Russians and foreigners
«Никогда не разговаривайте с неизвестными» or «Never talk to strangers»... is the title of the first chapter. Strangers arouse in the Soviet Union both curiosity as suspicion. Because they represented the glamour of abroad, as well as the risk for espionage.
One of the corollaries of Stalin's decision to build socialism in one country was an increasing isolation of the Soviet Union. Many countries were indeed hostile to the Soviet Union, and the ideologists cast the situation as «capitalist encirclement» - every country, every foreigner was potentially an enemy. Russians were not allowed to travel abroad, and very few foreigners were granted permission to enter the Soviet Union. Those who did were watched very carefully.
Foreigners required special documents and had to be registered wherever they stayed. There were certain areas they were not allowed to enter. For example, if one had a visa and permission to live in Moscow, he could not stray farther than 20 km from the center of the city without permission from the authorities. A special branch of the NKVD was assigned the task of observing foreigners in Russia.
Special hotels were designated for foreign visitors. Among these were the Metropol in Moscow and the Astoria in Leningrad, both are named in The Master and Margarita. Such hotels became almost impossible to visit for the average Soviet citizen. Without the appropriate documents, no one was allowed in.
In Russian language a foreigner is indicated by the word иностранец [inostranyets], but in times past the word немец [nemets] was used. This word had a double meaning, however, it stood, besides for foreigner, also for German. So when Ivan, in the first chapter of The Master and Margarita asks Woland «Вы немец?», it can mean «are you German?» as well as «are you a foreigner?». Немец [nemets] would come from the verb неметь [nemet], which means to become dumb. A nemets is then a «dumb», in the sense of someone who doesn't speak Russian.
The official attitude towards foreigners changed dramatically after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Visitors from the European Union still need a visa to enter Russia - and it should be registered wirhin three days after arrival - but it's much easier to obtain and the entrance procedure at Sheremeteyevo airport is often even faster than when you return at Brussels airport.
Still today many Russians don't know well how to react on strangers, though. Even in a city with millions of inhabitants like Moscow there are an awful lot of people who speak only Russian and when a foreigner talks to them, even if it only is for asking the way, they often turn around and walk away without saying a single word. It seems like a strange reaction to Belgians. In our cities it happens every day that you're asked to show the way in another language, and when you drive for one hour by car - in any direction - you're abroad. From Moscow, however, you have to drive thousands of kilometers before meeting the first person who doesn't speak Russian, most Russians even never were outside Russia - or at least the former Soviet Union. In Russia you will rarely meet people with a black skin neither. When a Moscovite talks of a «black» person he doesn't speak of someone with a black skin, but with black hair - someone from the Caucasus.