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About Russia

by: Pia Kähärä, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights
Currency      Rouble (RUB)                                         
Capital          Moscow                                           
Time Zone    UTC +2 - +12 (Moscow UTC +3)

Overview

The Russian Federation (Russia) was founded in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the socialist superpower. Russia is still one the largest countries in the world with eleven time zones and a population of over 140 mil. The Russian Federation consists of 85 regions (including Sevastopol and Crimea which are recognized internationally by part of Ukraine), but the country is both politically and business-wise very Moscow centric. The official nationwide language is Russian, but there are 35 regional languages with official status.

Russia has been a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) since 2015 with Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The European Union and Russia have a strong trade relationship and the EAEU’s so called ‘Customs Union’ provides European companies access to an integrated single market of 183 mill people.

Russian society can be characterized as hierarchical with top-down structures in civic, public and corporate organizations. As a collectivistic culture, people see themselves strongly attached to groups, particularly their families, on which they depend and are loyal to. People feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity and hence have an appreciation for strict rules, bureaucracy and order making life more predictable in a vast and ethnically diverse country.

Some cornerstones of Russian culture

The population of the Russian Federation is a diverse mix of nationalities even though the Russian culture is dominant in the country. The political system favours the prevailing Russian culture, and ethnic or other minority ideas are often suppressed. In the Russian political system, the purity of Russian culture is seen as sacred and there is argumentation that traditional ‘Russian’ values must be protected from the Western ‘decadence’.
 
Religion does not play a very important role in Russian society as a leftover from the Soviet Union, when it was forbidden, but the Orthodox Church has become stronger and is linked to political power holders. The state is supporting the Orthodox church significantly and uses it to support politics (as in many countries). In general, the orthodox religion’s character is more spiritual than morally directive to ordinary people. There are other religious groups in the country, too: Muslims, Jews, etc.   
 
Russian society is hierarchical and somewhat patriarchal, as it has been throughout its history under different reigns. Leaders and bosses make the decisions and subordinates fulfill the orders. People are respected for their status/position in the hierarchy and also their age. Power abuse is quite common. Women’s role in the society is a bit controversial: women generally work and there are a lot of women in managerial positions in business and high positions in politics, but still the family roles are quite traditional. Women should take care of the home and children and men are expected to provide an income and represent the family outside the home.
 
Family (including grandparents, cousins and other relatives) is important and family loyalty comes first before anything else. Grandmothers often bring up their grandchildren when the mothers work.
 
In a collectivist society, a personal relationship is needed to build trust, both in business and personal life. There is a lack of trust towards the authorities, people rather ask for advice and help from their family and friends.
 
Here are some guidelines for behaviour in a fairly wide range of situations when among Russians.

Behaviour when in Russia

  • Russians do not usually smile at strangers, a smile is not a sign of politeness. When you have become closer acquaintances and friends, people smile.
  • Take care of your relations, small signs of taking personal care of your friends and business partners and exchanging favours with them are highly appreciated.
  • Understand hierarchies. Some power holders can behave badly towards people they consider lower ranked.
  • Communication style is often high context-based (indirect), so you have to learn to read between the lines and ask questions.
  • Despite the otherwise softer, context-based communication, you can sometimes expect very direct negative feedback. Some outbursts of negative emotions (people yelling at you, for example, if you break some of ‘their rules’) can be encountered on different occasions, too. Don’t get offended.
  • Punctuality is not a virtue, being 15-30 minutes late is accepted. However, it is better to inform, if you are late.
  • Remember that Russians love small gifts/souvenirs, both in business and personal life.
  • By entering a home, normally remove your shoes. You will probably be given slippers (‘tapochki)’.
  • Generally, if you are not sure, watch what others are doing.

Body language

  • Greeting: Men greet men with a firm handshake. It is done on a daily basis when coming to work in the morning. Women generally nod to each other or hug and kiss each other on cheeks when they know each other already. Normally, women do not shake hands with men. You can just nod and say hello or If you want to shake hands with men, offer your hand first. In the regions, men can also kiss the palm of your hand.
  • It is considered good to look in the eyes for most of the time when discussing. But don’t stare.  
  • Russians usually stand closer to people they discuss with than many Western Europeans, so try to adapt.  
  • Smiling has a special cultural significance in Russia: it is not a sign of politeness and social acceptance as in many countries. Constantly smiling makes you seem either suspicious (you have something to hide) or a bit simple. In a business meeting it can be a sign that you don’t take it seriously. Smiles are saved for closer business relations and friends.
  • Do not keep your hands in the pocket or whistle on the street. It is considered rude or uncivilized.

