Difference between revisions of "Russia"
Revision as of 17:17, 27 December 2007
Russia (Russian Росси́я, transliteration Rossiya) - more fully known as the Russian Federation (Russian Росси́йская Федера́ция, transliteration Rossiyskaya Federatsiya) - is a vast country in Eastern Europe and northern Asia.
Russia has both extensive Arctic Ocean and North Pacific Ocean coastlines, as well as smaller coastlines on the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. Russia is bordered by Norway and Finland to the northwest, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine to the west, Georgia and Azerbaijan to the southwest, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia to the south, and China and North Korea to the southeast. The American state of Alaska lies opposite the easternmost point of Russia across the Bering Strait.
Russia is the largest country in the world by far; spanning twelve time zones, its territory covers nearly twice as much of the earth as that of the next largest country, Canada. Despite its massive size, much of the country lacks proper soils and climates (either too cold or too dry) for agriculture. Instead it has huge reserves of some of the world's most important resources (oil, gas, coal, platinum, gold, chrome, asbestos). Mount Elbrus (Gora El'brus), at 5,633 m, is Europe's, and Russia's, tallest peak.
Russia was first formed as a political nation by the tsar Peter the Great, who ruled until 1725. The Russian Empire was established in 1721, and the three hundred year chronicle of the Romanovs came into fruition. Peter the Great was one of Russia's most charismatic and forceful leaders, and laid the foundations of a new political culture, trying to westernize the nation, moving the capital from the old, quasi-medieval city of Moscow to the new capital of Saint Petersburg, which would remain the capital until 1918. The Russian Empire reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many colorful figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. The sharp divide between rulers and the ruled became dreadfully obvious in the nineteenth century, and the botched attempts of the tsars to tidy this up ended in failure. Russia was technologically, politically, and culturally far behind the rest of Europe, and this would have tragic results for tsar Nicholas II and the Russian Empire in 1917.
World War I strained Imperial Russia's governmental and social institutions to the breaking point, allowing the seizure of power by the Bolshevik Party and the formation of the USSR. The brutal rule of Josef Stalin (1924-53) strengthened Russian dominance of the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy continued to grow at high rates under Malenkov and Khrushchev, and political and social controls were loosened. The Soviet Union eventually reached its peak and became stagnant under Leonid Brezhnev, causing a crisis that would continue until General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) introduced glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to modernize Communism, but his initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the USSR into 15 independent republics. Since then, Russia has struggled in its efforts to build a democratic political system and market economy to replace the strict social, political, and economic controls of the Communist period. A determined guerrilla conflict still plagues Russia in Chechnya and its neighboring republics.
Climate ranges from steppes in the south to humid continental in much of European Russia; subarctic in Siberia to tundra climate in the polar north; winters vary from cool along Black Sea coast to frigid in Siberia; summers vary from warm in the steppes to cool along the Arctic coast.
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 Far Eastern Russia.
Here is a representative sample of nine Russian cities with their Anglicized and Russian Cyrillic names:
Passports, Visas, and other documents
Citizens of most non-Russia or CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries must obtain a visa prior to arriving in Russia. Citizens of Croatia (3 months, invitation required), Cuba (30 days), and Thailand (30 days) do not need a visa. Obtaining a Russian visa is a costly, time-consuming, and often frustrating process. Most visitors should start the process at least two months in advance, but it can be done in a few weeks if you are willing to spend a little extra. There is also a way to get a visa in just a few days, but for citizens of some countries, this will cost a couple hundred dollars. For citizens of EU countries, this will cost €70 and take three days, instead of the usual 4-10 days.
Getting a Russian visa
There are number of ways to get a Russian visa, but first of all, you will need an official invitation. When you purchase a tour to Russia, your travel agent should provide you with one. You can also purchase an invitation online. If you have friends or relatives in Russia, you could ask them to write an invitation. The problem with such invitations is that, unlike invitations to the US, they take about one month to process (since FSB has to approve them).
