Russia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Russia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

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Discovering the Russian soul is like opening a matryoshka, a Russian doll, revealing the many layers. The Russian Orthodox religion is unique, Russian history is tragic, and the people are unpredictable. Russia’s military and political power, as well as the rich contribution of its art and culture, is the result of an inner dynamic not always understood by outsiders. This book sets out to help listeners become more perceptive travelers and to make trips more personally fulfilling. It explores the connections between Russia’s turbulent past and its paradoxical present, it describes present-day values and attitudes, and it offers practical advice on what to expect and how to behave in different social circumstances.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781690596097
Publisher: Dreamscape Media
Publication date: 03/04/2021
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 6.04(w) x 5.04(h) x 1.13(d)

About the Author

Anna King is a Russian-born business development consultant specializing in cross-cultural issues, negotiation practices, and conflict management. She speaks seven languages, and has an M.Phil. Degree from Cambridge University. Anna has worked with key government and decision makers in Britain and across the CIS. She has also interpreted for high-level government visits to the UK and for senior ministerial meetings at the EU in Brussels.

Grace Cuddihy is a translator and an editor who has lived in Moscow, Ukraine, and the Republic of Mari El Republic. While completing a degree in history and Russian at Trinity College Dublin, she won a scholarship to Moscow State University. In Moscow, she worked as a governess for Russian families, as an English teacher, and as an editor at The Moscow Times newspaper. Now, she works as a freelance translator and editor for organizations such as Skoltech and the Strelka Institute.

Charles Armstrong trained at the Drama Studio. His theatre work includes Stop Messing About (Leicester Square Theatre) and Round the Horne Revisited (West End and Tour). He has also worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, National, and many Repertory Theaters. His work on film and TV includes Scoop, EastEnders, Poirot, Head Over Heels, and The Navigators. He has recorded numerous voiceovers, documentaries, radio dramas, and audiobooks.

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By Anna King

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-574-3




Contradictions begin from the moment you look at the map. Some American geography books define Russia as "a country in the northern part of Asia." President Putin recently declared that "Russia has extended European borders to the Pacific." Russia has been described as being sandwiched between Asia and Europe, with the Ural Mountains serving as the geographical divide, though "sandwiched" is hardly an appropriate word for a country that stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, covers one-sixth of the world's landmass, and extends through eleven time zones.

"We are Scythians! Asians!" wrote the poet Aleksandr Blok in the early twentieth century, yet Russia's contributions to European literature, art, and music are outstanding. While two-thirds of Russia's territory are in Asia, three-quarters of the population live in the European part. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg are the largest cities.

Each September the first lesson of the Russian school year traditionally begins with a talk about "our Motherland, and its space one can't embrace." Vast open plains cover most of the territory: the Eastern European (Russian) Plain, the Mid-Siberian Plateau, and the Central Yakut Plain. It is an eight-hour flight from Moscow to the Pacific coastal city of Vladivostok.

"There is a strong connection between physical geography and the geography of soul, a correlation between the boundlessness of the Russian lands and the Russian spirit. Russian people have in their souls enormous spaces, the boundless eternity of the Russian plains ...," wrote the philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev.

"He has a wide soul," Russians often say about somebody sympathetic and supportive.

The enormous Russian spaces have another effect. Visitors cannot but notice that everything is done on a large scale, from architecture to drinking. People you meet, when they open up to you, are larger than life, both in joy and in anger.

In that first lesson of the school year, you would also hear the teacher describe Russia as the richest country in the world, though only the most progressive teacher would add in a whisper, "potentially." Russia has a quarter of the world's mineral resources — from oil, gas, gold, and diamonds to nonferrous metals and timber — but the obstacles of a harsh climate, great distances, and a lack of human resources (Russia has only 2.5 percent of the world's population) have hindered its development. Add to this the permafrost that covers half the landmass, leaving only 8 percent of the land arable; active volcanoes in the Kuril Islands; spring floods and summer forest fires throughout Siberia; and earthquakes on the Kamchatka Peninsula; and you will agree with that progressive teacher.


Russia encompasses all climate zones except the tropical. Most of the country has a harsh continental climate, with a dramatic difference between summer and winter temperatures. The village of Oymyakon, in the autonomous Sakha Republic, for example, is one of the world's coldest places, with an average winter temperature of -56.6°F (-47°C). A monument there marks the day it fell to -96.16°F (-71.2°C). Global warming might well change things: January 2007 was the first January on record in Moscow without snow.

