. Refusing food is not popular in a country where overfeeding guests is a tradition.
Although by dessert time more food may feel like a health hazard, your host will nonetheless serve dessert along with tea or coffee. This is usually when members present toasts to the host, the hostess’ cooking skills and friendship. You will be expected to join in and give your own toast as well as listen to others’ toasts. If the evening is moving along quite well, you’ll be invited to sing with the rest of the party-goers. Knowing the songs gets you kudos, but what if you don’t know the words? Well, this will most likely elicit surprise. An Englishman attending a Russian wedding recalled being urged to sing traditional songs along with the crowd. A fellow drunken guest could not believe that he knew none of the songs.
So you’ve been invited to have dinner at the home of your Russian friends. Upon arrival, you shake your host’s hand at the door, kiss his wife on both cheeks and give her four yellow chrysanthemums. After a light drink, you politely refuse a second helping of food, listen to the other members sing their hearts out and finally leave. The evening has been quite enjoyable, in your opinion, and you send a sincere note of thanks. So why does the host either avoid you or frown while passing you at the office? You don’t realize the debacle you’ve made by not adhering to implied protocols of Russian culture.
Russian superstition prohibits anyone from greeting near a door, so that threshold handshake should have waited until you had entered the home and perhaps had been guided into the dining area. Don’t forget to remove your outside shoes before trekking through the house.
To add insult to injury, you brought four yellow chrysanthemums….four being an even number, which is reserved for funerals. Kissing the wife is a nice thought, but don’t kiss her if you are a male unless she’s an old pal. Additionally, Russians usually offer shots of alcohol, so you’ll stand out for drinking lightly. You’ll also disappoint the wife for refusing a second helping of food. Furthermore, don’t be a wallflower. Try to engage in the fun. If you don’t know the words to the songs, try moving your lips. Lastly, writing a “thank you” letter is just too formal. Saying “thank you”- “спасибо” goes a long way.
In Russia, first impressions are very important. If you want to be seen as a decision-maker and be taken seriously, you need to dress accordingly. Wear a dark and conservative suit. The Russians will also scrutinize your watch, belt, and shoes, so make sure they are immaculate.
Don’t take your jacket off during negotiations unless your host invites you to do so. Such an invitation is a favorable sign, for it indicates that the formalities are over and the meeting is moving on to the real work.
Since many Russians are not fluent in English, have one side of your business card printed in Russian. As they also respect education and professionalism, make sure your card includes degrees and other qualifications.
Remember hierarchy when greeting people. In Russia, a subordinate greets their boss first, while a visitor will greet the staff of the company hosting the conference. When you enter a room, greet the people already present. Enter the room completely before shaking someone’s hand, because reaching across the threshold is believed to bring bad luck. Russians also consider it rude to shake hands while wearing gloves.
Russians aren’t believers in the adage “time is money.” Meetings can start late or be canceled at the last minute. Once they start, they can run for a long time – and it is rude to cut a meeting short to run off on some other errand. Schedule your time accordingly.
Russians most enjoy a traditional sit-down meal with family and friends. “Застолье,” a word that can also mean celebration or banquet, is one form of the sit-down dinner and literally translates to English as “at the table.” During this type of get-together, relationships with friends and family are strengthened and business partnerships are formed or further bonded.
This is more than a mere meal in Russian culture and it takes practice to master the art of socializing at such an event. There are many aspects to “застолье” in addition to sharing a hearty meal. It’s more like a formal event, where an introduction is presented at the start of the meal with a toast following shortly afterwards. Even conversation is conducted according to tradition and a more formal structure. Discussions throughout the meal are more than small talk or idle chit-chat, so guests should be prepared to contribute something meaningful to whatever topics are covered.
Unlike many informal gatherings, this type of dinner is an opportunity for Russians to indulge their love of culture and ceremony. For that reason, each guest is expected to display a level of skill in presenting themselves at the dinner. While older Russians may be patient with those still learning what is expected of them, every guest is should practice his or her “застолье” skills. Undoubtedly, individuals are expected to show improvement, as they attend more of these sit-down dinners.
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