The Russian Federation is the largest nation in the world, spanning 11 time zones and numerous different geographical environments. The huge country contains an incredible diversity of people, beliefs, values and lifestyles. These distinctions are particularly noticeable between the different regions and . Most Russians live in developed and industrialised centres, with an estimated 74% of the population living in urban areas or cities.1 However, there are also large populations in rural towns and villages across the countryside. Due to the country’s massive size and long, complex history, any summary of Russia runs the risk of oversimplifying the culture. While the descriptions that follow are not intended to be indicative of every Russian person, there are common themes and principles that contribute to the values, attitudes, beliefs and of the dominant society. Broadly speaking, generosity, resilience and strength tend to be common features of the Russian character across the country.
Context to Current Attitudes
Russia’s dominant and powerful position in global politics means that opinions of the country and its people are often formed before encountering them. For Australians, Russian culture is typically explained through a Western lens that sees it as an opposing force. Such descriptions commonly misunderstand the country’s history and motivating factors from the Russian perspective. When confronted with these assumptions from Westerners, Russians regularly find themselves in the position of loyally defending their country – somewhat reaffirming ideas of them as combative people. Interaction with Russians is likely to be smoother if one takes time to understand and appreciate the contexts from the Russian perspective. It is best not to critique Russia or President Vladimir Putin; while a Russian may agree with aspects of your argument, the comments may feel like another foreign criticism and be unwelcomed.
Russians generally have a very close emotional connection to their history as their recent past has been integral in shaping their nation and society today. To understand Russian people, one must appreciate that they have effectively survived two revolutions, two World Wars and a Civil War in the 20th century. They have also experienced significant socioeconomic and political upheaval in recent decades. A systemic socioeconomic breakdown in the 1990s impoverished many and affected people’s lifestyles as well as their visions for the future. A sense of melancholy and nostalgia may become noticeable in conversations when Russians discuss the past (or are reluctant to talk about it).
Ethnic Identities and National Unity
The immense size of Russia is a testament to an extraordinary history of conquest. However, it also reflects the challenges its society has faced to adequately provide for and unite such a sprawling and diverse group of people. Nearly 200 different groups and nationalities reside within Russian borders according to the 2010 census.2 Though most people are Slavic, many others have Turkic and Mongol heritage. Tatars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs, Chuvash and Chechens are some of the biggest minorities.
Many people from minority groups continue to hold their identity and cultural traditions close. They may speak languages or follow religions/customs that are specific to their people. minorities are also often more , showing strong loyalty and pride for their group. In some cases, people may have a stronger loyalty towards their identity than the Russian identity. However, this is not usually the case for Russians (russkiye) who make up the majority of the population (77.7% as of 2010 est.). They generally see themselves as “100%” Russian (rossiyanin) and may simply further define themselves by their region of birth.
The nationalism, solidarity and cultural identity shared between Russians of such diversity is highly complex and usually summarised through metaphors. Sometimes, Russians revert to simply leaving this fact unexplained, quoting a famous poet who said “you cannot understand Russia with your mind… you can only believe in it”.3 Others may refer to the idea and symbolism of a shared Russian ‘soul’ (dusha). This explains the soul as the combination of one’s heart, mind and culture, and the uniting point making Russians a cohesive ‘people’ (narod) despite their differences.
People commonly describe the soul of Russia as compassionate and generous. It’s also sometimes related to the country’s language or heritage in literature, dance, theatre, music and philosophy as Russia has a strong history of contribution to the arts. However, Russians arguably share the most in their collective history and experience of victories and defeats. It is said that people’s souls open up to each other through shared suffering and joy. In this way, misery can be endured so long as people can see that it is shared.
First Impressions and Interactions
Russians can come across as having quite a serious or stern front when initially meeting people they don’t know. They generally smile and emote very little in public. This is mostly because formal behaviour signifies respect, particularly when interacting with strangers or those who are older or of higher social status. As such, public behaviour is typically reserved and open complaint or anger is uncommon. People also generally put significant effort into their personal appearance whenever they leave the privacy of their home, presenting themselves very stylishly anytime they may have a potential interaction.