Southern Russia has a subtropical climate, where year-round temperatures remain above 46°F (approx. 8°C), and summer temperatures range between 79° and 90°F (26° and 32°C), though occasional extreme heat waves might exceed 122°F (50°C).

Winter in Russia lasts much longer than in Europe, and there are only three or four summer months in which concentrated agricultural labor is possible. This may explain the characteristic Russian shturmovshina — short bursts of extremely intense work. Short harvest periods and unpredictable weather can lead to risk taking in sowing, and planting na avos — a "what if" approach — hoping for a good outcome. And besides, if the harvest fails one can always go fishing. This attitude may go some way to explaining the resilience that is part of the Russian character — the ability to bounce back after losing everything, after forceful relocation due to the whims of politicians, or after economic crises.


Russia's 120,000 rivers stretch for 1,864,114 miles (3 million km); two million fresh and saltwater lakes are scattered across the country. Volga Matushka, "Mother Volga," the national symbol of Russia and the longest river in Europe, rises northwest of Moscow and flows all the way to the Caspian Sea. Rivers are extremely important in Russian life; they bring food, transportation, and trade (the famous Nizhny Novgorod trade fair, for example, grew up on the confluence of two major rivers, the Volga and the Oka).

Though Russia is surrounded by seas — the Arctic Ocean, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Pacific Ocean — there are huge internal territories that do not have access to seaports. Sociologists talk about the "continental," inward-looking Russian mentality, typical in countries where the majority of the population is isolated from international influences. Most Russian territory is situated more than 250 miles (402 km) from the sea.


The patchwork of climatic and ecological zones gives rise to different densities of population in the various Russian regions and, inevitably, to ethnic and cultural differences. Geographers have often tried to define those regional parameters. I. Ryazantsev and A. Zavalishin developed the interesting concept of the "Russian cross," which divides the country into four major regions by climatic conditions, culture, and history.

The West: European Russia and the Urals

This area is the cradle of Russian civilization; it has the highest density of population and is the most economically developed. Forty-eight out of fifty-five deposits of natural resources are in the Urals, as well as the major military plants and a huge industrial base. The area was the main laboratory of the Soviet and post -Soviet social and economic experiments, and the main arena of the "battle of minds" between the reformist center and the conservative, provincial "red belt" of Communist supporters.

The East: Southern Siberia, Lake Baikal, and the Southern Part of the Far East

These are the areas around the Trans-Siberian railway and the Pacific coast. The population is less dense here, and there is a strong sense of regional identity. Those who live in Siberia are known as sibiryaky, and those who live in the Far East as dalnevostochniki.

The sibiryaky are tough and hardworking, with a strong survival instinct. They are either the descendants of the Siberian pioneers of the eighteenth century or the grandchildren or children of ex-prisoners: it was in Siberia that the majority of Stalin's camps were situated, and one-third of those who survived their ordeal decided not to return (or were not allowed to return) to Central Russia. The social system of mutual support and camaraderie is stronger here than in other regions.

The dalnevostochniki, who live on the Pacific coast, are more detached and self-contained. They are an eight-hour flight away from the central government decision makers. Those who moved here were ready for start-up difficulties, and relied on their own resources and skills.

The Eurasian North

This includes the territories north of around 60° latitude. Here normal agriculture is practically impossible due to the harsh winters, permafrost, and long polar nights. The population consists mainly of hunters, fishermen, deer herders, and those working in the mining industries.

The South

This includes the autonomous republics of the Northern Caucasus and the basin of the Don River. The local conflicts here go back more than a century. The Russian Empire gained political control of the Caucasus in the 1860s, and the region, especially the Checheno-Ingush region, has been a constant source of conflict ever since.

The southern mentality represents a melting pot of 112 ethnic groups, mixing the customs of the Kazakhs, whose ancestors escaped from Ukraine in search of freedom, with the aspirations of the local ethnic minorities to preserve Caucasian customs, identity, and independence.

According to the 2002 census, the ethnic groups in the Russian Federation are: Russian, 79.8 percent; Tatar, 3.8 percent; Ukrainian, 2 percent; Bashkir, 1.2 percent; Chuvash, 1.1 percent; others, 12.1 percent.

The Federal Structure

The Russian Federation is divided into eighty-seven administrative units officially known as "Federal Subjects." Of these, thirty are defined by ethnicity, and fifty-seven by territory. According to the constitution all the regional units are equal in their relationship to the center; in reality, there are subtle differences in the degrees of autonomy they enjoy. They are divided into the following categories: twenty-one republics; nine territories (krai); forty-eight regions (oblast), and nine autonomous regions (avtonomnaya oblast, or avtonomny okrug). Moscow and St. Petersburg are regional units in their own right and are called "Federal Cities." If you find this confusing, imagine trying to manage and coordinate this entity in a unified way.

