Russia shares land borders with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Kaliningrad Oblast exclave on the Baltic coast, Belarus, and Ukraine to the west, Georgia and Azerbaijan to the southwest, and Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, North Korea to the east and much of the south.
An imperial power
Russian identity can be traced to the Middle Ages, with first eastern Slavic state known as Kievan Rus and its religion rooted in Byzantine Christianity adopted from Constantinople. Majority of Russians are Orthodox Christians.
Peter The Great established the Russian Empire in 1721, although the Romanov dynasty had been in power since 1613. One of Russia's most charismatic and forceful leaders, Peter built the foundations of empire on a centralized political culture and promoted "westernization" of the nation. As part of this effort he moved the capital from the history rich city of Moscow to Saint Petersburg, a city built at a great expense and by a great effort of the Russian people. Best architects from France and Italy were involved designing the city. Saint Petersburg became known as Russia's "Window on the West" and adopted the manners and style of the royal courts of western Europe, even to the point of adopting French as its preferred language.
The Russian Empire reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many colourful and enlightened figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy. By the late 19th century political crises followed in rapid succession, with rebellion and its repression. The occasional attempts by the Romanovs and the privileged classes to reform society and ameliorate the condition of the underclasses invariably ended in failure. Russia entered World War 1 in the union of the Triple Entente; like other European Empires with catastrophic results for itself. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, proved to be feckless, weak, and distracted by personal tragedies and the burdens of the war. The government proved unable to hold back the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Deposed and held under house arrest, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children -- and with them the Romanov dynasty -- were exterminated by gunfire in the basement of a Yekaterinburg manor house and buried in unmarked graves which were found later and reburied in the Saint Paul and Peter Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
Utopia of Communism
World War I strained Imperial Russia's governmental and social institutions to the breaking point of Revolution in 1917. Following a brief interim government headed by social democrat Alexander Kerensky, the Bolshevik faction of the Communist Party under Marxist Vladimir Lenin seized power, with the money provided by the German establishement, withdrew Russia from the war, and launched a purge of clerics, political dissidents, aristocrats, the bourgeoise, and the wealthy independent farmers. A brutal civil war between the "Red Army" of the communist leadership and the "White Army" largely consisting of foreign interventionists back by Britain, Germany and France lasted until late 1920. In his years in power, Lenin used the Red Army, the internal security apparatus, and the Communist Party leadership to arrest and execute many opponents of the nascent regime, and redistribute land that have long been owned by the large land owners to peasants who work in it (Collectivisation of agriculture would not take place until 1928). After the Civil War, Lenin adopted a New Economic Policy, which allowed certain sectors to be denationalized, as well as cancelling the practice of grain requisitioning that was widely used in wartime, as well as a loosening of political and cultural controls.
The revolutionary state was not directly ruled by the officials in titular control of the government, which was established in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The government in the commonly understood sense was largely irrelevant both in fact and in Communist theory throughout the years of Communist control. In a manner akin to the Tsarist regime, the real power lay in the leadership of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the internal security apparatus (secret police).
Following Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle among the Bolshevik leadership ensued, with Josef Stalin emerging as the new leader of the Communist Party and dictator of the USSR. Stalin's brutal rule (1928-53) was marked by waves of "purges" in which suspected dissidents in the government, the Party, the Red Army, and even the security forces were executed or exiled to gulags (prison camps) on little or no evidence. In addition to forced collectivization of agriculture and renationalisation of industries, Stalin introduced a ruthlessly centralized economic system ("socialism in one country") that rapidly industrialized the USSR. Stalin's rivals to succeed Lenin, as well as critics arising thereafter, typically ended up as victims of the purges.
Soviet Union joined Nazi Germany at the beginning of the World War II when Red Army entered Poland 17 September 1939, later taking control over Baltic States, part of Romania and unsuccessfully attacking Finnland. All changed, when 22nd of June 1941, Hitler having conquered most of the Western Europe, invaded the USSR. The Great Patriotic war for USSR began; after heavy fights the Soviet Army's successful campaigns on the Eastern Front culminated in capture of Berlin. Hitler's war on USSR had cost of over 27 million! Soviet deaths, most of them civilian victims, and soldiers in ghastly land battles. At the conclusion of the Second World War/The Great Patriotic war, the USSR imposed many puppet communist governements in its “zone of influence” causing millions of deaths in prisons and labour camps in the first decade after the war. Shortly after the end of the conflict, started a rivalry beteen western powers and USSR, called “Cold War”.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet heavy industry and military might continued to grow under Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955) and Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964), as General Secretary of the Communist Party. Attempts were made to produce consumer goods, as well as a progressive decentralization, despite resistance from the armed forces. In 1956, Khruschev renounced the excesses of Stalin's regime and commenced to "de-Stalinize" the economy and society of the USSR. Results were mixed, and Khrushchev himself was deposed. In October 1957 the USSR became the first country to launch an artificial satellite into space. This was followed by sending the first human (Yuri Gagarin) into space in 1961. The Soviet Union reached its military, diplomatic, and economic peak during the closing years of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). But increasing corruption and a slowdown in economic growth marched inexorably to a crisis that eventually led General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) to introduce glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic transformation- literally: rebuilding). His initiatives inadvertently released forces that went beyond his control, triggering political movements that eventually consumed the Soviet Union itself in December 1991.
A Strong Rising Democracy
The Russian Federation emerged from the Soviet Union during the turbulent events of 1990-91. The first leader of the newly formed nation was Boris Yeltsin, who rose to power by standing up to an attempted putsch. Yeltsin largely succeeded in transferring control over the country from the old Soviet elite to a newly formed cabinet of ministers. Yeltsin was a weak leader but widely supported by the West, however his government proved to be unstable. A wave of economic hardship put Russia's economy in ruins and left the military underfunded and undisciplined. During this time, Russian society was plagued by organized crime and great instability with many people having left the country.
Russia was also at war with Chechen separatists, which were largely created out of religious fanatism funded by international terror groups. This had a setback consequences for the devloping Russian economy. Ill health and alcohol dependancy, eventually forced Yeltsin to resign, and Vladimir Putin filled his remaining term (January - April 2000) as President. An ex-Soviet security officer, and head of the revived Russian federal security service under Yeltsin, Putin inspired with his charismatic personality russian patriotism, and was able to consolidate the positive spirit of the country, however has been much condemned by the old Western countries. Having served his constitutionally limited terms (2000-2008), Putin stepped down as President, endorsing another candidate, Dmitry Medvedev, who won the 2008 election. Putin proved to be a successful and popular leader an was re-elected for the third term when eligible again in 2012.
Since 2000, all government institutions underwent a dramatic positive transformation, the economy has bounced back from crisis, thanks in no small part to five-fold increases in the prices of raw materials Russia has in abundance. Inflation has dropped down from the triple digits into single units, poverty has been reduced, and Russia has re-emerged as a dominant regional economic, political and military power. This performance has often been called the "Russian Miracle."
Today, the modern Russia has recovered fully from the doldrums that have hit the country in former years, with inflation going down, radical political transformation to combat corruption and to bolster economic development. All in all, Russians have achieved a much higher standard of living and have enjoyed political stability and cultural and spiritual upheaval in 15 years of the new millennium.
The terrain consists of broad plains with low hills west of the Urals; vast coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia; uplands and mountains along southern border regions; mountainous and volcanic throughout much of the Russian Far East.
Russia's territory stretches over continents of Europe and Asia and has therefore many different climate zones. From the subtropical Black sea coast to the Far Eastern regions including southern parts of Siberia, there is mostly continental climate, with hot summers enabling outdoor swimming inrivers, lakes and hiking, and cold winters with a lot of snow, a paradise for ski holidays. Many parts of eastern russian tundra are sparsely populated because of extreme weather.
Russia's list of holidays is divided into federally and regionally established, ethnic, historical, professional and religious. The first two types are all-country day-off and should be taken into account while planning a trip. These are official holidays in the Russian Federation:
The Russian system of measurement is metric, the same as the European one. Expect to encounter Celsius degrees, kilometres, kilogrammes, litres and so on. The archaic units for distance are versta and vershok, for weight — pud.
Here is a representative sample of just nine Russian cities with their Anglicized and Russian Cyrillic names:
(A) Countries/territories that do not require a visa for stay up to 90 days: Abkhazia, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, South Ossetia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Vanuatu.
(C) Countries/territories that do not require a visa for stay up to 30 days: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuba, Macau, Macedonia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Serbia, Seychelles, Thailand and Turkey (suspended from 1 Jan 2016).
Note that, as of 1 January 2014, travellers availing themselves of a visa exemption are only permitted to remain in Russia without a visa for a maximum of 90 days in a 180-day period. Exceptions are for Ukrainian citizens and Belarusian citizens.
Transit through a few airports, including Moscow Sheremetyevo, Moscow Domodedovo, Moscow Vnukovo, St. Petersburg Pulkovo and Yekaterinburg Koltsovo airports, does not require a transit visa provided the traveller has a confirmed onward flight and remains in the airport for no more than 24 hours. Flights to and from Belarus and Kazakhstan are considered domestic; therefore, visa-free transit is not available. Transit to and from Kazakhstan (which is in customs union with Russia) is visa-free only through Moscow Vnukovo airport. Visas can, in some limited cases, be obtained from consular officers at the airports.
A "visa-free" regime will be introduced for visitors from all nations for the duration of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Russia.
For those that require a visa, the complexity of the process depends on the class of visa. Thirty-day tourist visas are fairly straightforward to acquire; 90 day (and more) business visas, less so. It is best to start the application process well in advance. While expedited processing is available to those who need visas quickly, it can double the application cost.
Arranging a visa basically involves two steps:
You may arrive at any time on or after the start date of your visa's validity and may depart at any time on or before its expiry date. Normally, an exit visa is included in transit, private visit/homestay, tourist, and business visas so long as the visa is still valid. Other classes, such as student visas, still require a separate exit visa that can take up to three weeks to process.
Exit and re-entry during the validity period of your visa requires permits. Getting these permits is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that is best avoided entirely by getting a double- or multiple-entry visa in the first place.
If you're in Russia and have lost your passport, your sponsor, not your embassy, must apply to the Federal Migration Service to transfer your visa to your replacement passport. Having a copy of your old visa helps with this, but is normally not sufficient to let you depart.
Note: New rules for visas have recently been instituted for US citizens per a visa facilitation agreement which entered into force on 9 September 2012.
1. Getting an invitation
In the likely situation you have to buy your invitation, shop around globally: all invitations come from Russia and the company that gets it for you will have a base in Russia. It doesn't make a difference whether its website is based in Germany, UK, USA or Swaziland. Many embassies and consulates only require a copy of the invitation, however this is not always the case so check with the embassy or consulate beforehand. If the original invitation is required it will have to be flown from Russia anyway. It is only applying for the visa itself that generally requires the application to be made in the applicant's homeland.
