Russia is the largest country in the world in size at 17,075,400 km squared. With a population of 143 million citizens, it is the world's 8th most populous country. Russia stretches 8,000 km at its widest point over many types of terrain. Its climate is continental and quite similar to Canada's, although Russia has a sub-tropical region near the Black Sea.
Russia is an international power, whose economy is usually ranked 10th or 11th in the world. However, the per capita income was, until recently, quite low. In the last few years, the middle class has grown in size, and unemployment has dropped. Many more individuals live in poverty in Russia than in Canada, especially in rural areas.
The medieval state of Rus' was created in the 9th century and a dynamic and complicated history followed with the Russian Empire, the Russian Revolution, two World Wars, the Soviet Union, and then, in 1991, the creation of modern Russia. Many students who are not from Russia itself (but from other ex-Soviet Republics, such as Ukraine) may call themselves Russian, as it is considered an ethnic identifier as well as a nationality.
Religion and Government
Until the 1980s, immigrating form Russia or studying outside Russia as an international student was curtailed by the Soviet Union. Previous generations of Russians lived behind the "iron curtain". Some Canadians still have an image of Russia as being less developed than Canada, but its cities are incredibly modern and cosmopolitan, and Russians tend to be surprised at how uninformed Canadians are. Having a new friend from Russia is a chance to cross-check many assumptions that grew out of Soviet era super-power and spy rumours.
Although religion was not allowed during the Soviet Union, many Russians are re-discovering Orthodox Christian traditions.
The vast majority of Russian citizens (over 80%) are ethnic Russians who speak Russian. The other 20% of the population is comprised of many different ethnic groups.
Many Russians have studied some English as a Second Language at school, but need to learn a lot of English upon arrival in Canada, as English is not broadly used in the media, education, or business. English learning is getting more and more popular. Having fluency in English is a sign of good education and increasingly a requirement to get a good job. English has borrowed very few words from Russian, as the two cultures have not interacted widely, but we have borrowed bistro, icon, intelligencia, mammoth, tundra, and vodka as well as political terms such as Bolshevik and glasnost.
You may find listening to conversations between Russian friends almost overwhelming. Russian is spoken at a louder volume than English and features a sentence-final intonation pattern that is only used in English for being bossy, so Russian and Russian-influenced English can appear aggressive. Take a breath and ask your friend if he or she is getting upset. Most often the answer is "No!"
Social Interaction and Values
Russians are often surprised that in Canada, where incomes are higher, people seem less hospitable. If you get a chance to visit a Russian home, you will likely find a greater variety of food served over a longer dinner time than is typical in English-speaking Canadian homes.
Russians tend to set great store by passionate conversations, plentiful food, shared drinking, and good quality music. Russia is considered a centre for the performing arts, and music and drama can be found everywhere. Your new Russian friends may find Canadian gatherings rather low key.
Having an opinion and being able to debate are highly regarded in Russia. Russian students sometimes complain that the conversations just start getting good in Canada and then the teacher wants everyone to calm down! Russian speakers can sound quite authoritative and dismissive without this being considered rude. The other conversation partner is simply expected to step up to the plate and respond. It's not considered rude in Russian to contradict someone and say they are wrong. Russians tend to think the conversation can move towards a central truth, while Canadians tend to try and let people keep their multiple truths undisturbed. In Canadian English, speakers, who want to adjust what someone has said, usually apologize and say, "Actually." However, in the same situation, your new Russian friend may tell you that you are wrong outright. Russians tend to regard compromising as a sign of weakness, while Canadians consider it a sign of wisdom. Realize that conversation rules and philosophies vary across the world.
You may get a longer answer than you expect to "How are you? How are you doing?" These expressions are polite friendliness to Canadians. Most people say "OK" or "Not bad." even if things are not good at all. In Russia it is possible to get or give a detailed reply.
You may also be surprised that while English-speaking Canadians usually nod or shake their heads a gentle 2-3 times in friendly conversations and once when angry or disturbed, Slavic speakers (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, etc.) use one head nod in friendly conversation. Don't misread non-verbal cues. Always check when you think someone is getting upset.
In business meetings and study meetings, Russian students can seem uncooperative, as they may not be aware of the processes for group work in Canadian school settings. The Russian system of education is based on individual work. Think about the processes that are usually in place and see if you can articulate them or negotiate a whole new intercultural way of dividing up work.
Even before Communism, Russia had a history of strong social groupings and communal village life. Large picnics and outings are still common and organized sports, walks, and tours are incredibly popular. People who study or work together often socialize together in groups larger than is common in Canada. Everybody's business can be everybody's business, so a new Russian friend may tell you what you should do without expecting to be considered rude. Imagine coming from a boisterous, playful, involved, expanded social community to studying alone at Conestoga College. Try to plan a social outing to include a new Russian friend, but if you want it to meet Russian expectations, it needs to be a long one with plenty of food and drink and conversation.
Devastation and hardships brought on by war, dictatorships, and revolution are still talked about in Russia. Did you know that over 23 million people died in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War, that at least half were civilians, and that one of the most common causes of death was starvation due to food blockades and shortages?
Russians sometimes find the constant smiling, optimism, and agreeableness of Canadians surprising. If you grew up in Canada in the last few generations, you have likely never had personal encounters with war or hardship. The last war fought on Canadian soil was the War of 1812 and our standard of living has been amongst the world's highest for generations.
Family is extremely important in Russia. It is common for even adult children to consult their parents or siblings when making a decision. Family and friends are expected to support, and stand up for, each other.
Rules and restrictions dictated from above are not considered to be carved in stone in Russia as such rules were, in the past, intrinsically unfair and therefore sometimes subverted. There is an old Russian saying that, "The harshness of Russian laws is compensated for by one's not being obliged to follow them." Your new Russian friend may find you naive, but do warn him or her about how seriously Canadian professors take rules like deadlines, not cheating, plagiarism, etc.
Russians typically don't have food restrictions. However, they usually love food and consider themselves food connoisseurs. Therefore, don't be surprised, if you invite someone to a restaurant or your home and they discuss the food. English speaking Canadians tend to have a rule that you always say everything tastes good and it can be quite shocking to hear this rule broken.
Russia has a very strong education system with what Canadians might consider a very traditional emphasis on strong math, reading, and writing skills. Russia also has a strong science and technology base, which started to flourish in the Enlightenment period with Peter the Great and was strongly supported right through the Soviet Era. Russia is one of the largest producers and publishers of scientific information in the world. Post-secondary education is mostly free in Russia, but very competitive. It was completely free in Communist times, but now there are private post-secondary institutions as well. Students from Russia can seem both quite intense about their studies and yet highly social. Getting strong marks and impressing professors while at the same time developing a strong social network has always been essential skill in Russia.
Many thanks to Natalia Trubochkina for her input.