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Russians often stare a foreigners. Don't take it personally.

Culture Shock in Russia

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Russia – A country that  evokes a different set of feelings more polarizing than most travel destinations. Regardless of one’s associations with the country, it doesn’t take much research to realize what a great destination it is for adventurous travelers. 

Before hopping on a plane, however, it is important to familiarize yourself with certain cultural differences that exist between Russia and your home country. This is a crucial step in order to mitigate any negative experiences that may result from culture shock. 

By educating yourself about certain situations where you might feel culture shock, you will not only acquire a deeper understanding of the local culture and history, but you will also develop a greater sense of appreciation and empathy for the country that will certainly enhance your travel experience.

Before we get started, let’s just address a few Russian stereotypes that are often assumed to define Russian cultureNo, not every Russian sports Adidas track suits, exclusively drinks Smirnoff, and has their own pet bear. Russia is not the Soviet Union and should not be considered as such. 

That being said, it is worth taking into account that a nation’s cultural norms and practices are often influenced by its political, economic and social history. So, although the USSR collapsed nearly 30 years ago, the historical, and, often quite traumatic, events that transpired during its existence, have definitive lasting effects on the culture of modern day Russia. 

Planning a trip to Russia? Check out my Comprehensive Travel Guide for Russia here!

Confronting and overcoming culture shock requires empathy and an understanding of why a cultural norm exists. So, if you’re flirting with the idea of one-day visiting Russia, I highly encourage you to familiarize yourself with some Russian history – I promise it won’t bore you. 

So, let’s get started —  Here is a list of the 6 most common culture shocks that you, as a traveler in Russia, will likely encounter. 

Lines bee Lines

1. “Why do Americans smile 24/7? Are you really that happy all the time?” – My Russian colleague

If you don’t speak the local language of wherever you’re traveling, the go-to method of communication is usually a fun combination of Google Translate and non-verbal cues.

Relying too heavily on the latter in Russia, however, may unintentionally make things a bit awkward between you and the locals and only serve to exasperate any culture shock you’ve already encountered. One stark example of this in Russia is the seemingly mundane absence of smiling in public. 

If you were raised in a Western country, you might not even be aware that smiling to greet or acknowledge strangers is a Western cultural practice. However, the situations in which people smile vary from culture to culture.

In many Eastern countries, Russia being one of them, smiling at strangers is a faux-pas that immediately signals you are either A) hitting on them, B) not super intelligent, or C) a western tourist. So while it might seem strange, it is important when traveling in Russia to be conscientious about when and where you choose to smile. 

Because I hadn’t realized that smiling at strangers was a western cultural behavior, I also hadn’t considered the lack of smiling to be one either. From a Western perspective this is often mistaken as a cold, or unwelcoming characteristic of the Russian people, but that’s truly not the case. Russians are some of the most friendly and inviting people, so don’t be offended or put off if your smile isn’t reciprocated. 

Lines bee Lines
Russians have a smaller personal bubble than Americans, so it is common for Russians to stand close to one another in public.

2. Pop your personal space bubble 

The idea of personal space in non-Western countries isn’t really a thing – and it certainly isn’t indicative of a lack of manners or politeness. If you’re like me, and just the idea of someone getting so close to you is uncomfortable, then now is the time to start working towards popping that personal space bubble. 

Every culture has a different standard for personal space, and Russia’s is certainly on the smaller end of the spectrum. It doesn’t matter if it is two people or twenty people standing in line, Russians won’t leave more than a foot of distance between themselves and the person in front of them.

And this is the norm regardless of where you are, whether it is in the restroom waiting for an open stall or at the pharmacy asking for your personal medicines. And if you want to create some space for yourself and back up a few feet, people will cut you assuming you’re not in line. 

Before I came to Russia, I used to be rather quick to signal my discomfort when someone would touch or breathe on me in any line. I found it so intrusive that when anyone stood closer to me than I deemed appropriate, I would “draw” my personal bubble perimeter with a few hip-shifts and backpack shoulder swaps.

But it became apparent quite fast that Russia’s personal bubble was much smaller than America’s. At first I thought it was just the people I’d encountered at the airport, but after just a few hours of being in Russia, I realized that what I’d considered to be a character flaw of those I’d encountered was really just a cultural difference.

The concept of “personal space” doesn’t have a universal measurement, and this is something that I had to quickly come to terms with. I can’t change the custom, but I can work to change how I react to it.

Lines bee Lines

3. “It’s a privilege to pee.” 

For all my musical theatre nerds out there, you might be wondering what a quote from Urinetown, the musical about monetizing the ability to relieve yourself might be doing here.

Well, as you might have picked up, it is because public bathrooms throughout the former Soviet Union almost always cost money. Using public restrooms does not cost a significant amount of money, but if you drank a bit too much iced tea, you had better hope you have some change on you! 

Additionally, similar to in Urinetown the Musical, the process of using the public bathroom isn’t exactly luxurious. When you walk into a public bathroom, you are greeted by a sanitation worker with change in one hand and a toilet paper roll in the other. After you pay, you’re either given a small wad of toilet paper or you’re asked to indicate the amount you need.