A tourist invitation (also called reservation confirmation) is a letter of confirmation of booking and pre-payment of accommodation and travel arrangements in Russia. It is accompanied by a tourist voucher. These two documents can be issued by government approved tour operators, hotels, online hotel booking services or Russian travel agencies (several Russian travel agencies have offices outside Russia and are adept at facilitating visa applications). Government approval here means that the organization in question has a consular reference and has been registered with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only hotels and travel agencies that have a consular reference can issue confirmations valid for visa purposes. An ordinary hotel booking is not sufficient to constitute an invitation. Some hotels charge a fee to issue the invitation.
Booking one night in a hotel will get you an invitation valid for one day (maybe two) and hence the resulting visa will be valid for a very brief time. For independent travellers planning to travel around Russia, it is best to get an invitation through an agency. These agencies will issue a confirmation for a fee (approx. $30 or £15), without actually collecting the accommodation prepayment. While the strict legality of such is questionable, it is a largely academic point and does not lead to problems for the traveller. If your itinerary is confined to only one hotel, then it makes sense to obtain the invitation documents directly from the hotel as the service fee will be similar.
Consider getting a private/homestay visa if you have friends or relatives in Russia (they do not necessarily have to be Russian). They would need to seek an invitation through their local Passport and Visa Division of the Federal Migration Service (formerly OVIR). These invitations tend to take at least a month to process. The inviting individual also becomes solely responsible for all your activities while in Russia and can be penalized heavily if something were to go wrong. Because of this, personal invitations are usually not available for a fee through the net.
Business invitations are issued by the government. They are generally time-consuming and costly to acquire but they can be quickly arranged for exorbitant fees. Any registered company in Russia can apply for a business invitation. Travel agencies and visa specialists can also get them issued for you. Business visas have longer validity than tourist visas. Being a tourist on a business visa is permitted, so anyone wanting more than a 30-day stay should get one of these. As a rough guide, one UK company can arrange a business invitation for a single 90-day stay for various amounts between GBP38 (for 12 working day processing) and GBP121 (for 2 working day processing).
Invitations for student visas are issued by the educational institution where you plan to study. Most universities and language schools are familiar with the process.
Some Russian local governments have a right to invite foreigners for cultural exchanges by sending a message directly to the Embassy or Consulate of Russia overseas, requesting the visa be issued to a particular foreigner or group of foreigners. Such messages are used instead of an invitation. This is normally the way to go if you are invited by the government.
There are numerous other kinds, and you should consult agencies, travel agents, and your hosts for more details (e.g., humanitarian).
2. Applying for the visa
The visa application form has to be filled in via a website which is common for all embassies. It is advised to collect all necessary information and paperwork (e.g. invitation, travel insurance policy) beforehand, although it is possible to save and continue a form later on. The printed and signed form has to be submitted with a passport photo. Note that there might be some variations regarding to the exact requirements of the application. Some embassies may issue visas by mail, they may require application in person, they may accept a copy of the invitation, they may require the original. They may accept payment by card, they may insist on a money order. Check with the embassy or consulate beforehand - in most cases it will be on their website.
Recently, visa application centres have been opened in several countries, where the application form can be handed in with no appointment needed. Note that while these offices are outsourced to private companies, they are fully official. In fact, if there is one available in your region, you will be redirected there by the embassy. You can check here if there is one nearby. However, these companies levy a further unavoidable application fee on top of the visa fees stated below. For applications made in the UK (by a citizen of any country) the application fee is GBP26.40 for standard service and GBP33.60 for express service. In the rest of the EU, it is €30. For applications made in the USA, the application fee is USD30.
Visa service companies, for a fee, will double-check your application and invitation, go to the embassy for you, and return your passport to you. This service is nothing that you cannot do yourself (unlike arranging the invitation) but it can save time and frustration.
A single entry, 30 day tourist visa for citizens of EU-Schengen countries costs €35 and takes five working days for standard processing (€70 gets express service for next day collection). For UK citizens the price is £50 (express service is next day and costs £100).
The total cost of getting a visa usually has three parts: invitation fee, visa application fee, and the service provider fee. If you're lucky, one or more of these may be zero, but be prepared to be hit by all three. Visa application fees for 4-20 business day processing for most travellers (except for those from Schengen Area countries), as of 2017, have been unified to USD 90 for a single-entry visa, USD 144 for a double-entry visa, and USD 270 for a multiple-entry visa. These tariffs are doubled for express processing (3 business days).
In general, tourist, homestay, and transit visas can allow one or two entries. Tourist visas have a maximum validity of 30 days and homestay visas can permit stays of up to 90 days. Transit visas are typically for one to three days for air travel and up to ten days for overland journeys. Business and other visa categories can be issued for one, two or multiple entries and permit stays of up to 90 days. For temporary visas, however, the maximum cumulative stay cannot exceed 90 days in Russia in a 180-day period, regardless of how long it is valid for (whether it be 3, 6, or 12 months). If you stay in Russia for 90 days, you have to leave and your visa will not permit you to return for another 90 days. This means (give or take - a year isn't 360 days) that a six-month visa permits as long a total time in Russia as a three month visa!
Once you have your visa, check all the dates and information as it's much easier to correct mistakes before you travel than after you arrive!
An unaccompanied minor with Russian nationality needs, apart from the regular requirements for adults, a notarised statements in Russian signed by both parents. This statement can be requested at the Russian embassy or consulate. The child is likely able to get into Russia without this statement, but will most likely be prevented to get out by the Russian customs at the airport!
Arrival and customs
On arriving in Russia (except from Belarus), you'll have to fill out a migration card. As in most places, one half is surrendered on entry and the other portion should remain with your passport until you leave Russia (except to Belarus). It is usually printed in both Russian and English though other languages may be available. Upon leaving Russia, a lost migration card may be overlooked with the help of a nominal fine. Belarus is a special case because Russia and Belarus run a common border and share the same migration card.
Usually, you will be permitted to enter and remain in Russia for the term of your visa (or the term stipulated by visa-exemption agreement, if applicable). Immigration officers are very unlikely to use their power to decide otherwise.
Those who enter Russia with valuable electronic items or musical instruments (especially violins that look antique and expensive), antiques, large amounts of currency, or other such items are required to declare them on the customs entry card and must insist on having the card stamped by a customs officer upon arrival. Even if the customs officer claims that it is not necessary to declare such items, insist on a stamp on your declaration. Having this stamp may prevent considerable hassle (fines, confiscation) upon departure from Russia should the customs agent at departure decide that an item should have been declared upon entry.
Just like in many European countries, upon arriving in any new dwelling, you must be registered within 7 business days of arriving. Your host at that dwelling (not necessarily the one who issued the invitation) is responsible for registering you. Registration is done at post offices, requires filling out a form and costs some money (equivalent of a few dollars). The proof of registration is a separate piece of paper with a big blue stamp on it. Border guards have neither authority nor possibility to check if the duty to register has ever existed and evaded.
Nevertheless, it is worth insisting to be registered at least in the first city you visit. Corrupt check-in staff at dodgy hotels will not let you check in without seeing your prior registration if you've been in Russia for more than 7 business days. Corrupt police and border staff in remote areas will insist that a lack of registration is your fault; it may cost you more than paying the registration fee.
Large hotels are accredited with the Federal Migratory Service and arrange registration automatically and without fee on the day of arrival.
If you've managed to get into Russia visa or not, be careful of where you travel: Russia has cities and towns that are closed to the public as well as foreigners, such as Mirny and Vilyuchisk. Most of these closed cities are believed to be for nuclear industry reasons or space research. Special permission from the government is required for anyone wishing to enter them. Entering them without permission can lead to imprisonment.
Overstaying a visa
If you overstay, even by a few minutes, you will likely be prohibited from leaving until you obtain a valid exit visa. You may be able to obtain a visa extension from the consular officer at a border against the payment of a fine if you overstayed by up to three days, but this is not guaranteed. Generally, though, obtaining an extension requires an intervention by your sponsor, a payment of a fine, and a wait of up to three weeks.
Be careful if your flight leaves after midnight and be aware of the time at which the train crosses the border. Border guards will not let you depart if you're leaving even 10 minutes after your visa expires! A common pitfall is the Helsinki-bound train, which only enters Finland after midnight.
If your overstay was due to reasons such as medical problems, the Federal Migration Service may instead issue a Home Return Certificate rather than an exit visa which is valid to depart Russia within ten days of issue.
Moscow and Saint Petersburg are served by direct flights from most European capitals, and Moscow also has direct flights from any cities in East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America. US non-stop flights from the United States to Russia are offered by Singapore (from Houston to Moscow, Domodedovo), Delta (from New York and Atlanta to Moscow, Sheremetyevo), United Airlines (from Washington to Moscow, Domodedovo) and Aeroflot (from New York, Washington and Los Angeles to Moscow, Sheremeryevo).
All airports are now conveniently connected to Moscow with Aeroexpress trains which depart every 30 minutes from/to Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo, and every hour from Vnukovo. They operate 06:00-23:59. The fare is RUB470 (August 2016), travel time is 35 minutes to/from Vnukovo and Sheremetyevo, and 45 minutes to/from Domodedovo. There are no trains or buses that connect the airports without passing through central Moscow. In Sheremetyevo, Aeroexpress trains arrive at Terminal E and F, Terminal D is in 5 minutes walk from them through a gallery. Terminals B and C are served by buses only. There is a shuttle bus available between Terminals D,E,F and Terminals B,C. Using taxi is discouraged, as traveling to/between the airports is very expensive (averages at RUB1500 from Moscow).
Please, mind that there are 3 international airports in Moscow: Sheremetyevo (SVO) in the northwest, Domodedovo (DME) in the south and Vnukovo (VKO) in the southwest. Getting between these airports is quite challenging, because there are no means of rapid transfer between them, so if you are planning a transfer trip, mind airports for all your flights. Usual taxi fee for a trip between any of airports is about 1500 rubles, which is expensive unless you travel with others. You can, of course, use public means of transportation which are much cheaper (ranging from 200-500 rubles per person depending on means you choose), but if you don't speak Russian at all and first time in the country — you better think twice before attempting that, you might easily get lost.
Airport Sheremetyevo has undergone major expansion in 2010 with two new terminals commissioned and consists of five terminals. Terminals B (old Sheremetyevo-1) and C are located on the northern edge of the airport and provide mostly domestic and charter services. Terminals D and E operate since December 2010 along with older Terminal F (old Sheremetyevo-2, built for Summer Olympics in Moscow in 1980). Terminal D hosts domestic and international Aeroflot flights, Terminals E and F host international flights operated mostly by SkyTeam alliance.
Domodedovo is a quite modern airport with a single spacious terminal. It serves both domestic and international flights by most Russian and international companies. Unfortunately, over a few last years, the airport has been increasingly suffering from overcrowding.
Vnukovo is a smaller airport and is generally operated by low-cost airlines. As of March 2012, it undergoes a major renovation with a construction of a new spacious terminal building. A few Star Alliance airlines have recently switched their operations to Vnukovo.
There are airports in all large cities in Russia. Some international service can be found in: Novosibirsk, Sochi, Vladivostok, Kaliningrad, Ekaterinburg. International service to other destinations is much more limited.
Local airlines are listed in Get around.
