Russia 2007: A Practical Guide to the Mysterious Russian Soul

Each visitor to this country must be aware that Russia is historically rather xenophobic and that foreigners are treated in a sweet-and-sour manner of both hospitality and suspicion. So wrote French traveler Astolphe de Custine in his essays on Russia in the 19th century, and the attitude hasn't changed much since then. Some purely logistical advice:

1 The Cyrillic alphabet of Russian is easy, unlike the language, and is worth learning, as there are very few Latin-letter signs around, even in the capital cities.

2 Don't hesitate to use the Metro. It runs like clockwork and is clean, cheap, free of traffic, and good-looking.

3 Gender attitudes in Russia are more Asian than Western. Feminist ideas are little known, usually ridiculed, and rejected by most women (let alone the rival sex). So promoting them won't raise a scandal but will, more likely, simply fall on deaf ears and cause an ironic reaction.

4 It's considered impolite not to check your coat at restaurants.

5 It seems that about half the Russian pop­ulation perceives Stalin and his deeds positively and considers him "the great ruler." Don't ask me why—I'm ashamed of my compatriots. Surprisingly, some other topics that one might consider troublesome, such as communism and the Afghan war, are suitable for lighthearted conversation.

6 Don't waste time on nonsouvenir shopping: All imported goods in Russia are much more expensive than the same stuff found in the United States and Europe. Similarly, don't purchase old icons, jewelry, or other relics. Most probably they'll be fake, but even if they aren't, valuables in this category require an export certificate.

7 Never get involved in big drinking sessions with Russians. Drinking is our national pastime and you're doomed to lose.

8 On the same subject, don't say, "Na zdrowie" when raising a glass. That's Polish, not Russian. It's better to proclaim "Za vashe zdorovye!" which translates as, "To your health!" or better yet, "Poyekhali!" which simply means "Let's go!" —A.T.