If announcing to a stranger how much toilet paper you require makes you uncomfortable, I highly recommend that you carry some TP with you at all times. Depending on where you are in Russia you will either have a toilet you can sit on or just a hole in the ground. The latter is most often found in the countryside, but sometimes you’ll encounter them in cities as well. 

The first time I used a public restroom was particularly jarring, as there was a long line of people behind me. And, as I discussed above, Russians stand quite close to each other in lines – even in the bathroom – so it was just a bit too intimate for my liking. After a while, I eventually got used to the experience. If anything, it is an exercise in overcoming pride – you’re human, just like everyone else standing in that line.

Lines bee Lines

4. Tapochki or Bahily!

Russia’s unwavering use of tapochki (home slippers) and bahily (plastic shoe coverings) is one cultural practice that I definitely plan to adopt even after I leave Russia!

After you enter someone’s home, you will not get more than three steps from the door before having your host show you the rows of guest tapochki for you to choose from. I’m normally a “I think it would be better for everyone if I keep my shoes on” kind of gal, but wearing your hosts’ tapochkis is a sign of respect and helps keep their floors clean.

My embarrassing bahily experience

And this idea of cleanliness doesn’t stop in the home – If you go to a museum or a business on a rainy day, expect to find blue, plastic shoe coverings by the door. The first time I entered a business where it was expected to put on the bukhali, I hadn’t seen them when I first entered.

As I walked toward reception, the front desk worker began pointing behind me and saying the name “bahily.” But since I hadn’t heard the word “bahily” nor had I seen the bin she was pointing at when I walked in, I thought she was pointing at the door and telling me to leave the store! I felt so embarrassed and confused, so I did what I thought she wanted me to do – I left the office.

Soon after closing the door, however, I heard a burst of laughter erupt from the other side. I’d started going down the stairwell when the lady at reception popped her head out to tell me to come back in as the ladies in the waiting room behind her tried to hide their laughter.

When I went back in and put on my bukhali, one of the women who had been trying to suppress a steady giggle broke and snorted so loudly that the entire office broke into laughter once more. So . . . no, I haven’t forgotten to look for the bahily since.

Lines bee Lines

5. Paperwork makes the world go round

If you thought the bureaucracy in America was bad – just wait till you get a load of Russia. Paperwork and bureaucracy is a way of life in Russia and all official processes (visas, tax registration, business licenses, etc.) require a substantial amount of paperwork that often just feels like ticking boxes for ticking box’s sake. 

This bureaucratic nightmare was a ubiquitous cornerstone of official Soviet tradition that has, unfortunately, persisted to the present day. For travelers, this is obvious from the very beginning of your trip – acquiring a visa. But for Russians, paperwork is ingrained in all aspects of Russian society today as a form of protection for businesses and government organizations.

Because, should something go wrong, those who have extensive paperwork with signatures, detailed descriptions, and the correct, certifiable stamps to prove it have the power. Just read about one Muscovite’s bureaucratic nightmare at – of all places – the dry cleaner’s. 

So, if you encounter a situation that requires you to do an overwhelming and seemingly useless amount of paperwork, don’t take it personally. They’re not trying to make your life harder because you’re a foreigner, that’s just the way it works there.

Lines bee Lines

6. People will stare – Don’t worry, you haven’t got TP on your shoe

Until you’ve successfully suppressed the urge to smile at strangers in public, blended in with the local fashion trends and stopped speaking English in public, you’ll probably be recognized as a tourist rather quickly – especially my fellow, let’s say . . . boisterous, Americans.

If you’re not trying to go to such lengths to blend in, don’t be surprised if you catch the locals staring at you. Don’t worry – You don’t have a booger in your nose or TP trailing behind you! 

I’ve found that people in Russia stare at foreigners not because they are judging them, but because they are genuinely curious. They’re curious about all the same things you’re curious about when traveling and learning about other cultures – foreign fashion trends, gadgets, how people from other countries conduct themselves in public, etc.

Russia’s tourism isn’t as booming as you’d think – even in the major cities like Moscow or Saint Petersburg – so the locals become genuinely curious about where you’re traveling from and why. 

Lines bee Lines

Итак . . .

Russia is a treasure trove brimming with rich history, culture and art. However, if you don’t properly prepare for the inevitable culture shock you will face, you won’t be able to truly experience everything the country has to offer. Not properly preparing for the eventual cultural shock you’ll face when traveling in a foreign country can have negative impacts on your interactions with locals, your ability to truly immerse yourself in the culture, and your overall impression of the country you visit. 

The good news is that just by reading this article you’ve already taken the first step to overcoming Russian culture shock! The prescription to overcoming culture shock is not only about educating yourself about the culture of the country you’re visiting, but confronting the reality that the behaviors and practices of your own culture aren’t universal. 

So enjoy stepping out of your comfort zone, and be proud of yourself for experiencing new cultures!

See ya #onthebloc!

Melissa

Traveling by train from St. Petersburg to Moscow in Russia

January 23, 2021

Melissa Miller

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