Difference between revisions of "Russia"
Revision as of 18:03, 31 October 2011
Russia, (Russian: Росси́я, rah-SEE-uh) — officially known as the Russian Federation — is the world's largest country, spanning Eastern Europe, and northern Asia, sharing land borders with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine to the west , Georgia, Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the southwest, and Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, North Korea to the east and much of the south.
Here is a representative sample of nine Russian cities with their Anglicized and Russian Cyrillic names:
Russia is the largest country in the world by far; spanning nine 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, water). Mount Elbrus (Gora El'brus), at 5,633 m, is Europe's, and Russia's, tallest peak.
Russia has both extensive coastlines bordering the Arctic Ocean and Northwest Pacific, as well as smaller coastlines on the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. Russia is bordered by Norway and Finland to the northwest, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine to the west, Georgia and Azerbaijan to the southwest, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia to the south, Japan (via strait) and North Korea to the southeast. The American state of Alaska lies opposite the easternmost point of Russia across the Bering Strait.
An Imperial Power
Although Russia is a very old country founded during the Middle Ages, it was not considered part of mainstream Europe until the reign of Tsar Peter the Great who ruled until 1725. He was a Europhile with an empathy towards Western culture and the first Tsar to visit 'Europe proper'. There is a story that while visiting Greenwich Palace in England, he was told that he looked as though he had been dragged through a hedge backwards. His reply was that he had, and in a wheelbarrow!
The Russian Empire was established in 1721, and the three hundred-year chronicle of the Romanovs, who had been in power since 1613, came to fruition. Peter the Great was one of Russia's most charismatic and forceful leaders, and he built the foundations of a new political culture. Trying to westernize the nation, he moved the capital from the old, quasi-medieval Asiatic city of Moscow to the new Europeanesque city of Saint Petersburg, where it would remain until 1918. The Russian Empire reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many colorful and enlightened figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. The sharp divide between the rulers and the ruled became apparent to all observers in the 19th century, and the botched attempts by the establishment to amend this ended in failure. Russia was technologically, politically and culturally far behind Europe; this would have tragic results for Tsar Nicholas II and his family; the Romanov dynasty, the Russian Empire and, not least, the people of Russia. In 1917, the empire and the monarchy fell.
Headquarters of Communism
World War I strained Imperial Russia's governmental and social institutions to the breaking point, allowing a revolution to overthrow an unpopular government and form a socialist, one-party rule, resulting in a brutal civil war lasting until late 1920. After Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle ensued, with Josef Stalin emerging as the new leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin's brutal rule (1928-53) introduced an economic system called "socialism in one country" that rapidly industrialised the country while completely abandoning many of the idealistic collectivist principals which the revolutionaries of October 1917 had fought for. World War II, from a Soviet perspective, between June 1941 and May 1945, added to the woes of the Soviet peoples and led to the deaths of 25-30 million citizens. Their alliance with the Western nations in the fight against, and eventual defeat of, Nazism was a tremendous and courageous achievement, and their capture of Berlin their greatest moment in that War.
After Stalin's death in 1953, the Soviet economy continued to grow strongly under Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955) and Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964), focusing more resources in production of consumer goods. The Soviet Union eventually reached its political, military, and economic peak during the closing years of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), but subsequent stagnation caused a crisis that would continue until General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) introduced glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to modernize the political system. His initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the empire collapsed into 15 separate independent countries.
A Nascent Democracy
Since then, Russia has recently emerged from the Soviet Union, and following the break up of the USSR, a storm of problems had followed. The newly formed Russian Federation was firstly headed by Boris Yelstin, who fought for power with the old Soviet elite and transferred their control over the country through the oligarchical apparatus. This government proved to be unstable, and soon after, a wave of economic hardship had followed, rendering Russia's economy in ruins. During this time, Russian organized crime and its relationship with the now clearly corrupt government were evident in the inept, incompetent Yeltsin's administration, even as political reforms were taking place. Coincidentally, Yeltsin once labelled Russia as the "biggest mafia state in the world". Subsequently, Russia was at war with Chechen separatists, which had devastating consequences for the already weak Russian economy. Widespread corruption, poverty, and large-scale political and social problems, eventually made Yeltsin resign, and Vladimir Putin replaced him as president.
