This guide was written prior to Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine and is therefore not reflective of the current situation. Travel to Russia is currently not advisable due to the area's volatile political situation.
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 expats 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, and will go out of their way to help.
When meeting someone, Russian greetings are normally done through a firm handshake.
Drinking in Russia
Drinking alcohol is a central part of Russian culture. Expats should be prepared for this when their local friends and colleagues 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.
Gift-giving in Russia
Gift-giving is an important part of Russian culture. It’s best not to show up to a party empty-handed, although when asking a Russian host what to bring, they'll probably tell the expat not to bring anything.
It's normal practice in most businesses to buy vodka, whisky or brandy for men and a good wine, liqueur, or chocolates and flowers for women. If someone has done something helpful, it's usual to thank them with gifts that would be considered extravagant elsewhere.
Language barrier in Russia
Expats in Moscow will find that metro stops, among other things, are announced in English, making it the most foreigner-friendly city in Russia. That said, English isn't widely spoken by locals in Russia, although it's sometimes spoken among young professionals.
It's worth attempting to master the Cyrillic alphabet. Some letters look exactly like letters from the Roman alphabet but denote completely different sounds. This does cause issues when it comes to transliteration to and from Cyrillic script, particularly with names on passport and visa documentation. Wherever possible, it's worth the time and energy to correct any such mistakes and inconsistencies immediately, as problems can arise that reach far down the bureaucratic line.