Since 2000, President Putin has overseen a sustained recentralization of power in the relations between the center and the "subjects of federation." Russia has been divided into seven federal districts, overseen by presidential envoys (polpredi). Five out of those seven envoys are former officers of the security services. Their first task has been to harmonize federal and regional legislation, which in some cases had diverged widely in the 1990s. Budgetary relations between the center and the regions have shifted in favor of the federal government. In December 2004 the President abolished the direct election of regional leaders and reverted to the earlier system, whereby leaders are appointed by the President, subject to approval by the regional legislature. A process has begun of consolidating regions into larger, supposedly more manageable units. The first to merge were Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug. Further mergers are in the pipeline. But despite those efforts, the relations between the federal center and the regions still follow the matryoshka, or Russian doll, principle: "subjects of federation" are self-governing islands of various sizes within one big doll.


Political analysts both in Russia and abroad have been struggling to find an accurate definition of the present state of the Russian political system. "Sovereign democracy" and "democratic autocracy" are just two attempts. The bottom line, however, remains the same: the Russian president has an enormous amount of power.

The President

The presidency is Russia's key political institution. The president is head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has extensive powers to determine domestic and foreign policy. He submits draft legislation to parliament, and signs into law or vetoes the bills that parliament has adopted. He may also issue decrees and directives that have the force of law but do not require parliamentary approval. He is elected to a four-year term by universal suffrage. No individual may serve more than two consecutive terms. In theory at least, this does not rule out the possibility that a president who has served two terms might cede power to a successor and later return to power for a third term. It does, however, mean that, in the current state of affairs, unless the constitution is amended, which Putin has said he does not intend to do, he will be obliged to leave office in early 2008. The constitution makes no provision for a vice president, and there is no specific procedure for determining whether or not the president is capable of carrying out his duties.

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president approves the defense doctrine, appoints and removes the high command of the armed forces, and confers high military ranks and awards. He can declare war, martial law, or a state of emergency on his own initiative and authority, but must obtain authorization from the Federation Council before ordering deployment of the armed forces outside Russian territory.

The Presidential Administration

The president relies for support on the Presidential Administration (PA), which has a staff of two thousand. In theory, the PA confines itself to setting overall policy, while the government implements policy on a day-to-day basis. In practice, this division of labor is blurred, and the PA often intervenes in specific issues. Under Putin's leadership, it has become the norm for federal legislation to be drafted by the PA.

According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Stephen White, who have researched the power struggles within the Kremlin, Putin's administration is believed to be divided into several "clans," all of which support a strong or even authoritarian state. On the one hand are the siloviki, representing mainly the law enforcement agencies, who favor strong state control of both economy and society but who are believed to be divided among themselves and jostling for power. On the other hand are the so-called liberals, who support a market economy and what they regard as a democratic path of development for Russia. While the siloviki support a strong state as a matter of course, even the liberals argue that Russia's population is not ready for democratic reforms and that the state accordingly has no alternative but to control events from the top.


The bicameral Federal Assembly (Federalnoje Sobranije) consists of the upper house — the Federation Council (Sovet Federatsii) with 174 seats, composed of members appointed from 87 regional "subjects of federation" — and the lower house — the State Duma (Gosudarstvennaja Duma), which consists of 450 elected deputies. Until recently half the members were elected by proportional representation from party lists winning at least 5 percent of the vote, and half from single-member constituencies. The system changed in 2007 to party lists only. In order to qualify for seats, a party has to win at least 7 percent of the national vote.

In Russia executive and legislative power are totally separate; that is, members of parliament cannot become ministers.


In 2004, the number of government ministries was cut from twenty-three to fourteen. The powers of the remaining ministries were extended to include the power to set policy and draft legislation, and they were made responsible for overseeing a number of subordinate agencies and federal services. The government is headed by the prime minister.

In a gesture toward democracy, the president has set up two other bodies: the State Council, representing the governors of the regions and the presidents of the republics; and the Public Chamber, which consists of Kremlin nominees, representatives of NGOs, and prominent public figures. However, the impact of the State Council on policy making has been small, and the role of the Public Chamber is purely consultative.


Excerpted from Russia by Anna King. Copyright © 2007 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
About the Author,
Map of Russia,
Key Facts,
Chapter 6: TIME OUT,
Further Reading,

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