Russia is the largest country on earth, covering over one eighth of the earth’s land mass and encompassing eleven time zones. Its vastness means it has a wide range of climates, from Arctic conditions in the north, to balmy warmth in the south. Despite its size, Russia has a population of less than 150 million. Its largest city is Moscow, which is also its capital.
Russia’s size and proximity to both Europe and the Far East allows it to incorporate many different cultures. The Russian Federation borders on 14 different countries, all with their own identity – China, North Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Norway. If you include Russia’s maritime boundaries, you can add Japan and the USA to the list. This certainly makes for an exceptionally interesting mix of cultures and nationalities.
Every foreigner, apart from citizens of some former Soviet republics, needs a visa to visit Russia and this must be obtained from the Russian embassy or consulate in your country of permanent residence.
Due to its multi-ethnic make up, Russia is home to many religions. However, 75% of Russia’s population follow Christianity through the Russian Orthodox Church. Islam is followed by 5% of the population and Buddhism, Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism each have 1% of the population. Another 1% of Russians follow other religions, while 8% are atheists.
Local Culture and Language
The official language in the Russian Federation is Russian, but there are over 100 minority languages and dialects which are spoken within its borders. It is estimated that Russian is the first language of over 80% of Russians. However, many people whose first language is not Russian are still fluent in it. Many Russians in the cosmopolitan areas of the country speak English, which is considered by many to be their second language.
Russia has a rich cultural heritage and history, of which its inhabitants are rightly proud. It has a myriad of historic cities, buildings, museums and sites to visit, plus many places of natural beauty – mountains, lakes, tundra and countryside. A trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway gives you the opportunity to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok (5,700 miles), stopping along the way to enjoy everything that Russia has to offer. Just don’t expect the same luxury as the Orient Express!
Etiquette and Customs
It’s important to remove both your coat and your shoes when entering someone’s home. Your host may even have slippers for you to wear while you are there. Bring a small gift. Flowers are very well received but ensure they are an odd number, as even numbers are associated with burials. Yellow flowers in the house are considered bad luck.
When entering a place of worship, women should cover their head and shoulders. Many churches will not allow men or women in if they are wearing shorts. Men should also remove their hats when entering a church.
Russians eat in the European fashion of placing the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left. They generally eat with their wrists resting on the table, as it’s important that hands should be seen at all times when dining.
Doing Business and Management Advice
Russians are generally very knowledgeable in subjects such as geography, history, culture and politics and often know more about your country of birth than you do. However, seventy years of communism means that some Russians, especially older Russians, don’t have the commercial knowledge which comes with growing up in a capitalist environment. Do not take the moral high ground on this one, just exercise patience and explain your position carefully and succinctly.
Older Russians tend to be more conservative when conducting business and prefer to do so in groups. Younger Russians are more individualistic and dynamic in their approach.
Learn as much as you can about Russian history, geography and culture before you arrive in the country. Russians are extremely proud of their history and culture, and will be delighted to discuss it with you – just don’t make any judgemental comments.
Business Meeting Etiquette
Always dress formally for meetings. Both men and women should wear business suits and women should make sure their skirts aren’t too short. Shoes should be polished and suitable for the occasion.
Arrange business meetings well in advance. It is advisable to arrange meetings with government officials at least six weeks ahead. Confirm the meeting a couple of days before the date. Always arrive on time but don’t be surprised if you are kept waiting. Patience is a key aspect in all business meetings and negotiations in Russia. Your Russian counterparts will expect you to give a detailed outline of your company and what you can do for them better than other companies can. Meeting can be very long and are often accompanied by ‘get to know you’ lunches. Russians like to know their business colleagues on both a social and business level.
Business cards and all documentation must be printed in Russian and English. Your business card should have English on one side and Russian on the other. Always put any advanced degrees you have on your business card, as these will impress. At the end of each meeting a ‘protokol’ will be signed, outlining the content of the meeting.
