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Manners and Etiquette

Manners and Etiquette

In their manners the Russians exhibit their usual failure to do anything by halves. They will apologise instantly if they interrupt you in mid-sentence, kiss your hand if you are a woman, help you find your way if you are lost in a city by actually going with you to your destination, however far it takes them out of their way. Children are constantly being coached in good manners and ticked off if they do not come up to scratch.

Making a date with a Russian means exactly that. They never specify days of the week, such as "next Monday", or "Wednesday", only "the 13th", "the 4th" (of the month).

The general public used to queue almost as readily as the British used to - whether for oranges or to collect their coats from the cloakroom after a concert. Now jostling and pushing goes on in the street when getting on to buses, trams and the metro.

At table, the Russians help themselves without asking, which is a relief for Western Europeans and Americans who live in constant fear of inadvertently neglecting their neighbour. Russians consider it important to make regular and frequent toasts. No-one should even start drinking at table without making a polite toast to demonstrate that they are aware of their surroundings and want to share the pleasure.

No-one finds it necessary to listen in silence while someone makes a speech at a formal social occasion. At an inaugural dinner and prize-giving of a major cultural award by a Western European company none of the Russian intelligentsia accepted their place settings, and chaos prevailed as literary and other luminaries roamed around the dining hall moving chairs and making non-sense of the carefully-organized seating plan.

Towards the end of the meal during the whole of which there took place an unending musical chairs as old friends greeted each other and exchanged gossip, the hapless chairman of the mighty Western conglomerate attempted to begin the formal part of the proceedings: the announcement of the winner. By now, even the top table had been deserted by most of the competitors and his remarks were drowned by a continuing hubbub of conversation. The Scandanavian co-sponsor then attempted to make himself heard, this time in broken Russian. In vain. Finally, the name of the winner was announced to the small group of diners immediately next to the microphone. The party going on in the rest of the room continued without anyone taking the slightest notice.

At the theatre or concert hall, it is now de rigueur to have changed into something smart. High-heeled shoes are taken in a bag to change into if it is snowy outside. Russian women are very chic and are currently basking in the new opportunities for displaying their awareness of fashion. The days of workers' dungarees are definitely over.

It is usual in a railway carriage to offer round anything you have brought with you to eat or drink; it is considered good form to be sociable and hospitable at all times, also generous. A visiting vicar was appalled when he was offered as a gift a precious old ikon of the patron saints of his host's church, one of the few pieces of genuinely old church furniture remaining since the church had been closed for 75 years. Luckily, the Russian incumbent was reminded by a parishioner standing nearby that the ikon (which was covered in gold leaf) would never get through the Customs.

Greetings

The Russians give each other bear hugs in public, men and women alike. Some observers noted as significant the marked absence of a bear hug for Gorbachev when he was met on his return to Moscow from his confinement in the Crimea during the August 1991 coup. However, it is claimed in his defence that he had banned the sentimental hugging and kissing that used to go on whenever one geriatric Eastern European leader met another and so the jury must remain out on that one.

When Russians greet each other they use the normal European repertoire: Good morning; Good day; Good evening or Greetings. They might follow that up with: "Kak pozhyvaitse?" (How's life?) Or "Kak dela?" (How are things/ how's business?) To which the conventional reply is a shrug of the shoulders and the terse response: "Normalno" (O.K.).

The word normalno is very useful in Russian. It sums up what everyone there is yearning for: to live a normal life. Not straining every sinew to beat the Americans at their own game. Not leading the world in some mad competition to prove that "our" system is better than "yours". A normal life is all the Russians want just now, thank you.

Not all Russians would go quite so far as the young soldier who was asked by a foreign journalist how the siege of parliament was going. As a burst of machine-gun fire made them both duck, he said with a shrug, "Normalno".

The Russians shake hands with strangers, but never across the threshold for that is considered very bad luck. When visiting someone's house or office you must either go all the way in, or wait until he has come all the way out, before greeting each other. Close friends kiss three times, for three is a lucky number. The Russians say "God loves the Trinity" whenever things happen in threes.

Before leaving on a journey, Russians sit down quietly together for a few moments. This is (they say) to give their soul time to re-enter their body from wherever it is lounging about elsewhere in the house.

Names and Forms of Address

Like some other Europeans, Russians can choose between saying ty (thou) and vy (you) when talking to each other. Sometimes this is explained as being a simple choice between the intimate, informal "ty" and the more distant and formal "vy". In fact, it is not as simple as that: sometimes perfectly happily married couples address each other as "vy" and seniors often address their juniors in, say, the office, or in the army, as "ty".

Before moving on to ty terms with a social equal, it is customary to say "Shall we go over to ty?" Of course, this merely pushes the problem back one degree, because the foreigner can be sure that the Russian will probably wait politely, if necessary for ever, before suggesting the move him or her self. In bed, it is different. There one moves to "ty" as a matter of course.

Once one has come to grips with "ty" and "vy" it is time to tackle names. Russians have three names: their imya (first name) e.g. Ivan; their "otchestvo" (father's first name) e.g. Ivanovich; then their "familiy" (surname) e.g. Ivanov. When you are introduced to someone, you are introduced by your imya and otchestvo thus: "Ivan Ivanovich, may I introduce Stepan Kyrillovich?" But your host may continue to refer to you as "Gospodin Ivanov" (Mr.Ivanov) to third parties.

To complicate matters, many Russian first names have a whole variety of affectionate diminutives, not all of them recognisable as connected with the original. Thus Ivan's mother may call him Vanka or Vanya, Nikolai can be Kolya or Kolenka, Alexander - Alik, Sasha, Shura or even Sanya, Dmitri - Mitka, Mitya. For girls, Mary or Maria is often made into Masha or Muma and Evgeniya becomes Zhenya (the same happens to boys called Evgeny, which is a bit of a problem). In many offices there is more than one Alexander, in which case the older one will be known as "Big Sasha" and the younger "Little Sasha"; anything rather than use their totally different surnames.

This trait is only too well known to the long-suffering readers of Russian novels, who constantly have to flip back to check whether Anatolyi "Anatolievich Paskov" is the same as "Uncle Tolya", "my dear Tolenka", and so on. Illogical, but charming, it just takes a bit of getting used to.

Many Russians born during the Soviet period (1917-1991) have names made up of acronyms of heroes of the revolution, such as: Mels (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin), Ninel (Lenin backwards - this is a girl's name), Dazdraperma (also for girls, short for "Three cheers for the first of May"), Zikata (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Trotsky: this one fell out of favour in the 1930s when they all met a sticky end), Melor (Marx, Engels, Lenin, the October Revolution).

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