GRINT Centre for Education and Culture: Study Russian Language, Culture, History and Politics in Moscow, Russia




DO`s & DONT`s in Russia

We have all heard that "When in Rome do as the Romans do."That advice is equally appropriate when visiting the Russian Federation so it is important to know a little about what the do's and don'ts that Russians will expect of you. This paper describes some of them. In it, I draw on more than a decade of continuous travel between the US and Russia and the suggestions I make are illustrated and confirmed by the many American and Russian students I have been privileged to have in my classes.

Of particular interest to anyone who plans to go to Russia would be some ideas of American students whom I taught at the Grint Center of Education in Moscow. These were students majoring in International Affairs, Russian Literature or the Russian Language, who came to Moscow from different US universities. They were much more prepared to come to Russia to live for a semester of study abroad at the Grint Center than regular American tourists who visit Russia for several days or read major American newspapers dealing with Foreign affairs.

While comparing Russia and the US during the course, the students, well prepared, studied a lot and not only from books. Having an opportunity to be "in the field," they could experience Russian life (not only in Moscow) and make their own observations which inevitably led them to develop their own stereotypes. Although students traveled to different places during a semester, their main port to Russia was Moscow, and, just as every American knows that New York is not all America, Moscow is not all Russia. Traveling to Moscow requires determination, flexibility, an open mind, and plenty of patience. The capital of Russia is not as safe as it was back in the days of the Soviets but, a trip to Moscow presents not more risk than traveling in a major city in the US; there are many things to learn in this world class metropolis.

During the course, I asked my students to write recommendation letters to those American students who would be coming to Russia after them. All of the students' ideas are interesting and for this article I have selected items that I could put in the context of "what to do and not to do if you go to study in Moscow". These are just tidbits of information that my American students, having lived in Russia for some time, think that other students should know in advance. I hope you find them valuable.

Note that when traveling abroad you should naturally check with the government's periodically posted advisements concerning Russia in general. However, that simply cannot tell a student everything that he or she needs to know.

DO's:

BASICS:

• Bring US dollars, but only in new or relatively new bills or they won't be accepted for exchange. It is better to have bills in denominations of more than $20.You can change them in most banks, just look for the sign outside the building and watch the rates against the ruble. It is a good idea to bring an ATM/Debit card to withdraw extra amounts of cash, just be cautious of the ATM you use.

• Respect the metro. The incredible subway system in Moscow can truly be an inexpensive and convenient blessing. However, the metro can also be the set of a pickpocket of fight. Do not flash money in the metro. Keep your metro pass separate. Don't speak loudly or make a fool of yourself on the metro. It is considered rude, and it will just make Russians think less of Americans.

• Watch out for your documents. Some will say always carry your passport and visa. Others will disagree. Speak to your host institution on the subject. But regardless, try to get an official copy of your passport and visa and always show that before showing the original. Be sure you have Xeroxes of your passport and Xeroxes - take several. An official "Studenchesky Bilyet" or student card, will often suffice with the local enforcement. When going out, leave your passport and any cards (credit, insurance, ID, etc.) that you won't need in a safe place. If you are robbed while out on the street you will have not lost everything.

• Take some passport/size photos with you - these can be useful for getting a propusk, etc.

• Always have a back up. Try to have a back up plan for everything. Have extra money hidden on you and in your room for emergencies; bribes are a reality. Have a back up of local and international cards. That way you can always make a phone call. If you are at a bar late, save a little cash. In case you miss the last subway (it works till 1am), you will need to take a taxi. Always have important telephone numbers with you. You never know when you will have an emergency.

• America uses 110, Russia 220+. If you plan on packing electronic components, bring the necessary adaptor as most homes have no need of them. Hair dryers need at least 1600 wattage converters.

• In the right situation do not be shy. In class, in the dorm, and in other safe social situations do not be afraid of making mistakes while trying out your Russian tongue. Most Russians are just happy that you are trying and will help as much as possible. Try to make Russian friends at school, through your family, and during inter-program excursions. Part of being here is learning how Russians behave between themselves. The more you talk with native speakers, the more you will force yourself to learn. You will learn a lot just by listening to the way they speak, in addition to how they speak. Be open to meeting all the Russians you can. Most Russians are truly warm and hospitable despite their normal cold and pessimistic attitudes on the street.

• When in doubt, ask. Very often Americans assume that if something is wrong, someone will let you know. Russians often assume you know what they want. This creates a discrepancy. Ask about house rules when you arrive. If you do not know how to do something, simply ask someone. Additionally, Russians show politeness by being vague and beating around the bush. If you are politely insistent, eventually, they will figure out that you really don't know and will enlighten you.

• Always use "vi" with Russians whom you do not know, even if they are the same age. Wait for the Russians to initiate using "ti" with you.


Behavior (the unwritten codes):

• Boys should be aware that in Russia, men still pay the bill on dates.

If you are wearing gloves, take them off when you shake hands.

