Last week, we ran through several pertinent issues on the subject of safe behaviour during your Russian trip. I hope you agree that dealing with most concerns often requires the same kind of common sense that would apply to any traveller, anywhere. Consider this an introduction if you are just setting off, or just more of the same if you know the ropes. There’s more for you to find out; there always is. Frankly, there is so much advice floating through the ether that we could almost dedicate a blog solely to the subject, but we have to move on.
It’s time to look at other behaviours (and non-behaviours) that will help smooth out your stay – arguably the thinner end of the same wedge that we started last time. It’s all about making things better, ultimately.
Learn some Russian language. It’s a national shame here in the UK that it’s still relatively rare to have some degree of competency in another tongue. Throughout most of Europe, bi or even multi-linguality is the norm. It seems that on some fundamental level we just don’t “get it” and assume that “everyone speaks English nowadays, so why bother?”. Okay, there is arguably some truth here. You could remain in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major happening places that are popular attractions for foreign tourists. If you stick to the upmarket service industry you’ll nearly always find someone behind a desk to indulge you all day in English, but you may also find yourself trapped inside the tourist bubble as a result.
For many folks this may be enough, after all some are satisfied with foreign travel that consists of sitting around a generic hotel pool with a paperback. I can’t knock it if that is your thing: your money is as good as the next person’s and there’s a whole industry built around catering for similar tastes, but I’d venture that you are missing out.
I’ve been repeatedly informed that as you head out of the major metropolitan centres and deeper into ‘real’ Russia, then the proliferation of English speakers drops off rapidly, making the ability to speak the language more important. Outside of your own personal convenience, there are such things as politeness and the feelings of others (remember those?) to address. How would you like it if someone came to your town and insisted in addressing you solely in French or German, whilst looking at you expectantly? And naturally with us Brits, it’s always the loud pidgin English with emphatic hand gestures isn’t it? Always. How would you like that, should the tables be turned?
Please, out of sheer politeness, and some respect for the culture you are experiencing, learn at least the equivalent of “please”, “thank you”, “hello” and “goodbye”. In the case of Russian; that’ll be the formal versions, incidentally (no cheating). Going informal with a probing police officer or customs official is really not a good idea. If you look into the language and feel bewildered: relax you are in good company; the Russians themselves. Yes Russian can be so difficult that even some Russians don’t get it right all the time! Who’s have thought it? Take a look at the Understand Russia blog where Tanya writes: “We, Russians, study our language for 10 years in school, yet very few people do not make grammar mistakes when they write or speak”.
Another good, simple rule of thumb for preventing offense would be: don’t act like an idiot. Can you remember that one? Again, us Brits have an appalling reputation in some European towns and cities, for loud, rude, drunken and even animalistic behaviour (no offence meant towards animals). The various ports of call in sunny tourist traps or stag night magnets will (just about) tolerate us in return for our cash, but they’ll still shake their collective heads at some of the purely base sights that they have to behold in order to receive it. A deal with the devil, then.
Russia is not so tolerant, at any price. I’ve even been markedly told as much during conversation with one of the locals. Public displays of loud, idiotic behaviour are decidedly looked down upon and will get you instantly marked out as an “idiot tourist”. The knock on effect of this can be something so trivial (if you can call offending your hosts trivial) as avoidance, verbal disapproval or removal of courtesy. Alternatively you could quite easily catch the unwanted attention of types that you really should avoid.
Yes, you’d be telegraphing your idiot tourist status, which means fair/easy game for pick-pockets, scammers and other crooks (back to last week’s article again). If your behaviour extends into offence/disrespect towards the country itself, or the Russian Orthodox Church, then bad things are likely to happen. There is a great amount of local respect and pride towards both of the above, that we who casually abuse our domestic equivalents don’t necessarily realise. Both are a decidedly a big deal, over there.
The Orthodox Church has it’s own (unofficial) guardians: The Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers, whose motto is “Orthodoxy or Death”, to give you a flavour of just what you could be up against. They are also renowned nationalists, so both bases covered, then.
Just dealing with nationalism alone, there are militant groups, contemporary pro-Putin Russian Cossacks (as opposed to the Ukrainian variety) and even political movements recognised in the Duma that officially and unabashedly dispense the kind of rhetoric that would be unthinkable here in (relatively) PC UK. Try not to antagonise these folks, or other burly locals full up on a little vodka and a lot of Russian pride.
Finally, there are the Russian police, whose reputation for corruption precedes them. I read somewhere that good cop/bad cop trades currently at around 50/50, implying that dealing with them is essentially flipping a coin. ‘Best hope that it comes up: heads. You may come into contact with them at any time if you catch their attention, whereupon they will likely demand to see your documents (and you’d better have them). They may also try to skim a bribe from you, on some technicality or other. Apparently the traffic police are even worse.
This is whilst you are still officially law abiding. It’s worth noting that if you do break the law -and get caught- then: they have you. All the above groups (not least: the police) have a reputation for being decidedly “hands on” in their approach and our protestations concerning solicitors, rights etc. will likely be met with some derision (and worse).
So the moral to the story is: don’t be an idiot: You know it makes sense.
[Photo by chinsoontan]