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- Economist.com | LONDON
THIS week, in the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia, our city-by-city series of etiquette guides turns to Moscow. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s put-upon president, may not be needing the advice any time soon, but other would-be visitors should benefit from a quick perusal.
Meeting and greeting
• Pay attention to your clothing. Russians dress as well as they can afford to, and rarely do “slacker” style. Turning up looking too casual or scruffy could cause offence. Western “smart casual” is a safe bet. Arriving at a meeting at the Kremlin wearing a polo-neck sweater instead of a shirt and tie is rumoured to have been one of the reasons why Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos, his oil company, were destroyed by the government. In winter, women are advised to take a pair of smart shoes to change into.
• Whether you are mingling with expats or Russians, get to know them before broaching subjects such as corruption, contract killings or other corporate crimes. Russians are often sensitive to outside criticism of their country or comparisons with others, even if they make them themselves. Keep small talk focused on what a booming city Moscow is or where they spend their holidays. Sport is a safe subject.
• Russians devote much energy to their relationships and friendships, and the concept of a professional relationship without personal contact is alien. Keeping up contact afterwards, especially if you plan to leave for a while but return, is very important.
Eating and drinking
• Drinking habits among businessmen are a little more reserved than of yore. Still, boozing is a big part of social life and if you're not inclined to get drunk, it's best to say that you are on antibiotics. This will save you from well-meaning hosts prodding you to drink. Alternatively, down the first shot of vodka in one, when everyone is watching you, but only sip from the glass during subsequent toasts.
• No Russian drinks vodka without eating zakuski (snacks) after each shot or at least sniffing some black bread (surprisingly effective) to help soak up the alcohol. Zakuski usually consists of pickled vegetables with black bread.
• Set your glass down on the table to be refilled; do not raise it to meet the bottle.
• On business trips in the provinces, a valedictory feast punctuated by frequent toasts may be unavoidable. If you know you are in for a marathon, try lining your stomach with fat first by eating a large chunk of butter, perhaps spread thickly on some bread. You will stay sober longer, and in extremis can go and make yourself throw up the booze before it penetrates your system.
• Toasts are a big deal in Moscow. It is well worth preparing a few well-chosen phrases (English is fine) if there is any chance that you will be socialising with Russians. Drink to international friendship, the success of their enterprise, or any other heart-warming goal. The second toast of the evening is usually Za zhenzhin (“to the women”). Russians will be delighted by your efforts.
• Many Russians think it rude to accept something the first time it is offered. If you are entertaining, offer several times to top up glasses, refill plates, and so forth.
• Russians like to provide food in large quantities. Always pace yourself. If you see a large cold buffet, go slow: it is probably just the starter, and there will be hot food to come.
• Always hand in your coat at the cloakroom when visiting a restaurant or theatre—draping it over the back of your chair is frowned upon. This Russian custom has its roots in the weather: in winter, the snow dripping off coats would quickly turn a restaurant into a river. If your coat lacks a collar hook, the attendant may try to charge you for the use of a hanger.
• “Face control” is Russian for “The management reserves the right to refuse admission”. At elite bars and clubs, this means that anybody who is not a six-foot-tall model, or at least accompanied by one, will stand outside at the guards' pleasure. But even at restaurants, what would be acceptably relaxed dress in the West may not be in Russia. The Economist's correspondent has on occasion been told that perfectly ordinary places are “members only” because he arrived looking too scruffy. Objections sometimes fade away if you are meeting someone who is already there.
• In quotidian dealings Russians can be uncommonly rude, with each other as much as with foreigners. The initial contact between two people is often a subconscious test of who has more power. Shop assistants or petty officials may treat you less like a customer or citizen than an irritating distraction. Be polite but firm. They may turn compliant surprisingly quickly.
• There are several widely held superstitions. Don't shake hands through a doorway, light a cigarette from a candle, give someone an even number of flowers, or whistle indoors. If you get to know your host's children, don't kiss them goodbye on the forehead: that's for corpses. Going back for something you've forgotten is inauspicious too.
• If Russian friends invite you over, take flowers (odd numbers) or a large box of chocolates. Even numbers of flowers are traditionally reserved for the dead.
• Because of the slushy mess outside, Russians always take off their “outdoor” shoes in the entrance hall of a private home. Visitors are offered tapochki or slippers by their hosts. You will certainly win points if you bring your own indoor shoes.
• It is quite common for Russians to cadge cigarettes off complete strangers on the street or in bars or restaurants. It is highly unusual, and would be considered particularly mean given the price of cigarettes, for anyone to refuse.
• Note that smoking in Red Square is prohibited and can incur a large, on-the-spot fine.