Once you have an invitation, you can apply for a visa. The standard price charged by the Russian Consulate for a visa is $100 in some countries, plus (in some countries) $20 for returning your passport via FedEx. EU citizens pay €35 for most kinds of visas, thanks to a reciprocal visa agreement. In order to get a visa you will need a visa application, two passport-size photos, an invitation, and passport. In some countries, you will also need two money orders for $100 and $20, as some Russian Consulates do not accept credit cards or personal checks. In others, you will need a credit/debit card because the Russian consulates in these countries don't accept money orders, cash or cheques. In some countries, you will need to send all of these to any Russian consulate and wait for few weeks. In other countries, you will have to visit the consulate yourself to submit your application, wait for just one week and then pick it up in person at the consulate if the consulate doesn't allow mail applications (referring to a Russian law).
Alternatively, you could pay some visa processing firm an additional $50-150 for "expedited visa processing," which actually works. To find such firms just Google - visa to Russia. Some firms include visas in their tours and take care of visa hassles for you. One example is TravelAllRussia, 22 Navigator ct. Staten Island, NY +1.800.884.1721  which was first to offer this service.
Difference between tourist and business visas
There are two related items, the invitation (or voucher for a tourist visa) and the visa itself. The invitation is the paper which is exchanged for the actual visa. The visa is a sticker in the passport. There are several types of invitations and visas.
The tourist invitation is a letter of confirmation of booking and pre-payment of your accommodation and travel arrangements in Russia. It can be obtained from a government approved hotel in Russia, on-line hotel booking service or Russian travel agency. The sign of government approval is a so called "consular reference," the government registration number with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. Only hotels and travel agencies that have consular reference can issue the confirmations valid for visa purposes. Using a local Visa Service to obtain a Russian Visa will streamline the process. They will double check your application and invitation, go to the embassy for you and return your passport to you. This saves time and frustration.
It should be noted that tricks such as booking one night in a hotel and getting a visa for 30 days with the paper received from the hotel won't work. In this case the visa will be granted for only one day.
However, some travel agencies will issue a confirmation for a fee, without actually collecting the accommodation pre-payment. The legality of such actions are in question and there is a bit of controversy about this.
Tourist confirmation and the accommodation voucher are normally accepted as a faxed/e-mailed copy, though the consular official has a right to ask for the original if fraud is suspected.
Another type of invitation is required to obtain a business visa. Business invitations are issued by the government and for many Russian consulates the original hard copy is required (though some will accept a faxed copy, always check this before applying) Obtaining the business invitation is time consuming and costly. Any registered company in Russia can apply for the business invitation for a foreign national in the visa and passport office in Russia. It normally takes 4 to 6 weeks to get one. Business visa is granted in exchange of business invitation by the Russian consulate and it is a lot more flexible than a tourist one. Can be multiple entry and valid for travel and stay in Russia for up to 12 months.
However, following the introduction of new rules on October 17th 2008, a 12-month Russian business visa, (and some other types as well), will only entitle the holder to spend 90 days of the two 180-day periods of validity of the visa within Russia. In addition, should a visitor on a business visa spend 90 consecutive days within the RF, then they will not be allowed to re-enter Russia until a further period of 90 days has passed. This therefore limits the maximum time that may be spent in Russia on a one-year business visa(and some other types of visa), to just 180 days maximum. Other rules were simultaneously introduced placing restrictions on where visas may be obtained by foreign nationals to enter Russia and how frequently the person must leave Russian territory and obtain a new registration on re-arrival.
Some travel agencies in Russia can help obtaining business invitation.
Some Russian local governments have a right to invite foreigners for business and cultural activities by sending a TELEX to the Embassy or Consulate of Russia overseas, requesting the visa issue to a particular foreigner or group of foreigners. Such telex messages are used instead of invitation. This is normally the way to go if you are invited by the government.
Personal invitation. Any Russian citizen can apply to invite foreign national for a visit at the passport and visa office. The process is much the same as for business invitation. Take 4 to 6 weeks. Looks exactly the same as business one, but the purpose of travel and the visa type will be stated as personal. The inviting individual is solely responsible for all your activities while in Russia and can be penalized heavily if something goes wrong. So personal invitations are usually not available for a fee through the net.
It should be noted that you will need to pay for the cost of the invitation and the visa itself, each of which can cost from $40-100 or more, usually depending on how fast you want it issued. To save money, start the process as early as possible.
Exit and reentry during the time of your visa requires permits. Getting these permits is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare best avoided entirely by spending more money in advance for a multiple entry visa.
