I always wondered about the custom of taking off shoes when you go to someone’s place. For me, it appeared to be quite funny to attend parties, sometimes formal ones, and still to see people barefoot. Can you explain that?
One thing that really amazed me when we moved to Switzerland was that you could wear black suede boots in fall/winter and they wouldn’t get dusty or dirty each time you went out on the street. At that moment, Muscovites heard what was considered to be a rumor – that in Europe roads are being washed with shampoo. That piece of knowledge really entertained us, it was in line with rumors about people in some countries eating insects or paying for breathing pure oxygen.
So, the most obvious and probably true answer is that the roads in Russia are less clean; hence, people remove their shoes to keep their apartments clean. It is also practical during a long winter season, when it is really cold outdoors, so you wear warm boots, insulated with real fur and it is really warm indoors, so keeping your shoes on in-house is not going to be comfy.
But we can also speculate on some more reasons. Comfortable footwear is quite a recent thing for Russian consumers. I am not talking about trainers and other sport shoes, I am talking about comfy shoes in general. In Soviet times most shoes and boots produced by Soviet footwear industry were not comfortable, so people wanted to get rid of them as soon as they got home to give their feet some rest. And although now that is not an issue any more, it might be the power of habit. And for girls, it still is an issue since 9 cm heels worn daily are tiring.
Finally, here is what amused me most about your question. Any Russian person would immediately recognize that this question is coming from a foreigner. I bet that not all guests at those formal parties were barefoot, some of them had “smenka” (change shoes) with them and felt in place with the situation. Smenka is something that Russians are used to from early age – kids in school always brought change shoes in a separate bag with them to school, adults used to bring shoes to theater, dances and when visiting friends. At present most hospitals, fitness centers and other organizations provide plastic socks (free of charge) to be put on top of your shoes. And all airports also provide plastic socks that you put on top of your socks, so that you do not have to walk through security line barefoot.
Finally, there is a need to mention domashnie tapochki (in-house shoes, provided by hosts). This wide-spread phenomena has always been in homes of Russians and has been considered one of hospitality gestures of a good host. Typically these are slippers, very often really worn out. A guest who did not consider bringing smenka might feel awkward when faced with a request to wear somebody else’s slippers. The best recipe is – bring smenka to any place you visit in Russia! That is a part of being a good guest!
P.S. If you are a girl, never ever bring stilettos to house parties as your smenka. They might look awesome, but hosts of the party will hate you for wearing them since stilettos leave dents in wooden floors. Nobody will tell you not to wear stilettos, out of hospitality, but you may never be invited to this house again.
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.