Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Russian Body Language 101: Don't smile at strangers

A police cadet guards the Day of Russia holiday celebration at the Red Square late Tuesday, June 12, 2007.


The elegant red and blue train, emblazoned with the coat of arms of our next destination, Vilnius, glided majestically into the St. Petersburg station. The platform guards – sturdily built women in high heels, tight black miniskirts and bouffants incongruously paired with military jackets – teetered to their assigned positions as the passengers scrambled to find their carriages. Don't smile, I told myself grimly, as I prepared for the first test.

We'd had the lecture. We knew the rules: Don't smile, don't say anything, hold out visa and passport, photo page facing outward. We were ready for our exam in Russian Body Language 101.

Natasha, our Moscow-elegant Russian tour guide, had taught us not only some useful Russian phrases but also how to carry ourselves. "First impressions are made with the body and the face," she explained, "so it is important to present yourself correctly."

Story continues below advertisement

We had great difficulty with one instruction: "Don't smile at someone you don't know; that person will think you are simple-minded. Why would you smile at someone you don't know?" This went against our Canadian impulse to smile, and if no answering smile is received, to smile all the harder! However, after a few days in Russia, I had begun to feel that it was, indeed, idiotic to smile at strangers.

But my reflexes might still deliver a polite grin – hence my warning to myself as I waited to board the train. Papers at the ready, I stood expressionlessly as the guard, equally stone-faced, looked me up and down, and up and down, finally passing my papers back without a word. I resisted my still ungoverned impulse to say thank you. First test passed with flying colours!

Armed with a requisite bottle of vodka, we settled into our compartment for the overnight ride. Guards, men this time, patrolled the carriages every time the train stopped at a station, which was frequently, and we dutifully played our poker-faced parts.

We were due to cross the border into Latvia at 2:30 in the morning, by which time we were in our bunks, though fully dressed and wide awake – we didn't want to be caught unawares! No chance of that as a shrieking whistle announced our arrival, followed by the clatter of boots as the border guards climbed aboard, and quickly split into pairs.

One guard painstakingly checked each of our documents, again looking up and down between the person and his photo as if unable to believe they really were the same. I silently repeated Natasha's ambiguous instruction: "Don't look away quickly, but don't stare."

Meanwhile, the other guard searched each piece of luggage, and every nook and cranny of the compartment. At last, the guards withdrew without a word and the train finally crossed into Latvia. We'd passed both the border and another exam.

The following evening, I was searching for CNN on the TV in my hotel room in Vilnius when I happened on a picture of our train on the local news. As I watched, I didn't need a translator to tell me what was going on. The scene moved to the inside of a compartment, zooming in on a hole in the ceiling where tiles had been ripped out; the next frame revealed a large white block encased in plastic, followed by a shot of two men being led away in handcuffs.

Story continues below advertisement

I couldn't help wondering what the consequences might have been for us if the bust had happened a day earlier. Was the evidence already hidden in the ceiling of one of the compartments? Our compartment? Would the guards have ripped out our ceiling tiles if we had behaved "incorrectly"? I was glad that I'd mastered Natasha's lessons, and I like to think that my teacher would have been proud.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.