Low-cost air-lines from Europe
Lower-cost air-lines from the Middle East, India, South-East Asia and Australia
From/via United Arab Emirates
RZhD Russian Railways (РЖД) runs reliable services across dizzying distances. Eastern and Central Europe are well connected to Moscow and to a lesser extent Saint Petersburg. Moscow is also connected to some surprising destinations throughout Western Europe and Asia.
The Russian word for railway station (Vokzal, Вокзал) is somehow related to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a XIX century London attraction. Toilets in the vokzal are free if you have a ticket for an upcoming train (unlike in Vauxhall, London).
Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine are very well connected to Russia with many trains daily from cities throughout each country. Helsinki (Finland) has four high speed trains daily to St Petersburg and one overnight train to Moscow. Riga (Latvia), Vilnius (Lithuania) and Tallinn (Estonia) each have at least one overnight or daytime train to Moscow and St Petersburg.
Beyond Russia's immediate neighbours and former Soviet dominions, direct trains connect Moscow with Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Switzerland.
Start your Trans Siberian adventure in Berlin and take The Sibirjak, which connects Berlin directly to a baffling array of cities deep inside Russia: Adler, Kazan, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Samara, Sochi, St Petersburg, Ufa, Yekaterinburg and even Astana in Kazakhstan!
Western Europe has a different track gauge from Russia, Finland and the CIS so bogies must be exchanged when the train crosses into the ex-Soviet countries (usually Ukraine or Belarus). This adds a couple of hours to the long wait already encountered for immigration. You can stay on the train as the wheels are being changed so it won't disrupt your sleep too much.
Moscow is connected to all the former Soviet Central Asian countries: (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, & Uzbekistan) at least 2-3 times per week. Journeys are long (3.5-5 days). To the Caucasus, there is a service from Moscow to Baku, Azerbaijan (3 days); however, the Azerbaijan-Russia border is only open to CIS passport holders. There is also a service from Moscow to Sukhumi in the disputed territory of Abkhazia. The Trans-Siberian Railway spans the entire country and connects with Chinese cities such as Beijing and Harbin, as well as Mongolia's Ulaanbaatar. There is also a very infrequent service from Moscow to Pyongyang, North Korea (essentially the Trans-Siberian plus a short link from Vladivostok to Pyongyang) but this line isn't open to Western tourists.
Traveling in Russia by car is not any more difficult than any other country. Motorways are of an excellent quality especially around all major cities. Car rental services are available from all major airports and inner cities, with all major car rental companies present. Car rental and petrol/gas is fairly cheap and definitely affordable for international tourists.
While crossing the border by car there might be some delays, check in advance for the most convenient crossing point.
There is no doubt that car travel is the best way to see the country, but bear in mind huge distances and check in advance what you can cover in the time that you have available. It is definitely advisable going by plane to places like Ekaterinburg or even Irkutsk or Vladivistok and rent a car there to explore the regions.
Russian highways have highway patrol police (ДПС - DPS) and petro stations are plenty with some amentiites, supermarkets and motels available along major motorways.
It is always advisable to learn some Russian phrases to be able to communicate. Russian people are very friendly and are happy to help ..
A few bus companies, most notably Eurolines, operate international coach services from a number of destinations to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Tallinn, Helsinki, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw and Berlin all have regular services to Russia.
Ferry services operate in the summer between Sochi and Turkey's Trabzon. In Vladivostok there is a scheduled ro-ro ferry to Busan and numerous lines to the different Japanese ports, however they are mostly oriented to the used Japanese car imports and less to tourism, there is also a weekly service in summer between Korsakov on Sakhalin and Wakkanai on the Japanese island Hokkaido. Cruise ships are also call to Russian ports frequently. There is a boat connection from Lappeenranta, Finland to Vyborg.
There is now daily (overnight) service between Helsinki and St. Petersburg on St. Peter Line that does not require a visa for stays less than 3 days but you are obliged to buy a tour. In case of cruise ships you need to arrange a so called Blanket visa in advance. Read more in St Petersburg Get In section.
International cycling routes Eurovelo are two and include EV2 Capitals Route (from Ireland to Moscow) and EV10 Baltic Sea Cycle Route (Hansa circuit) interconnecting Saint-Petersburg with Estonia and Finland.
Due to the immense size of the country, and the poor road safety, the best way to get around through the entire country quickly is by train. Russia has an extensive rail network linking nearly every city and town, excepting some northern ones. For intercity travel, the train is generally the most convenient option for trips that can be covered overnight. Although accommodations are not always the best, Russian trains have efficient and courteous staff as well as timely departures and arrivals that would impress even a German. The train is an option for longer trips (many Russians continue to use it for trips of 2 days or more), but mainly if you appreciate the nuances and experience of train travel in Russia. For the complete Russian rail experience, the one-week Trans-Siberian Railway has no equal.
Russian trains are divided into types: Long-distance (дальнего следования DAHL'nyehvuh SLEHduhvahnyah) trains generally cover trips more than about 4 hours or 200km (120 miles). Take a look at theRussian long-distance rail timetable.    Shorter distances are covered by the commuter trains (пригородные PREEguhruhdnyyeh), which are popularly called электрички ehlehkTREECHkee. Most train stations (железнодорожный вокзал zhehlyehznohdohROHZHny vohgZAHL) have separate areas for selling tickets for these types.
Bringing a bicycle into a carriage is permissible for one ticket if it is compactly folded/dismantled and clean. Usually the wheels and pedals are removed, the bike put into a bag and stored on the upmost shelf in the Platzkart carriage. The other class carriages have less space or shelves and the bike needs to be more compact.
Almost all long-distance trains are set up for overnight travel. There are several classes of accommodation:
In all the three above-mentioned classes bedding is always included in the ticket price, and on branded trains a lunchbox with some refreshment (mineral water, yoghurt, etc.) and a hot meal (cooked on demand in the dining car and thus can be brought to a passenger when it is most convenient for him/her) are also included.
Every car has its own attendant/conductor (provodnik or provodnitsa), which check your tickets at your boarding, provides you bedding, sells you tea or snacks and can lend you a mug and spoon for (in most cases) free, especially if you order coffee or tea. Do not be afraid, if the conductor takes your tickets, he gives it back at your destination station; if not, feel free to remind him/her to do so. In the corridor you will typically find a samovar with free hot water for making tea or soup. Most long-distance trains have dining cars.
Bottom-bunk berths (nizhnie – нижние) are slightly more comfortable than top-bunk berths (verhnie – верхние), because they have more place for baggage under them. There are also discounts sometime for top-bunk berths only (usually not in the tourist season and not in popular directions, which are from largest towns on Friday nights, and back on Sunday nights).
Trains are classified according to their average speed:
According to their standards of service, some trains are promoted to branded ones (firmennyy, фирменный) and given a proper brand. The most distinguished trains, like the first branded one in Soviet/Russian history, the Red Arrow, as well as privately held Grand Express and Megapolis ones, use their own special liveries.
Because all long-distance trains covering 700+ km distances are overnight, the long-distance tickets are bound to specified train. This applies to daytime ones too. At Russian counters or travel agencies you'll get a reservation automatically, but if you buy an international ticket from some European non-CIS country, you should ask for reservation explicitly.
Ticket price depends on train class and car class, as well as on season (off-peak day tickets can cost 2/3 of peak day tickets). You can check the ticket price at Russian language version of Nnov-airport.ru, Poezda.net  or Russian Railways e-shop  (English version).
Most stations have a large room called a KASsovyi Zal (кассовый зал) where tickets are sold. Lines vary widely – some stations are much better organized than others nowadays, and it also depends on the season. If you find the lines unbearably long, it's usually not hard to find an agency that sells train tickets. Commission rates are generally not prohibitive. For instance, buying your ticket to Saint Petersburg from Moscow, it is much better to walk a flight of steps from the ordinary ticketing office – there are no queues upstairs and RUB140 is a small premium to pay for this service.
Alternatively you can buy an e-ticket online on Russian Railways website. It allows Visa and MasterCard cardholders to purchase tickets for RZD/FPC trains directly and at the lowest prices, without any commissions (the only thing is a margin between exchange rates during conversion of your currency to Russian rubles for committing the payment). You should take the printed e-ticket at station counter before boarding and pick up a regular ticket.
Stations in middle-sized and big cities have ticket machines with interface in both Russian and English. You can either buy a ticket or print the ticket you previously bought on the site. To print a ticket, you can either enter the booking code or scan the bar code from the electronic reservation (works both with paper and smarthone/tablet PC screens). These machines don't accept cash, only debit/credit cards.
There are many agencies selling Russian train tickets abroad – RealRussia , RussianTrains  or RussianTrain . They have English-language website and can deliver the ticket by post to your home address, but prices are 30-50% higher.
Generally, buying tickets from Russia to any other CIS country is same as for domestic routes, because all CIS railway companies share a common reservation system. This does not apply for ticket from abroad to Russia – you have to buy the ticket at railway company of the departure country.
Travel time can vary from several hours to several days. There are more types of train between the two largest cities than between any other two cities in Russia. Apart from ordinary trains, there are rapid trains (Sapsan) that run by day only and cover the 650km between Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 4 hours. Some of the overnight trains are quite luxurious — these include the traditional The Red Arrow service and the private Grand Express  (Russian interface only, English version is under construction), a 'hotel on wheels'. Sheets, towels and prepacked breakfasts are included in all the better trains. Shared bathroom facilities are located at the end of the train car. There are special hatches that one may use to secure the door of the compartment from the inside during the night.
Branded trains are always air conditioned, but in cheaper ordinary trains it is true only for renovated or new carriages (mainly TVZ cars built in 2006+), so it would be a good idea to inquire beforehand whether your carriage has an air conditioning system, especially if you are travelling to the southern part of Russia in summer.
Train stations staff most often speaks only limited English, so if you are not familiar enough with Russian to purchase your train ticket in person, it is suggested that you purchase online or through your hotel concierge or travel agent before you depart.
Dining cars of express trains are nicely appointed with real table linens and an impressive menu and wine list, but an average bill is 2 to 3 times more expensive than it would be in a typical cafe in the city before and after you travel.
At major stations trains usually stop for long time, about 15-20 minutes. Check the timetable placed on door at the end of corridor. During long stops you can buy various meals and drinks at platform from locals for pretty reasonable prices.
A few very popular routes, mostly between Moscow and nearby cities such as Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Tula, and others have an express commuter train that is considerably more comfortable. Your ticket will have a designated seat number and the seats are very comfortable. The trains travel to their destination with only 1 or 2 brief stops and are thus considerably faster.
Smoking on all types of trains is absolutely prohibited.
Being drunk and unruly and any type of aggressive behavior will get you in trouble first with a conductor and then with the police. People in Russia generally keep their voice down when travelling on trains and talking in aloud voice going to earn a cold look from other fellow passengers. As a tourist just avoid drinking alcohol, it would only get you in trouble, if you don't know the language (the author of the previous sentence seems to over-colour, alcohol in trains is mostly OK if you drink responsibly and behave quietly).
Drinking your own beverages is OK in closed compartments if your neighbours don't mind seeing you in a slightly drunk condition, otherwise they may officially complain about your behaviour to a conductor or a transport policeman, and that may result in the termination of your trip at the very next station where you will be accompanied to a police department and fined. In this case your ticket will be marked by a conductor and you'll have to buy a new one.
