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Notes on living and working in Russia

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Russian chocolate

What people think of traditional Russian staple food is vodka, caviar, black bread, “Russian salad” all these kinds of food. However, there is one product that is very often gotten overlooked — Russian chocolate.

Russian chocolate industry has beed developing since pre-soviet times. In soviet era development and production of chocolate was limited by inefficient government system and declining economy. It was difficult to buy chocolate back then, because everything, even food, was limited and in deficit. After Russia had become independent country, chocolate industry started to flourish. Aside from already well-known large manufacturers, new chocolate makers started to open their businesses. Nowadays chocolate companies make hundreds if not thousands of different types of chocolate products.

The most old well-known manufacturers are “Krasniy Oktyabr”, “Rot Front”, “Babaevskiy,” and some others. Their products are considered “classic” Russian chocolate — the most popular. However, a multitude of other manufacturers is on the market, supplying thousands of varieties of chocolate products. The picture above is just an example of very few.

Russian chocolate is of an excellent quality and testes real great. It is different from chocolate you find in other parts of the world, because recipes are all unique and locally developed. Quality wise Russian chocolate is on par with worldwide known chocolate makers such as Swiss ones. However, Russian chocolate and candies are different from everything you have tried before. If you are into eating chocolate, I suggest you give it a try.

Some vocabulary explaining types of chocolate to assist you in shopping.

Karamel’ — Candy. This is a product made of crystallized sugar in variety of styles and tastes. Karamel’ (the “l” is very soft in pronunciation) comes in small pieces, each wrapped individually and usually sold bulk or pre-packaged.

Konfeta (Konfety — plural) — Small chocolate bar. This is what’s on picture beginning of the article. Each konfeta is wrapped individually in paper and sometimes foil. Comes in hundreds of styles, fillings, and tastes. Each Konfeta is roughly 4-5 centimeters (1,5 — 2 inches) in length. Same as karamel’ it is sold bulk or pre-packaged.

Batonchik — Chocolate bar. Same type of product as Konfeta, but comes in larger size (same size as western brand chocolate bars). This type of product has much fewer varieties compared to konfety and karamel, but still widely popular.

Plitka shokolada — Chocolate bar. This type of chocolate is usually thin, larger, flat chocolate bar made of pure chocolate, sometimes with some basic filling. It comes in fewer varieties, but it has more cocoa in it. This product is what Russian people refer to as “shokolad” (chocolate).

There are other types of chocolate products, but mentioned above are the most popular ones. Russian chocolate makes an excellent gift. For this you can buy konfety in gift packaging. Usually, these are large carton boxes with one type or mix of konfety inside. The boxes are nicely painted in traditional Russian style and box alone often is a true piece or art.

You can buy chocolate in any grocery store or better go to a specialty store. (Please send me a message via Facebook or Linkedin if you need a specific recommendation on places with better choice of Russian chocolate in Moscow). Grocery stores stock limited variety of chocolate (mostly pre-packaged) while specialty stores have large selection of different products. In specialty stores, you can buy a little of everything to try and decide what you like the best. Specialty chocolate stores are self-service, and staff is very helpful.

There is one interesting soviet traditions remains today. For New Year, kids would receive a gift: a sack full of varieties of karamel’, konfety, batonchik. In companies very often parents get some money together to buy such gifts for all their kids, or company would pay for those gifts. This does not cancel other holiday gifts. But this is something like symbolic or maybe truly traditional that people adore. Those gift sacks with chocolates is one of New Year symbols that gets passed from soviet generation into today. So, do not be surprised if you kid brings such sack from school or some event.

Russian chocolate

Meeting and greeting rituals in Russian offices

I mentioned meeting and greeting rituals in the recent article on a typical working day in Russia.

This article is about daily meeting and greeting rituals in a typical Russian office. Those rituals are nothing special compared to most “western” cultures, but few specifics worth mentioning. Meeting and greeting rituals are important for building and keeping relationship in Russian business environment. If you will be working (or are working) in Russia, be attentive how people do it and never neglect rituals even if they seem unimportant for you. Following meeting and greeting rituals ensures that you are accepted as “ours”. Being accepted as “ours” has great importance for success in business and in social life as well.

Russian offices greeting rituals for woman are simple. Woman just use verbal greetings. No shaking hands, no hugging or kissing. Hugs can be used if two women are in a good personal relationship and haven’t seen each other for a long time (like vacation time or maternity leave). But, generally you do not see hugging very often in the office environment.

