Russians are and have always been very warm friendly people and they are generous and thoughtful hosts. Most people are only acquainted with Western culture through television and film, and the chance to interact privately with a live representative of the great unknown is usually taken on with relish.* It is common for people to invite you to their home where you may be wined and dined and married off to the youngest sibling.
Keep in mind that like other big cities St. Petersburg has its share of unsavory characters. You will undoubtedly notice (especially in hip bars, casinos, and clubs) large, scarred men in leather jackets with crew cuts, no necks, and calloused hands the size of basketballs. These are goons and should be left alone. The goon's car of choice depends on his social status and his level in the goon heirarchy: rank-and-file goons cruise in black Lada four-door hatchbacks, up-and-coming goons have beat up early '80s Fords or muddy Mercedes Benzes with no license plates, and it's best to refer to the ones in shiny new Mercedes 600s, BMW's, or Jeeps as "your royal Goonness."
Note that Russia is an ethnic melting pot and pride in one's ethnic identity is a growing trend, as the bloody civil wars in the southern republics illustrate. The bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninist internationalism and the current economic hardships have likewise led to an awakening of national consciousness among Russians. This Russian national awakening manifests itself in an acute interest in versions of Russian history and culture stripped of ideological padding, as well as in a lot of finger-pointing in the direction of other nationalities as a way of explaining past and present problems. Since racial relations can be rather tense in this part of the world, try your best to be sensitive to Russians, Buryats, Tadjiks, Kalmyks, and the other 140 nationalities alike.
To use the term "Soviet" when you mean "Russian" is like asking a Canadian which state they're from. "Soviet" is now only used as a derogatory adjective - Soviet hospital, restaurant, underwear - describing something prototypical of the Soviet era when efficiency, service, and style were unofficially banned.
PRACTICES AND CUSTOMS
Russians are tremendous gift givers and the transfer of small tokens of generosity is quite an ingrained tradition. People love to present gifts to each other and this can be a great way to break the ice. The best gifts are things that are not readily available here which thus have some novelty value: postcards and photo books of your home country, replicas (little Statues of Liberty, Big Bens), coffee mugs with silly inscriptions, and so on. Cosmetics, children's toys or clothes (Russians always bring something for kids), picture books, rock or pop music tapes, and any practical items (clothing, kitchenware, beach-front property) will also be greatly appreciated.
Gifts are also given in order to grease wheels - whether it is to get a seat in a restaurant that is "booked solid," a train ticket, or an office on Nevsky Prospekt. This type of gift is also known as a bribe and is a part of day to day existence. Seventy-four years of communism did to much of the working populace's motivation what neutering does to a cat's sex life - it's as if their incentive to do anything but make your life difficult was surgically removed - so these little tokens serve to open all kinds of otherwise shut doors. The appropriate bribe depends on what you are trying to accomplish. A dollar or a bottle of something should conquer a doorman; on the other hand, anyone wishing to rent the Hermitage for a private party may need to give a little more. Note that the influx of consumer goods has outdated many of the old cliché bribes. For instance, whereas in the old days a pack of Marlboro would stop traffic and a carton would get you a fat public works contract, nowadays they are available on every street corner and so their bribe value has greatly diminished.
Tipping was abolished after the Revolution together with good service and it will take some time for the populace to get back into both these habits again. You can do your part by tipping whenever the service merits it; rest assured that this will not bankrupt you. As to the question of whom to bestow your generosity upon, tip as you would if you were in your home country - the doorman, the cloakroom attendant, the waiter, the bartender, the cat, etc. Tour guides, drivers, and other people who spend more than a little time with you should also be tipped or presented with something.
Smoking would appear to be almost mandatory and Western visitors will most likely be aghast at Russians' tolerant attitude towards it. Restaurants and cafes seem to feature two sections - smoking and chain smoking. Russian cigarettes are particularly foul smelling and the cheaper the brand the more pungent the aroma. The most popular revolting smelling brands you'll encounter here are Stewardess, Kosmos, and the thoroughly repulsive, unfiltered Belomorkanal. Asking someone near you to put out a cigarette is unlikely to be met with acquiescence. Smoking is not permitted on public transport, although there are a variety of other scents, particularly during the summer, which produce more or less the same effect.
Although sexism in all its manifestations is being stamped out in the egalitarian West, its vestiges are still quite ingrained in this culture. It is considered proper for men to do such things for women as hold doors open, pour their drinks and serve their food first, assist them in and out of vehicles, light their cigarettes (even if it means rubbing two sticks together), and help them put on and take off their coats. Likewise, there exists a pretty firm concept of the difference between "women's work" (everything) and "men's work" (hammering a couple of nails here and there in between bottles of vodka). Most Russians understand that we have different customs and attitudes and won't be offended if we don't do the above things.
In Russia it is polite to address a person either by their last name (e.g. "Mr. Lenin") or, more commonly, by their name and patronymic, a derivative of their father's name (e.g. "Vladimir Ilyich"). This is especially the case for elders, for instance someone's babushka (grandmother), and with important politicos and businessmen.
When in Rome
It is considered disrespectful to shake hands while wearing gloves.
When taking out a cigarette for yourself, always be sure to offer one to those around you.
Never cross your legs in the American style (ankle resting on knee) as this is considered rude, especially if the sole of your shoe or foot is visible.
When visiting a household it is proper to remove your shoes in the entryway. You will be given slippers (tapochki) to wear while inside or else given permission to track mud all over the parquet floor.
When invited to someone's home bring a gift. The standard is a bottle of something, flowers, or something sweet to have with tea.
Wait fifteen minutes before getting angry when someone is late, at least a half hour before storming off in a huff, or ninety minutes before leaving in an hour and a huff.
Russians are, generally speaking, rather superstitious. It is unlikely that people will perform strange rituals if you break one, but we'll list a few superstitions in the hope that awkward situations can be avoided.
It is considered bad luck to shake hands, kiss, or pass something through a doorway.
If a woman carrying empty buckets crosses your path, it's bad luck. Full buckets denote good luck.
Unmarried women who sit at the corner of a table will not marry for seven years.
Even numbers of flowers are reserved for placing on graves, so give the living an odd number.
If you cut a loaf of bread upside-down (the bread, not you) turn it upright when you're through or things will go upside-down for you as well.
Precipitation is a good luck sign on a day of departure. Just before departing on any journey, you and the people you are leaving behind should briefly sit down together.
It's bad luck if the KGB knocks on your door late at night, even if it's raining, and especially if the bread is upside-down.
(For kids) If you step on someone's foot, you should let them step on yours in return (hopefully the person is not wearing cleats).
(For kids) If you are standing in between two people who have the same first name (which happens quite frequently as seventy percent of the population is named Natasha or Sasha), make a wish and spin around on your left leg three times for the wish to come true.
January 7* - Russian Orthodox Christmas.
January 26 - On this day in 1944 the 872 day Nazi seige of Leningrad was broken. It is a public holiday in St. Petersburg.
February 23 - Soviet Army Day. Although this is not a public holiday and the Soviet Army does not exist any more, this day is considered "Men's Day" as all young men are required to serve in the military.
March 8 - International Women's Day. On this day you should phone all your female acquaintances and wish them well, and give flowers to those you are closer to.
April/May - Russian Orthodox Easter. On Easter Sunday and the two days following, the Orthodox are not supposed to do any menial labor.
May 1 - International Workers' Solidarity Day (three day weekend of drinking).
May 9 - Victory Day (three day weekend, more drinking).
May 27 - St. Petersburg's birthday (drink toasts to the city).
June 12 - Independence Day (drink toasts to independence).
December 31-January 1 - New Year (two weeks of drinking*).