23 August 2011

Good Taciturn Russians


Many long conversations take place at the kaleetka, калитка, gate.

This past year we welcomed new neighbors to our summer village of Zaloz’ye... Gennady and Tatiana next door, Alecsei and Galla just across the dirt road from our property. I still have no idea what any of them specifically do for a living.  No one would be so forward as to ask.

In America, when someone moves in, it’s expected that newcomers will be greeted, and all will introduce themselves and mention what occupations they have, and tell something about their history.  Comments may be at times even self-promoting, and include a lot of information about interests and enthusiasms.  This type of chitchat doesn’t happen here. 

Most personal details are learned indirectly from the gossip circuit.  Slowly over years a portrait is filled in, but with missing pieces.  Gregarious Russian is an oxymoron (unless a lot of drinking is involved) and they do not considered Outgoing a good personality trait. 

People arrive and leave throughout the summer usually with no helpful tipoff as to their plans.    Information is more likely withheld then offered, secretiveness trumps openness.

Russians will not ask what I as an American would consider friendly questions.  But, then again, I’ve never been put on the spot by uncomfortable interrogation... except about money.  Many Russians think it’s OK to ask about pension or salary amounts.



A front window of the veranda looks out on the gate, fields, and Lake Vselug.

Last summer Gennady was alone, his wife still in the Moscow environs.  I suggested that we invite him sometimes for supper, explaining to Larissa that this is a normal impulse in much of the United States in such a situation.

When we broached the idea with Gennady he put on a wry face.  Larissa said Americans like to invite people if they are alone.  His answer, with a negative shake of the head, “This is Russia.”

People like to chat by the gate.  It’s a social step to get some neighbors to come inside the fence.  Not many visitors take the next step and take off their shoes to sit on the veranda, perhaps for tea with pastries. 


Valla came here to live with her husband’s family around 50 years ago.

Few come in the main part of the house, and not many once there will sit down if asked.

In past years our neighbor across the way, Valla, was our guest occasionally for my New Jersey style spaghetti dinner, or a meal cooked by Larissa.  She lived here intermittently  since the 1960s, selling last summer.  She is circumspect when she feels it necessary, but also has a social impulse.

Most Russians have warm feelings under layers of reserve and subdued exteriors.  I miss the easy give-and-take more prevalent in the States until I consider that some American behavior is superficial, more verbal than based on commitment.  When a Russian smiles at you, you know it’s from the heart.


We welcome comments!  Just click below.

What’s your experience with new neighbor greetings?  Do you agree with my comments about Gregarious Russians,  friendly questions and Outgoing?  Can you miss a lot in life by being too reserved?



  1. There is an important restriction (or exception) to your description of Russian taciturnity: it applies to "neighbors," i.e., accidental associates with whom there will be frequent contacts. With such people there is inherent risk unless there is a basis for them being one of "yours" -- from the same native city, from the same school or institute, a close friend of a close friend, etc.

    On the other hand, I have learned a lot of interesting and useful information from Russian "strangers" that I met on the Metro, on the train, smoking a cigarette on a landing in a hospital, riding together in a "taxi," waiting for a delayed plane at an airport, and so on. One of the keys is to stick to "general" personal information in terms of questions: How will Russia change in the next ten years? From your experience and observations, are schools better or worse now than when you were in school? The people who told me lots of "personal" information and opinions left out some specific identifying information, such as the name of the village where the neighbors poisoned their piglets out of jealousy, but there was sufficient detail to almost write a novel about it. The people who told me things expected to never see me again or expected to see me only occasionally in a restricted setting, such as passing through the control point in a restricted building or waiting outside a consulate for a visa.

  2. Thanks,and a reply to Bill...

    I appreciated what you said about neighbors and strangers. It's clear your time in Russia and your acute observations added up to an interesting experience. True, given the right situation, Russians can be a talkative lot!

  3. Hi!
    Russians can ask you about your salary or pension, yep, but as a rule this question should be interpreted as 'how much an average taxi-driver (teacher, doctor, dentist; etc.) makes a month?' There is a stereotype that wages and pensions abroad are huge.

    Being Russian I had some problems with Brits in Europe because my English did not sound polite from their point of view. Brits are saying 'you are welcome' all the time and even to their close friends. In Russia people are more informal. For example, a waiter brings in a sandwich and asks: 'Is it for you?'. A Brit would answer: 'Yes, please.' A Russian would answer: 'Yes.'

  4. Hi Mike,

    Well, because the prices are around three times higher in America, their Social Security has to be higher, too... so that's considered a huge difference.

    I really like your example of how a Russian or a Brit would answer a waiter... It's so true and creates a lot of cross cultural problems.

    Thanks for commenting.



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