Russian Culture

Russia

Please check back in September, 2014 for our most recent update of these resources. In 1991, the former Soviet Union collapsed into 15 new independent states. It is now officially called both “Russia” and the “Russian Federation” and is comprised of 83 federal districts. Therefore, when we refer to “Russian” immigrants, we are using the term in its broadest sense, and perhaps incorrectly, to mean any immigrants coming from Russia and its newly independent countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakistan, Kyrgystan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. The population is composed of 160 multi-cultural groups speaking at least 100 different languages.

The Russians immigrating to Sharon in the past 20 years appear to have come mainly from Russia, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia, and most are of Jewish heritage. The American Government’s Jewish Refugee Program made it possible for many Jews from the former Soviet Union to settle in the U.S. It is also true that many are from big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they represent an educated segment of the population. Many are highly motivated to come to the U.S.

The older immigrants lived in the Soviet Union during the period when the central government controlled all aspects of the media. There was no free speech; religious practice of all kinds was forbidden, and economic conditions were difficult. Under the current regime, there was a loosening of such restrictions for a time, and the separate states have more freedom of speech and freedom of assembly than was formerly permissible. However, due to political concerns about the upcoming March 2012 elections, Russian citizens are again experiencing restrictions on personal liberties.

Russian Culture Protocol
Russian Culture
1. What is the proper way to refer to their origins? In our experience, most “Russian” immigrants who come from states and areas outside of central Russia prefer to be known specifically by the name of the area they came from (e.g. from the Ukraine – “Ukrainian,” from Georgia – “Georgian,” and so on).
2. What languages do they speak? Russians are generally very well educated and often speak several languages besides Russian. Standard Russian is spoken throughout these territories because instruction in the Russian language was formerly mandated throughout the territories. After Russian, Ukrainian is the most frequently spoken language.
3. Why are these immigrants so successful professionally in our society? The Russian constitution guarantees a free education to all of its citizens. However, access to post-secondary education is highly competitive. There has been an emphasis on science and technology resulting in the development of advanced skills in mathematics, medicine, aerospace research, and other sciences. While many older Russians speak only Russian, many of the younger immigrants arrive with considerable skill in understanding and speaking English. It is also true that the Russian professionals living in Sharon are very hard-working and highly motivated to succeed. Regardless of their background, most skilled Russians search for highly professional and well-paid jobs in such fields as computer programming, finance, etc.
4. What major religions are currently practiced? Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism are part of the Russian heritage although estimates of believers are not reliable. Some sources estimate the number of non-believers to be as high as 48% [Wikipedia]. Smaller denominations also exist: Catholics, Armenian Gregorians, and Protestants. Since the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, the Jewish population has always been in the minority and has been subject to policies of anti-semitism throughout Russian history. (For example, it is well-known, but not officially recognized, that for a long time Jewish students were not accepted into the very best universities.) The majority of Russian immigrants in Sharon are secular Jews. Atheism is the main accepted philosophy even though many who come here attend temple services for social and spiritual reasons. Hebrew school is also popular here. It was forbidden in Russia, but here it’s part of the new freedom.
5. What holidays are celebrated? In general, Russian immigrants continue to celebrate the two most favorite holidays from their past: New Year’s Day and Victory Day (May 9th). New Years is celebrated with a decorated New Year’s tree, gifts under the tree and a late evening dinner feast on New Year’s Eve (with a Russian salad called “olivie” and lots of champagne). All the family members are present for this occasion. Russians are very fond of this wintry holiday and extend it through the dates for older celebrations according to the Julian (not the Gregorian) calendar. Although the government shifted these dates 70 years ago, the people remember them and continue to celebrate them, with Father Frost (looking like Santa Claus) and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. This might confuse American Jews because it looks a lot like a Christmas celebration, however it has nothing to do with that holiday; it is just a much loved Russian tradition without any political or religious sense. The celebration begins around western Christmas time and extends in the old style through the so-called “old New Year,” January 13.