Warning! Since 2014 drinking of any alcohol in trains (except dining cars) is illegal and punishable with fine from 500 to 1500 rubles, so if you decide to drink in train, do it at your own risk. As said above, if you drink responsibly and behave quietly, the other passengers most probably will not trouble you, but if policemen that patrol trains see you drinking, you may have problems.
Alcohol ordered in dining cars may be consumed right there without any problems. But note that, as of 2014, most dining cars officially offer only alcohol up to 16.5%. Sometimes they can unofficially offer you vodka poured in a tea-pot, but beware of its possibly low quality. Perhaps, the best choice in this case would be a glass or two of quality wine instead.
Be aware of the time zones difference between the cities, e.g. Moscow and Vladivostok differ by 7 hours. Within Russian territory trains always operate on Moscow time zone (UTC+3).
Most Russian cities have bus links to cities as far as 5-6 hours away or further. Though generally less comfortable than the train, buses sometimes are a better option time-wise and are worth looking into if the train timetables don't suit you. A small number of cities, notably Suzdal, are not served by train and bus is the only option besides a car.
The Russian word for bus station is Avtovokzal (Ahv-tuh-vahg-ZAHL). Most cities have just one for long distance buses and the state buses depart from there. However, in Moscow and in some other Russian cities, a number of commercial buses are available, and they generally don't depart from the bus station. Quite often, you'll see commercial buses near train stations. Sometimes they run on schedules, though for popular routes (such as Moscow-Vladimir, Moscow/Yaroslavl, etc.) the buses simply wait to fill up. On these buses payment is usually to the driver.
Russian buses have luggage storage, but if it's an old Eastern-bloc bus, you may find your luggage wet at the end of the trip.
Apart from regular buses there are private minibuses called marshrutka (маршрутка). Marshrutkas have fixed routes, but usually no timetables and no regular stations. Stop at the roadside and wave a hand, if you are lucky and the minibus isn't full, it will stop. You can arrange with the driver to drop you off at a desired place on his route. At more frequent stops the driver waits until his minibus will fill up. There are no tickets, you pay directly to the driver. Marshrutkas ride both on countryside (in this case they likely to have timetables) and as city transport – in cities usually have number plates as regular buses.
The tremendous distances of Russia make plane travel highly desirable if you plan to travel to some of Russia's more far-flung attractions. It's worth considering for any destination that is farther than an overnight train ride. Travelling across Russia by train can sound awfully romantic, but it's also time-consuming and rather monotonous. Nearly every major destination of interest has an airport nearby. The great majority of domestic flights are to/from Moscow, but other services exist.
The Russian domestic airline industry since the 1990s has made substantial improvements, so that plane travel in Russia is like in any other developed nations of USA or Europe, with a high standard of service and punctuality. Domestic flights cover huge distances and are part of an efficient network and are quite affordable.
In the summer cruise boats are frequent on the rivers in European Russia and interconnect Kazan with Volgograd, Moscow with Saint-Petersburg and Astrakhan while journeys across the Volga cities being the most popular ones. Lakes Ladoga and Onega in the Northern Russia are also operated by cruise companies.
Russia has a very lively hitchhiking culture, with many hitchhiking clubs, there is even an Academy of Hitchhiking. There are many competitions. Despite horror stories about bad things happening in Russia, it is relatively safe to hitchhike, especially in the countryside. In some regions Russians expect a little bit of money for a ride.
Russian is the lingua franca: across Russia, you'll find people who speak it. Russians are proud of their culturally diverse language. The language is a member of the Slavic language family, being further sub-classified into the East Slavic family, thus being closely related to Ukrainian and Belarusian. Although related to other Slavic languages such as Macedonian, Serbian, Czech, to name a few, they are not mutually intelligible, but still share a slight similarity. Russian is considered one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn, mostly because of a very complicated grammar. You will not learn the language in a short time; concentrate on learning some key "courtesy" phrases, and the Cyrillic alphabet (e.g. "ресторан" spells "restoran" in the Roman alphabet, which means "restaurant") so you have a chance to recognize street names, labels and public signs.
Learning Russian is quite hard going, despite Russian sharing an ancestral Indo-European root language with English. The script, Cyrillic, uses many letters of the Latin alphabet but assigns many of them different sounds. The language employs three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), six grammatical cases, and free-fall stress, all of which conspire to make it a difficult prospect for the native English speaker.
English is becoming a requirement in the business world, and many younger Russians in the largest cities (such as Moscow or St. Petersburg) know enough English to communicate. Outside these areas English is generally nonexistent, so take a phrase book and be prepared for slow communication with a lot of interpretive gestures.
Russia has hundreds of languages and claims to support most of them. Soviet linguists documented them in the first few decades of the USSR and made sure they were given Cyrillic writing systems (except Karelian, Veps, Ingrian, Votic and Ter Sami). Some were made local co-official languages. Southern Russia is lined with Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic language; the northern with Finnic and Samoyed tounges. The southwest corner has a variety of Caucasian languages; the northeast has a few Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages. However, a smattering of Russian will greatly aid travellers no matter where they are.
The Russian Orthodox religion is one of the oldest branches of Christianity in the world and continues to have a very large following, despite having been repressed during the communist period. The language spoken in Russian Orthodox church services is Old Church Slavonic, which differs considerably from modern Russian.
Russia hosts several cultural and educational centers of German, French, English, Spanish, Japanese and other foreign languages.
Russia is immense, and extraordinarily long on attractions for visitors, although many lie in the hard-to-reach stretches of the planet's most remote lands. The best known sights are in and around the nation's principal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Russia's history is the number one reason why tourists come to this country, following the draw of its fascinating, sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutal, and always consequential national saga.
Derbent, in the Caucasian Republic of Dagestan, is Russia's most ancient city, dating back 5,000 years. Home to the legendary Gates of Alexander, the walled fortress-city, alternately controlled by Caucasian Albania, Persian empires, and the Mongols (until its eighteenth century conquest by the Russian Empire) was for 1500 years the key to controlling trade between Western Russia and the Middle East. Other ancient peoples of Russia left less evidence of their civilization, but you can find traces of the Kurgan people of the Urals, in particular the ruined pagan shrines and burial mounds around the old capital of Tobolsk and throughout the Republic of Khakassia.
Of early Russia's city states, one of the best preserved and most interesting include Staraya Ladoga, regarded as the nation's first capital, established by the viking Rurik, to whom the first line of Tsars traced their lineage. Novgorod, founded in 859, was the most important city of Kievan Rus in modern Russia (with Kiev itself in modern day Ukraine), and home to Russia's first kremlin.
Early Medieval Russia saw two major civilizations, that of the independent Novgorod Republic and the Mongol Empire, which dominated the Russian principalities of former Vladimir-Suzdal (whose initial capital of Vladimir retains an excellent collection of twelfth century monuments and kremlin) and Kievan Rus. While the Mongols left mostly devastation of historical sites in their wake, the wealthy trading nation to the north developed grand cities at the capital of Novgorod, as well as Staraya Ladoga, Pskov, and Oreshek (modern day Shlisselburg), all of which have extant medieval kremlins and a multitude of beautiful early Russian Orthodox churches filled with medieval ecclesiastical frescoes.
As Mongol power waned, the Grand Duchy of Moscow rose to power, and particularly under the later reign of Ivan the Terrible, consolidated power in all of Western Russia, including the conquest of the Kazan Khanate (and establishing another grand citadel there) and concentrated power in Moscow, building its kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, and several other of Russia's best known historical sites. The cities of the Golden Ring surrounding Moscow likewise saw significant construction during this period. A really neat off-the-beaten-path destination also rose to prominence in the extreme north of the country—the Solovetsky Monastery-fortress on the islands of the White Sea, which served as a bulwark against Swedish naval incursions.
Ivan the Terrible's reign ended in tragedy, the Time of Troubles, which only saw destruction and ruin, and you will find little evidence of civilizational development until the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty in the early seventeenth century. Peter the Great, after having consolidated power, began the construction of his entirely new city of Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, the Window to the West. Saint Petersburg from its foundation through the neoclassical period became one of the world's most magically beautiful cities, and the list of must-see attractions is far too long to be discussed here. The surrounding summer palaces at Peterhof, Pavlovsk, and Pushkin are also unbelievably opulent attractions.
The Russian Revolution was one of the twentieth century's defining moments, and history buffs will find much to see in Saint Petersburg. The two best known sites are found at the Winter Palace, which the communists stormed to depose Tsar Nicolas II, and the beautiful Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva River, which housed numerous revolutionary luminaries in its cold, hopeless prison. For those interested in the grisly end of the Romanov family of Nicholas II, perhaps inspired by the story of Anastasia, look no further than the Church on the Blood in Yekaterinburg, built on the spot of his family's execution. Moscow, on the other hand, has the most famous monument from the revolutionary period—Lenin's himself, with his embalmed body on display in Red Square.
The Soviet Era saw a drastic change in Russian history, and the development of a virtually brand new civilization. Mass industrialization programs came with a new aesthetic ethos which emphasized functionality (combined with grandiosity). The enormous constructivist buildings and statues of the twentieth century are often derided as ugly monstrosities, but they are hardly boring (whereas the industrial complexes polluting cities from the Belarussian border to the Pacific are genuine eyesores).
Both World War II and Stalin's reign of terror made their presence felt greatly upon Russia's cultural heritage. The bombings involved in the former virtually wiped out anything of historical interest in Russia's extreme west (the Chernozemye region) and damaged much more throughout European Russia. It did, however, lead to the construction of monuments to the war throughout the entire country. For military buffs, a visit to Mamaev Kurgan, the museum complex at Volgograd (former Stalingrad) is an excellent destination. Kursk, for its enormous tank battle, and Saint Petersburg, site of the Siege of Leningrad, make interesting destinations.
Maybe the saddest of the Soviet legacies is the network of prison camps known as the Gulag Archipelago. The term Archipelago really does not capture the scope of suffering across 10,000 kilometers of cold steppe. Perhaps the most interesting sites for those interested in this legacy are on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, and the devastatingly bleak Kolyma gulag system of Magadan Oblast. If you were hoping to see where Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, you'll have to travel beyond the Russian borders to Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan.
Russia has several of the world's greatest museums, particularly in the field of the visual arts. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is the true star, with an enormous collection amassed first by the wealthy tsars (particularly by its founder, Catherine the Great) and later by the Soviets and the Red Army (which seized enormous treasure from the Nazis, who in turn had seized their bounty from their wars around the globe). Equally impressive is the edifice housing the collection on display, the magnificent Winter Palace of the Romanov Dynasty. Saint Petersburg's often overlooked Russian Museum should also be a priority, as it has the country's second best collection of purely Russian art, from icons of the tenth century on through the modern movements, in all of which revolutionary Russia led the charge ahead of the rest of the world. Moscow's art museums, only slightly less well known, include the Tretyakov Gallery (the premiere collection of Russian art) and the Pushkin Museum of Western Art.