Once initial acquaintances have been made, Russians are likely to become more casual. They are often very honest about their opinions and keen to make them known. Russians can also be quite bold when approaching others, which can make them appear very forward to foreigners. For example, they may ask to join a table with strangers in preference to dining alone, offer advice to someone that did not ask for it, or ask for a favour. Russians tend to prefer people who are similarly .
Particularism and Rules
Russia is a society, meaning personal relations have more importance than rules, and individuals are valued for their unique personal importance. Members of societies have a cultural tendency to trust anyone they know on the basis of familiarity. Meanwhile, they may show limited trust towards strangers until they have formed a personal relationship. This means Russians often have a strong compulsion to try and form personal relationships with strangers in order to build familiarity and, thus, trust in any social environment – be it private or professional. Showing camaraderie and willingness to bend the rules for someone builds trust and solidifies friendships. It is thought that being too cold and conscientious or law-abiding is ‘dry-ish’ (sukhovatv) and to be completely dry (sukhar) is to have no human touch at all.
As personal relationships are often considered more important than rules, they are sometimes interpreted rather as guidelines, particularly when exceptions for friends or family are needed. Regulations and plans have limited authority in Russia. While people appreciate rules and schedules, the reality is that they may not work or may be subject to change under unpredictable circumstances. This attitude is reflected in a common saying regarding traffic lights: “Green is for everyone. Red is for me.” This way of thinking sees oneself as the ‘exception’ to the rule; the signal for everyone else to stop is still an opportunity to go. It reflects the , in-group mentality of Russian culture as well as its light disregard for law and order.
Interdependence and ‘Blat’
Family and close friends play an important role in Russian's lives, reflecting the nature of the culture. Vast social networks are crucial to getting things done. Under the promise of friendship, people perform favours for one another, from old school friends to former neighbours. Some examples include helping a person get introduced, obtain information, access authority or navigate around the . This personal networking is known as ‘blat’4 - ‘favours of access’. Long-term personal relationships play a central role in advancing group interests and individuals’ prospects, creating opportunity, security and facilitating social mobility. Blat/favours can also be motivated by social or financial gain, especially when a person needs personal networks to get past red-tape. For example, if a parent wants to get their child into a good university and they know someone on the board, they may ask for a favour "for old friendship's sake" whilst also giving a "gift" to the person for their troubles.
While this is beneficial, friendships in Russia are not purely pursued for what people can get out of them; most are deeply personal, authentic and trusting. The continuity of these friendships is visible in the way people do not expect an immediate reciprocation of favours. Instead, a return favour is usually performed at a later time (perhaps even years later) when it is really needed. If asked if they would like something done in return, one may say, “We are people of one circle. We will square accounts later”. Ultimately, though it may occur in both private and professional contexts, the social networking dynamics of blat are very personal in nature.
This has been largely driven by necessity, as the government cannot always be relied upon to provide support. However, it also relates to a longstanding mentality of survival in Russian culture. These exchanges usually take place because they’re vitally important or related to a desperate matter. The degree to which people rely on one another varies significantly depending on where they live, their wealth and age. Generally, isolated villages or towns in rural areas are more as they may not have access to certain provisions. In some towns, the whole neighbourhood may be deeply involved in helping everyone collectively meet everyday challenges. Generosity and camaraderie have remained strong features of the Russian character even after the economic crisis swept the nation. Many in difficult financial circumstances will still look to assist those around them with what they can afford, despite having to think more about attending to their own immediate, needs.
Status and Humility
Power is heavily centralised in Russia and there is a big disparity of resources between those with authority and the people that depend on them. These differentiations of power have led to an increased emphasis on status symbols. As such, those in the lower socioeconomic bracket often save to buy luxury items (such as technology, clothes or cars) to show signs of success. However, despite this focus on appearances, there are not obvious class distinctions among general society. Generally, the only social identifier that can somewhat indicate a person’s wealth or status is their place of birth.