Since 2000, Things have finally worked out under Putin's rule; the economy has bounced back from crisis, inflation has dropped down from the triple digits into single units, poverty has been cut down, the country is now among one of the wealthiest in the world, and Russia has finally re-emerged as a regional economic, political and military superpower. To this date, the excellent economic performance has often been called the "Russian Miracle."
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Relations with Georgia remain frosty, largely over the territory of South Ossetia, which lead Russia to lose over 0.02% of it's territory. Over the past few years, the two countries have fought many political clashes, including one major armed conflict. In response, Russia has closed it's border with the neighboring state, and refuses to re-establish diplomatic relations with Georgia to this date.
Today, the modern Russia still has to fully recover from the doldrums that have hit the country in recent years, with inflation driving up prices, an increasingly unstoppable burden to combat pervasive corruption, an under-competitive political system, conflict in the North Caucasus, a demographic crisis, and decreasing economic competition. Nonetheless, the Russians have got a high standard of living, a factor that is among one of the world's highest.
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 is a cold country, but there is always shades in the grey. The contrast of tundra's permafrost, which occupies 65% of Russian land and exotic Black sea coast has in between the continental climate, which is the most inhabited zone of European Russia, southern regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Its summers are always warm with a good portion of hot days enabling outdoor swimming in many of rivers, lakes and the seas.
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 Russian Federation:
Russian system of measurement is the same as European one. Expect to encounter Centigrades, kilometers, kilogrammes, litres and so on. The archaic units for distance are versta and vershok, for weight — pud.
Citizens of most non-CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries must obtain a visa prior to arriving in Russia. Citizens of following countries do not need a visa: Argentina (90 days), Bosnia and Herzegovina (90 days), Brazil (90 days), Chile (90 days), Colombia (90 days), Croatia (3 months, invitation required), Cuba (30 days), Hong Kong (14 days), Israel (90 days), Macedonia (90 days), Montenegro (90 days), Nicaragua (90 days), Peru (90 days), Serbia (30 days, only biometric passports), Thailand (30 days), Turkey (30 days), Venezuela (90 days).
Persons transiting through the Moscow Sheremetyevo , Moscow Domodedovo, and Yekaterinburg Koltsovo airports are not obligated to obtain a transit visa, regardless of nationality, if they remain in the airport for no more than 24 hours unless in transit to/from Belarus and Kazakhstan and have confirmed tickets to their final destination. Keep in mind that travellers passing through St. Petersburg Pulkovo airport must have transit visas, regardless of length of stay. Visas can, in some cases, also be obtained from the consular officer on duty located at the airports.
Obtaining a Russian visa is almost as costly, time-consuming, and often frustrating process as is an EU or US visa. 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. For citizens of EU-Schengen countries, this will cost €35 and take three days (or even the next day), instead of the usual 4-10 days. 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.
Recently, The Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated that he will be introducing the "Visa-Free" regime for citizens of all nationals because of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by Russia. The regime's duration will be synchronized with the duration of the tournament.
There are number of ways to get a Russian visa, but first of all, you will need an official invitation. The type of visa you receive (see below) depends on the type of invitation that has been issued to you.
The tourist invitation (also called reservation confirmation) is a letter of confirmation of booking and pre-payment of your accommodation and travel arrangements in Russia. You will also need a tourist voucher. These two documents can be obtained from your tour operator if you book a package tour, a government approved hotel in Russia, an online hotel booking service or through a 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 a consular reference can issue the confirmations valid for visa purposes.
Using a local Visa Service to obtain a Russian visa may 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 a lot of time and frustration.
Do not try to book one night in a hotel and get a visa for 30 days with the paper received from the hotel as that will not work. Hotels issue invitations only for the length of time you are a guest with them, and the visa will be issued to match the dates of the invitation. However, some travel agencies will issue a confirmation for a fee, without actually collecting the accommodation prepayment. The legality of such actions are in question and there is a bit of controversy about this. The price for this service is usually $30 US, but since hotels tend charge the same amount, it makes sense to obtain the travel voucher and tourist invitation/reservation confirmation directly from the hotel at which you will be staying.
