Russians consider themselves to be an extremely hospitable nation. But their hospitality turns out to be a real torment for foreigners who don’t know the rules of being invited out.
Text and illustrations by Elena Krivovyaz
You might be embarrassed or flattered to be invited. You might not understand why it is you who has been invited, but there’s no point in complaining or analyzing too deeply the motivations behind the invitation. The fact that you are being invited at all means that you are on the way to being accepted.
But before you get exited, there are a few basic rules of etiquette to digest, if you don’t want to be perceived by your hosts as being rude, or ridiculous. Cardinal rule number one: never refuse food and drinks. The more you eat, the more you will show that you appreciate the cooking and being there. So don’t eat any snacks on the way. Cardinal rule number two: you don’t have to drink liters of wine or vodka, but if you don’t drink at all (“To the health of party-holder!” or “To the happiness of all present!”), everybody will notice and ask why you aren’t drinking. Protestations like: “I don’t drink”, “I don’t like it” or “sorry, I feel bad after the previous party” are not accepted. When you realize you can’t drink anymore, just fill your glass with mineral water and go on clinking it with everyone according to the toasts.
It is not universally accepted to pool resources and buy food and drinks together in Russia. Your host or hostess has to cover all the expenses no matter how many guests there are; but not when you are invited to have ‘shashlik’, (meat or fish prepared on fire outdoor). Before going to this kind of party, members discuss what to buy and divide the expenses equally between themselves. Many Russians take fishing rods with them, but never use them (too drunk). In all other cases, you don’t have to pay for food or even try to, or your hosts will take offence.
What time to leave? – That’s not an easy question and the answer depends on each individual situation. As a general rule: Russians like to have parties and if it’s a weekend they are often willing to have fun all night long. But if they start to wash dishes – it’s a sign to leave immediately. No Russian will ever actually say that he or she is tired and it’s time for the guests to finish. There are other more delicate signs – the dessert is put on the table. This means that the party is almost over and all you have to do is to eat your piece of cake, thank the hosts effusively for such a lovely party and find the way out – something which might be a little bit difficult if you tried to do what everybody else did and drank for the last three hours.
The other rules of paying a visit are specific to the events. The most common of them are: a birthday party, a wedding, a housewarming party, or just an evening party without any particular cause.
When attending a birthday party you should obviously bring a present for the person whose birthday it is. If you’re a close friend of theirs, you may ask what they want to receive beforehand. But if you are not, try to find something practical that Russians like (please, don’t bring puppies, kittens, palm-trees and giant porcelain birds if you’re not sure the person is expecting them): a tea service, multi-colored blanket or a CD of a favorite (not yours, but his or hers) group or singer. Finally if you have no idea what to bring as a present, just put some money into an envelope, sign it (from xx with love and/or best wishes) and hand it over (I wish I had more friends of this kind!).
Actually, Russians don’t like people who come to their birthday party without a present at all, although they will never show it. When you are invited to a lady’s birthday party you can bring a bunch of flowers and that will be enough. But, remember, there should be an odd number of flowers only in a bunch because even numbers of flowers are given in case of somebody’s death.
Russian weddings are worthy of a seperate article. Let’s talk only about the major things. First of all, save up some money before visiting somebody’s wedding in Russia. When attending, a much appreciated wedding gift is an envelope with money for the just-married. The sum of money depends on what you can afford. It is normal to bring 3,000 or 5,000 rubles in an envelope. Some guests come just with a lonely 1,000 banknote in an envelope and there are individuals who don’t bring any money at all. Every envelope is signed by the giver, so if you don’t present any money the married couple will probably know that. This is a long-standing tradition which comes from the Soviet past. In those days, weddings cost too much (but now they are even more expensive), that’s why guests should bring money so the married couple can afford a honeymoon and pay all the wedding expenses if the parents can’t. Weddings in Russia can commonly cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The tamada, or MC at a Russian wedding, is probably the first person one can meet at the celebration. Usually the MC is the center of the universe. Guests drink, eat, propose toasts at the command of the MC. Traditionally the Tamada announced every guest, who had to stand up (and instantly stop eating or drinking), congratulate the couple with a toast and then hand over the long-awaited envelope to them. The toasts are also a subject worth special attention. Russians like long-lasting (more than 5 minutes) and personal toasts. That’s why you should come to a wedding well prepared and with a toast already worked out. The most important thing you should do at a Russian wedding is survive. You’ll understand what I mean when you go to one.
Housewarming parties are quite easy stuff. The only thing you need to do is to bring a present. Not just any old present, but a useful one. That’s because moving into a new apartment or a house in Moscow is rather expensive (like anywhere else) and the house- or flat-owners are expecting you to present something that they haven’t bought yet for their housekeeping. Use your imagination and bring a present they’d probably like: nice wall pictures, pillows, blankets, dishes, domestic appliances and, say, a vacuum cleaner.
Parties without a cause are common here in Russia. They may not happen only on weekends, but even in the middle of work days. You don’t have to bring any present but yourself to these parties. The time they usually last depends on how many guests, and the host can drink. These are usually pretty informal events, but you nevertheless need to buy something: a bottle of wine, some flowers; as a gesture of good will.