Difference between revisions of "Russia"
Revision as of 13:32, 21 March 2007
Russia (Russian Росси́я, transliteration Rossiya) - more fully known as the Russian Federation (Russian Росси́йская Федера́ция, transliteration Rossiyskaya Federatsiya) - is a vast country in Eastern Europe and northern Asia. Russia has both extensive Arctic Ocean and North Pacific Ocean coastlines, as well as smaller coastlines on the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. Russia is bordered by Norway and Finland to the northwest, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine to the west, Georgia and Azerbaijan to the southwest, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia to the south, and China and North Korea to the southeast. The American state of Alaska lies opposite the easternmost point of Russia across the Bering Strait.
Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of area. Despite its size, much of the country lacks proper soils and climates (either too cold or too dry) for agriculture. Mount Elbrus (Gora El'brus), at 5,633 m, is Europe's, and Russia's, tallest peak.
Some of the best known Russian cities with their Anglicised and Russian Cyrillic names.
The defeat of the Russian Empire in World War I led to the seizure of power by the Communists and the formation of the USSR. The brutal rule of Josef Stalin (1924-53) strengthened Russian dominance of the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy continued to grow at high rates under Malenkov and Khrushchev, and political and social controls were loosened. The Soviet Union eventually reached its peak and became stagnant under Leonid Brezhnev, and the crisis would continue until General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) introduced glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to modernize Communism, but his initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the USSR into 15 independent republics. Since then, Russia has struggled in its efforts to build a democratic political system and market economy to replace the strict social, political, and economic controls of the Communist period. A determined guerrilla conflict still plagues Russia in Chechnya.
Climate ranges from steppes in the south through humid continental in much of European Russia; subarctic in Siberia to tundra climate in the polar north; winters vary from cool along Black Sea coast to frigid in Siberia; summers vary from warm in the steppes to cool along the Arctic coast.
The terrain consists of broad plain with low hills west of the Urals; vast coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia; uplands and mountains along southern border regions.
Passports, Visas, and other documents
Citizens of most non-Russia or CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries must obtain a visa prior to arriving to Russia. Citizens of Croatia (3 months) and Cuba (30 days) do not need a visa. Obtaining a Russian visa is a costly, time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating process. Most visitors should start the process at least two months in advance.
There are two terms, invitation (or voucher for tourist visa) and the visa itself. Invitation is the paper in exchange of which one gets the actual visa. Visa is a sticker to one's passport. There are several types of invitations and visas.
The tourist invitation is a letter of confirmation of booking and pre-payment of your accommodation and travel arrangements in Russia. Can be obtained from a government approved hotel in Russia, on-line hotel booking service or Russian travel agency. The sign of government approval is so called "consular reference" the number of government registration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. Only hotels and travel agencies that have consular reference can issue the confirmations valid for visa purposes. Using a local Visa Service to obtain a Russian Visa will streamline the process. They will double check your application and invitation, go to the embassy for you and return your passport to you. This saves time and frustration.
It should be noted that tricks like booking one night of a hotel and getting a visa for 30 days with the paper received from the hotel for one night booking won't work, as the visa will be granted for one day only in such a case.
However, some travel agencies will issue a confirmation for a fee, without actually collecting the accommodation pre-payment. The legality of such actions are in question and there is a bit of controversy about this.
Tourist confirmation and the accommodation voucher are normally accepted as a faxed/e-mailed copy, though the consular official has a right to ask for the original if fraud is suspected.
Another type of invitation is required to obtain a business visa. Business invitations are issued by the government and for many Russian consulates the original hard copy is required (though some will accept a faxed copy, always check this before applying) Obtaining the business invitation is time consuming and costly. Any registered company in Russia can apply for the business invitation for a foreign national in the visa and passport office in Russia. It normally takes 4 to 6 weeks to get one. Business visa is granted in exchange of business invitation by the Russian consulate and it is a lot more flexible than a tourist one. Can be multiple entry and valid for travel and stay in Russia for up to 12 months. Some travel agencies in Russia can help obtaining business invitation.
Some Russian local governments have a right to invite foreigners for business and cultural activities by sending a TELEX to the Embassy or Consulate of Russia overseas, requesting the visa issue to a particular foreigner or group of foreigners. Such telex messages are used instead of invitation. This is normally the way to go if you are invited by the government.