• Shoes: bear in mind that you will be walking a lot. I mean a lot! Make sure that when you buy shoes, they are built for comfort. That is not all; most Russians only wear dark colors of shoes. Men almost always wear black. If you have space, bring your own house shoes. When you visit a typical home, you will be asked to remove your shoes and wear house shoes. So buy shoes that can be easily taken off and on, and have some nice shoes handy.

• Clothes: Pack dressier clothes than you normally would. Russian students get really dressed up for class (expect to see young men in full suits walking around your campus). Russians, especially women, pay attention to their appearance both at the market and at the club. Looking too casual identifies you as a tourist. Bring a long, black coat if you are traveling to Moscow in winter. It will keep you warmer than a hip-length parka, and you will blend in.

• Take tissues and liquid soap with you if you are expecting to use a bathroom somewhere out. Most public restrooms are not equipped with these basic items.

• Bring a gift if visiting someone's apartment; chocolates or flowers (an odd number over 2 flowers and not yellow) are a good suggestion. (Even number of flowers is good at funerals only.)

• Ask Russians to take you shopping. People at the markets raise the prices when they see foreigners.

• Know that most young people have studied English and can help you if you get in a bind.

• Be polite to the people who you see everyday like security guards, etc. A little gift can grant you many privileges.

• Have some tea and sweets on hand. You never know when your Russian friends may pop in unexpectedly. Tea and sweets are a tradition to have for guests.

• Be hospitable: your friends will be offended if you do not invite them to be your guests. Try to see Russians at home and when invited expect to have a several course meal and drinks.

• Date Russians - it's a pleasant cultural experience. Your speaking skills will improve.


DON'TS:

• Do not assume that everybody in Russia is ethnically Russian. There are more than 100 ethnic groups in Russia. When talking to
Russians it is appropriate to ask about their "nationality" and their customs and traditions different from the Russian.

• Don't take a lot of your money in Traveler's Checks. It can be a pain to find a place to cash them, and when you do, they will take at least 10% of what it is worth. You can literally lose hundreds of dollars just through commission.

• Don't use ATM's in the metro or on the street. There are many scandals with cards and pin numbers being stolen with ATM's at these locations. Use the ones in the lobbies of hotels that cater to western businessmen where the ATM's are usually guarded and uncorrupted.

• Don't take a taxi alone at night. Avoid a car if it has anyone besides a driver. Know where you are going and sound sure of yourself when negotiating a price with the driver.

• Don't be afraid to decline vodka. You won't offend anyone. Just have a religious or health excuse ready. If you do drink with Russians, know that the bottle is usually drunk until it is empty.

• Don't be afraid to try new food, customs, words or ask for help.

• Don't expect people to smile at you. It is not customary in Russia, especially in big cities, to talk or smile at strangers, so don't interpret this behavior as coldness or unfriendliness.

• Don't expect everyone you meet with to be on time. Russians have different idea of timing and it is clear that in general time is a much cherished value among Americans.

• Don't walk around alone at night.

• Don't expect to eat different food in the cafeteria.

• Don't stay in the dorm a lot. Your time in Russia will fly a lot faster than you think.

• Don't expect American standards in public places like restrooms.

• Do not put your feet on the tables. This will support Russian stereotypes about Americans being "uncultural".

• Do not wear caps in the class rooms. This is unaccepted behavior at schools and any professor or teacher will be offended.

• Do not eat in classrooms - that is unaccepted behavior.

• Do not expect to pay a visit to a friend "for a half an hour". If you are invited to someone's house and sit down to lunch or dinner this is a lengthy process.

• Do not hesitate to open your soul to Russians. You will be considered a real friend. Russians don't have a developed bank system yet. They don't know about Americans living on loans. They will find you to be very rich when they learn that your parents own a house, several cars and you are a student of a university. Be open talking about your finances. This will be very educational for them.

• don't be scared by anybody's warning! Just realize that this is not the US! You are studying abroad and have therefore already elevated yourself to the minority of students. Take full advantage of the situation and learn by having fun.

Moscow has numerous coffee shops, concert halls, dance halls, theaters and other forms of entertainment. If you are willing to look, you will always find something interesting to do. You can always ask someone in your host family or one of your new Russian friends to lead the way!

My students agreed to let me publish ideas and statements they made for the sake of future Americans who will come to study in Russia. I express my gratitude and appreciation of these students who were able to understand and love Russia, especially: Michael Johnson, Rachel Purkett, Nick Butler, Jane Janosky, Latta Anthony, Melissa Mc Crimmon, Stephanie Curbo, Wade Stormer, and many others who were my students in Moscow at the Grint Institute.

 Please feel free to send us your comments what should be added or excluded. We are always happy for your feedback! Email: info@grint.ru

The author, Olga Zatsepina, PH.D, is an Associate Professor at Lomonosov Moscow State University (Faculty of Foreign Languages) and has been teaching an intercultural communication course "Cultural Diversity of the Modern World" for Russian and American students for the last 9 years at different institutions of Moscow and New York. (www.culturelinks.net).

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