Other museum exhibitions certainly worth seeking out are the collections of antiquities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, particularly at the Hermitage Museum, and the Armory in the Moscow Kremlin. For military buffs, Russian military museums are often fantastic, truly best-in-the-world, regardless of whether you are at one of the main ones in the Moscow—the Central Armed Forces Museum, Kubinka Tank Museum, Central Air Force Museum, Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), or way off in the provinces. The other category in which Russian museums outshine the rest of the world would be within the literary and musical spheres. Nary a town visited, if only for a day, by Alexander Pushkin is without some small museum dedicated to his life and works. The best of the big city museums include the Bulgakov Museum in Moscow and the Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky museums in Saint Petersburg. Great adventures await in quieter parts of the country, at Dostoevsky's summer house in Staraya Russa, Tolstoy's "inaccessible literary stronghold" at Yasnaya Polyana, Chekhov's country estate at Melikhovo, Tchaikovsky's house in Klin or remote hometown of Votkinsk in Udmurtia, Rakhmaninov's summer home in Ivanovka, Pushkin's estate at Pushkinskie Gory, or Turgenev's country estate at Spasskoe-Lutovinovo near Mtsensk. The best museums are in the countryside. For classical music lovers, the apartment museums of various nineteenth and century composers in Saint Petersburg are worth more than just nostalgic wanderings—they often have small performances by incredible musicians.
All tourists in Russia find themselves looking at a lot of churches. Ecclesiastical architecture is a significant source of pride among Russians, and the onion dome is without question a preeminent national symbol. The twentieth century, sadly, saw cultural vandalism in the destruction of said architecture on an unprecedented scale. But the immense number of beautiful old monasteries and churches ensured that an enormous collection remains. The best known, as usual, are in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, in particular the old baroque Church on the Spilled Blood, Alexander Nevsky Lavra, and the monumental Kazan and Saint Isaac's Cathedrals in the former, and Saint Basil's Cathedral and the massive Church of the Annunciation in the latter. The spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church is to be found at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad on the Golden Ring circuit (lavra is the designation given to the most important monasteries, of which there are only two in the country), although the physical headquarters of the Church is at Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Vologda Oblast is often considered Russia's second most important (and is a neat way to get off the beaten track). Other particularly famous churches and monasteries are to be found at Saint Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir, the fascinating Old Cathedral of Königsberg (home to Immanuel Kant's tomb) in Kaliningrad, Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, Optina Putsin (the basis for Father Zossima's monastery in The Brothers Karamazov), and Volokolamsk Monastery in West Moscow Oblast. Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega and Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga are also popular sites, especially with those cruising between Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Ecclesiastical architecture does not, however, end with the Russian Orthodox Church—Russia also has a wealth of Islamic and Buddhist architecture. The nation's most important mosques are the Qolşärif Mosque in Kazan (the largest mosque in Europe) and the Blue Mosque in Saint Petersburg (originally the largest mosque in Europe!). Notably absent from that list is the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, which was formerly considered the principal mosque in the country, but was very controversially demolished in 2011. Russia's most prominent Buddhist temples are in both Kalmykia—Europe's lone Buddhist republic, and the areas closer to Mongolia, especially around Ulan Ude in Buryatia and Kyzyl, Tuva.
While the distances are great between them, Russia's natural wonders are impressive and worth seeking out for nature lovers. The best known destinations are far to the east in Siberia, with Lake Baikal known as its "jewel." At the extreme eastern end of Russia, nearly all the way to Japan and Alaska, is wild Kamchatka, where you will find the Valley of the Geisers, lakes of acid, volcanoes, and bears galore.
Other highlights of the Far East include the idyllic (if kind of cold) Kuril Islands to the south of Kamchatka, whale watching off the coast of arctic Wrangel Island, the remote Sikhote-Alin mountain range, home to the Amur Tiger, and beautiful Sakhalin. The nature reserves throughout these parts are spectacular as well, but all will require permits in advance and specialized tours.
The northern half of Russia stretching thousands of miles from the Komi Republic through Kamchatka is basically empty wilderness, mostly mountainous, and always beautiful. Getting to these areas is problematic, as most are not served by any roads, infrastructure, or really anything else. Russia's great north-south rivers are the main arteries for anyone moving through the area: the Pechora, Ob, Yenisey, Lena, and Kolyma. Beyond that, expect to be in canoes, helicopters, and military grade jeeps, because these will be the only way of getting around, and you'll likely want to go with a guide.
Russia's other mountainous territory is in its extreme south, in the Northern Caucasus. There you will find Europe's tallest mountains, which tower in height over the Alps, including mighty Elbrus. Favorite Russian resorts in the area include those at Sochi (which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic games) and Dombai. As you go further east in the North Caucasus, the landscapes become ever more dramatic, from the lush forested gorges and snow capped peaks of Chechnya to the stark desert mountains of Dagestan, sloping downwards to the Caspian Sea.
Throughout the entire country, there are over a hundred National Parks and Nature Reserves (zapovedniki). The former are open to the public, and considerably more wild and undeveloped than you would find in, say, the United States. The latter are preserved principally for scientific research and are often not possible to visit. Permits are issued for certain reserves, but only through licensed tour operators. If you have the opportunity, though, take it! Some of the most spectacular parks are in the aforementioned Kamchatka, but also in the Urals, particularly in the Altai Mountains (Altai Republic and Altai Krai).
The association between Russia and its two biggest metropolises, Moscow and St Petersburg, is strong in the minds of tourists, but given its vast expanses and low population density, Russia is a nature lovers paradise as well. Russia has a network of exceptional natural areas, comprising 35 National Parks and 100 Nature Reserves (zapovednik) covering a total land mass larger than Germany. List of Russian Nature Reserves (in Russian) one can find here 
Some Russian Nature Reserves on the internet:
Provided your paperwork is in order, you may visit these areas independently. For those wishing to seek guidance, there are travel agencies specializing in ecotourism in Russia such as:
Throughout its history Russia has had various version of the ruble (рубль), which is divided into 100 kopeks (копеек). The latest manifestation (RUB, replacing the RUR) was introduced in 1998 (although all notes and first issues of coins bear the year 1997). All pre-1998 currency is obsolete.
Coins are issued in 1, 5, 10, and 50 kopek and 1, 2, 5, and 10 ruble denominations. Banknotes come in RUB5, RUB10, RUB50, RUB100, RUB500, RUB1000, and RUB5000 denominations. The RUB5 note is no longer issued or found in general circulation. The RUB10 ceased being printed in 2010 and will suffer the same fate. Both remain legal tender. Kopeks are generally useless, with most prices given to the nearest ruble. The 1 and 5 kopek coins are especially useless: even places that quote prices in non whole rubles will round to the nearest 10 kopeks. From 1998 until approximately 2012, the ruble enjoyed relative stability, but has become rather more volatile in recent times, and towards the end of 2014, suffered a significant and sudden decrease in value, especially compared to the dollar, euro and pound.
All banknotes have special marks (dots and lines in relief) to aid the blind in distinguishing values.
Forget about travellers' cheques (only some banks, such as Sberbank, will cash even American Express, but it does so without commission), and bring enough cash to last you for a few days, as occasionally communications networks handling ATM and credit card transactions are not available (as elsewhere in the world).
Russian law forbids payments not in rubles. Fortunately, currency exchange offices (called bureaus in Saint Petersburg) are common throughout Russia. Banks and small currency exchange bureaus offer very good rates; hotels are generally expensive and thus not recommended. You need to show your passport at banks. Be sure to take your time to count how much money you got — different ways are sometimes used to trick the customer.
Small window-in-the-wall offices abound in Moscow and Saint Petersburg but are rare in other cities. They usually offer better exchange rates but don't require identification nor provide any receipts in most cases. Branches of large banks can be found in any major city, and Sberbank outlets are a must in any village down to rayonny centr. Branches of banks are more trustworthy for not-so-attractive rates, and exchange session would last longer requiring a passport and giving you all the receipts you can imagine.
Window-in-the-wall exchanges frequently attract clients by declaring rates for amounts >USD1000 / >EUR1000 (but stating this in small font). Rates for smaller amounts are demonstrated only in the window itself and are typically less attractive than even at regular banks. Frequently, people don't notice that rates are different. To make the difference even less evident, rates are set exactly 1 ruble different, like 34.18 and 35.18 per euro. Another trick used by windows-in-the-walls is a tray that makes 1-2 banknotes stick so they become hidden from you. Always check the amounts you are given. Many exchange bureaus will also convert other currencies beyond USD and EUR, although often the rate is not as good. You can compare rates if you buy USD/EUR in your country and sell them in Russia vs direct exchanges from your at local currency to rubles — it displays exchange rates for cash in Moscow for every currency exchanged in Russia.
You will have an easier time changing money if your banknotes are absolutely clean, and dollars should be the most recent updated design, as few places will accept the older versions.
Don't change money on the street. Unlike during Soviet times, there is no advantage to dealing with an unofficial vendor. There are several advanced schemes of scam for exchange on the street — better not give them a try.
ATMs, called bankomats, are common in large cities and can generally be found in smaller cities and towns. Though some may not accept foreign cards. English language interface is available. Some may also dispense US dollars. Russian ATMs will often limit withdrawals to about USD1,000 per day. Big hotels are good places to find them.
Visa and MasterCard debit/credit cards of all levels are the most common way of non-cash payment in Russia, and all establishments having a POS terminal, which are now widespread even in small towns, accept them without any problems. American Express, Discover, Diners Club and other cards are rarely accepted.
Museums and sightseeing places, especially in small towns, mostly take only cash, no credit cards (with an exception of major museums, such as the State Hermitage and the Vladimir Suzdal Museum Reserve). Have plenty of cash on hand each day to cover entrance fees, photographic fees (many museums charge a fee for cameras and video recorders, however this practice gradually becomes obsolete), tours, souvenirs, meals and transportation.
Train Stations may accept plastic, even outside the big cities, be sure to ask as it won't always be obvious. Otherwise take plenty of cash. ATM machines at train station are popular and often out of cash, so stock up before going to the train station.
Like anywhere in the world, it's better to avoid street ATMs (or at least to be very careful), as sometimes swindlers attach spy devices to them, to get your PIN and card details; the safest option is the ATMs in hotels, banks or big shopping centres.
There are a number of cheap food/goods chains.
Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, buckwheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavourful soups and stews centred on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. This wholly native food remained the staples for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century. Lying on the northern reaches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as Russia's proximity to the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire has provided an inescapable Eastern character to its cooking methods (not so much in European Russia but distinguishable in the North Caucasus). Russia's renowned caviar is easily obtained, however prices can exceed the expenses of your entire trip. Dishes such as beef Stroganov and chicken kiev, from the pre-revolutionary era are available but mainly aimed at tourists as they lost their status and visibility during Soviet times. Russian specialities include:
Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated, world class dining and a wide variety of cuisines including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. They are also excellent cities to sample some of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Georgian and Uzbek). It is also possible to eat well and cheaply there without resorting to the many western fast food chains that have opened up. Russians have their own versions of fast food restaurants which range from cafeteria style serving comfort foods to streetside kiosks cooking up blinis or stuffed potatos. Although their menus may not be in English, it is fairly easy to point to what is wanted — or at a picture of it, not unlike at western fast food restaurants. A small Russian dictionary will be useful at non- touristy restaurants offering table service where staff members will not speak English and the menus will be entirely in Cyrillic, but prices are very reasonable. Russian meat soups and meat pies are often excellent.