Dress code

  • Generally, you should dress fairly conservatively in business, but in many business sectors the tendency is towards more casual. Russians do look at your outfit: note that your shoes must be polished and clean.  Status symbols show who you are.
  • For women in business: high heels, smart dresses or suits, polished shoes and stylish make-up and usage of status symbols such as branded bags and jewellery are common. It is important to look your best.
  • For men in business: suit or jacket, tie, polished shoes and smart trousers for important and formal negotiations, for less formal negotiations smart casual is fine. Status symbols are used: branded clothing, expensive watches, etc. You can dress more relaxed to dinners with your business partners.
  • Women:  cover your head with a scarf when visiting Orthodox churches.

Good to know

  • Russian offices work usually from 09 to 17 or 18 (office hours), but bigger bosses often arrive later and stay later.
  • Russians stick to the Orthodox calendar, so some church holiday dates differ from European ones.
  • Vodka toasts are still common in Russia. In Moscow and St. Petersburg it is not commonly used in negotiations, but in evening events and feasts vodka drinking is a part of it. In other regions, vodka can be offered at lunchtime as well. Be alert and open to having a toast and making a toast with a speech in return..
  • If attending dinner at a family residence, it is appropriate to bring a gift, such as a bottle of wine, dessert, or a bouquet of flowers.
 
Keywords to describe Russian culture:
Family, Hierarchy, Relationships, Bureaucracy, Status

 

Overview

Doing business in Russia is challenging. Here you will find practical advice on what one should do and what to avoid.

Expert’s Recommendation

First contact

  • Organising a business meeting requires time and a certain protocol: often a few rounds of official introduction letters and phone calls. If you can be introduced, you build trust more quickly..
  • When preparing a business relationship and first meetings, the boss or CEO should travel to Russia and head the talks/negotiations in order to speak to the top level on the Russian side. Lower level managers/experts in Russia talk only when given permission. Later they will discuss at their level and execute decisions on an operational level.
  • Considering the importance of hierarchy, greetings and communication has to follow a corresponding pattern. Greet the person with the highest position first and continue in descending order. Remember the importance of status.
  • Show that you take the meeting seriously by avoiding excessive smiling. When you get to know the people better, you can move to a more informal level.
  • Remember that building trust takes time and sometimes many personal visits before you enter into business.

Communicating

  • Listen and watch carefully how people communicate with you and what is said. In a Russian high-context communication culture, asking questions which could possibly be tricky to answer (like delivery deadlines or adherence to product specifications), may not produce ‘straightforward’ verbal answers. Sometimes polite face-to-face communication overrides ‘truthful’ but uncomfortable or negative responses. When talking to equals and younger people, the communication style may be more direct.
  • It is fine to ask small specifying questions to get the answer you need.
  • Be inventive in the way you ask difficult questions or deny requests.
  • You can ask opinions of the lower level managers, but they usually give them unofficially. Everything official must be asked of the management.

Negotiating

  • Russians are very skilled negotiators and inventive in using argumentation. Negotiation can be lengthy and you need patience and perhaps several trips to come to a conclusion. Do not show your impatience. Prepare yourself for circuitous communication rather than a linear step-by-step agenda or arguments.
  • Remember the hierarchy. Aim high to get decisions, lower levels do not make decisions on important matters, rather they execute decisions. Accordingly, address questions in meetings to the bosses.
  • Negotiations are sometimes perceived as a win-lose situation by Russians. Disagreeing is often confrontational.
  • When it comes to pricing, be ready to justify the prices with good arguments (incl. technical details), but leave yourself enough of a buffer to be able to come down. Russians will test if you are giving them a fair price.
  • As a foreigner, it is better to be on time for meetings, but do not expect a sincere apology from the Russian ‘important’ person arriving late, and do not demonstrate any kind of attitude if your business appointments begin one or two hours late.
  • Relationship building with authorities is crucial for many business, especially if you have established a local business. Higher level authorities are hard to catch (relations help) and usually determine their own meeting schedule at the last minute. 

