Planning your first trip to Russia? Your mind must be swelling with questions then.
After all, there always has been a lot of controversy and stereotypes about Russia. The very word Russia summons up quite equivocal (and rather stereotypical) images that tend to baffle, if not scare a foreign person. While with most Western European countries everything is more or less clear, Russia leaves most foreigners completely clueless as to what to expect of it. It is truly hard to find any adequate answers and not to drown in this vast ocean of stereotypes, obsolete facts, and contradictory information that surrounds Russia. Even now that its borders have been open to foreign citizens for over a decade, Russia is still shrouded in mystery. It keeps foreigners wondering… What is Russian life like? Is it safe to be in Russia? Is it difficult to travel to and around it? Is life in Russia expensive? What exactly do I need to bring with me?.. and so on, and so forth. Who can possibly answer such questions about a country better than a native who has been living in it most of their life and knows it inside out? So, let me become your Russian guide to Russian everyday reality to help you form the most realistic impression of what Russia really is like. I would like to begin with something that concerns people most these days – safety issues.
Safety in Russia
One of the most common and least accurate stereotypes about Russia is the one that makes it look like one of the most turbulent places on Earth with the most rampant crime. The recent terrorist attacks in Moscow, regrettably, have only helped to perpetuate the negative stereotype. It is apparent, however, that virtually all of our world, including Europe and the USA have become targets of international terrorism, not just Russia. In this particular sense, one’s personal safety is no longer a matter of geographical location. Rather, it is largely dependent on one’s own behavior.
According to American sources, the crime rate is actually substantially higher in the US than in Russia, although it has increased in Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union. That means that the precautions an individual should take traveling in Russia are identical to the ones recommended elsewhere in the world, including the USA. It is understood that people are most vulnerable to crime in a foreign country. In this manner, in Russia foreigners become easy prey for those who do not exactly mean well. Therefore, I suggest you keep in mind that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and follow some simple, yet arbitrary rules on a day-to-day basis. First of all, avoid flaunting valuables or large sums of cash and flashing your wallet. Secondly, you are strongly advised against walking alone at night or through deserted and secluded places at daytime. Third, be careful striking up acquaintances with strangers. Try to not too attract too much attention to yourself either, especially in crowded public places (unless you want to be eased of your wallet or even worse).
Do not be paranoid, though. Just be wary. Be friendly and open-minded, but do not forget to use your common sense. Hospitability is, beyond all doubt, a Russian national trait, but remember that there are black sheep in every family. So, watch your step as you go and you will be safe and sound.
You might also want to memorize the Russian police and Medical Emergency phone numbers – 02 and 03 respectively. You can dial them toll-free from any public phone. Just in case. Hope you will never have to dial them, though.
Russian customs system is pretty standard in terms of allowing some things and not allowing others. Needless to say, such items as weapons, drugs, and dangerous chemical substances are not welcome by our customs service. Other than that, you can basically bring in whatever you want in moderate quantities (quantities that make it apparent the item is not brought here for sale). You can bring in up to 250 cigarettes, one bottle of liquor, and two cameras without paying duty on them. To be on the safe side, be sure to declare all valuables you are bringing into the country, such as jewelry, computers, electronics, etc. Please note that you can only bring the total of up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) custom tax free. For everything above you may be required to pay a custom tax of $5 per kilogram. This is not always enforced, but keep it in mind. There is also a set of strict and complex limitations on importation of medication that is not intended for personal use. If you bring prescription medication, take your prescription with you. On top of that, all your currency exceeding $500 must be officially declared, or else you will not be able to take more that $1500 out of the country. Upon arriving in a Russian airport, you will receive two forms, one of which you will have to fill out right then, and you keep the other one until your departure to declare the things you are taking out. If you buy something more or less valuable during your stay, be sure to keep the receipts. According to the rules of our customs service, one cannot leave the country with items which total value is greater that $3,000. If you obtain any antiques or articles of art, you have to have the supporting documents stating that those items have no substantial historical or cultural value. The requirements on those supporting documents are vague, and my general advice is not to buy any art or antiques in Russia to take home with you, unless you must. This applies especially to old religious icons and paintings.
On a side note: remember that Russian laws in general and customs law in particular are liable to frequent changes. So, it would make sense to check back on the rules every now and then to avoid confusion and possible inconvenience.
Lodging in Russia
Finding accommodation is no longer a problem in Russia, especially when it comes to such large cities as Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The price of a room in a hotel depends completely on the location, the class of the suite and the rank of the hotel. Generally speaking, the rates are similar to those in the USA. In Moscow, for instance, they range from as low as $47 for a standard single suite in three-star Izmaylovskaya hotel to an average of $364 for a business suite in a four-star hotel and up to $2191 for a presidential suite in high-end five-star Metropol. The average hotel suite price fluctuates between $200 and $300 per night. You can also rent a one-room apartment for a period of 3 nights to 6 months. It will cost you around $60-70 per night.
Though accommodation opportunities are more limited away from the big megalopolises, you can still find pretty decent suites and rooms in smaller cities. The good thing is that accommodation there is generally cheaper with prices starting at $12 and averaging $20-30 per night.