Victory Day is another significant holiday marking the end of World War II and is especially significant for older people.
As for American holidays, almost all Russian immigrants consider Thanksgiving Day and 4th of July to be very meaningful and enjoy celebrating them.
6. What is the proper form of address? Russian surnames (family names) end with “-ov” (for a male) or “–ova” (for a female). Russian names include the first name (a person’s given name), a middle name which is a version of the father’s first name formed by adding “-evich” or “-ovich” for a male and “-evna” or “-ovna” for a female, and finally, the last name which is the family or surname. On formal occasions, they use all three names. Friends and close acquaintances may refer to each other by their first and middle names. Close friends and family members call each other by their first name only or by a nickname. If you are greeting a new female acquaintance, it is best to ask how she wishes to be addressed.
7. Is it proper to shake hands with Russians? The common greeting is a very firm handshake while maintaining direct eye contact and giving the greeting for the time of day. When men shake hands with women, the handshake is more gentle. When female friends meet, they kiss on the cheek three times, starting with the left cheek and then alternate. When close male friends meet, they may pat each other on the back and hug. Men would generally be offended if someone failed to return the handshake. When meeting a new female acquaintance, wait to see if she offers her hand and/or offer a slight bow.
8. Why are Russians so interested in our cultural events? In Russia, there has been a traditional emphasis on books and upon reading literature, and enjoying all of the fine arts. In particular, classical music, opera, painting, and literature are highly valued. In the U.S., these customary interests, including travel, are maintained. There is also an emphasis on providing children with extra instruction in selected curricula outside of their school day and in making sure that they, too, have opportunities to learn about literature and the arts. That is why many Russian students attend additional schools (Hebrew, math, musical, etc.).
Russian students are also highly motivated to be at the top of the class and may be pressured by parents to get to the best colleges.
9. Are there other customs we should be aware of? Yes. For example, although most families are secular Jews, it may be that they have carried over dietary restrictions from an earlier period of their family history. If you plan to invite Russian friends for a meal in your home, it is best to inquire in advance if there are any restrictions in their diet.
It is also customary to bring a hostess gift when you visit a Russian home. Most traditional are boxes of chocolate candies and a nice bottle of liquor. Most Russian men prefer vodka to wines or cocktails.
10. Why are older immigrants afraid of our police? In the past, the government heavily repressed its citizens as well as Jews and dissidents of any kind. Unfortunately, at the present time, the government has again instituted repressive measures. There is a strong association of police with all kinds or corruption, bribery, and abuse of power. Therefore, the police presence is an ominous one. Some of the older Russians who come here have not had an opportunity to learn that, in the U.S., we believe the police are here to serve us and help us and, therefore, their fear of abuse of power by policemen persists.
11. Why are some Russians so strident in demanding services from Town Hall and other social service agencies? In the old Russia, it was usual to have to stand in line for hours to access any service, even including shopping for food. Frequently, an aggressive stance with authority figures was the only way to get things done. It was also common to have to bribe an official in order to get the necessary help. Some Russians have not had the opportunity to learn that we have different expectations of our service providers: we expect them to be reasonable, efficient, kind, and helpful. In the U.S., it is considered very rude to approach a service provider with a belligerent attitude.
American Gestures which may be considered confusing or unacceptable to Russians
12. Waving hand from side-to-side to say “goodbye” In Russia and most of Europe, this means “No.” To wave “goodbye,” raise the palm outward and wag the fingers in unison. This is not an issue with most Russians here.
13. Pointing with the index finger meaning “look at that” Very offensive. In the Middle East, Far East, Russia, and Asia, use an open hand to draw attention to something.
14. Forming a closed circle with fingers to indicate “O.K.” An obscene gesture in Russia and many other countries. Not an issue with most Russians here.
15. Folding your arms behind your head Considered rude or disrespectful.
16. Not removing your gloves before shaking hands Extremely rude. Shake hands with men only; give a slight bow to women or wait to see if a woman offers you her hand.
17. Exposing the soles of your shoes or feet Extremely rude, but not an issue with most Russians here.