Leadership and management style

  • Russian leadership style is “directive” and this style is required to be accepted as a leader and to be effective. Russian bosses often look for who is guilty of making a mistake, give direct negative feedback and ‘punish the guilty’.
  • Be strict but caring to your subordinates (show a ‘benevolent’ attitude). Remember that status symbols are important.   
  • Subordinates wait for clear instructions and orders. They are not supposed to challenge their boss and often tell their opinions only when asked.
  • As a boss in Russia you are expected to be ready for different situations: be creative and inventive in finding unorthodox solutions.  
  • Trust but verify. Control and check what your subordinates are doing, are they following timetables, etc. That which is checked and controlled is considered important in Russia.  

Dimensions

It is important to understand that national cultures only exist through comparison: there are no absolute cultures. So, a culture can look very different depending on the culture where the viewer comes from. We all see things through our own cultural lenses, but Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are a great tool to compare cultures in a less biased way. Generally, if the score of your own country culture for any of the 6 dimensions differs at least 10 points from the host country score, you will usually notice the cultural difference.
 
The appreciation for hierarchical order and top-down decision-making in Russia is shown by an extremely high score of 93 on the cultural dimension of “Power Distance” (PDI). Inequality regarding power, wealth, and status tends to be accepted. It also explains the appreciation and respect shown to older people and those in higher positions. High power distance combined with collectivism are the often-observed consequence of the prevalence of corruption. When power is held by some individuals, groups or classes of people are seen as an existential reality by the less powerful, and it can tempt the power holders to abuse their position. Corruption in Russia has evolved into a system which exists at all levels of society. However, this is not to say that the general acceptance of inequality and its consequences remains unchallenged in Russian society.

Family orientation, to be part of a collective, and the interests of such a group overriding individual interests is shown by the moderately low score of 39 for the dimension “Individualism versus Collectivism” (IDV) in Russia. Therefore, if you meet an individual and get to know his or her opinion, interests, and concerns you often hear the opinions and interests of the extended family or their company leaders. As one of the consequences of collectivism, it is also common that Russians prefer employing a member from their wider family circle or among friends instead of a highly qualified ‘outsider’. Business is also done preferably with friends or people you know and trust.

Russia has an extremely high score of 95 for “Uncertainty Avoidance” (UAI). This dimension explains the high anxiety levels related to the uncertainty and ambiguity of life and the need to reduce this distressing feeling. Detailed rules and clear structures help to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. High PDI in combination with high UAI provides the explanation for the high appreciation of a strong hierarchical order and bureaucratic procedures in both the society and organisations. Paradoxically, when there are a lot of contradicting laws, regulations and rules (combined with the fact that the law is not the same for everybody), it is often virtually impossible to follow them in practice, so people are creative in finding ways to circumvent them.

It can certainly be said that Russian society feels restrained by various social norms and prohibitions and indulging too much in worldly pursuits is the wrong thing to do. This is expressed in the dimension “Indulgence versus Restraint” (IvR), where Russia scores quite low with 20 (Restraint side). As an example, the Russian reaction to the imports embargo of European food imports (cheese, etc.) and the problems that have arisen with it has been: ‘We can survive it too, as it is nothing compared to the earlier periods of suffering in our history’. This is also a sign of collectivistic Russians uniting in difficult moments.

On the cultural dimension of Masculinity-Femininity (MAS) Russia scores 36 thus making it a bit more of a feminine society than masculine. Femininity in culture refers to valuing quality of life over material success, modesty rather than assertiveness, good relationships with your colleagues rather than competition between peers. Please note that men can behave in a ‘feminine’ way and women in a ‘masculine’ way. Russians, for example, present themselves and their companies in a modest way to avoid ‘bragging’.

The dimension Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Orientation (LTO) expresses itself in societies as either normative (short term) or pragmatic (long term). The Long Term Orientation (LTO) score of Russia 81 makes it a more oriental, pragmatic and flexible culture than that of the West.  In Russia, as a society with a pragmatic orientation, people believe that truth depends very much on the situation, context, and time. They show an ability to adapt traditions easily to changed conditions, a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness and perseverance in achieving results.

For a more detailed analysis on the Cultural Dimensions, and how Russia compares to other countries, please visit Hofstede Insights’ Country Comparison tool.

References & interesting links