Russians are reserved and well-mannered people.
Smiling in Russia is traditionally reserved for friends, and smiling at a stranger may make them self-conscious. Smile at a Russian in the street and most likely they will not respond in kind. An automatic Western smile is widely regarded as insincere. While that tradition is slowly changing as Russia smiling is still very rare in customer service. Sales assistants, public servants and the like are expected to look serious and businesslike. Hence the very common misconception about Russians that they are a very grim folk and never smile — they do, once they get to know you, and become very welcoming and kind.
When approaching a stranger with a question, attempt to use Russian at first and ask if they speak English, Russians are very proud of their language and people will be noticeably more aloof if you approach them speaking English. Even just using the Russian equivalents of 'please' and 'thank you' will make a noticeable difference to people.
Women are traditionally treated with chivalry. Female travellers should not act surprised or indignant when their Russian male friends pay their bills at restaurants, open every door in front of them, offer their hand to help them climb down that little step or help them carry anything heavier than a handbag — this is not intended as condescending. Male travellers should understand that this will be expected of them by Russian women too.
While tipping was traditionally frowned upon in Russia it has been emerging after the fall of communism. A customary tip in a restaurant is 10%, and should you leave more money than the exact total when paying your bill at a restaurant, particularly if it happens to be more or less like 10% above the total, it will be interpreted as a tip. If the service was particularly bad and you don't want to leave a tip, ask for your change.
The "OK" gesture is okay.
Russians have a marvelously and intimately quiet way of speaking with one another in public. It's best to try and follow suit to avoid standing out like a sore thumb and generally making everyone around you really uncomfortable—stand a little closer to your interlocutor and ease up on the volume.
A lot of respect is required when it comes to talking about World War II and the Soviet Union. That conflict was a major tragedy for Soviets and every family has at least one relative among the 25-30 million people who died—way above all of Western Europe and America combined—and the scars of that conflict are still felt today.
Avoid discussing relations with the Georgians. Talking about this subject can lead to hostility and maybe even fierce debates. Tense relations between the two countries have led to many conflicts, most notably the 2008 South Ossetia war. Antipathy towards Georgians is still high.
Likewise, keep your political opinions to yourself. Ask as many questions as you like, but avoid making statements or comments about its past and current political situation. Russia and the Soviet Union had an often violent history and most Russian people are tired of hearing "how bad the Soviet Union was" from western people. They lived it, are proud of both its triumphs and tragedies, and they probably know much more about it than you. Also avoid criticising the conflict in Chechnya. Even though horrific things have happened there, most Russians support Putin and people will say that Chechnya was, is, and will always be Russian. The separatist forces are regarded as Islamist terrorists.
Russian identity can be traced to the Middle Ages, its first state known as Kievan Rus and its religion rooted in Byzantians' Christianity that was adopted from Constantinople. However it was not considered part of mainstream Europe until the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, who ruled until 1725. He was a dedicated Europhile and the first Tsar to visit 'Europe proper'.
Peter established the Russian Empire in 1721, although the Romanov dynasty had been in power since 1613. One of Russia's most charismatic and forceful leaders, Peter built the foundations of empire on a centralized and authoritarian political culture and forced "westernization" of the nation. As part of this effort he moved the capital from the medieval and insular city of Moscow to St. Petersburg, a city built by force of his will and strength of his treasury. Modeled largely on French and Italianate styles, St. Petersburg became known as Russia's "Window on the West" and adopted the manners and style of the royal courts of western Europe, to the point of adopting French as its preferred language.