When you go through passport control into Russia, you will give the border official a filled-in migration card. You should be given the card back, and it should be stamped. You must carry this card with you at all times in Russia, and you may be asked for it when you leave. You receive the migration card while you're en-route to Russia, either on the train or in the plane. It is a small white piece of paper nearly the size of two index cards. There are two parts: one for exit and one for entry. When you cross the border the 'entry' portion is taken and you keep 'exit' part. You must get this card registered. If on a tourist visa, your hotel should do this. If you are on a business visa, usually it is best to do it through the company that got you the invitation. This registration has a fee also, and without it you could get in trouble. Police on the streets will do random passport checks so you must have your passport on you at all times. But you're not alone — this goes for Russian citizens as well.
Moscow and Saint Petersburg are served by direct flights from most European capitals, and Moscow also has direct flights many cities in East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Currently the only non-stop flights from the United States to Russia are offered by Delta (from New York and Atlanta to Moscow) and Aeroflot (from New York, Washington and Los Angeles to Moscow). There are airports in all large cities in Russia. However, international service to destinations other than Moscow and Saint Petersburg is still very limited.
Local airlines are listed in Get around.
Low-cost air-lines from Europe:
From United Arab Emirates
Transferring between the international and domestic terminals at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO) can be difficult for a non-Russian speaker. Many therefore arrange for a (pricey) private car in advance.
Train service is usually reliable. You can get a direct train from many cities in Eastern and Central Europe to Moscow and sometimes Saint Petersburg. Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Berlin, Budapest and Warsaw are all possible departure points with daily services to Russia. Most long distance trains have 2 to 6 passengers per room, 4 being the most common. The Trans-Siberian Railway spans the entire country and connects with Chinese cities such as Beijing and Harbin, as well as Mongolia's Ulaanbaatar.
For details on domestic Russian trains, see below in the Get Around: By Train section.
Traveling in Russia by car can be difficult. Roads may be poorly marked, if marked at all, and poorly maintained — especially outside the cities and towns. Car rental services are only starting to develop in major cities such as Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and are expensive.
Crossing the border by car is a peculiar entertainment.
There is no doubt that car travel is the best way to see the country, but it is a risky enterprise which is recommended only for the brave and capable.
Russian highways have highway patrol police (GAI) roadblock every 20 km or so. If you have an international license plate, prepare to pay a bribe ($5-$20) in some of the most corrupt regions (e.g., in the Caucasus). Russian traffic rules are very numerous and you will be found violating some of them. If you decide not to pay, at best you should expect to spend several hours at every road block.
Service is scarce and poor, and the countryside can be quite dangerous without experience and fluency in the Russian language.
It is possible to travel safely by car in Russia using a private licensed guide. Traveling independently is not recommended, especially for the non-Russian speaker. Guides generally provide their own cars and or vans and know the roads, the customs and the countryside making seeing small towns and historic sites possible.
A few bus companies, most notably Eurolines, operate international coach services from a number of destinations to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Tallinn, Helsinki, Warsaw and Berlin all have regular services to Russia.
Russia has an extensive rail network linking nearly every city and town. For intercity travel, the train is generally the most convenient option for trips that can be covered overnight. Although accommodations may not be 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 200 kilometers (120 miles). Take a look at the Russian 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 zhehlyehznohduhROHZHny vahgZAHL) have separate areas for selling tickets for these types.
Most long-distance trains are set up for overnight travel. In these trains, three main kinds of cars are available. The third class car is called platzcart (плацкартный вагон) and is set up with unwalled compartments of four fold out beds opposite two beds on the window wall. These compartments are generally less safe than other classes, but provide for a much more immersive experience. Also, woman travellers sometimes prefer the platzcart to other classes where they might end up in a closed compartment with other male strangers (Russian trains do not have separate cars or compartments for males and females).
The second class is called coupe (купейный вагон - koopYAYny vahgOHN) and consists of private compartments of four each. The first class is called SV, and consists of compartments for two persons.
Note that several Russian trains, including many international routes, have only 1st and 2nd class available.
The prices of these trains vary widely by class obviously, but also by train. There are mainly two types of trains - firmenny trains have brand names (e.g., The Red Arrow, Russia and so on) and are generally more comfortable and pricier than ordinary trains. Some firmenny trains provide pre-packed meals, free tea/coffee, and complementary sheets (otherwise, you'll have to pay R100-150 for your own). The more expensive trains are generally cleaner and might even have air-conditioning. It's a good idea to ask when you buy the the ticket exactly what is provided.
