Culture Shock in Russia

Expats moving to Russia will almost certainly experience some degree of culture shock. The weather is often harsh, the language seemingly impenetrable, and the people themselves can often appear distant and uncaring. That said, expats living in Russia will also find themselves in a land of surprises and adventure, and will be able to enjoy the country's sublime theatre, dance, art and music. 

Russian people speak with pride about the nature of their “Russian soul”, and are often eager to share their traditions, passion for life and rich culture. With patience, good friends and an open mind, expats will be well equipped to deal with the culture shock of living in Russia.

Meeting and greeting in Russia

Living in Russia’s big cities, like Moscow or St Petersburg, is a curious and contradictory interplay of invisibility and exposure. At times one may feel like they have disappeared altogether as people in the streets seem to look through each other. It’s important to realise that this kind of behaviour is a result of the fact that Russian people have a public mask that is different from their private selves.

Expats shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that everybody in the country is rude and unfriendly. Once acquainted with someone, Russians are usually generous, warm and helpful. 

Drinking in Russia

Drinking alcohol is a central part of Russian culture, and expats should be prepared when their local friends and coworkers invite them out for drinks. This is an issue that generally impacts men more than women, but any expat should make an effort not to underestimate the dangers of over-drinking.

Gifts and bribery in Russia

Corruption and bribery remain a big problem in Russia. While most Russians will say they abhor the practice of paying bribes, it’s common to see people give gifts when asking someone to get something done. 

It is normal practice in most businesses to buy vodka, whisky or brandy for men and a good wine or liqueur, or chocolates and flowers for women. Expats who engage in this practice may find it easier to make and keep appointments with key people or have important documents ready on time. If someone has done something helpful, it is usual to thank them with gifts that would be considered extravagant elsewhere. 

Language barrier in Russia

English is not widely spoken in Russia, although it is sometimes spoken among young professionals. It is worth attempting to master the Cyrillic alphabet, in which some letters look exactly like letters from the Roman alphabet but denote completely different sounds.

Issues arising from different methods of transliteration to and from Cyrillic script, particularly with names on passport and visa documentation, can cause problems that reach far down the bureaucratic line. Wherever possible, it's worth the time and energy to correct any such mistakes and inconsistencies immediately.

Sarah Semyanik Our Expat Expert
Sarah Semyanik left her home country, England, in 2005 and arrived in Moscow with no idea of what might happen. The first surprise was that she met a Russian gymnast, married and had a baby. She also began to write in earnest. Although now acclimatised to living as an expat in a foreign culture, she hopes never to get over the amazement and awe of finding herself a resident of Russia. Sarah is currently working on children's books, a YA novel and a collection of short stories. She writes a blog as the Incredible Invisible Woman, which can be found at:

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