Travelers who plan to stay in more than one hotel would be best advised to seek an invitation through a travel agency rather than a hotel directly to ensure that the invitation will cover the entire length of your stay.
Russian embassies and consulates are inconsistent and unreliable with respect to visas. For example, depending on the embassy, they may or may not issue visas by mail or require you to go in person and may not accept faxed/e-mailed copies of the invitation in lieu of the original. Check with the embassy in before hand.
If you have friends or relatives in Russia, you could ask them to sponsor you for a private/homestay visa. They would need to seek an invitation through their local Passport and Visa Division of the Federal Migration Service (formerly OVIR). The problem with these invitations is their tendency to take a 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.
A business visa requires an entirely different type of invitation. Business invitations are issued by the government and many Russian consulates require the original hard copy (though some will accept a faxed copy so check with the consulate before applying). Obtaining a business invitation is another time consuming and costly process. Any registered company in Russia can apply for a business invitation for a foreign national at the visa and passport office in Russia. It normally takes 4 to 6 weeks to receive one. Some travel agencies in Russia can help with obtaining a business invitation. Business visas are a lot more flexible than tourist visas as they are usually valid for multiple entries and last for up to 12 months.
Business visas have their own particular nuances about how long the visa holder may stay in Russia. Following the introduction of new rules on October 17, 2007, a 12-month Russian business visa (and some other types as well) will entitle the holder to spend only 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. 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. (these rules are obviously copied from Schengen rules, applied for Russians who want to visit Schengen countries)
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 TELEX to the Embassy or Consulate of Russia overseas, requesting the visa be issued to a particular foreigner or group of foreigners. Such TELEW messages are used instead of an invitation. This is normally the way to go if you are invited by the government.
Receiving the Visa
Once you have an invitation you can apply for a visa. The standard price charged by the Russian consulate for a visa is $100 for most countries ($140 for United States citizens), plus (in some countries) $20 for returning your passport via FedEx (tip: you can avoid the $20 mailing fee if you bring a self-addressed FedEx envelope). 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 a valid passport. At some Russian border crossings (usually depending on the bordering country) travelers will need to carry two money orders for $100/$140 and $20, as some Russian Consulates do not accept credit cards or personal checks. At other crossings, you will need a credit/debit card because the Russian consulates in these countries accept no money orders, cash or cheques. At some crossings you will need to send all of these to any Russian consulate and wait for few weeks. Some crossings will require that you visit the consulate yourself to submit your application, wait for 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). Make sure to check your local Russian consulate's web site. Be prepared for each of these potential payment methods and find out information about the expected payment methods at all borders that you intend to cross.
Tourist, homestay, and transit visas are issued for one or two entries, and tourist and homestay visas are limited to a visit of 30 days. Transit visas are typically for one to ten days. Other visa categories can be issued for more than two entries as required.
Once you have a visa in hand, check all the dates and information for errors and make sure your name and passport number are correct. It's much easier to correct mistakes before you travel than after you arrive!
Arrival, customs, and registration
Non-Russian citizens, upon arrival in Russia, will be expected to fill in two copies of the migration card, which is sometimes available only in Cyrillic characters (translations into English and German are available on Lufthansa and Aeroflot). Passport control officers will tear off one half of the migration card and leave you with the other half, and it should be stamped. Keep track of this card as you will need it to register your visa and for your departure from Russia. Not being able to present a migration card when leaving Russia can result in fines and can potentially result in a wait of several days while the authorities decide what to do with you.
Upon entry the passport control officer will also note on your migration card how long you are permitted to remain in Russia. It may not be the same as the validity period of your visa. For example, if you have a 30-day visa but cannot show that you have the means or sponsorship to remain for the full 30 days, passport control may mark an earlier departure date on your migration card. The date that is marked is the day that counts.
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 those items 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.