Conductors always provide free water in samovars in every car and will usually sell you tea and lend you a mug and spoon for about 10 rubles, or 35 cents. Most long-distance trains also have dining cars.
For example, Moscow-Vladivostok train coupe ticket was 12721.10 rub ($472.55) and SV ticket 23631.30 rub ($877.83). Travel time is 148 hours.
Moscow-Saint Petersburg train chair ticket was 400-600 rub, platzcart ticket - 600-700 rub, coupe - 1200-2000 rub (lux coupe - 2000-4000 rub), SV - 13000-18000 rub. Travel time is about 8 hours. Note that there are more types of train between the two capitals than between any other two cities in Russia. Apart from ordinary trains, there are rapid trains (ЭР-200 and The Nevsky Express) that run by day only and cover the 650 km 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 newer, fake-Czarist-era Nikolaevsky Express, complete with attendants in 19-century uniforms. 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.
Moscow-Saint Petersburg Express Train takes 5 hours of travel and costs 1100 rubles. Trains are only slightly air conditioned (average temperature inside is about 80 degrees farenheit). No one in the Moscow train station speaks any 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. Also, note that all signage inside the train station is in Russian only, so finding your correct platform can be challenging. The dining car of the express train is nicely appointed with real table linens, and an impressive menu and wine list, but is 3 to 4 times more expensive than eating in the city before and after you travel.
When going through the countryside in the South of the country or in Siberia locals will sell food and liquor at pretty reasonable prices. Often babushkas will even be selling pre-made meals. Frequently, traders will walk through the traincars between stops and sell everything from crockery to clothes to Lay's chips.
Tickets can be bought at the train station, at travel agencies and online on Russian railways website - if you chose the latter option, you will have to pick up the actual ticket at the staion. Most stations have a large room called a KASsovyi Zal 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 R140 is a small premium to pay for this service).
The commuter trains are mostly hard-seat train cars. You don't get a designated seat number - you just find space on a bench. These trains have a notorious reputation for being overcrowded, though this has declined somewhat. The trains make very frequent stops and are rather slow. For example, a 200 km trip to Vladimir takes about 3 1/2 hours. Also, they don't have toilets.
Tickets for commuter trains are sold in a separate room from the long-distance trains, and are sometimes sold from stalls located outside.
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 reasonably comfortable. The trains travel to their destination directly and are thus considerably faster.
Note that all long-dictanse trains in Russia run on Moscow time (which may be up to 9 hours off local time in the Far East).
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 thus bus is the only option besides a car.
The Russian word for bus station is Avtovokzal (Ahv-tuh-vuhg-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.
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 had an abominable reputation in the 90s due to uncertain safety records, unreliable timetables, terrible service, uncomfortable airplanes, and substandard airports. Substantial improvements have been made, however. Plane travel in Russia is unlikely to be the highlight of your trip but it has become tolerable.
Other major airlines include: KrasAir  and UTair . Many of these airlines (apart from Transaero, which started as an independent operation) were formed out of the onetime-Aeroflot operation at their home city from Soviet times when the old Aeroflot was broken up.
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.
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 comprised of 35 National Parks and 100 Zapovedniki (nature reserves) covering a total land mass larger than Germany. Provided your paperwork is in order, you may visit these areas independently. For those wishing for guidance, there are travel agencies specializing in ecotourism in Russia such as:
Russian is the official language, so wherever you go in Russia, you'll find someone who speaks it. English is becoming a requirement in the business world, and younger people especially will often know enough to communicate, but by no means is English universally understood and spoken. In upscale hotels almost the entire staff has a working knowledge of foreign languages (including English).
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 "restaurant") so you have a chance to recognize street names, labels and the like.
Russia has hundreds of languages and supports most of them, sending linguists to document them and invent (mostly - in 1920-1960) writing systems for them (all Cyrillic, of course) and making them local official languages. The south border is lined with Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic; the north with Finnic and Samoyed. The southwest corner has a variety of Caucasian languages; the northeast has the few Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages.
Checks Forget about travelers' checks (only some banks, such as Sberbank, will cash even American Express), 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).
