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 specific etiquette to follow in social situations that you’ll want to follow to avoid coming off as rude or as an outsider.
Publicly held receptions are fairly new in Russian society. Previously, receptions and buffet style dinners only catered to the diplomats and politicians, but the past two decades saw that change. Now, they’re standard to many social functions and many Russians are still adjusting and attempting to learn how to master these events. Businesses in Russia use receptions as a way of boosting attendance at inauguration ceremonies and product launches, so being able to eat and socialize simultaneously is becoming an essential skill.
Just mastering the art of small talk alone has presented a challenge to many people in Russian society. On top of that, they find they’re expected to juggle a plate of food in one hand and a drink in the other. It’s no wonder that Russians, people who prefer a relaxed meal and meaningful conversation, are having so much trouble acclimating themselves to this new form of socializing.
Even abroad, Russians have been known to add their own brand of style to the traditional western reception. In one instance, an Oxford English professor threw a reception to welcome her international students. As the evening progressed, the professor walked into her kitchen to find the Russian students hunched over her kitchen counter. They were deep in meaningful conversation, presumably having given up on the small talk typical of such gatherings.
The Russian kitchen tradition goes back to the Soviet era when communism was rampant. Dining out wasn’t common, and dining in other parts of the home wasn’t as safe as dining in the kitchen. The Russians felt that the kitchen was the room least likely to be bugged. During a time when everyone was expected to speak unanimously and positively about the Communist regime, being heard speaking one’s own opinion could have easily meant exile to Siberia. Not much was permitted, but the kitchen was made into an unbridled, carefree world to let down your guard.
Since the kitchen has a history of safety and unrestricted expression, being invited to dine in the kitchen means you are accepted, and the host regards you as a close friend. During Soviet times, friends would visit, eat whatever was in the refrigerator, and have uncensored, lively conversations. They would freely discuss their opinions in the intimate safe haven called the kitchen. You can picture it as a crowded little hole filled with jolly conversations and heated disputes, singing, laughing, food, smoke and alcohol. The kitchen easily evolved into the living room as a way to preserve sanity.
Today, Russians are more concerned with their careers, and their kitchens, although larger in size, ironically are used less often to entertain many friends. Although the societal conditions of the Soviet era may no longer pose a threat to Russian citizens, the kitchen remains a symbol of the times and is regarded as a sacred space.
Back in the 10th century, the Russian culture was summed up by Kievan prince Vladimir the Great.
“In the ancient Kingdom of Rus, drinking is enjoyment, and we cannot exist without it.”
That sentiment still holds true today. “Водка” is the unofficial drink of Russia, constituting 80% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. Still, other spirits are consumed with equal fervor. Guests to the country will also find wines, beer, cognac, and champagne flowing freely throughout the land.
Drinking is as much a part of Russian culture as anything else. It’s not just reserved for special events and blowing off steam, but is a part of daily life. William Pokhlebkin’s treatise on “водка” explores the significant role the beverage has played throughout history. While his book covers the ways vodka has influenced cultural and social changes, Pokhlebkin’s most controversial assertion may be that, drunken responsibly, vodka has a minimal intoxicating effect on the mind.
That theory may be proven invalid by the rather depressing statistics on Russian longevity. On average, Russian men live to just 58 years. Adding to that, 70% of all car accidents in Russia are alcohol related and thousands of Russians are killed every year by drinking improperly distilled vodka.
Yet, drinking remains an integral part of Russian society. In that culture, non-drinkers are eyed with suspicion and mistrust. The only way around this is to feign a medical condition. By telling your Russian counterparts that you’re taking medication or have liver disease, you can avoid drinking and still retain their respect, but it’s very likely that they would continue to insist that you should drink. However, your concerned Russian friends may also inundate you with armchair medical advice.