How Russians think – communal apartments

What is communal living?  It’s the sharing of an apartment or home by more than one family unit.  Certain rules and schedules are generally worked out by the residents to make life more manageable.

It is not uncommon to have a relative or know someone who lives in communal apartments.  Each room (bedroom) is pricey in large cities such as Moscow and for some is difficult to afford more than a bedroom or two.  We have a closely related family who have two bedrooms of a 3 room apartment for 3 adults and 3 children. Admittedly having a grandmother living under one’s roof is a blessing for child care, but things get crowded at times since another family lives in the 3rd bedroom and shares the kitchen and bath. 

The kitchen is scheduled and posted.  Often each family has set times to use the kitchen.  The entry has a coatrack and shoe cabinet for each family in which they hang coats and place shoes only in the space provided for their family.  Even the shelves in the refrigerator are designated per family.

Bathing times are scheduled and there is “free” time also.  Each family has their own toilet seat which are separated by colour and hung on the wall until needed. 

Cleaning of the common areas such as the kitchen, toilet and entryway is done by weekly rotation.  There must be common agreement on the playing of music and loudness of television volumes.  Laundry (done in the bathroom) is also scheduled.

The history of communal living goes back much further than Soviet times.  As far back as serfdom, Russians were used to communal living situations. Slowly but surely, communal living is disappearing but still very common for young families living with parents and seniors who share expenses.


How Russians think …

It was Winston Churchhill who said that, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Take smiling for example. Now, Russians do smile, but to most Western visitors at first it might seem that Russians are a pretty gloomy folk. Professor Pavlovskaya explains that in the Russian worldview, “only idiots and fools smile for no reason.”  The mindset is that you’re mentally unstable or making fun of others when you smile at them for no cause.  In Russia, laughter or levity without reason is a sign of insanity.

The smile of a Russian child is impossible to resist!

Okay, so when do I smile in Russia?
Smiling is okay, smile for those who know you and for when you have a logical reason.  It’s okay to smile if someone you met smiled first, otherwise keep a calm and polite look until you’ve developed a relationship with that individual.

A true American-Russian story about smiling:
When McDonalds first began opening restaurants in Russia the staff was taught to smile and warmly greet customers.  Needless to say, this was a disaster and the American McDonalds trainers had to quickly rethink the strategy.  Step into a McDonalds in Russia today and your cashier will likely skip the smile and hello to look you straight in the eye after a polite greeting and ask for your order.

How Russians think…

It was late in 2007 that Professor Anna Pavlovskaya, Moscow State University Doctor of History, Lecturer in Russian, European and American Studies, and Head of the Department of Cross-Cultural Studiespubished her own thoughts on Russians…as a Russian.

To say that there is much to be learned in Professor Pavlovskaya’s book, “Culture Shock!  A Survival Guide” to (Russian) customs and etiquette” is an understatement.  Not only does it dovetail nicely with the important work of Hedrick Smith, but as a Russian, she takes readers further inside the Russian mind and soul.

It’s not difficult or long reading as the paperback is 305 active and interesting pages which can be read in a matter of days, and the knowledge enjoyed long afterward. 

You’ll appreciate the book most because of her observations about what makes Russians….well, Russian. In one example, the very first chapter of Pavlovskaya’s book opens with a cartoon in which the cartoonist has drawn the interior of a plane and the passengers are clapping upon a safe landing.

The stewardess comes on the intercom with the announcement, “Please stop the clapping!  The Captain has a hang-over.” Those of you who have flown from Western countries to the East can identify with this picture of passengers clapping after a routine landing. 

In Western culture we just expect that highly trained professionals will do what they are trained and paid to do. But in the East, you may find that professional skill is acknowledged over and over, even when we Westerners think it should be considered as “routine.”

How to learn the Russian language

Linguistic experts say that 7 years of consistent practice is a typical timeframe in which to truly become fluent in Russian. We tend to agree, one one hand.

Fluency is one thing, but Russian really doesn’t need to be so daunting because in an amazingly short time you can learn a lot of words and phrases to help you get around and be understood on a basic level. The Mendeleyev Journal has several very helpful pages on learning Russian.

That beauty salon you're looking for--it's in the building as the red sign, top left, indicates.

The place to begin is the Mendeleyev Journal page on learning the Cyrillic alphabet. It would be a mistake to learn a group of words and collection of phrases only to travel to Eastern Europe and suddenly realize that you have no clue how to read the signs or even something as simple as prices in a market or order from a restaurant menu.

So, we start where one should, logically–with the alphabet. Here is our very helpful Mendeleyev Journal Cyrillic alphabet page.

You can learn this in a matter of days but only with constant practice will you gain the ability to permanently retain an alphabet so different from the Latin characters we use for the English language.

The blue sign, upper right, tells us where to find a 24 hour "bank-o-mat" or as you might say, an ATM machine.