The Russian Empire reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many colorful and enlightened figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Nevertheless, the gulf between the authoritarian dynasty and its subjects became more apparent with each generation. By the late 19th century, political crises followed in rapid succession, with rebellion and repression locked a a vicious cycle of death and despair. The occasional attempts by the Romanovs and the privileged classes to reform the society and ameliorate the condition of the underclasses invariably ended in failure. Russia entered the World War I in the union of the Triple Entente, like other European Empires with catastrophic results for itself. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, proved to be feckless, weak, and distracted by personal tragedies and the burdens of the war. The government proved unable to hold back the Russian Revolution of 1917. Deposed and held under house arrest, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children -- and with them the Romanov dynasty -- were exterminated by gunfire in the basement of Yekaterinburg manor house and buried in unmarked graves which were found after Communism and reburied in the St. Paul and Peter Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
World War I strained Imperial Russia's governmental and social institutions to the breaking point of Revolution in 1917. Following a brief interim government headed by social democrat Alexander Kerensky, the Bolshevik faction of the Communist Party under Marxist Vladimir Lenin seized power, withdrew Russia from the war, and launched a purge of clerics, political dissidents, aristocrats, the bourgeoise, and the kulak class of wealthy independent farming classes. A brutal civil war between the "Red Army" of the communist leadership and the "White Army" of the nobility and middle classes lasted until late 1920. In his years in power, Lenin used the Red Army, the internal security apparatus, and the Communist Party leadership to exterminate and imprison millions of political opponents, launch a terror campaign to ensure strict Communist orthodoxy, secure control over the fragments of the old Romanov Empire, and "collectivize" farmers and farming into gigantic state-owned farms.
The revolutionary state was not directly ruled by the officials in titular control of the government, which was established in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The government in the commonly understood sense was largely irrelevant both in fact and in Communist theory throughout the years of Communist control. The real power lay in the leadership of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the internal security apparatus (secret police).
Following Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle among the Bolshevik leadership ensued, with Josef Stalin emerging as the new leader of the Communist Party and dictator of the USSR. Stalin's brutal rule (1928-53) was marked by waves of "purges" in which suspected dissidents in the government, the Party, the Red Army, and even the security forces were executed or exiled to gulags (prison camps) on little or no evidence. In addition to following up Lenin's forced collectivization of agriculture and his destruction of private property and economic liberty, Stalin introduced a ruthless economic system ("socialism in one country") that rapidly industrialized the USSR. Stalin's rivals to succeed Lenin, as well as critics arising thereafter, typically ended up as victims of the purges. Although seen as less of an idealist than his predecessor, Stalin did relentlessly pursue international revolution through the Russia-based "Comintern" control over the communist parties of foreign countries, and foreign espionage.
World War II, from a Soviet perspective, began with Stalin abruptly entering into a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany. The Treaty, which shook Western governments to their core and stunned the Left in Europe and America, guaranteed Hitler a free hand to launch war against Poland, France, and England. The Pact also granted the USSR itself leave to invade and conquer neutral Finland and take over all of eastern Poland after the German invasion in 1939. Finally in June 1941, having conquered France and most of the rest of Western Europe, Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally and invaded the USSR. A change to an alliance of necessity with the Western nations was instrumental in the defeat of Nazism in 1945. The Red Army's bloody campaigns on the Eastern Front, culminating in its capture of Berlin, resulted in over 20 million Russian deaths, most of them civilian victims, or soldiers thrown into ghastly land battles.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, the USSR rapidly moved to establish control over all of central Europe. It installed Communist regimes in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Romania and effectively crushed political dissent. In Asia, it also helped to install communist governments in China, North Vietnam and North Korea. Western critics came to describe the USSR and its European and Asian "satellites" as trapped behind an "Iron Curtain" of ruthless totalitarianism and command economies. Yugoslavia's Communist Party managed to establish a degree of independence from Moscow, but uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) were ruthlessly crushed.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet heavy industry and military might continued to grow under Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955) and Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964), Stalin's successors as General Secretary of the Party. Although attempts were made to produce consumer goods, the efforts usually failed, and the USSR continued to struggle under the yoke of collectivization and totalitarianism. In 1956, Khrushchev renounced the excesses of Stalin's regime and commenced his own purge to "de-Stalinize" the economy and society of the USSR. Results were mixed, and Khrushchev himself was deposed. In the 1957 the USSR became the first country to launch an artificial satellite into space. This was followed by sending the first human (Yuri Gagarin) into space in 1961. The Soviet Union's reached its military, diplomatic, and industrial peak during the closing years of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). But continuing corruption and economic malaise marched inexorably to a crisis that eventually led General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) to introduce glasnost (openness) and perestroika (limited economic freedom). His initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the empire. The European satellites broke free from rule by the USSR and their local Communist leaders and the USSR itself collapsed into 15 independent countries.
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