Your stay at each place where you arrive must be registered within 7 business days (as of 25 March 2011) of arriving. Your host (not necessarily the one who issued the invitation) is responsible for registering you. Corrupt policemen seeking bribes tend to interpret the law as if you yourself had to register within 7 business days of arriving in the country and each new city; arguing with them may take a lot of time and nerve. If you have an active itinerary and are not staying in any one place for seven days, it is therefore recommended that you register at least once in the first city you visit. If you are staying in a hotel, sanatorium, etc., they normally take care of the registration.
This can be viewed by tourists as a very dismal law, but travelers must understand that Russia experiences a very high level of illegal immigration (generally from Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, as well as parts of North Korea, and northern areas of China). Debates continue as to how to go about controlling workforce migration from these regions, but registration remains the current means utilized by Russian authorities. There is no exemption from this law (except that, for Ukrainians, the term is 30 days), so regardless of your nationality you will be required to register.
Staying in Russia
Russian law doesn't require you to carry your passport and registration card with you, but if you fail to provide a valid ID to a police officer upon request they have a right to hold you for up to 3 h for "identification purposes." These random passport checks are not common but still carry your passport with you at all times. This generally applies to more populated areas like Moscow due to the higher immigration influx larger cities; in other rural and less populated urban areas, passport checks occur quite rarely. It is also good to have a copy of your passport, visa, migration card and the registration form in case you happen to come across a dishonest/corrupt police officer. It's much harder to ransom a copy of a passport than it is the original, and you can always make another copy. Just remember that a photocopy of your passport is not recognized as a valid ID by Russian law, so having a copy may not always help.
Keep in mind that if you have no documents you can be held for up to 3 h but not arrested. If the worst should happen and you are detained by police officers, there is no circumstance that should lead to you being put behind bars and/or deprived of your belongings (such as mobile phone or any other): 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 an ID is not considered a crime by Russian law and there is no penalty for such an infraction. No physical force can be applied to you while being detained unless you apply it first. If you happen to be stopped, just remember to be confident and remember that it is prohibited by law for a police officer to shout at you. Make no mistake: Russia is not a military country, and passport checks are around primarily to identify illegal immigration from neighboring countries. Western-looking, Caucasian people are very rarely asked on the street for ID.
One more useful tip to remember is that most Russian police officers speak no English at all, so don't assume the worst by immediately showing them official documents. Attempting to receive a bribe from a tourist works only if you feel threatened or nervous. In most cases, they will just wish you a farewell.
Departure from Russia
Russian law is very strict about the amount of time one can stay in Russia on a visa. You may never arrive before the entry date on your visa (you can always arrive later), and you may not depart after the exit date on your visa (likewise, you can always leave earlier) because your visa is both an entry and exit visa. Normally, the exit visa is included in an entry visa for tourists and business so long as the visa is valid. Other classes require a separate exit visa and such can take up to three weeks to process.
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 against the payment of a fine at the border if you overstayed for fewer than 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 especially careful if your flight or train leaves after midnight, because the border guards will not let you depart if you're leaving even 10 min after your visa expires! For example, several travelers have had problems when they've boarded a Helsinki-bound train on their day their visa expires, but their train does not cross the Finnish border until after midnight. You must present your passport, visa, and migration card at the border in order to depart. If you lost your migration card, you may be able to get by with just paying a nominal fine. If you lost your passport, your embassy can replace that for you (maybe not instantly), and 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 process, but it is not sufficient to let you depart.
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.
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.