It is better not to drink the tap water in Russia and to avoid using ice in drinks, however bottled water and Coca Cola are available everywhere food is served. Tap water may contain e-coli, metals and parasites. St Petersburg has the most dangerous tap water because the system is ancient.
Stylish cafes serving cappuccino, espresso, toasted sandwiches, rich cakes and pastries are popping up all over Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Some do double duty as wine bars, others are also internet cafes.
Unlike Europe, cafes in Russia (кафе) do not serve only drinks, but also a full range of meals (typically cooked in advance—unlike restaurants where part or whole cooking cycle is performed after you make an order).
Tipping in restaurants
Tipping is still encouraged, even if it is not common among the locals, however whether to tip and how much is eventually always to the client's discretion. A tip of 10% of the total bill, usually paid by rounding up the invoice amount, would be reasonably generous. Don't tip in cafeteria-like settings, where you travel along the counter with a tray and pay at the cash register. Throw a couple of RUB10 coins into the tip jar for barmen and baristas. There is no way to leave a tip on your credit card so keep enough small bills in your wallet to hand to the staff.
Vodka, imported liquors (rum, gin, etc), international soft-drinks (Pepsi, Coca- Cola, Fanta, etc), local soft drinks (Tarhun, Buratino, Baikal, etc.), distilled water, kvas (sour-sweet non-alcoholic naturally carbonized drink made from fermented dark bread) and mors (traditional wild berry drink).
Street vending of any alcohol (including beer), as well as selling it in small booths, is illegal in Russia since 25 December 2012 according to 171-FZ federal law. Therefore, it should only be found in shops and markets not smaller than 50 square metres, malls, and all kinds of catering establishments if they are not located too close to a children's, educational or sports establishment. The chain supermarkets (excluding some "elite" ones) some of which are intended specially for alcohol sale (e.g., "Krasnoye i beloye" federal chain store system) and malls (mostly on bigger cities' outskirts) are usually the cheapest option for buying drinks (for food, the local markets in the smaller cities, but not in Moscow, are often cheaper). Staff of all of these (maybe except in some supermarkets, if you're lucky) does not speak or, at the best, speaks very basic English even in Moscow.
Mixed alcoholic beverages as well as beers at nightclubs and bars are extremely expensive and are served without ice, with the mix (for example, coke) and alcohol charged for separately. Bringing your own is neither encouraged nor allowed, and some (usually dance-all-night venues oriented to the young crowd) places in Moscow even can take some measures to prevent customers from drinking outside (like a face-control who may refuse an entry on return, or the need to pay entry fee again after going out), or even from drinking the tap water instead of overpriced soft drinks by leaving only hot water available in the lavatories. Any illegal drugs are best avoided by the people not accustomed to the country — the enforcement is, in practice, focused on collecting more bribes from those buying and taking, rather than on busting drug-dealers, the people selling recreational illegal drugs in the clubs are too often linked with (or watched by) police; plain-clothes policemen know and frequently visit the venues where drugs are popular, and you will likely end up in a lot of problems with notoriously corrupt Russian police and probably paying multi-thousand-dollar (if not worse) bribe to get out, if you'll get caught. It really doesn't worth the risk here.
Russians are not famed for their abstemious character:
When entering a local store, you might goggle at the amount of vodka on display. Drinking vodka in Russia is a different custom than in North America or Europe. To drink vodka in the right way, you need to have zakusky (Russian for the meal you eat with alcohol - mainly vodka). This can consist of anything from simple loaves of bread to full spreads of delicious appetizers. The most common are sour or fresh cucumbers, herring, soup, and meat. If you are dining with locals who are serving soup or herring or potatoes be prepared for a generous amount of vodka to be provided. The convention is to say a toast, za zdoroviye ("for good health") is the most common, drink the shot (or half) and follow with a bite of the food. Zakusk(a/y)(singular/plural), will be something salty, dried, or fatty. This is so that the vodka is either absorbed by the food or repelled by the fat.
Be careful when opening a good vodka bottle: once you open it you must drink it all since a good vodka bottle doesn't have a cap that can be replaced. If you are drinking with locals it's no problem to skip a round. They will just pour you a symbolic drop.
Beer in Russia is cheap and the varieties, of both Russian and international brands, are endless. It's found for sale at any street vendor (warm) or stall in the centre of any city and costs from about 30 rubles (about one US dollar) to RUB130 for a 0.5L bottle or can (prices double and triple the closer you are to the centre).
"Small" bottles and cans (0.33L and around) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 litres or even more, similar to those in which soft carbonated drinks are usually sold — many cheaper beers are sold that way and, being even cheaper due to large volume, are quite popular, despite some people saying it can have a "plastic" taste.
The highest prices (especially in the bars and restaurants) are traditionally in Moscow; Saint-Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for the cheaper and often better beers. Smaller cities and towns generally have similar prices if bought in the shop, but significantly lower ones in the bars and street cafes.
Popular local brands of beer are Baltika, Stary Mel'nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin'koff and many others. Locally made (mainly except some Czech and possibly some other European beers — you won't miss these, the price of a "local" Czech beer from the same shelf will be quite different) international trademarks like Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality doesn't differ so much from local beers. Soft drinks usually start from RUB20-30 (yes, same or even more expensive than an average local beer in a same shop) and can cost up to RUB60 or more in the centre of Moscow for a 0.5L plastic bottle or 0.33L can.
There is also local beer on draught which is produced not far from where it is sold by relatively small beer factories or microbreweries and sold mostly in specialised shops where it is bottled from a keg right in your presence. This can be either filtered or unfiltered with yeast deposits, and almost always unpasteurised. This is the freshest beer variant, completely unsuitable for taking home because of its extremely short storage time, but ideal for consumption right on the purchase day.
In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines—generally at a high price. Please note that most Russians (with the exception of wine gourmets who are not so common) prefer sweet wine as opposed to dry. French Chablis, Bordeaux, and other world-renowned wine sorts are widely available at restaurants and are of good quality. The Chablis runs about RUB240 per glass. All white wines are served at room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.
Russian wine production is based mostly in southern regions of the country, the most notable of which are Krasnodar Krai and Crimea located close to the 45th parallel, just like the famous Bordeaux vineyards. Certainly worth trying are dry wines produced by the Fanagoria and Inkerman wineries. Strong sweet wines similar to Port and produced in Crimea most notably by Massandra winery, are also widely available and worth tasting for those who like this wine type.
Soviet champagne (Советское Шампанское, Sovetskoye Shampanskoye) or, more politically correctly just sparkling wine (Игристые вина, Igristie vina) is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price. The quality is generally on the level of cheap European sparkling wines and by far the most common variety is polusladkoye (semi-sweet), a misnomer for what most Westerners find syrupy-sweet, but the better brands also come in polusukhoe (semi-dry) and sukhoe or brjut (dry) varieties and can hold their own with the best that France and Nelson, New Zealand can offer. (Naturally enough, French diplomatic legations throughout the world officially serve French Champagne; privately the preferred tipple of many French ambassadors is the Russian variety - whisper it not). The original producer and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye trademark holder is Latvijas Balzams in Latvia, but Ukrainian brands like Odessa or Krymskoe are also very popular. Among Russian brands, the best brands seem to originate from the southern regions where grapes are widely grown. One of a quality Russian brands is Abrau-Dyurso (RUB200-700 for a bottle in the supermarket depending on variety); Tsimlyanskoe (RUB150-250) is also popular. The quality of the cheapest ones (from RUB85-120, depending on where you buy) varies, you can buy if you do want to have a try while not paying too much, but, for export to your home, it's wiser to stick to something better.
Genuine kvass is very hard to find in the cities, there are only some chances in rural areas—but even there, only by a recommendation. Whatever is sold in supermarkets as kvass is merely an imitation, and is pretty far from a real product. What makes genuine kvass different includes: limited lifetime (normally 1 week), contains some alcohol (0.7% to 2.6% vol) and should be stored in a fridge. Genuine kvass can be bought in 0.2L cups, which may be a good idea to sample it before buying in quantity.
In warm periods, genuine kvass can be bought from huge metal barrels on trailers (bochkas). Originally a symbol of soviet summertime, bochkas became rare after 1991. Soviet nostalgia and these trailers' no-nonsense good functionality have given them a revival in recent years. There are also modern, plastic, stationary, upright barrel-like dispensers but these may not sell the genuine article. Towards the end of an especially hot day, avoid genuine kvass from bochkas as it may have soured.
Medovukha (медовуха), also known as mead, is the ancient drink brewed from many a century ago by Europeans is also wide-spread among Russians. It has a semi-sweet taste based on fermented honey and contains 10-16% of alcohol. You may see it sold in bottles or poured in cups in fast-food outlets and shops.
In most cities, quality hotels are really scarce: most were built in Soviet times decades ago and are recently renovated in decor, but rarely in service and attitude. Even for a local, it's quite a problem to find a good hotel without a recommendation from a trusted person. For the same reason, it may be really hard to find a hotel during mass tourist-oriented events like StPete anniversary.
Hotels in Russia may be quite expensive in metropolises and touristy areas. If you do speak a bit of Russian and are not entirely culture shocked, it is much smarter to seek out and rent a room in a private residence. Most Russians are looking to make extra money and, having space to spare, will rent it out to a tourist gladly. Native Moscovites or residents of Saint Petersburg would rather rent out to tourists than their own countrymen: foreigners are considered more trustworthy and orderly. Expect to pay 60-70 USD a night (usually with breakfast prepared by your host), and the accommodations will certainly be very clean and proper if not modern. When it comes to home/family life, Russian culture is very warm and inviting.
Another useful option is short-term apartment rental offered by small companies or individuals. This means that certain flats in regular living buildings are permanently rented out on a daily basis. The flats may differ in their location and quality (from old-fashioned to recently renovated), but in any case you get a one- or two-room apartment with own kitchen, toilet, and bath. Additionally, the hosts provide bed linen as well as cups, plates, and other kitchen equipment. The apartment rental provides great autonomy and flexibility (e.g., there is no strict check-out time). On the other hand, you do not get certain hotel facilities, such as breakfast, laundry service, etc. The price for the daily apartment rental normally does not exceed the price for the hotel of similar quality, so it is a very useful options, especially in large cities. The negotiations are usually quite official: the host collects the data from your ID, while you get a bill and a rental agreement.
A new phenomenon has been the development of "mini-hotels" in large Russian cities. Such hotels usually (but not necessarily!) provide clean modern rooms with private baths at far lower costs than conventional large hotels, approximately USD60 as opposed to well over USD150. These small hotels are located within existing apartment buildings and include one, two, or more floors located a story or two above street level. They also often serve breakfast. Saint Petersburg has quite a few with more opening all of the time and some are appearing in Moscow.
Couchsurfing is very popular in Russian cities.
Russia has a long-standing tradition in high-quality education for all citizens. It has also one of the best mass-education systems in the world, with excellent results at international educational competitions.