Humility is essential to interaction in Russia. People are expected to understate personal achievements, contributions and capacities and talk modestly (as most survive on a modest standard of living). The exception to this is when one is talking about their own child, in which case it is socially appropriate to boast of the child’s success. However, generally people show humility to avoid jealousy or the appearance of gloating at those who are struggling. Russians who are in fortunate circumstances commonly minimise their wealth or well-being. For example, the response to “How are you?” may be “normal” or “so-so” even when things are at their best. This can also avoid negative opinions in Russia, as there is still a cultural tendency to somewhat resent the success of others and perhaps be sceptical of it. Those who are single-handedly wealthy are sometimes presumed to have made their money through fraudulent means.
Vulnerability and Instability
Russia has a history and geography that seems to support the notion that its people have constantly been in a position of defence, whether it's been out of vulnerability to being wiped out by the cold weather or an invading force. For example, the country has very few natural defences (i.e. mountain ranges) to protect it from attack. This means that its history of conquest and expansion has been seen by the Russian people as a necessary protection against invasion.
A consistent feeling of vulnerability and uncertainty has persisted due to other political situations as well. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the country suffered a total systemic upheaval that impoverished many. Such fundamental change following an era of communism (under which people had lived in consistent and predictable conditions their whole life) deeply rocked Russian society. The transition to a competitive market economy was deeply challenging for some, significantly more so for those in villages and towns. Today, many Russians who can earn enough to meet their needs still feel profoundly insecure and have a reduced sense of social mobility. The Levada Centre found 65% of Russians aged between 18 and 24 don’t plan their lives further than two years ahead (2016). In 2015, 46% of respondents to a poll expressed that they couldn’t plan their future because they did not know what would happen to them even in the next few months.5
From recognising the precarious situations Russians have endured historically, it can be understood why the culture has such a strong avoidance of uncertainty.6 Russians highly value stability and security. As Geert Hofstede has said, “[they] feel very much threatened by ambiguous situations”, an attitude reaffirmed by their recent history. People are more comfortable with assured stability and tend to approach situations with scepticism and caution rather than taking risks. Ultimately, the culture tends to be conservative and particularly reluctant towards change.
Changes Since the 1990s
Russian culture is traditionally quite and inclusive; however, in the last 10 years, there has been a noticeable rise in and . This is most visible in the bigger cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Generally, the primary aspiration of Russians across all demographics is to secure stable jobs and futures to see their children be more prosperous and successful than themselves.
Cultural shifts towards have been easier for the educated and urbanised populations to adopt, and many people are enjoying newfound success in the large middle class. Those raised in the post-socialist period often have different attitudes from Russians who lived through the Soviet era. This generational divide is commonly seen in a tendency towards optimism among younger generations. They often are more hopeful regarding the future and flexible about adopting foreign approaches. Many youth are growing impatient with public conservatism and nationalism. This contrasts with some members of the older generation who have struggled to adjust and generally hold a more pessimistic and perspective. Having experienced a time whereby the state was responsible for them and determined their well-being, they may feel a reduced sense of control over their lives and be resigned to the idea that it is out of their hands.
Finally, it is important to appreciate that some Russians may view the difficulty experienced during the 1990s as more socially damaging than the communist regime. The Soviet Union is often associated with stability. Older Russians may feel nostalgia for a simpler, more predictable time when they were young, whereas younger Russians may be influenced by a popular national rhetoric that glorifies the communist era and emphasises Russia’s victories and status as a global superpower at the time. While every Russian family is likely to have their own personal opinions and stories about what life under communism was really like, these personal anecdotes are now coupled with those of their own about the difficulty of “living through the ’90s”. Indeed, these recent experiences are more relevant to current attitudes; for young Russians, the Soviet times hold little context for them outside of history and their own family’s personal stories.
Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.