Common verbal greetings in Russian:

“Zdravstvuite” — Hello. Universal greeting used all the time everywhere. Literally means “be healthy” or “be good”.

“Dobroe utro” — Good morning. Used until noon, roughly.

“Dobriy den” — Good day or good afternoon — same thing. Used Noon till, say 6-7 in the evening.

“Dobriy vecher” — Good evening. After 6-7 in the evening or when it gets dark.

“Privet” — Hi. Very casual and informal greeting. In the office environment used between friends and people who have good relationships. Very common though since relationships have got to be good.

Russian greeting ritual for men is a handshake plus verbal greeting, but ritual rules are is a bit tricky. General, unwritten and unspoken rule is this: you have to shake hands of all male employees you know personally (or have met) when you meet them for the first time on a given day. Time of the day is unimportant. Usually, it happens in the morning. But, if you bump into someone in the afternoon you must handshake with them. Normally, people do so many handshakes during the day, so they forget who they have already done a handshake with. It sometimes happens that two men meet somewhere in the office and get confused if they need to do a handshake, or they have done it already. Usual way out of confusion is to smile and maybe laugh and do it again “just in case.”

If you are working in a smaller office, you must do handshake with every man upon arrival. If it’s an open space type of office layout you handshake with people around you, those you can easily reach or walk to say within a few steps.

Handshake must be very firm and using full palm. Using just fingers, or lightly squeezing hand considered feminine.

Handshake must be done with an eye contact. If you are on the go, you can just glance at the other person, but some eye contact is a must.

Very slight half bow with your upper part of the body is a sign of respect and very commonly used.

If you do handshake outside you MUST take off your glove regardless or temperature or weather.

It is more polite (and more formal also) to be standing when shaking hands. In the office people don’t really stand up from their desks to shake hands, but just lift their butt off the chair to sort of follow this rule.

It is not acceptable to extend hand, offering a handshake to someone in much higher hierarchical position. Those on top of hierarchy shake hands with ordinary employees as a sign of respect and recognition.

To close the subject, hugging is not common in Russian office environment (although used in some situations). Kissing is not acceptable at all, even formal type of “not for real” cheek kissing like people do in many other countries.

Special note on using greeting “How are you?” in Russia. It is a bit risky, because not all Russians understand what is expected in reply. Those with extensive international experience understand how this greeting works. A typical Russian may view this greeting as a question requiring full answer. Thus instead of “fine!” or something short in reply, you will hear some story of their life, the one most compelling for them at a moment. Interestingly, quite often, in Russian we also use same type of greeting “Kak dela?”. “Kak dela?” meaning “How are you?”. Another form of it is “Kak ono?” (how is it [going]?). The short answer for both greetings would be “horosho” (good) or “normalno” (okay) or something like “dela v poryadke” (my business is in order). How people react to this type of greeting depends on a situation and a specific person. But most often this type of greeting provokes lengthy reply. Therefore, this form of greeting will start a conversation. If you are getting a longer reply to “How are you” type of question you absolutely can’t interrupt it or just leave without listening. You have to listen and somehow react, be emphatic; otherwise, it will look offensive.

There will be a different article on Russian meet and greet rituals outside office.

Thank you for reading, I hope this is helpful. Connect with me on Linkedin or Facebook if you are interested in receiving web site updates or getting in touch with me.

It is October 22nd, and Moscow gets first snow today. It’s going to melt, but this truly is a first sign of winter coming.

Moscow gets first snow

Moscow gets first snow

Enjoy last sunny days before winter darkness sets in.

Moscow gets first snow

Do Russian people miss USSR?

Do Russian people miss USSR? Do people like or dislike USSR? Do people believe life was better in USSR or it is better now?

These questions I am often asked by people coming to Russia.

I attempt to answer this question dividing whole population into four categories. Each category defines certain attitudes towards life in USSR. In real life it’s often not that straight forward as people tend to have mixed opinions. These four groups are just to give you an idea of general streams of opinions circulating nowadays in the society.

Imagine a large country like USSR was, falling apart. And it is not just falling apart, but every aspect of life goes through a radical change. Political system, government, laws, economy, lifestyle— all changes happen really fast and everything becomes new. Because of the massive changes, there are chaos and uncertainty. Life, as people knew it, breaks apart, turning into what people called a "new reality." This new reality pushed people into finding new ways of building their lives. It takes personal transformation to adopt to living in a country that looks familiar, but in many ways have become new. One's ability to adopt to a new reality defines their success in life after USSR. Largely it also defines their attitude towards it.