NB Never shake hands by a doorway, Russians believe it is bad luck and an argument may ensue.
Expect negotiations to move slowly. Russians respect age and position within a company, so it is important that you match your business personnel with the rank and age of the team the Russians are using. Russians do not compromise as this is seen as a sign of weakness. They will wait for you to make suitable concessions.
Always remain calm and exercise patience. Never let your counterparts know that you are under a deadline as they may play on this and you won’t get the best deal. Cancelling important meetings is very common and is often used as a negotiating tactic. Walking out of meetings is also quite common, so just sit tight and wait.
The most important thing is not to pressurise your counterparts during meetings, it is not the Russian way of doing things, and, as they say, “When in Rome…”.
Relocating to Russia
Since 1991 Russia has become home to western businesses and interests and now has a large expat population who live mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Living in Russia has its challenges, such as the harsh climate, pollution and the relatively high crime rate. There are many secure gated communities and complexes in the major cities, which seem to be where most expats base themselves. However, many long-term expats feel that the crime rate in Moscow has been grossly exaggerated and they have never had a problem. They say it’s just a case of being vigilant and sensible as you would be in any other big city in the world.
Education is obviously an important factor when relocating with children. There are excellent international schools in the major cities which cater for children from the age of three. There are also Embassy schools run by the various missions which accommodate children of embassy staff and sometimes company employees of the same nationality. For example, the British International School takes children from the age of 3 up to 18 and teaching is based on the English National Curriculum.
There is a reciprocal arrangement between the UK and Russia regarding healthcare which gives expats free hospital cover. However, many people take out private health insurance which gives them full cover, including emergency evacuation, which is recommended if you are living outside major urban centres.
Cost of Living
Living in Russia used to be exceptionally expensive; however, the cost of living has decreased over the last few years. Several 2016 surveys have shown that living in Moscow is almost 50% cheaper than living in London. Living in Moscow is also said to be 27% more expensive than living in St. Petersburg.
Moscow has a highly efficient, clean and safe metro system, with one train leaving every 90 seconds in rush hour. It handles up to 9 million passengers a day and even with those volumes, the trains are not as busy as those in London, Tokyo or New York. St. Petersburg also has a good metro system. Remember not to take any photographs in the Metro unless you want your camera confiscated. Buses are not as reliable; a better option would be to take a taxi.
As the traffic in Moscow and St. Petersburg is notoriously heavy during peak times, many expats choose to employ a driver, so they can work while sitting in the traffic. It also makes sense in the winter, when the roads can be dangerous due to ice, slush and snow.
Food and Restaurants
Food is not very varied in Russia and it is hard for those with Western palates to come to terms with. One British expat said “Keep eating Russian food until you like it – it comes.” There are shops which sell imported foods but they are exceptionally expensive.
Russians enjoy food and socialising. Those that can afford it enjoy eating out. However, entertaining at home is far more common. If you are invited to dine at a friend’s house/flat, take some flowers or wine as a gift. Never give flowers in an even number – for example, a dozen roses – as it is considered bad luck and is associated with funerals. It is customary for men to give flowers, but don’t give yellow ones. Be careful what you admire in your host’s home because he/she may feel obliged to offer it to you as a gift.
There are many superb restaurants in all major Russian cities but they are generally expensive. Tips are not compulsory but obviously appreciated. If your dining companion offers to pay for your meal, it is polite to refuse a couple of times but then you can politely agree. Remember that drinking vodka or beer in public places is a criminal offence.
Meeting People and Fitting In
Russians are a very hospitable people and enjoy meeting expats and exchanging views. Being able to speak just a little bit of Russian also helps to cement local friendships. It also helps you to read the road signs and buy food in the supermarkets.
There is a thriving expat community in Moscow and St. Petersburg where it is easy to make friends. Living in Russia is a great experience and interacting with the local people will deeply enrich the time you spend there.