Basic general education lasts for nine years. Graduates of this level may continue their education at senior high school to receive secondary general education. They may also enter an initial vocational school or non-university level higher education institutions.
Higher education is provided by public and non-public (non-State) accredited higher education institutions, of which Lomonosov Moscow State University  and Saint Petersburg State University  are the most famous.
Due in great part to demands of the international educational organizations, the system of education in Russia began to adopt a system similar to that of Britain and the US: 4 years for the Bachelor's degree and 2 years for a Master's degree. The universities are still in the process of these changes; some of them offer the new system and others still work according to the prior 5-year system, particularly in programs such as law.
Russia's top universities have very competitive entry requirements, and special entry exams are held each year. One of the great attractions of education in Russia is the cost, especially when compared to the quality. Degree study tuition can range from USD2000 to USD8000 per year, with other costs (room & board, books, etc.) ranging from USD1500 to USD5000 per year, depending on location and spending habits. Russian citizens who have won the competition for state-funded places, as well as foreign citizens directed to study in Russia by their governments according to an international contract with Russian government, study for free.
The academic year lasts from Sept 1 to Mid June everywhere, with long summer vacations from July 1st to Aug 31.
Several universities and private schools offer Russian language courses (individual and group tuition).
Largely because of the transition from state socialism to market capitalism, Russia did experience a rise in criminal activity during the 1990s. As those who controlled capital through the state had to reconfigure their business operations towards a free enterprise rationality, profiteering and scams have increased. The truth is that crime was greatly exaggerated in the media, and for the average tourist Moscow, Saint Petersburg and the rest of Russia are actually just as safe as most major European cities.
You should be noted that Russia is a pioneer country in fighting against narcotics. Russia has a well-developed anti-narcotics enforcement system as well as a set of regulations against uses and carrying of narcotics as tough as Hong Kong and Singapore, drug-trafficking into Russia can be brought a sentence of at least several decades.
Once historically very high since the break up of the Soviet Union, the crime rate has fallen dramatically, and it is moderate, even though the crime issues are continuing to drop. Assault, robbery, or pickpockets are the most commonly done crimes and they are more common in underground walkways and the subway, overnight trains, train stations, airports, markets, tourist attractions, and restaurants. Foreigners who have been drinking alcohol are especially vulnerable to assault and robbery in or around nightclubs or bars, or on their way home. Some travelers have been drugged at bars, while others have taken strangers back to their lodgings, where they were drugged, robbed and/or assaulted. Of significant notation is that Nightclubs are vulnerable to acts of spiking drinks. The drug called GHB is gaining popularity in nightclubs. Typically it’s in the form of a capful of liquid mixed with a beverage.
Bogus trolley inspectors, whose aim is to extort a bribe from individuals while checking for trolley tickets, are also a threat. The use of unmarked taxis is also a problem, as passengers have been victims of robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and theft. Although there are few registered taxi services in Russia, you should always use authorized services when arriving at a major airport, and it is best to ask which is registered before moving along.
Russia's law enforcement in large cities are well-trained, but still not very professional; don't expect English to be spoken by the police anywhere east of Moscow, and even in Moscow only few officers speak it. The officers are well-paid comparing to the majority of Russian population, but many are used to a more luxury lifestyle than their salary would afford. This is evident by the luxury cars parked near the police buildings by the people whose official salary is less than 700 euro a month. The "salary supplementation" is very typical with the Russian traffic police (DPS) and the drug enforcement police (GosNarkoKontrol).
If the police asks you for a bribe, and you did not commit any wrongdoings, you have two choices. Either to pay a bribe and let go, or waste some time (from ten minutes to a week) and let go. Do not argue with them, and never curse them. If you piss them off, they can plant drugs on you and "find" them on a subsequent search, after that you'd be looking for a several year jail sentence. This has happened before, the complains go nowhere and your embassy will not be able to help you out of this.
It is also useless to give the bribe and then complain to the superior officer - the superior will cover it up, and use this information to extract a share of this bribe from the subordinate. If you really want to complain, you should complain to the district attorney office (Prokuratura). Don't expect to find any English speakers there, and even if you proceed with the complain, most likely the officer will deny ever meeting you, and it would be just your word against his, and generally courts in Russia always side up with the police.
On a brighter note, the police is focused on collecting bribes from Russians and the Russian-speaking migrants from CIS countries. The foreigners are rarely a target unless you are committing a crime or making yourself a target (such as smoking a joint in public), so you are more likely to be let go as soon as you show your passport. This is especially true if you are from the country which has strong, vocal embassy presence in Russia, as the last thing the Russian police wants is international attention. Also most officers don't speak good enough English (if any at all), so extracting a bribe from you is very difficult for them. If you are a foreigner who speaks Russian, pretend you are not when dealing with the Russian police.
If you intend to take a stroll during the night, have someone to accompany you — going alone can only make you a target for criminals and maybe corrupt officials.
As a tourist, you are strongly discouraged to travel to the North Caucasus, as that region is the most dangerous in the entire country. The area has garnered a bad reputation for terrorism, crime and extremes of both corruption and lawlessness.
At present, the safest region to access for the time being is Karachay-Cherkessia, as that region has encountered very little attacks in the past few years. If you really need to visit the more dangerous pockets of the region, it's best to contact your embassy before traveling to the area. Assistance will be limited, however.
If you are planning to see Mt. Elbrus, it's best to go there in an organised groups.
Driving by the majority of Russians is routinely reckless, and has claims more than 35,000 lives each year. Drivers attack their art with an equal mix of aggressiveness and incompetence. Guidelines are lax and rarely followed. As a pedestrian, take great care when crossing the roads, as pedestrian crossings are widely ignored. Many drivers are not very well trained and forged their driving licences to avoid problems with the police. More importantly, the rapidly expanding economy has led to an increase in traffic density. Driving in the tunnels is perhaps even more dangerous than driving on the roads — the tunnels are improperly built as a result of under-investment, and they claim even more casualties than on the roads. If uncertain, it's best to not drive under any circumstances.
When driving you must not be under the influence of alcohol. Russian law has a zero tolerance for this, imposing as a punishment the loss of licences for 2 years but, despite this, traffic accidents and fatalities remain high in Russia. If you are pulled over by the DPS (Russian Traffic Police), don't worry — they will simply check your papers, although you will expect harassment by officials. By law, the DPS should not take your money or try to solicit a bribe — if that happens, you are entitled to report it to the nearest police station. Under no circumstances try to run away from them — if you do, they will pursuit you and even shoot your vehicle, even if you do not posses any firearms with you.
Parking spaces and roads in general are poorly marked and disorganized and there are very few, if non-existent, safe parking spaces for vehicles. Many vehicles are seen parked on sidewalks, on shoulder roads, even on residential buildings due to the lack of parking curbs and markings, making most vehicles highly insecure, even on urban areas, and potential hazards among traffic when attempting to enter/exit the parking (even though there is hardly any).
Corruption is widespread in Russia, and although the situation has been gradually improving, Russians are unlikely to offer a lot of help if you have a run in with corrupt officials or criminals on the street. As a result, busy main streets are often less safe than quiet back streets—-there are simply more opportunities for the corrupt.
In cities, keep an eye out for juvenile delinquency. Russia has a heartbreakingly large problem of orphaned street children, who unsurprisingly resort to minor crime to keep themselves alive. "Gypsy" children employ some interesting techniques to separate you from your money, including creating a distraction (even fighting among themselves), bumping into you to pick your pockets, or simply swarming a surprised traveler and running their hands through every possible hiding place on your person. In such a situation, instead of showing weakness, just give the offenders a stiff shove and perhaps a few choice words in Russian and they will look for easier targets. You are far less likely to run across older juvenile delinquents, like belligerent skinheads or football hooligans, but if you do, best to give them a wide berth.
Foreigners are often treated with a degree of skepticism in Russia, largely due to the fact that many Russians were rarely allowed to venture abroad under communism and be exposed to different ideas and cultures. If you are of African, Middle-Eastern and Asian descent, you may be met with open stares and may often get treated with a degree of suspicion from the police.
While this attitude is largely changing, Racism is still a problem in Russia. Though travellers do not typically encounter violent hate crimes, it is important to be careful if you are not White and/or if you are noticeably not Christian. While federal law (article 105 and 282 of Russia's criminal code) demands harsher penalties against perpetrators of hate crimes, the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes is highly inadequate.
Many of these crimes are committed by Neo-Nazis and skinheads in groups, though one may encounter non-violent racism by individuals throughout the country. The bulk of attacks tend to take place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Voronezh. Since 2008, the number of hate crimes have been dropping steadily, although one should still stay vigilant to their surroundings.
For a detailed account of the current state of racism in Russia, please refer to the United Nations Human Rights Council website.
More information about xenophobia and hate crimes in Russia can be found on the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis website.
There is a mistaken belief that everyone in Russia must carry identification papers. This is not the case. However, a lack of proper identification, while not punishable in itself, can lead to 3-hour detention "for identification purposes". Formally, arbitrary document checks are not permitted. They do still happen, though with far less frequency than previously, especially in the larger cities. Document checks are now more likely in places with little tourism - some police officers have very narrow notions of what should be appropriate for tourists.
Having no documents can lead to being held for up to 3 h but not arrested. The detention should not be behind bars and you should not be deprived of your belongings (such as mobile phone): you can be taken to a police station, where you will end up sitting on a chair in a normal room while police "identify" you, but again, this rarely happens. Like most countries, you can be arrested if you are suspected of having committed a crime, but being unable to provide ID is not a crime and carries no penalty. No physical force can used in the detaining, unless you apply it first. If you are stopped, be confident and remember that police officers are forbidden from shouting at you. The passport checks that do happen are primarily targeted at darker skinned people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants. Western-looking, white people are very rarely asked on the street for ID.
To spare yourself of potential problems, you may choose to carry your passport, migration card and registration slip on you. If you do, keep a separate photocopy just in case.
Being stopped for ID is not necessarily a pretext for a bribe. Normally a police officer will salute and ask for your passport (listen out for words like 'paspart', 'veeza' or 'dakumenty'). Hand these to them, they will look at them, hand them back and salute you. While generally an unnerving experience for first time tourists, there is nothing sinister in this.
A corrupt policeman may claim that there are problems with your documentation (passport, immigrations card and residence registration), and demand a fine (bribe). You have three options: you may politely, friendly, and firmly explain that actually everything is fine, there is no problem with your documents, and that you are willing to go to the police station to clear things up or you can pay (300 rouble should be enough in metropolitan areas). The first option is difficult without some Russian proficiency (and solid nerves), but will generally work. The second option buys you peace but encourages further corruption. The third option is more confrontational and requires some nerve: get out a mobile phone and threaten to call your embassy. This can work and the police may well back off.
Keep your money folded with small bills on the outside, concealing the larger ones. Bring out your cash only when actually handing it over. Keep larger amounts separate and hidden from smaller day-to-day money.