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. US non-stop flights from the United States to Russia are offered by Singapore (from Houston to Moscow, Sheremetyevo), 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). There are also non-stop services offered from Toronto and Montreal, Canada to Moscow, Domodedovo operated by Transaero. 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 not alone. 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. Sheremetyevo is an old airport built for Summer Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and hasn't experienced any renewal so far. Things are to change with the two new terminals which are now operational. Domodedovo is the newest airport: it's a high-class modern airport, so you'd be better off choosing flights bound for it. Vnukovo is a smaller airport and is generally operated by low-cost airlines. 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:
Cheaper ways to get to Moscow from the Middle East, India, South-East Asia and Australia:
From/via United Arab Emirates
Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO) has different terminals for international and domestic flights. They are located one in front of the other just with the runway in-between, so the effective distance between them is about 5 miles, because you have to take the roundabout road. Shuttle and regular busses between terminals are available for 50 rubles, but finding and embarking one may be challenging for a non-Russian speaker. Usual fixed taxi fee is about 800 rubles, but beware that a taxi driver can bargain up to 5 times more if he smells that you are a first-timer and might have no knowledge about the things. Make no mistake, domestic terminal is even older than the international one, it was built in 1960s, and you might find yourself in a place you've probably never seen in your life before. This is a kind of terminal that your grandparents used to experience when they were of your age. So, the bottom line is that you'd be better off doing your best to avoid Sheremetyevo airport by all means if you are planning a transfer trip and take flights that operate from Domodedovo airport, where both international and domestic terminals are modern ones and located under the same roof.
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, Vilnius, Berlin, Budapest, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Bucharest and Sofia are all possible departure points with daily services to Russia. There is also service from Moscow to all of the Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, & Uzbekistan) at least 2-3 times per week and is rather long (3.5-5 days). There is service from Moscow to Baku, Azerbaijan (3 days); however, the Azerbaijan-Russia border is only open to CIS passport holders. 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.
There are around 2 hours wait at border stations between European (except Finland) and ex-Soviet countries because of bogie exchange (ex-Soviet railways have wider gauge than European). Even at border between Russia and CIS country count with several hour stay, because of tedious and thorough custom control. The stay is assumed in train timetable.
For details on 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 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, 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.
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. 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 zhehlyehznohdohROHZHny vohgZAHL) have separate areas for selling tickets for these types.
Transportation of bicycle
Transportation of a bicycle in a carriage is permissble for one ticket under condition of being compactly folded/dismantled and clean. Usually the bike is taken off its wheels and pedals, 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 should be more compact.
Every car has its own conductor (provodnik or provodnitsa), which check your tickets at your boarding, provides you bedding, sells you tea or snacks and lend you a mug and spoon for about 10 rubles. Do not afraid, if the conductor takes your tickets, he gives you back at your destination station. At corridor you 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 firmennyy (фирменный) and given a proper brand. The most distinguished trains use their special liveries.
Because virtually all long-distance trains are overnight, the long-distance tickets are bound to specified train. At Russian counter 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 Poezda.net  or Russian Railways e-shop  (only in Russian too).
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 R140 is a small premium to pay for this service.
Alternatively you can buy an e-ticket online on Russian Railways website . However it's only in Russian. You should take the printed e-ticket at station counter before boarding and pick up a regular ticket.
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. 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 (Sapsan) 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 2400 rubles. Trains are only slightly air conditioned. 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.
Trains stop at stations for long time, about 15-20 minutes. Check the timetable placed on door at the end of corridor. During stop you can buy various meals and drinks at platform from locals for pretty reasonable prices. Frequently, traders will walk through the cars between stops and sell everything from crockery to clothes to Lay's chips.
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 h 30 min . 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-distance 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-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 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 stop you at 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 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 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.
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.
In March 2009, Rosaviation (federal aviation regulator) has published stats on average delays of departure in 2008, broken down by domestic airline:
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, so wherever you go in Russia, you'll find someone who speaks it. You are in no doubt that Russians are proud of their culturally diverse language. The language is a member of the Slavic language family, with the minor exception being that it is further sub-classified into the East Slavic family, thus being closely related to Ukrainian and Belarusian. Although related to other Slavic languages such as Bulgarian, Croatian, 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. However, it is less difficult to learn than its other language neighbors, Ukrainian and Belarusian. 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 public signs.
Many English speakers have found the Russian language quite hard going, but nonetheless, Russian like English shares ancestral Indo-Europen root language, and the script uses a wide range of letters found in English, but a majority of those letters are pronounced differently. 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 (like Moscow or St. Petersburg) know enough English to communicate, but outside of that English is almost nonexistent even in the tourism business, so you should NEVER go somewhere even the slightest remote without either fluent Russian or a competent guide.