Next is the Mendeleyev Journal language resources page. This is a listing of very useful looks, links and materials to help you learn Russian. There are even some FREE learning lessons and they are listed in the Mendeleyev Journal language resource page. 

Finally, it’s time to put these excellent resources to good use! In just 2 months you’ll be amazed at how much you know and how rewarding it is to learn a new language.

You'll learn how to read simple street and building address signs.

Suggested Lesson Plan for beginners:

1- Daily lessons from or from for consistent step by step instruction, with correct pronuncation by native speakers.

2- Practice projects, 1 day per week or weekends: Use above resources such as or for supplementary homework or projects. Use the “homework” to learn to master the alphabet, how to use numbers/counting, pronounce names/titles of relatives, how to tell time, and some other basics. This supplemental homework will take you further in your ability to put sentences and phrases together.

3a-  Weeks ONE and THREE: Watch for RL101 and the other Russian lessons in both the RL 101 and the RL 102 series.  Complete all the lessons, both series.

3b-  Weeks TWO and FOUR: Listen to PIMSLEUR audio CDs, 1 lesson per week. Also both print and write the alphabet, two times daily until you can do it forward and backwards in your sleep, including cursive.

4-  Once a week, read one chapter and make notes from “The Idiot’s Guide to Learning Russian.” Re-read the same chapter again later in the week.

That is a McDonalds "Big & Tasty + a Chicken Premium sandwich + fries and a кола (cola).

How we think about the Russians

Only twenty years ago media professionals who flew from Chicago or Washington into places like Moscow or Kyiv quickly discovered that most Soviet airports were primarily military in nature as there wasn’t much of a “tourist” trade. About 30 minutes before the final approach the stewardess staff  collected cameras and any writing tablets or tape recorders before lowering the aisle seat window shades so that journalists could not view Soviet Air Force activities on the field.  Even airport buses on Soviet  tarmacs drew shades for the few hundred feet from airplane stairs to the terminals.  

These days such things rarely matter when flying into a Russian airport.  For my first trip I was given a copy of the “The Russians” by Hedrick Smith, for years considered the ultimate guide to understanding how Russians think, and how to view life in the Soviet Union.

The Scottish born and Oxford trained Hedrick Smith was Moscow Bureau Chief for The New York Times from 1971 to 1974-and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his coverage from the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe.  In the book Smith used his skills as a superb interviewer and writer to probe and painstakingly piece together an amazing jigsaw puzzle of habits, humor, and idiosyncracies that presents a Soviet reality that few in the West experienced first hand.  It was a groundbreaking work and set the standard for journalism about Russia for the decades to come.

Later Smith published another important book, “The New Russians.” Both books by Hedrick Smith canonized the way the West looks at Russia.  And they are extraordinary, even monumentally masterful books. 

Smith also wrote “The Power Game” in 1988 but it was the two books previously mentioned that opened Western eyes to see and appreciate how life was lived in the Soviet Union and then in the new days of “wild west capitalism” as life was so often termed shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In the coming weeks we may change some of the ways you think about life in Russia. Some of what you’ve learned we’ll verify, but don’t be too surprised if some of the things you think you know turn out to be altogether different from reality. This will not be a gloss-over or public relations spin job, but a learning experience that we’ll call “How Russians Think.”

Ukraine: Russian President Medvedev visits Taras Shevchenko National University

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke at  in Kyiv (Kiev) on Tuesday, some 20 years after his first visit to the University in the last days of the Soviet Union. At that time Mr Medvedev was a young law professor who had been invited to take part in a conference.

Russian President Medvedev speaks at Ukraine's Taras Shevchenko National University.

President Medvedev responded to students’ questions on prospects for Russian-Ukrainian economic relations, ways for overcoming the financial crisis and improving the investment climate in both countries, the fight against terrorism, the future of Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, the development of bilateral humanitarian contacts, and Russia and Ukraine’s mutual recognition of one another’s university diplomas.

The University is named after Taras Shevcheno, a major figure in Ukrainian arts as a poet, writer and artist. His literary heritage is regarded to be the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature.

Kyiv's Taras Shevchenko National University is often called the "Red University" because of the colour of it's main building.

National University is considered the most prestigious university in Ukraine and the current enrollment is over 20,000 students.

No Glamour in being President of Ukraine

Sometimes being a president isn’t all that glamorous.

Imagine you’re Ukrainian President Yanukovych and hosting the president from Russia, the big country next door. There is rain and gusty winds at precisely the time you’re both scheduled to present a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown (Ukrainian) soldier.

With TV cameras rolling a gust of wind picks up your wreath and smacks it straight into the face! Not very presidential. That is perhaps why the Ukrainian government has asked the media not to use any of the video or still photos taken of the event.

This is the press Mr President, besides it’s too late for such a request. Somebody had already put it on YouTube. 

Wonder if the spirits of the Unknown Soldiers must have been none too pleased that their president had spent Victory Day on Moscow’s Red Square instead of at home with the folks in Kyiv for the Ukrainian celebration?