Younger generation people, born after (roughly) 1980-1985. They do not remember USSR, and they have no idea what life in USSR was like. If they express any opinion, this is coming from memories and opinions of their parents, stories told by other people. Simply speaking whatever opinion they have about USSR, it does not count.

As a side note, those born after 1990 have notably different cultural programming that has less of “soviet” in it. Although not completely free from behaviors and mindsets of soviet times (as it transfers through education and parenting and society), they think and act quite differently.

”Unsuccessful” Those who did not manage to establish life in the “new reality”. There is a big population of Russian people pushed to the curbside as a result of USSR destroyed. At that time many were about to retire, some lost their jobs, some high-paid jobs turned into lowest wage employment, some went bankrupt… You can hear millions of stories of people who’s life went downhill and never returned to normal after USSR fell apart. People who belonged to older generation back then were already in that stage of life when it would be extremely difficult (if at all possible) to radically change their life and adapt to new ways of living. They, for the most part, miss USSR and would do anything to get back to soviet times. As these people pass away, USSR becomes like a myth.

”Successful” Those who managed to establish successful life in the post-soviet “new reality”. Successful means having job, or other sustainable source of income and place in the society. Their ability to adapt to new ways of living lies in their personality, connections and many other aspects that made them move forward. Nowadays people representing this group are in their mid-40s and older. They are happy about their lives now and not thinking about USSR times as they established lifestyle much better than they would have in USSR.

”Nostalgic” This sort of sub-group of people mostly belongs to “successful”. They do make a good (much better compared to USSR) living, but some of them still believe it was better back in USSR times. There is also a notable trend in social networks and blogs discussing how great life was in USSR. The ice cream was better, sausage was better, the grass was greener. People get nostalgic about artifacts existed in their lives back in USSR. They bring up memories, about daily life, food, toys, lifestyle. In their memories, life was better, easier, brighter back then (naivety multiplied by Alzheimer).

Personal opinion of the author.

I went to school in USSR times (graduated in 1991), so I vividly remember how life was back then. By all means, life in USSR was miserable — no question and no doubt about this. Yet, people managed to live their lives having joy and fun, despite outer circumstances. Those genuine joys came from basic things like family, relationships, friendships, other simple things in life. Yes, life in USSR was simpler and maybe this is what many people are longing for? When someone gets nostalgic about life in USSR — it's just their illusory memories about those feelings of joy and happiness they had long time ago, when they were younger.

A typical working day in Russian company

“What a typical working day in Russia looks like?”

This question expats coming to work in Russia ask very often. It’s difficult to define a “standard” day, since each company, and each job position has its own business specifics. In this article, I will try to outline some patterns common for employees of most Russian companies in Russia.

(Russian company means owned by Russians and operated by Russian management with no international influence on their internal operations)

Let’s consider working day of an ordinary employee, not in a high managerial position.

Russia has 5-day/40-hour working week Monday to Friday. This defines a full-time job type of employment. Each standard working day is nine hours, including one hour lunch break, not paid for. Working day is reduced by one hour if following day is a public holiday. In a very few companies, Friday workday is reduced one hour for female employees. (This practice is of gender roles in Russia, which in many cultures considered as sexism)

Most Russian companies do not have flexible hours. Nor do they have “work from home” type of job arrangement. If you are employed, you have to come to the office and sit at your desk every day during fixed working hours. On contrary, international companies based in Russia use flexible hours and remote work quite often.

Working day for a normal office job starts either at 9am or 10am. Sometimes you spot an employee coming at 8am or even earlier. This does not mean they are hard workers or have different working schedule. In many cases, it means they have got some practical reason to be earlier in the office. This can be something like avoiding morning traffic or family situation or anything else. It is very unusual for Russian company to start business earlier than nine in the morning.

Working hours are fixed in a job contract and company regulations. Ones set, they are hard to change.

Russian management believes strongly in discipline. However, Russians by culture are very unpunctual. The two combined make lateness one of the most critical HR issue. Actual starting time is clocked very meticulously. Each employee uses an electronic keycard to access office and their in/out time is recorded. In some (rare nowadays) cases employees have to keep record of their in/out time in a special handwritten journal.