Connecting to electricity in Russia
In our high tech era most business people cannot imagine a day without access to their computer, email, the Internet in general, cell phone – you name it. While you can bring your own electrical appliances (including a laptop) to Russia, you might have problem using them here unless you know about some important things. Russia uses the European standard for home electrical outlets, so if you are familiar with European standard, you don’t need to read this further.
One difference is that European standard uses 220- 240 volt/50 Hz (as opposed to 110 -120 volt/60Hz in the US). You should not worry about “Hz” part, which is frequency, because it does not really matter for most appliances, including computers and monitors, but the voltage DOES matter. If you manage to plug in a regular American appliance designed for 110 volts into European (or Russian) outlet, your appliance WILL burn.
The other difference is that the outlet itself is different.
You most likely will be able to use your laptop without a step-down transformer, you will just need a cheap adaptor. More details on laptop use and connecting to the Internet.
You will probably need a step-down transforme to be able to use other electronics. More details on other devices.
Going out and eating out
Just like in the case with lodging, Moscow and Saint Petersburg offer the best opportunities for having quality time regardless of what “quality time” means to you. Whether you are a fan of clubbing, or a museum lover, these two cities have it all in abundance. Speaking of taste, if you are a true gourmet you will definitely appreciate restaurants in Moscow. The number of restaurants here is mind-boggling already, and it continues to grow constantly. The restaurants and cafes are highly varied and are made to suit every possible taste (and budget too). There are restaurants serving authentic Russian, European, American, Ethnic and Asian cuisines, chill-out bars and cafes, fast food chains, etc. Prices in those restaurants vary just as their specializations and levels do, and range from a modest $4-5 lunch in a fast food place to an extravagant dinner for $100 per person at an exotic dining venue.
For better or worse, all major Russian cities now feature the most famous American fast food chains, with McDonald’s, not surprisingly, in the lead. However, don’t bring your date there. Just as anywhere in the world, in Russia fast food is regarded as cheap, unhealthy, and in no way cool.
While in most places breakfast will cost you $6, business lunch will on average set you back $12, but can be both cheaper (about $5) and more expensive (around $20). An average dinner at a pretty good restaurant will be ranging from $15 to $30-50.
And if you happen to be the “clubby type” you can get gain admittance to most dance floors for anywhere from $2 to $8, depending on the day of the week and who is performing, or even for free. You can crash the best parties in Moscow for $10-16.
Drinking is not only allowed, but also highly encouraged everywhere in Russia. In Moscow clubs your passion for liquor will cost you… about $5-10 per drink on average.
It is probably becoming apparent to you that Russia is a country of great contrasts. That is what amazes and confuses foreigners more than anything else. You see a great deal of such striking contrasts in Moscow alone, and you will inevitably notice even more of them as you get out of the city and travel the rest of the country. Things you can find in Russia can blow your mind. They can shock, and yes, sometimes even upset you. So, the best thing you can do, when arranging your visit to this country, is be open-minded to and prepared for everything. After all, Russia is too complicated and multifaceted to be summed up in a few paragraphs. So, be ready to embrace the many opportunities that your trip will create for you. To really appreciate Russia you will have to actually come and see everything for yourself. Looking forward to welcoming you here!
Editor's comments: Russia is a great country to visit. It may be something you will tell your grand kids about. It is much safer than going to say, New York City and you will get life long lasting impressions. Especially if you go in winter, you will be amazed by vast spaces, all covered with snow, the quietness and beauty of the fields and forests, if you happen to go outside the city.
Russian people are very hospitable. Keep in mind that they don't smile a lot, like in America, but even when they are not smiling, they are probably wishing you well.
I recommend you print out and take with you our basic Russian phrasebook. It it free.
The major concern of our clients before they go to Russia is safety. It is totally understandable. The mere factor of the "unknown" is enough to cause anxiety. I would like to take this chance to reassure you one more time, that Russia today is quite safe, and that the crime rate there is not higher that in the US. Most of our clients stay in major hotels, use official metropolitan taxi cabs (as opposed to private, unofficial cabs), go only to major, reputable night clubs. Therefore, their chances to ever encounter any illegal activity is very slim, and I am happy to report, that it had never happened in 7 years we've been in business.
If you are concerned about safety, here are a few recommendations:
- Do not flash cash. Do not even carry a lot of cash on you. Use ATM cards to get small cash amounts instead. Remember, if you don't have much of value to criminals, you are very unlikely to become their target.
- From crime standpoint travelling by plane is safer than by train. Take a plane if possible. Trains are cheaper, but you are an easy target there.
- It is better to have a Russian speaking person with you most of the time, to negotiate with taxi drivers, hotel clerks, etc. He or she will get better prices for you, and you will be safer, because you will not attract much attention as a foreigner.
- Keep your wallet and other valuables in a tight pocket, close to your body. Remember that pocket pinching is wide spread in Russia. Pay special attention to your valuables when you are in a crowded space, especially in public transportation. I find it best to keep my wallet and valuables in the side pocket of my jeans (but never in the back pocket). The worst idea would be to keep your wallet in the outside pocket of your rain coat or similar, where you can not feel it.
- Although drinking is not prohibited in Russia, even in public places, including public transportation, people who are clearly "under influence" or drinking in public become easy targets for all types of criminals.
Have a safe and fun trip.