Fetishize the USSR.
While some older Russians pine for the days of breadlines and Polish black market pantyhose, most people — especially of the younger generation, who came of age in the calamitous years of Yeltsin — do not. Visit a gathering of the Communist Party in Russia today and you’ll only see faded red flags and straggly silver hair.
So please, leave that mall-bought-hammer-and-sickle t-shirt at home, because there’s nothing cool about glamorizing 70 years of oppression and hardship.
Brag about the United States’ single-handed victory in WW2.
World War 2, also known as the “Great Fatherland War” or the “Great Patriotic War,” remains the most sensitive historical topic for Russians. You’d be pretty touchy, too, if 25 million of your countrymen perished in six years of battle, bombs, and starvation. Alas, these startling statistics are all too often overshadowed by Hollywood’s — and even some textbooks’ — predominant narrative: that the Americans were the true heroes of WW2, single-handedly shifting the tides on the Western Front and in the Pacific.
In fact, the most decisive events of the war occurred on the Eastern Front, which was four times larger and deadlier than its Western counterpart. And if the word “Stalingrad” means nothing to you, congratulations — you’re in the perfect position to piss off any Russian.
Joke about mail-order brides.
One of the most common caricatures of Russian women is that of the mail-order bride, some gold-digging Svetlana who dreams of green cards and platinum hair extensions. Rarely, however, do we acknowledge the complex socioeconomic underpinnings of this phenomenon.
For many Russians, especially those living outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, life remains a struggle with few opportunities for upward mobility. Additionally, due to staggering rates of alcoholism and domestic violence in Russia, eligible bachelors are in short supply. Thus, international matchmaking agencies do more than just rip off gullible Western men — they offer deserving Russian women the opportunity to have a family life that is statistically less likely to involve drunken beatings.
Assume we all hate Putin.
As of August 2014, the independent Moscow-based research institute Levada Center recorded an astronomical 84% public approval rating for Putin. Yes, in spite of obvious corruption and authoritarianism, most Russians support their president, and not just because he rides stallions through the snow while shirtless. To many citizens — young and old, rural and urban — Putin represents a strong, decisive leader who will protect them as they gallop into their country’s future as an international pariah.
Or assume we all love him.
What public opinion polls do not show is the quiet discontent simmering beneath the surface of Russian society. These are not the creative class’s high-profile protests or blogger exposés, but rather the everyday malaise that has defined Russians’ political attitudes ever since Ivan was Terrible. Today, any Russian with an Internet connection and half a brain is privy to Putin’s corruption, crackdowns, and blatant disregard for human rights. However, centuries of totalitarianism have also inured them to these realities.
Recent restrictions on public assembly and social media have only confirmed that Russia is not a country in which to rebel. It is not a country where the average person discusses critical political views — not because they don’t have any, but because they know they don’t matter.
If all else fails, tell us you’re a queer vegan transgender polyamorist radical faerie, who spends your free time getting tattooed and running an artisanal tofu business.
Let’s just say alternative lifestyles are not yet acceptable alternatives in Russia. When it comes to social, sexual, and meat-related matters, Russians err on the side of traditionalism, and so it’s advisable to fly your freak flags at half mast. Otherwise, be prepared to defend your beliefs and values at great length. And be prepared to be a little pissed off.