What comes to mind when you think of a Russian national icon? Vodka, matryoshkas, and bears are frequently mentioned. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a writer, and Alla Pugacheva, a singer, get quite a few votes as well, and so does Cheburashka, a beloved cartoon hero.
Surprisingly few people, including Russians themselves, mention babushkas, the omnipresent grandmothers in head scarves. Yet they keep many of the traditional values and beliefs alive, always at the ready to set us straight when we, their children and grandchildren, get off track.
So what are some of the things you can do that will get you a disapproving head shake, a displeased tut-tut, or a beseeching word from these gentle guardians of all that’s proper?
Even before Western fast food chains opened in Russia, Russians had their own fast food establishments which served sandwiches, fried pierogi, and other food of convenience. Such “dry cold food” eating (there’s actually a word in Russian for this - всухомятку) has always been deemed unhealthy by grandmothers. They tirelessly remind us that such recklessness leads to vitamin deficiencies, stomach aches, and ultimately, ulcers. Ты себе язву желудка заработаешь (you will get yourself an ulcer) they say and the doctors agree.
Russian tea ceremony is a measure of friendship and acceptance between people. You don’t have to be friends with someone to drink vodka with them. But to be invited into a Russian home for tea is a different story. The informal way of inviting to tea - заходи, чайку попьём(drop by for a little tea) - both masks and underscores the intimacy of the affair. Taking an early leave is seen as impolite, especially if done repeatedly. С ними и чайку-то не попьешь по-человечески (can’t even drink tea with them normally) would say babushkas and shake their heads disapprovingly.
Dressing for the weather means different things to Russians than it does to Americans. It means putting on layers of very warm and bulky clothing based on what the calendar says, not what the thermometer shows. If the calendar says it’s December, you better put on a hat and a scarf unless you live in the Deep South. Otherwise you will catch a cold that will lead to severe complications, including bronchitis, meningitis, pneumonia, and inability to have children later in life. Застудишься - намучаешься (you will freeze and suffer), babushkas warn us.
The most important areas to cover are your head, neck, chest, stomach, buttocks, legs and feet. If you don’t have that many warm clothes, then at least take care of your ears, neck and feet. Do that and babushkas will surely mention you as a shining example of someone who is одет по погоде(dressed according to the weather).
When you walk into a Russian home, the very first thing you must do, right after greeting the host, is to take off your footwear. Nothing, not even your accent, will brand you as a foreigner faster than keeping your shoes on inside. So surrender your high heels, put on тапочки (house slippers) and shuffle off to the kitchen for tea. If you are puzzled by this custom, you will be explained that it is done чтобы уличную грязь по дому не разносить (so that dirt from the street doesn’t spread through the house).
Children and rebellious youths are the only ones who sit on desks, tables, floor and other surfaces that are not built specifically for sitting on. They also get scolded for such inappropriate behavior. As an adult and a foreigner, you will be excused, but considered, well… an American. Ну что с них взять, с американцев (what can you do, these are Americans) sigh babushkas.
Remember, Russians have two forms of “you” - a formal Вы and an informal ты. If you are not sure which one to use, use the formal “you”. In fact, wait until your Russian acquaintance asks you for the permission to address you with an informal “you” before switching to it yourself - давайте перейдём на «ты» (let’s switch to the informal “you”). Same applies to names. A polite way of addressing an adult in Russia is by using their first name and patronymic.
So dress warmly, eat soup daily, don’t leave until you drink at least a couple of cups of tea, surrender your shoes at the door, don’t sit on an armrest or a windowsill, and address your hosts with a formal “you.” Do all that, and, as the door closes behind you on your way out, you will be forever thought of as культурный человек (a civilized person).
Yelena McManaman grew up in Volgograd, Russia before moving to the US. Currently residing in North Carolina, she never misses an opportunity to invite friends for tea and stays up late reading Russian books. She writes about learning Russian and culture for Transparent Language’s Russian blog, one of 27 language blogs offered to help learners add a dose of culture to their studies.
Photo credit: © Dmytro Surkov | Dreamstime.com
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