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, except Karelian) and making them local co-official languages. The southern border is lined with Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic; the northern with Finnic and Samoyed. The southwest corner has a variety of Caucasian languages; the northeast has the few Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages. Although it must not be forgotten that Russian is spoken everywhere and will suffice to you anywhere
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 the modern version and Russian itself.
There are several cultural and educational centers of German, French, English, Japanese and other foreign languages across the Russian Federation. French centers belong to Alliance Francaise  and are located in Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Perm, Rostov-on-the-Don, Samara, Saratov, Tolyatti, Vladivostok. German is taught at Sprachlernzentern in Barnaul, Yaroslavl, Yekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Samara, Sergiev Posad, Tolyatti, Tomsk, Vladimir, Volgograd, Volzhsky. IELTS schools are numerous and one can find them in all big and small cities, the number of accredited exams centers, however is shorter but enough. The official centers of Japanese language include Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Nizhny Novgorod, Saint Petersburg, Moscow.
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 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 grizzlies 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 issue jeeps 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 will host the next 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:
The official currency of Russia is the ruble (рубль) (RUB), divided into 100 kopeks (копеек), 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 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000, and 5000 ruble values. The 5 ruble note is not issued anymore and is very rare in circulation. The 1 and 5 kopek coins are of little use, as their value is low; in many stores prices are rounded up to the nearest 10 kopeks and many people refuse to accept these coins. As of April 15, 2009, one US dollar is equal to 33.39 rubles and one euro is equal to 44.45 rubles.
All banknotes have special marks (dots and lines in relief) to aid the blind in distinguishing values.
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).
Sberbank will cash American Express without comission. In touristy areas and larger cities ATMs are in abundance.
Rubles only: All payments in Russia are officially made in rubles. 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 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 >$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 ruble differece, 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 rubles 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 limit withdrawals to about USD$1,000 per day. 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 accept only 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.
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 centers.
There is 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 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 are available everywhere food is served.
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).
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 at any street vendor (warm) or stall (varies) in the center of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the center) from about 17 rubles (about 50 US cents) to 130 rubles for a 0.5l bottle or can. "Small" bottles and cans (0.33l and around) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 liters 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 say 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 20-30 rubles (yes, same or even more expensive than an average local beer in a same shop) and can cost up to 60 rubles or more in the Moscow center for a 0.5l plastic bottle or 0.33l can.
Street vendors usually operate mainly in tourist- and local-frequented areas, and many of them (especially those who walk around without a stall) are working without a license, usually paying some kind of a bribe to local police. Their beer, however, is usually OK, as it was just bought in a nearby shop. In the less weekend-oriented locations, large booths ("lar'ki" or "palatki", singular: "laryok" ("stall") or "palatka" (literally, "tent")) can be found everywhere, especially near metro stations and bus stops. They sell soft drinks, beer, and "cocktails" (basically a cheap soft drink mixed with alcohol, bad hangover is guaranteed from the cheaper ones) and their prices, while still not high, are often 20-40% more than those in supermarkets. The chain supermarkets (excluding some "elite" ones) 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.
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. All white wines are served room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.
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 (dry) varieties. 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 (200-700 rubles for a bottle in the supermarket depending on variety); Tsimlyanskoe (150-250 rubles) is also popular. The quality of the cheapest ones (from 85-120 rubles, depending on where you buy) varies, you can buy if you do want to have a try while not paying much, but, for returning 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.
Medovukha (медовуха) aka mead, the ancient drink brewed from many a century ago by Europeans were also wide-spread among Russians. It has 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 $60 vs. well over $150. 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 $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 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.
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, and it has been proven that this drug can knock you unconscious, give you amnesia, and can even kill you. 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 are 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 are well-trained and are extremely professional in their jobs. Although being historically very inadequate since the Soviet Union' breakup, the government has fought police corruption fiercely with a success. Policemen should not dare to bribe anyone, as they themselves will end up being fined huge amounts. While there is an ongoing effort to shape up the police force initiated by the government, some policemen still remain underpaid, and therefore corrupt.
If you intend to take a stroll during the night, have someone to accompany you — going alone can only make you a target for corrupt officials and maybe criminals.
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 put it on hold until the situation in the region improves.
