Russia was hidden behind the Iron Curtain for the best part of the century, so for many western travellers, it’s still a country of great unknowns. And while it’s one of the most innovative countries in the world, it’s also steeped in superstition and tradition. If you’re not careful, you could end up offending someone or embarrassing yourself. To help you save face on your travels, we’ve pulled together a handy guide on what not to do in Russia, which should set you in good stead for your trip. Read it carefully.
What not to do when visiting Russia
1. Leave your passport and ID in the hotel
This is a real no-go. According to Russian superstitions, leaving an empty bottle on the table will give you bad luck and/or make you really poor. Some say that evil spirits will take up residence in the bottle, which is something we’d rather not risk. Plus, it’s a failsafe method for losing friends.
No one really knows where the tradition comes from, but it’s likely the Cossacks introduced it at some point during the 19th century. During the wars against Napoleon, they were allegedly charged by the number of empty bottles on their table. The sneaky Cossacks hid their empty bottles under the table when they finished to save the pennies, and the tradition stuck.
3. Shake hands with gloves on
Don’t shake hands with someone while you’re still wearing gloves. We know it’s tempting because Russia gets cold, but it’s one of the most insulting things you can do. It can spell the death of a friendship before it’s even begun. You should also avoid shaking hands over a threshold (i.e. a doorway), since this is also bad luck. Tradition holds that your conversation will end up in an argument if you do.
4. Smile too much
Russians have a reputation for being a bit moody, which we think is unwarranted. That said, you won’t often find people smiling excessively. It’s not because they don’t like you, but because culturally Russians feel they don’t have to smile unless they have a good reason too. So you might think a good way to get on side is by smiling wildly at people, but it’s actually seen as disingenuous – and a bit weird. Keep your smiles for your pals and family.
5. Forget to stand on someone’s toes
If you step on someone’s foot accidentally, don’t be surprised if you receive a light tap on your toes in return. A widely held Russian superstition holds that if you step on someone’s foot, the other person should step on yours to ensure you both avoid future conflict.
6. Show up empty-handed
It’s rude to show up empty-handed in most places in the world, but particularly so in Russia. If you’re invited to someone’s house, you should something – a bottle, dessert, flowers, even a chocolate bar if you’re stuck. Make sure it’s something you’ll enjoy what you’re bringing too though, as it’s also rude not to partake in enjoying the gift.
There are other rules to consider too. For example, you shouldn’t bring yellow flowers or flowers in uneven numbers to someone’s home. If a small child is going to be there, bring something small and child-friendly too.
7. Be afraid to dress up
Get your glad rags on, because Russians are a glamorous bunch. This is not the place to trial the ‘bare-faced beauty’ look. If you don’t want to stand out, you’ll need a pair of heels at the very least. While it’s quite common in the UK to go to the ballet in a pair of jeans and a nice top, in Russia it’s cause for a real occasion – we’re talking rhinestones, sparkles and contour.