Before coming to Russia, read this article to be prepared. Just in case - because Russians may surprise you with some unexpected peculiarities.
Fact 1 - Russian people do not smile
If you walk in the street in Russia, or go by metro, you will probably think that Russians are very unhappy. As most of them will have gloomy face expressions, and if you smile at someone, this person will look pretty nervous and try to avoid eye contact. Even worse - they will think that you are a looney and they should not encourage this by smiling back to you. All this gives you a rather depresive impression, does not it? But please don't think that Russian are impolite or not happy to see you visiting their country. This is just the matter of culture.
One version says that Russian people do not smile because of the rigorous climate. Just think about it - when you don't see much sun throughout the year, and for half a year you have to wear super warm clothes, you get a bit tired to smile at every person you meet. Kind of need to keep more good energy for your family and close friends.
Another, deeper theory tells that in Russian culture a smile does not really symbolize politeness. It is intended to show that something really good has happened to a person and he is very happy about it. Seeing you in the street is a good thing, but not something to be excessively happy about, right? So a Russian will ignore your smile and continue with a casual expression. Still if you are used to being smiley - don't restrain your temper in Russia! We need more smiles here :)
Fact 2 - Russian celebrate New Year instead of Christmas
Firstly, Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, not December 25th, like in other forms of Christianity. That's why holidays last for about 10 days starting from New Year day, and, naturally, are very much loved by Russians.
Secondly, when Russians prepare for the holiday season, they prepare primarily for the New Year celebration on December 31st. This traces back to the Soviet times when the religion was suppressed, but holiday fun was still much needed to cheer people up. So today we buy gifts, decorate our houses and hold parties on December 31st. When clock is striking 12, you should write your wish on a piece of paper, burn it into champagne glass and drink it - only this way your dream will come true.
Russians can celebrate the New Year all night long, partying and walking in the streets. Firework blasts will not let you sleep until the morning. The upside of this tradition is that on January 1st the steets are empty, perfect for tranquil walking.
What about Christmas? Some people go to Church service, some spend the evening with their families, but it's not that mainstream.
Photo credit: Artem Svetlov
Fact 3 - Russian people are huge fans of tea
If you ask, what is the most popular Russian drink, most probably you will get the answer "tea" and not "vodka". Russians drink tea several times a day to get more energy, to keep warm, to socialize or just to procrastinate. It is unusual to drink "just tea" - some sweets should complement it. Tea itself is also enhanced by adding sugar, honey or lemon.
Historically, a special device "samovar" was used to boil the water for tea. Now it is long gone due to technological progress, but samovar has remained a traditional artefact which is used in old-Russian restaurants. There are even museums dedicated to samovar in Kolomna and Tula.
Fact 4 - Russians are very superstitious
Russian people still believe in numerous superstitions, as their predecessors did more than a millennium ago. The main reason for that is everyone's obsession with keeping away the evil eye.
If someone says a good thing about a child, or tells about a pleasant event that is going to happen, Russians will most likely spit three times or knock on wood. This should protect them from any misfortune.
When Russians set on a trip, before exiting the house, they will sit altogether for some time in complete silence. This is supposed to fool the evil spirits by giving the impression that no one is going anywhere.
Many superstitions are connected to the topic of marriage. For instance, unmarried girls should beware of taking corner seats at the table - otherwise they are unlikely to get married in the following 7 years.
Of course, you are not expected to follow every rule while you are in Russia. But it feels good to be on the safe side, right?
Fact 5 - Russians like swimming in ice-holes (well, some of them)
On January 19th, Orthodox Christians celebrate the big day of Epiphany - by bathing in freezing river water. For a long time, Russians have believed that this ritual protects them from all kinds of illnesses. Some people just enjoy the idea of it, and do it for fun. These ice-swimming lovers are labelled as walruses.
"Walruses" in Siberian city Irkutsk even organize swimsuit races at -20°C! Follow the link to read about the health benefits of such lifestyle.
Fact 6 - More than a half of Russians get divorced
Family statistics look very sad in Russia: for 1000 marriages a year, there are 895 divorces (2016). Russia is a record-holder for having the highest rate of divorces per 1000 population. The main reason is the habit to get married at a very young age, especially, in small cities. More than one third of women get married before they are 24.
Another theory, which explains this unhealthy situation, says that Russian women have higher expectations than worldwide average. More of them get higher education and build a career, and men simply fall short of their expectations. Notwithstanding the next fact!
Fact 7 - Russians generally have very traditional mindset
Russian people have very old-fashioned views on the questions of gender and family. Sometimes it feels like feminism has kept far away from this country. Russian people are sexist, to be perfectly honest. It is still believed here that women should do chores around the house and look after the kids. Men are supposed to earn more than women to provide for their families. Couples should basically be married and have kids. Oh, and they should consist of one man and one woman, these couples.
Russian marketers don't give a damn about being tolerant in their ads. That's why you constantly see excessively sexual and undressed women at the billboards in Russia. You should be thankful the moment you see them, that you don't speak Russian - most probably these ads contain chauvinist jokes. We will not even repeat them here, they are too bad.
Fact 8 - Russian people are crazy about going to "dachas"
Dacha is not something special, it is just a country cottage that is used by Russians mostly in the summer. Still Friday nights in the cities during this season look like massive evacuation with huge traffic jams heading outbound. Dacha lovers are not frightened of being stuck in a jam for 4 hours - it pays out the next morning, when they wake up to the tranquillity of the countryside.
Most popular dacha's activity is making 'shashlyk', or barbecue, and eating eat with beer or stronger spirits. During the daytime Russians don't rest, they work hard to grow fruits and vegetables, or build a home, which is an eternal process. Some are lucky to have a banya in their country house - read about the next fact.
Fact 9 - Russian people can't live without banya
Banya is a Russian version of sauna with higher humidity. But it's much more than just a place for relaxation - it is a sacred place where people get clean both on physical and mental levels. Before water supply systems were introduced, banya was the only bathing place which people visited about once a week.
Today Russian banya is more of an amusement place where people spend time with their friends. It is believed to be very healthy for you, especially if you dump a bucket of ice water on yourself right after the steaming room. Some people have personal banyas at their country houses, but public banyas are also popular. Male and female sections are separated, so it's not that shocking as in German or Austrian saunas. You can visit banya on a specialized tour or just head there yourself - personnel in the most renowned banyas speak some English.
Fact 10 - Russians cook more food than they can actually eat
If you are lucky enough to be invited into a Russian house, you will most probably observe that a dinner table "is breaking under the dishes", i.e. there are too many dishes to taste. Russian people strongly believe that this is the only normal way to greet their guests or celebrate a holiday. Consequently, you are supposed to spend all the evening having the dinner and communicating.
Don't worry that some food will be wasted, all of it will be finished in the following days. Some say that mayonnaise-based salads are even better the next day.