Driving by the majority of Russians is routinely reckless, and has claimed more than 35,000 lives each year. Reckless Driving habits, the lack of proper training, and a mixture of very old to old model cars all what contributes to a high death rate on roads. 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. Most drivers are not very well trained and forged their licenses to avoid problems with the police. More importantly, the rapidly expanding economy has lead to an increase in traffic density. Driving in the tunnels are perhaps even more dangerous than driving on the roads — the tunnels are improperly built as a result of underinvestment, and they claim even more causalities than on the roads.
When driving you must not be under the influence of alcohol. Russians have a zero tolerance to this, and the penalty is about two years imprisonment. If you are pulled over by the GAI (Russian Traffic Police), don't worry — they will simply check your papers. By law, the GAI should not bribe you — if that happens, you are entitled to report it to the nearest police station. Under no circumstances try to run away from them — they will shoot your vehicle by force.
Russia is among one of the world's most corrupt countries. If you are unsure, the police force, and the traffic police are the most corrupt institutions in the entire country. Russians, being accustomed to a police state through out most of their history, 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.
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 are also more likely to be harassed by street youths or corrupt officials. But if you take sensible precautions, nothing bad should happen to you. Keep in mind that the majority of foreigners who do "find" problems do so while drunk.
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.
Racism exists in Russia just like in any other former Soviet republic. In general, discrimination and racism are problematic, but it usually doesn't affect travelers on a very large scale. While the racial issues are starting to decrease in recent years due to increased security and better police training, they still exist. It may present problems to people with non-Slavic/Northern European appearance, including people from the Caucasus and people of African, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent. A lot of these crimes are committed by the neo-Nazi skinheads in Russia, and many of them are armed with weapons. Moscow, St. Petersburg and Voronezh have all seen violent attacks. Standing up and fighting against them is certainly the best idea, as allowing yourself to get beat down can lead to certain death; of course, fighting ability and spirit are required in such an event. Nontheless, blending in with a particular group may help you stay out of their way, and showing confidence in the face of adversity is the best way to deal with bullies.
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. You may 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.
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.
However, it has been known that getting out a mobile phone and threatening to call your embassy can work, and police may well back off at this. Then again, you choice will probably depend on how brave you are feeling at the time.
When buying items, it is best to keep your money folded backwards with small bills on the outside and larger on the inside and bring out your cash only when actually handing it over. Also, separate larger sums from smaller ones and keep the former hidden on your person.
Medical facilities in general vary, despite being well-above western standards. A large 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, cold, and have neglected technology.
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.
Quality of tap water varies dramatically around the country, and even may be very different within one city. Especially 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. But normally price for bottled water should not be an obstacle: bottled water costs only about 20-30 rubles ($0.8-$1.1 USD) for 2 liters, but watch out for scam bottled tap water.
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). 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.
Some kiosks may sell bad quality meals. If you are unsure, just throw it away. Although most of them are quite good, take note of who buys and what they buy. That could help you make a good choice.
The country's HIV prevalence is steadily rising, mainly for sex workers, young adults and drug users. Be Safe.
Russians are reserved and well-mannered people.
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. Furthermore, 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. 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.
Women in the entire CIS/USSR area are traditionally treated with utmost 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 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.
Most importantly, do not give the locals an "OK" sign. This is considered very rude, and Russians may take it as a big insult. If you are unsure what it is, then you are safe. Saying "OK" is ok.
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 relations with the Georgians. Talking about this subject can lead to hostility and maybe even fierce debates. Tense relations between the two countries have lead to many conflicts, most notably the 2008 South Ossetia war. Antipathy towards Georgians is still high.
Likewise, keep your political opinions to yourself. Ask as many questions you like, but avoid making statements or comments about its past and current political situation. Russia and the Soviet Union had an often violent history and most Russian people are tired of hearing "how bad the Soviet Union was" from western people. They lived it, are proud of both its triumphs and tragedies, and they probably know much more about it than you. Also avoid criticising the conflict in Chechnya. Even though horrific things have happened there, most Russians support Putin and people will say that Chechnya was, is, and will always be Russian.