Same-sex sexual activity is legal but extremely taboo in Russia; public opinion is strongly against any form of gay rights. As of June 2013, "homosexual propaganda", understood to mean public discussion of gay rights or homosexuality, is banned, as is any discussion of homosexuality with minors. Police can and do turn a blind eye to gay-bashing. Openly gay tourists may also be subject to arrest. Russian gangs systematically target gay men by making fake children accounts on the social map and offer dating, documenting acts of torture (mostly beating) and uploading video evidence to the Internet. Police have been reported as not intervening in these attacks, and have been reported as arresting the victims. However the leader of this gangs M. Martsinkevich was arrested and imprisoned. Also businesses are not LGBT friendly and you will be turned away from public accommodations and services.
Weather in Russia is very diverse, but winters are severe almost everywhere, excepting the southern part of the country. In winter you can develop more or less serious frostbites and even freeze to death, especially in drunk condition or just when not being accustomed to northern climate. Depending on where you go, always take a note of the weather and stock up with adequate clothing. If the outside temperature is below -30°C, plan to spend no more than ten minutes outside directly exposed to the air.
Medical facilities in general vary. A majority of hospitals are extremely well equipped, clean, and possess all of the latest technologies, while there are some that are well below western standards, with shortages in medication and neglected equipment.
Ensure that all of your vaccinations are up to date, and you have sufficient amounts of any prescription medicine you may be taking. Pharmacies are common in major cities and carry quality western medications.
Quality of tap water varies around the country, and may even be variable within cities. In old buildings tap water can be non-potable. In the big cities of European Russia, the water is clean of biological contaminants, but often suffers from the presence of heavy metals, due to outdated city plumbing. If you can't buy bottled water, boil water before drinking, or better yet use a special filter for tap water, which you could buy in any supermarket. Bottled water costs only about RUB20-30 (USD0.80-1.10) for 2 litres, but watch out for refilled bottles being sold.
Besides local doctors (generally good quality but often working in poor facilities) there are several Western-run medical centers in major Russian cities. These all have different policies for payment (some take credit cards, some require payment in cash up front, even if you have insurance) so make sure you know what you are paying for (and when and how) before you agree to any services.
Be careful not to buy fake vodka, which can be dangerous (seriously here, 'dangerous' doesn't mean 'strong'; it can contain methanol, which can make you blind). Only buy vodka in large stores or specialized ones like Aromatnyi Mir  in Moscow, with the sticker over the cap and/or the region's barcode on the side.
Significant number of food stores, including some food/goods chains, standalone food shops, kiosks and food markets are rumourously famous for selling food of bad quality, including out-of-date or even out-of-date with expire date reprinted with a later date. Although most of them are quite good. When possible, check the quality of the food with visual observation, don't especially trust expire date labels, that are added in a replaceable way. Also you can take note of what others are buying, sometimes you can even ask other buyers which product is better, it's considered normal. That could help you make a good choice. Examples of usually bad quality food sold are most of fish products, including smoked and spicy salted (be especially careful), pre-made salads, fresh vegetables and fruits, when you can't handpick them (at markets check them after shop-women picked them for you, you can usually change those you don't like, at shops they usually don't allow to change, and use to add some bad ones into bag), canned and pickles vegetable sold with a discount (and with older production date usually), cheaper dairy products, though less consistent, checking what others buy may help you here. Cheaper juices often come diluted with water.
The country's HIV prevalence is steadily rising, mainly for drug users, young adults and prostitutes. Be safe.
Russians are well-mannered people. They are usually reserved with strangers, but once gained acquaintance, especially while drinking, they become very frank and sincere.
Russia is home to more than a 100 different ethnicities, and this is a point of pride for many ethnicities living in Russia. Do not assume that everybody in Russia is ethnically Russian. For instance, referring to someone from Tatarstan as Russians when they are actually an ethnic Tatar can be viewed negatively. It is appropriate to ask about their "nationality" and their customs and traditions, as they may be different from Russian customs.
Smiling in Russia is traditionally reserved for friends, and smiling at a stranger may make them self-conscious. Smile at a Russian in the street and most likely they will not respond in kind. An automatic Western smile is widely regarded as insincere. While that tradition is slowly changing as Russia smiling is still very rare in customer service. Sales assistants, public servants and the like are expected to look serious and businesslike. Hence the very common misconception about Russians that they are a very grim folk and never smile — they do, once they get to know you, and become very welcoming and kind.
When approaching a stranger with a question, attempt to use Russian at first and ask if they speak English, Russians are very proud of their language and people will be noticeably more aloof if you approach them speaking English. Even just using the Russian equivalents of 'please' and 'thank you' will make a noticeable difference to people. In fact, Russians love the few foreigners who make any attempt to speak their language.
If you are meeting people for the first time, always make it a point to use the formal word for "you", instead of the informal word for "you" until or unless your acquaintance/friend invites you to use the informal "you" with them. This is expected out of every visitor to Russia, especially if they are meeting somebody older than them. A visitor using the informal word for "you" with somebody they have not met before can be interpreted as extremely rude.
Russia has a strong family-oriented society and even today many young Russians work with their families. While it may be acceptable to crack a joke on any topic with Russians in general, it is unacceptable to crack a joke about someone's family members.
Women are traditionally treated with chivalry. Female travellers should not act surprised or indignant when their Russian male friends pay their bills at restaurants, open every door in front of them, offer their hand to help them climb down that little step or help them carry anything heavier than a handbag — this is not intended as condescending. Male travellers should understand that this will be expected of them by Russian women too.
While tipping was traditionally frowned upon in Russia it has been emerging after the fall of communism. A customary tip in a restaurant is 10%, and should you leave more money than the exact total when paying your bill at a restaurant, particularly if it happens to be more or less like 10% above the total, it will be interpreted as a tip. If the service was particularly bad and you don't want to leave a tip, ask for your change.
The "OK" gesture is uncommon in Russia. It’s not a terrible offense, but elder people will possibly not understand what you are trying to say, so if you’re looking for a sign of approval or reassurance, a thumbs-up is probably a better way to go.
Whistling is unacceptable in every Russian home because it is a very common superstition that whistling would make the owner of the house poor. If you feel the need to whistle, do it outdoors not indoors.
It is considered rude manners for visitors to shake hands with their acquaintances while wearing gloves or standing in the doorway because it is usually associated with bad luck.
Russians have a marvelously and intimately quiet way of speaking with one another in public. It's best to try and follow suit to avoid standing out like a sore thumb and generally making everyone around you really uncomfortable—stand a little closer to your interlocutor and ease up on the volume.
A lot of respect is required when it comes to talking about World War II and the Soviet Union. That conflict was a major tragedy for Soviets and every family has at least one relative among the 25-30 million people who died—way above all of Western Europe and America combined—and the scars of that conflict are still felt today.
Avoid discussing political relations with Georgia or Ukraine in companies with diverse political views. This sometimes can lead to hostility and maybe even fierce debates. Tense relations between these countries have led to many conflicts, most notably the 2008 South Ossetia war and 2014 annexation of Crimea. As for the general populace, most Russians are friendly with Georgians and Ukrainians because of mutual Orthodox Christian faith and intimacy of national characters.
Keep your political opinions to yourself. Feel free to ask as many questions as you like, but avoid making statements or comments about Russia's past and current political situation. The country has a turbulent, and often violent history, and most Russian people are tired of hearing Westerners pass judgement - generally negative ones, at that - on the Soviet Union. Many Russians over the age of 30 are proud of both its triumphs and tragedies, and they probably know much more about the period than you. Younger Russians are less likely to be offended as they view the Soviet Union as an old empire, or just have a patchy knowledge of something which collapsed after many of them were born.
Most young Russians are nationalists and many of them could be even more conservative than their USSR born parents. Most of them were grown up during the 1990s - a time when the country was in deep crisis and the standards of living were far lower than in the USSR. Many of them knew about the life in the USSR from their parents who often say that the standards of living were far much better before the USSR collapsed.
Avoid criticizing the conflict in Chechnya. Even though horrific things have happened there, most Russians support the government and will say that Chechnya was, is, and always will be Russian. The separatist forces are regarded as Islamist terrorists.
Despite what many Western journalists portray, the infamous Pussy Riot movement is unpopular within the country. They are frequently labelled as a hate-group within the country.
It also very important that while it is legal to criticize the government and even Putin, and many Russians do it quite often between themselves, they don't like when foreigners interfere in this process: it is treated like teaching Russian people to live in their country and taken quite negatively.
The Russian Orthodox Church is very conservative; extreme respect should be shown when visiting an Orthodox church or cathedral in Russia. Before entering a church men should take off their headwear and women should cover their heads with headscarves. Like in about a half of Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, participation in the Holy Communion is allowed only after confession if the confessor has blessed you to take the Eucharist (for this a 2-3-day fast should be observed beforehand and Holy Eucharist "posledovanie" prayers read, and, of course, you must be an Orthodox Christian, forgive all your enemies and completely believe that before you is the True Flesh and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ). When in a queue to confession, Eucharist, icons, relics, etc., men go first.
Emergency services (landlines)
Operators are not fluent in English, and typically only speak Russian, so expect a language barrier if you don't know any Russian.
Emergency services (mobile phone)
Operators are not fluent in English, and typically only speak Russian, so expect a language barrier if you don't know any Russian.
Prepaid SIM cards
There are 5 GSM operators in Russia, which all use the 900/1800 MHz standard for 2G, 900/2100 MHz standard for 3G, and 800/2600 MHz standard for 4G/LTE, the same as Europe and Asia. Check that your phone supports one of these standards before bringing it to Russia. The 5 operators are Beeline, Megafon, MTS, Tele2, and Yota. There is also one CDMA network: Skylink but you need to purchase a Skylink phone to use this network.
All carriers offer cheap SIM cards with data plans that are always a better alternative to paying roaming charges. Megafon is considered to have the best coverage but Beeline is considered to be the cheapest.
If you buy a SIM card in a shop, you'll need your passport for identification and it will take around 5 minutes to complete the required paperwork. If you don't speak Russian, you will need to find someone who speaks English. Alternatively, you can buy a SIM card from automated kiosks in metro stations. Calls to landlines from mobile phones are more expensive than calls to other mobile phones, especially those that use the same network. Incoming calls are free from any directions, if you are staying in the same region where the SIM card has been bought. You can add value to your card at the stores of the company you are using, at automated kiosks, terminals, and ATMs (particularly, Sberbank ATMs allow to pay to Russian cellular operators by cash without any bank commission, this is one of the best variants, considering that they are widespread even in small towns and have an English interface, but, of course, it's only about those ATMs which have a bill acceptor). You can buy a prepaid card for international calls, but online services such as Skype are often cheaper.
If you want to connect your laptop or computer to a data network, you can also buy cheap SIM cards for a USB-modem.
Since the beginning of the 2000s broadband Internet has become widely available in Russia even in the countryside. Almost all places where you can find a computer have a connection at least through ADSL. In towns and especially big cities free Wi-Fi can be found in cafes, hotel receptions, and other public places. Note that since 2015 you must pass an identification procedure by providing your mobile phone number before using free Wi-Fi hotspots.
Wi-Fi is also available in some of the newest trains, but in most cases it allows free access to local resources only, and Internet connection requires a separate payment depending on desired time ranging from 1 hour to unlimited access till the end of your route. Internet signal is usually received from hybrid 3G/satellite network and sometimes can be unstable due to outdoor conditions.