Rubles only All payments in Russia are officially made in rubles. However, in many shops catering to tourists as well as in companies selling major items (such as cars, real estate and computers) you may find the prices indicated in USD or Euro (for legal reasons called "conditional units"/"abstract units" - "у.е.", which stands for "уСЛОВные едиНИцы"). This became common after the collapse of the USSR. Even for these shops, however, you can pay only in rubles, and exchange rate can be both an official rate set by Central Bank, and arbitrary which is usually higher - posted in small font, if at all.
"У.е." Some private vendors, such as kiosk sellers, guides and taxis may accept payment in dollars or in rubles - unofficially and giving no receipt. Price may become higher in some cases, and nearly the same in the others.
It's very easy to find currency exchange offices (called bureaus in Saint Petersburg) throughout Russia. Banks and small currency exchange bureaus offer very good rates; hotels and casinos are generally expensive and thus not recommended. You need to show your passport at banks.
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 >$1000 / >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 1.0 rouble 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 local currency to roubles at --it displays exchange rates for cash in Moscow for every currency exchanged in Russia.
You will have 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 / bank machines also called bankomats are common and convenient in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Other large cities also have them but many times there are restrictions on foreign cards. They usually offer services in multiple languages, and some give out U.S. dollars or local currency. In smaller towns and villages they are often difficult to find or non-existent. Russian ATMs will often limits withdrawals to about USD$100 per day. Those in larger cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg to 16,000 rubles a day ($640). Big hotels are good places to find them.
In Moscow and Saint Petersburg more and more shops, restaurants, and services take credit cards. Visa/MasterCard are more accepted than American Express; Discover, Diners Club and other cards are rarely accepted. Most upscale establishments will accept credit cards, but beyond these it is pure chance.
Museums and sightseeing places take only cash, no credit cards. Have plenty of cash on hand each day to cover entrance fees, photographic fees (museums charge a fee for cameras and video recorders), tours, souvenirs, meals and transportation.
Train Stations outside of major cities only accept rubles also. In Moscow and St Petersburg you can pay by card at some ticket counters - look out for the Visa/Master Card stickers on the windows. The ATM machines at the train station are often out of cash, so obtain your rubles in the city (where ATM's appear on practically every corner) before you go to the train station.
Russian cuisine is not one of the world's most varied cuisines. Often bland, and consisting of highly salted and pickled products, the central part of Russian cuisine centers on bread. 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 very reasonable. Russian meat soups and meat pies are 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 is available everywhere food is served.
Stylish cafes serving cappuccino, expresso, 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).
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). Beer in Russia is cheap and the varieties are endless of both Russian and international brands. It is found for sale (warm) at any street vendor in the center of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the center) from about 13 Rubles (about 50 US cents) to 60 Rubles (about 2 US Dollars) Popular local brands are Baltika, Stary Melnik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tinkoff and many others.
Mixed alcoholic beverages as well as beers at nightclubs are extremely expensive and are served without ice, with the mix (for example, coke) and alcohol charged for separately. It is advisable to drink your heart out beforehand, as drinking in public is legal.
Wines from Georgia and Moldova are quite popular (although all products from Georgia are illegal 2005). In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines--generally at a high price. Please note that Russians prefer sweet wine as opposed to dry. French Chablis is widely available at restaurants and is of good quality. The Chablis runs about 240 rubles per glass ($8 USD currently). All white wines are served room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.
Soviet champagne is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price, the quality is on the level of cheap European sparkling wines. If you specify that you want your champagne "sukhoe" (dry) or brut, the champagne is surprisingly drinkable and on the same level as a Vueve Clicquot.
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 person you trust. For 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.
A new phenomenon has been the development of "mini-hotels" in large Russian cities which are providing clean modern rooms with private baths at far lower costs than conventional large hotels, approximately $125 versus well over $250. These small hotels are located within existing apartment buildings and may consist of one, two or more floors located a story or two above street level and often include breakfast. Saint Petersburg has quite a few with more opening all of the time and some are appearing in Moscow.
Russia has a long-standing tradition in high-quality education for all citizens. It probably has also one of the best mass-eduction systems in the world producing a literacy rate (98%) exceeding most Western European countries.
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 Universityand 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 $2000 to $8000 per year, with other costs (room & board, books, etc.) ranging from $1500 to $5000 per year, depending on location and spending habits.
