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Russian mentality. Dealing with Russians. Understanding Russian character

Understanding Russian mentality - tips and recommendations

A Russian girl on the Red Square near the Kremlin in Moscow
By Alla Pavlovskaya · Moscow guide for businessmen (extracts). Published for foreign visitors by Moscow State University in 2003


Despite the decades of official atheism in Russia during the Soviet times, the religion still plays the important role in life of Russians.

First of all, there is a number of real believers, especially among elderly people. Yet more youth have been coming to religion during the last years.

Secondly, church visitors, that are mainly educated people and intelligentsia include those that follow common fashion and those that treat it as going back to the roots and own country's history.

Militant atheists are mainly found among the senior generation. They keep the memory of the 1930th and associate religion with decay and stagnation.

The significant part of the population is quite indifferent towards the religion and many occasionally visit the church just in case or when they face hardship. This proves the old Russian proverb "Grom ne gryanet, muzhik ne perekrestitsya" ( A peasant needs thunder to cross himself and wonder).

Anyway the significant part of population is quite serious about the religion. Most often people are not willing to discuss religion freely and take it privately. Sunday visits to the church as a part of socialization are not customary in Russia. The church is a place to pray God where Russians go along or with a close friend.

Russian Orthodox Church dominates in the country. The people stand during the church service, sometimes for many hours. When men enter the church, they have to take their hats off, whereas women are not allowed to stay inside the church bare-headed. People wearing beach clothes, like shorts and sundresses are not welcome inside Russian Orthodox church. Be prepared that women wearing pants and jeans may not be allowed inside at times, however the church has become more tolerant to tourists' outfits in present.

If you want to address to the saint with some plea, you have to buy a candle, lit it and put by his icon at the special place. It is not accepted that someone talks aloud, takes photos and gazes at church people during the church service.

The attitude to money and wealth.

Russian people have developed quite complicated attitude to the money. Russian culture and literature has always declared that the "money is not the key to happiness" (ne v dengah schastye). So the idea that money can not grant happiness takes deep roots in Russian mentality.

Such ambiguous attitude to wealth and prosperity has come down to us. Wealth draws jealousy and dislike and does not guarantee respect from people and high social status. This can become an anguishing problem for so called "new Russians" that make winning the respect of the society a mater of principle.

Despite the common idea that every business in Russia starts with bribes, it would be recommended to negotiate with Russians you know before you decide to pass money under the table to a particular official. Even though quite a lot of problems are solved with bribing, doing it in the wrong way or in a too direct manner can make a person angry. You may be surprised to discover that some people find the image of being poor but proud more fascinating that the money you offer.

Social relations in Russian society.

The relations inside the structure of the society may seem to be quite contradictory as well. On the one hand one can notice quite strict hierarchy in the Russian society. This means honor to the senior and importance of the social status. On the other hand things may not be that simple at first. The model "a boss and a subordinate" implies that the first is totally responsible for taking serous decisions, yet it leaves open the possibility to act as equals for the second one. All in all relations between the superior and the subordinate in Russia are less formal and more home-felt then in many western countries.

Despite this, you have to remember a specific pride of 'little person' emphasized by Russian classical literature. Even a smallest screw in the mechanism can stop a big operation if you do not treat it well with necessary respect. Your social or financial status would not help.

You should ask but not demand and you will get what you want. Russian people often put consideration and respect higher then career progress. If you come to Russia it is recommended to take some small inexpensive gifts you could present to the hotel clerk, secretary at work, your neighbour, etc. Do not offer them as bribes, but a sign of consideration and good attitude from your side.

A Russian proverb says: "It is not that your present is valuable for me, but your love is". It highlights that not the financial or practical side is important but attention and consideration matters. Make presents as if a person does you're a favor accepting it and you will succeed. The gratitude of a "little person" might appear important to you.

Public behavior

Public behavior of Russians also needs some comments. Russians are often admitted to look gloomy. This is connected with a certain traditional behavior pattern and has little to do with character of a particular person.

Smiling to strangers is not characteristic of Russians. This is treated as acting silly or strange, or even dangerous in some context (like when you meet a stranger in the darkness at the front door). A Russian proverb says "Smekh bez prichiny - priznak durachiny" ( Laughter with no reason is a sign of folly ).

When the first McDonald's restaurant was opened in Russia its Russian staff was constantly taught to smile at customer. This caused most difficulties to the management as the staff was concerned the people would think they were fools.

Concentrated and serious face of a Russian man out in the street does not mean he is hostile or gloomy. He just treats smile as something intimate he shares with close people only.

Finally Russian politics is a topic that caused very complicated attitude and reactions. Today's Russians do not like to speak about politics, especially with foreigners. Everything got mixed up. The concepts like freedom, democracy, capitalism, etc, familiar and usual for westerners, can have a different sounding for Russians.

If you're interested in making business in Russia it's time to forget about your political views and do not bring up disputable topics.

Recommendations to foreign businessmen coming to Russia

- do not get scared;

- try to collect information about Russian culture, way of life, manners, Russian national character;

- think about the people you work with, do not impose your rules and respect theirs, do not be aggressive. Russian highly value good attitude to them and would certainly pay back;

- make good friends and acquaintances. This is the best way to survive in Russia;

- don't measure another man's foot by your own;

- be patient, remember that your own behavior can also seem odd to Russians;

- discard your prejudice;

- don't lose the vigilance. Russian business is still unstable;

- trust your intuition and life experience. The business ethic usual for your country is the same in Russian;

- don't be hesitant to ask if something in not clear to you. Do not feel uneasy that you are a foreigner. People will treat it with understanding. Moreover this is what they expect from you;

- don't focus on everyday confusions, this is not the most important thing.


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