For Moscow and St.Petersburg, it’s worth mentioning that commute time can be one-two hours, especially if an employee lives outside the city. Employees come to work “refreshed” in endless traffic jams and overcrowded public transportation. Squeezed between millions of other people trying to get to office by nine or ten they sweat and get pushed. Those driving for work sweat in fear of being late because traffic can be very unpredictable.

Lateness is one of very few legitimate reasons for firing an employee. So employees try not to give their management a chance to pick on their lateness. If an employee is late for work, it might be required to write an official explanatory note (“obyasnitelnaya zapiska”).

Ones in the office, employees go to their work places. Majorities of companies have arranged seating in small offices (“kabinet”) for 2-10 people. Open space has become popular just recently and available only at newly developed office buildings.

For male employees, each working day starts with greeting ritual, which I will explain in a separate article. For woman, working day starts fixing haircut and finishing makeup, changing shoes from street ones to office ones. A spare pair (or two) of shoes is always kept somewhere under the table or in the table drawer.

Many people get some coffee or tea starting their workday. In Russian companies amenities like kitchen for employees, free drinks are almost never available. What’s available is water from cooler, electric kettle to boil water. Thus, the only option is to have instant coffee or tea made with teabag.

Depending on relationships between employees there can be some chit-chat first of the day. Chatting subjects are weekends, family affairs, public news, company news, and rumors, whatever has importance for a specific group.

This is an extremely important part of socializing in business. As an expat manager or employee, you have to be mindful of this. If you are coming from a business culture that does not tolerate “wasting time” in personal talks, be aware that Russian business culture is relationship based.

If you, being an expat, notice that people around you, locals, try to engage you in their conversations, asking questions, it’s a good sign. This means they are not afraid of you, have genuine interest in you as a person, and try to build personal connections with you. In the best case scenario, they might be considering you as part of their circle or circle of trust. Those small talks beginning of the day will possibly grow into relationships. Good relationship is what propels business in Russia. Advice here is not to ignore those relationships building attempts even if it’s something you would not normally do. This is a bigger subject that will be addressed in another publication.

Smoking is banned from all offices and office buildings. Smokers go outside to have a smoke. (In Russia most people do smoke) In some companies every minute outside work place is clocked. Even bathroom trips can be counted and later presented to an employee as “absence from work.” This is to put pressure on employees, control them and keep on alert about possibility of being fired. Russian management also believes this way they can raise productivity. What an illusion.

Lunch time is normally between noon and three in the afternoon. It can be fixed or flexible. If affordable canteen or place serving business lunch is available nearby, people go there for lunch. Affordable means 200-400 Rubles (US$3-7). Very often there is nowhere to go or employees can’t afford paying for the lunch. Many people bring their own food. Very few (like almost none) Russian companies have special places to eat in the office. In absence of specially designated eating place most people eat at the office desk. Microwaves usually available in the office, fridges can be available as well, but limited and not everywhere.

Just recently I have read a heated debate on one of internet business forums. HR person of some Russian company asked advice on what to do with employee complaints on smell of food in the office. They had a group of employees on a really small salary, so they could not afford eating at canteen. Those employees had to bring their own food, heat it up and eat at their desks. People complained about the smell of food. HR asked public advice on how to handle this. (Raising salaries or paying their $3 lunches, or organizing designated space for eating were not considered as options)

Sometimes people celebrate their birthdays or other significant events during lunch. It becomes less common, but in a typical Russian company it is expected from a person who has birthday to bring some food (and sometimes even alcohol). Very often you see all office equipment, and papers removed from office desks and replaced with salads, snacks, some sandwiches, and drinks. People would gather around desks to have some food, chat and say congratulations for whoever is having birthday. In Russia people socialize over food and business environment is not an exception. Russian employees of international companies generally do the same. They usually bring cakes or something else to share in the office kitchen.

Workday finishes at 6pm or 7pm. For office jobs it is not unusual to stay overtime. Overtime is not paid in most Russian companies. Overtime happens for many reasons, which again can be a whole separate post. To name just a few: poor organization of working time, lengthy business meeting, practical reasons like avoiding traffic or having to pick up spouse from their job.

On Friday night, a group of employees of one department or business unit might to go out for drinks, dinner and some entertainment. You may also notice that people change their outfits before leaving if they are going to a night club or some event.