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 difficult transition from communism to democracy, Russia did experience a rise in criminal activity during the 1990's. 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 Northern European cities. The "Russian Mafia" make for fun movies, but are absolutely not a threat to tourists—at best they and their girlfriends are a tourist attraction themselves, as they often dine in foreigner-friendly establishments. Foreigners are disproportionately targeted by pickpockets; foreigners of a non-white complexion may also be more likely to be harassed by street youths or corrupt officials. But provided you take sensible precautions, nothing bad should happen to you. Keep in mind that the majority of foreigners who do "find" trouble do so while drunk.
Note that everyone in Russia must carry state-issued identification papers; foreigners should carry their passport and visa at all times and present it to police officers if asked. Be sure to keep a photocopy in a secure location just in case. If a police officer stops you, they normally salute you and ask for your passport (listen for words that sound like 'paspart' for a passport request and/or 'veeza' if asked for a visa) and papers (generally in Russian). Hand these to them, they will look at it, hand it back and salute you. This can be an odd and frightening experience on the train into Russia in the middle of the night.
It is sadly a common practice for the police to claim that there are problems with your documentation (passport, immigrations card and residence registration), and to demand a fine (bribe). You have two options: politely, friendly, and firmly explain that actually everything is fine, there is no problem with your documents, and you are willing to go to the police station to clear things up; or give in and fork over the bribe they are demanding. The first option is difficult without some Russian proficiency (and solid nerves), but the police in question will probably back off. The second option works, but it also encourages the corrupt to continue harassing travelers. In tight situations, a 300 ruble bribe is really the most you should give in metropolitan areas.
Keep your political opinions for yourself. Ask as many questions you like, but avoid making statements or comments about its past and current political situation. Russia has a brutal past and most Russians are tired of hearing how bad the Soviet Union was from western people. They would know much better than you ever could. Also avoid to criticize the war in Chechnya. Even though horrific things have happened there, almost all Russians supports Putin and people mean that Chechnya was, is and will always be Russian.
Russian driving is wild. 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. If you are thinking of driving yourself, bear in mind that the Russian traffic police is the most notoriously corrupt institution in the country and that if you fail to stop when waved, they have the authority to open fire on your car!
When buying items, it is best to keep your money folded backwards with small bills on the outside and larger on the inside, and to only bring out your cash when actually handing it over. It's also best to separate larger sums from smaller ones and keep the former hidden on your person.
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 (like fighting between themselves), bumping into you to pick you pockets, or simply swarming a surprised traveler and running their hands through every possible hiding place on your person. In such a situation, don't show 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.
Lastly, Russians, having lived under the pressure of a police state for the last 100 years, 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.
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 a large supply of quality western medications.
You are recommended to buy only bottled water in Russia, readily available in any hotel's shop or in neighborhood stores. In Saint Petersburg you should not brush your teeth with the tap water, nor open your mouth during showers.
Quality of tap water varies dramatically around the country, and even may be very different within one city. Ask your trusted locals whether they recommend drinking tap water. If you can't buy bottled water, boil water before drinking. But normally price should not be an obstacle: bottled water costs only about 20-30 rubles ($0.8-$1.1 USD) for 2 liters.
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 (could be very dangerous). Buy only 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.
Some kiosks could sell meals of bad quality. If you are not confident, just throw it away. Although most of them are quite good, take note of who buys and what they buy. That could help to make a good choice.
Smile at a Russian in the street and most likely they will not respond in kind. Smiling in Russia is traditionally reserved for friends; smile at a stranger and they will either think you're making fun of them and there's something wrong with their clothes or hairdo, or that you must be an idiot. On the other hand, an automatic Western smile is widely regarded as insincere, as in "You don't really mean it". While that tradition is slowly changing as Russia is becoming more Westernized, smiling is still very rare in customer service as 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.
Women in ethnic Russian areas are traditionally treated with utmost respect. 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 sexual harassment or being condescending to the weaker sex. Male travellers should understand that this is exactly the sort of behavior that most Russian girls and women will expect from them, too.
While tipping traditionally is frowned upon in Russia (many will probably tell you otherwise), it is a recent phenomenon, emerging after the fall of communism, and few waiters think that it's up to the guest to decide how much he or she wants to tip. 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, which is the customary tip in Russia - it will be interpreted as a tip. If the service was particularly bad and you want to make a point, be persistent in your demands to get your change back.