Russians consider themselves a well-educated nation. They read a lot, and will be very surprised if you tell them you have not read Pushkin or Tolstoy! Books in Russia are cheap, and most people can afford to buy 5-10 books a month without serious damage to the family budget. Russians are also very fond of live performances at the theatre, and since tickets are affordable (the prices in cinemas and theatres are comparable), a stunning range of options is available to everyone, including opera, symphony concerts, musicals, ballet, drama, etc.
Every city has at least one theatre. The theatre culture was developed during Soviet times when tickets were sold through schools and businesses: cities were divided into neighbourhoods and there was a theatre agent responsible for each particular neighbourhood. The agent would distribute tickets to every business and school in his area, and the person responsible for the “culture sector” would organize collective visit to the theatre. Also, attending performances in a group is always much more fun, which contributed to the popularity of theatres. This is how most Russian people developed their taste for live performances. Nowadays, there is a growing variety in the types of theatre performances available, extending from Russian plays and Shakespeare, to gypsies and contemporary interpretations, and everything imaginable in between. Cinemas are becoming more and more popular in Russia and today they are equipped with the latest sound systems.
During Soviet times, there was a well-developed system of community work, and in every group (class at school, department at work, etc.) there was a person responsible for sports, education, political information, etc. People that performed these tasks were given benefits (free or discounted travel, ability to buy rare goods, a better apartment, etc). In this period, everything belonged to the State, and the State controlled distribution and awarded the most active citizens. Only after Perestroika did property become privatised. The system of volunteering was largely broken with Perestroika, but Russians still have an unwavering community spirit (which sometimes goes to lengths a westerner would consider as infringement).
Russian culture is non-individualistic. The power of an individual in Russia is much less than in the west and most deals are pushed through family, friends and acquaintances. A famous Russian saying is, “One is not a soldier in the battlefield.” In Russia, it is necessary to know people in power to make things work. This is why Russians maintain more friendships than an average westerner. If you know the right people, you can arrange the most difficult things with little effort.
The majority of Russians consider themselves Christians, and belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. This is a great achievement for a country where atheism was the official state religion for more than 70 years. Religion, however, is not a real part of their life. Russians pay more attention to horoscopes than to the Bible. People usually attend church just to “light a candle” and quickly pray. They do it to ask for something to happen (a business deal, an exam) or to remember a close person who is dead. People do not have to be a member of the church to do it and they do not make monthly contributions to the church. The church survives by selling candles and reminder notes and charging for services such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. A church marriage is not official in Russia. A couple has to register their marriage with government authorities before they are allowed to have a church ceremony performed.
Health care and education are free in Russia, though Russians joke that education becomes less and less free with every year. It is still possible to get a university education for free by passing the entrance exams, but the universities are decreasing the number of students that study on a free basis because of poor state financing.
Since both education and cultural facilities used to be widely available, Russians can be considered a highly cultured nation. Their general knowledge is very good: they know a little bit about virtually everything. Primary and secondary school is mandatory for 11 years, and includes a programme of History, Literature, Music and Geography. A foreign language, usually English, is studied for 6 years, although French, German and Spanish are also available. The history courses taught include Russian, European and American History. The literature read includes a variety of foreign literatures, including many European Classics – in between a strong base of Tolstoy, Pushkin and Dostoyevski. The standard Russian curriculum is the same in all of Russia, and only recently have some optional courses been allowed.
On the entrance exams at universities and colleges, only questions from the general secondary school curriculum can be asked. Universities and colleges accept students according to the results of these entrance tests, and not according to their marks at school, although having excellent marks can help (for example, you may only have to pass 1 or 2 exams instead of the regular 4).
Having a university or college degree is common. Russia has the highest education level in the world (more than 40% of the total population have college or university degree). Since Perestroika, the system of higher (university) education is slowly deteriorating along with the health care system, which used to be among the world’s best. The problem with the Russian education system is that it was always rather theoretical and unrelated to practice. Therefore, it’s common for a person with an engineering degree to work in sales, or one with a chemical background to find himself in marketing. Nor is it a surprise if a woman with a university degree works as a secretary. Having a Ph.D. is also not a big deal, and doesn’t give you a big advantage; good knowledge of English will provide you with a better competitive edge. The position that one has in a company is not as important as the company itself. Foreign companies and even foreign public/charity organizations are considered to be the best employment.
Intellectually, Russians are interesting people to talk to and enjoy deep subjects. Philosophy is still a mandatory subject in university and one of the 3 compulsory subjects for the PhD qualifying exam (the other 2 are a foreign language and the specialty itself). Russians are also very clever. They have so many difficulties and problems in life, and have learned to find a roundabout way for anything. They don’t have a deep respect for the law, especially traffic rules. Russians are some of the most reckless, but at the same time skilful, drivers, and the most careless pedestrians in the world.
The majority of Russians don’t have what you call in the west “good manners.” Russia is a tough country and Russians usually do not hesitate to say what they think in a way that doesn’t leave room for any misunderstandings. During the Soviet period, having “good manners” was considered a bourgeois survival tactic. Russians are very straightforward. When they meet or phone each other, they seldom spend time on questions like “How are you?” but go straight to the point. They are not rude, it’s just their way of doing things.
Russians are used to situations where everything is unpredictable and unstable. They have to adapt to new rules and laws quickly. Russians had to make the long journey from the total control of Soviet times to the total uncertainty of the current situation. Their lives have changed dramatically, and if happiness is the yardstick, life definitely changed for the worse. The older people are very nostalgic for Soviet times, when everything was understandable, predictable and stable. No matter what your talents or how hard you worked, you couldn’t get ahead of other people. Everyone was assured of all the basic necessities of life: a home, a job, free and effective health care, and affordable goods. Education for children was free, as was access to sport and cultural facilities.
Nowadays, people have lost the advantages of the socialist state, and they have yet to receive the advantages of Western capitalism. The majority of Russian people do not really understand the huge difference between life in Russia and in the West. Russians do not consider their life miserable. They feel that things are changing for the better and “everything’s starting to work out” for their country.
Russians like to emphasize their different attitude towards material values and consider themselves as sincere, cordial, understanding, and unselfish. They like to talk about the “specifics of Russian soul” or the “mysterious Russian soul,” and repeat the famous phrase of a Russian poet, “You can’t understand Russia with your mind.”
Russians love their country. They may criticise it severely, but if you try to do the same they will defend it furiously. They are citizens of the largest county in the world, which has a rich history and deep cultural roots, and they are proud of it.