Do as the Russians Do

Just like its old world charms, Russia has old world customs. Find out how to shake hands, make a toast and more with our etiquette guide.


Photo by: Getty Images

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Just like its old world charms, Russia has old world customs. In my travels to the Motherland, I learned first-hand her unique social taboos. One I remember clearly happened unexpectedly, one night: I had just emerged from a 13-hour train ride and was waiting to catch the bus. I brushed the snow off a ledge and sat down upon it, watching my breath condense into fog in the night air. I’m sure I was pondering Pushkin, or Tolstoy, or some other very fitting author given my current location. However, whatever epiphany I may have been on the verge of realizing was suddenly forgotten when I heard a shriek. Startled, I looked up to find one very concerned babushka frowning down upon me. At the time, I had no idea what faux pas I could have possibly made to offend this woman.

Just what did I do wrong?

In the US, we have buildings that skip the 13th floor and we’ll say we’re “fine,” even when we’re not. In Russia, strangers will flat-out tell you that you should have shined your shoes today, they won’t exactly smile when you give them a dozen roses ... and in the case of one very concerned-looking babushka, they’ll frown down upon you if you … do what exactly? For the answer, get ready for some cross-cultural assimilation: This is what to avoid doing in the Motherland.

Russian Etiquette
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Shaking Hands, Russian Style
Mastering the nuances of the Russian handshake can sometimes feel harder than learning cyrillic cursive. If, for example, you’re invited over to someone’s house, wait until you are inside to greet him or her. Russians believe that shaking hands or greeting each other over the threshold is bad luck. Also, upon entering you’ll be asked to remove your shoes and put on some house slippers -- that’s just good manners.

It may be cold outside, but that’s nothing compared to the dismissive chill you just provoked when you shook hands with your gloves on. Women may be pardoned from this practice, but men should always remove their gloves to shake hands. To not do so is a sign of disrespect.

Also, when it comes to shaking hands with the opposite gender, keep in mind: Generally a man won’t shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. So in a business situation, it’s perfectly normal for men to exchange handshakes while skipping over the females. If this bothers you, you must be prepared to offer your hand.

Thinking of Giving a Russian Girl Flowers? Better Skip a Dozen.
Sorry, fellas, a dozen roses are not so romantic in Russia. In fact, they’re not romantic at all. Why? Because even numbers are given as a sign of condolences -- generally reserved for funerals! Don’t get me wrong, Russians love giving flowers and will generally use any excuse to do so, but better pay attention to how many -- only odd numbers are given during happy times.

While in Russia … Don’t Whistle While You Work!
So you’re happily strolling along in the underground mall and whistling a fine tune … when suddenly you realize everyone is staring at you. Why? Because you are the fool whistling indoors -- and therefore bringing poverty upon yourself and everyone around you! If you must “whistle your money away,” do it in the privacy of your own home. Or better yet, refrain from doing it at all until you’re outside.

Russian Toasts

Toasting in the Motherland
Russians will often say only alcoholics drink without toasting, so don’t be surprised if you’re asked to give one. If you want to look like you know what you’re doing, do as the locals do! The first toast is generally a thank you from the host to the guest(s). The second toast from the guest(s) to the host, and the third toast is always for the women. So get ready for endless rounds of dedications, and start practicing your speech now! Here are a few to get you going:

Simple Toasts (Formal):
To you: Za vas!
To your health: Za zdorov'ye!
To our friendship: Za nashu druzhbu!
To women: Za zhenshchin!
To love: Za lyubov’!

Know Where to Sit in Russia (If You’re a Woman)
Traveling is exhausting and sometimes you may find yourself wanting to plop down on a bench, or even a stoop -- at this point you have no shame.

However, don’t be surprised if you’re suddenly berated by a passerby, as I was that day by a sweet ole babushka, for putting your future children’s lives in jeopardy. Why? Because the cold surface could make you infertile. So be wary of where you sit in Russia! After all, think of your future children!

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