Personal invitation. Any Russian citizen can apply to invite foreign national for a visit at the passport and visa office. The process is much the same as for business invitation. Take 4 to 6 weeks. Looks exactly the same as business one, but the purpose of travel and the visa type will be stated as personal. The inviting individual is solely responsible for all your activities while in Russia and can be penalised heavily if something goes wrong. So personal invitations are usually not available for a fee through the net.
It should be noted that you will need to pay for the cost of the invitation and the visa itself, each of which can cost from $40-100 or more, usually depending on how fast you want it issued. To save money, start the process as early as possible.
When you go through passport control into Russia, you will give the border official a filled-in migration card. You should be given the card back, and it should be stamped. You must carry this card with you at all times in Russia, and you may be asked for it when you leave. You receive the migration card while you're en-route to Russia, either on the train or in the plane. It is a small white piece of paper nearly the size of two index cards. There are two parts: one for exit and one for entry. When you cross the border the 'entry' portion is taken and you keep 'exit' part. You must get this card registered. If on a tourist visa, your hotel should do this. If you are on a business visa, usually it is best to do it through the company that got you the invitation. This registration has a fee also, and without it you could get in trouble. Police on the streets will do random passport checks so you must have your passport on you at all times. But you're not alone -- this goes for Russian citizens as well.
Moscow and St. Petersburg are served by direct flights to most European capitals, and Moscow also has direct flights many cities in East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Currently the only non-stop flights from the United States to Russia are offered by Delta (from New York and Atlanta to Moscow) and Aeroflot (from New York, Washington and Los Angeles to Moscow). There are airports in all large cities in Russia. However, international service to destinations other than Moscow and St. Petersburg is still very limited.
Local airlines are listed in Get around.
Low-cost air-lines from Europe:
Transfering between the international and domestic terminals at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO) could be difficult for a non-Russian speaker. Many people arrange for a private car in advance.
Train service is usually reliable. You can get a direct train from many cities in Eastern and Central Europe to Moscow and sometimes St. Petersburg. Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Berlin, and Warsaw are all possible departure points with daily services to Russia. Most long distance trains have 2 to 6 passengers per room, 4 being the most common. The Trans-Siberian Railway spans the entire country and connects European Russia with Russian Far East provinces, China and Mongolia.
For details on Russian trains, see below in the Get Around: By Train section.
Travelling 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 St. Petersburg, and are expensive.
Crossing the border by car is also a peculiar entertainment.
There is no doubt that car travel is the best way to see the country, but it is a risky enterprise which is recommended only for the brave and capable.
Russian highways have highway patrol police (GAI) roadblock every 20 km or so. If you have an international license plate, prepare to pay a bribe ($5-$20) in some of the most corrupt regions (e.g., in the Caucasus). Russian traffic rules are very numerous and you will be found violating some of them. If you decide not to pay, at best you should expect to spend several hours at every road block.
Service is scarce and poor, and the countryside can be quite dangerous without experience and fluency in the Russian language.
It is possible to travel safely by car in Russia using a private licensed guide. Traveling independently is not recommended, especially for the non-Russian speaker. Guides generally provide their own cars and or vans and know the roads, the customs and the countryside making seeing small towns and historic sites possible.
Increasingly popular overnight destinations are the "Golden Ring" towns of Pereslavl-Zalesskiy, Suzdal and Valdimir reached easily from Moscow and the ancient city of Novgorod, founded in 859, which is south of St Petersburg. Bird watchers flock to islands north of St Petersburg to see the spring migrations of waterfowl.
A few bus companies, notably Eurolines, operate international coach services from a number of distinations to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Tallinn, Helsinki, Warsaw and Berlin all have regular services to Russia.
Russia has an extensive rail network linking nearly every city and town. For intercity travel, the train is generally the most convenient option for trips that can be covered overnight. 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 (DAL'nevo SLEdovaniya) trains generally cover trips more than about 4 hours or 200 kilometers (120 miles). Russian long-distance rail timetable  Shorter distances are covered by the commuter trains (PRIgorodnye), which are popularly called ElekTRICHki. Most train stations (zheleznodoROZHnyi VokZAL) have separate areas for selling tickets for these types.
Here one can find maps of russian rail network 
Most long-distance trains are set up for overnight travel. In these trains, three main kinds of cars are available. The third class car is called platzcart (плацкартный вагон) and is set up with unwalled compartments of four fold out beds opposite two beds on the window wall. These compartments are generally less safe than other classes, but provide for a much more immersive experience. Also, woman travellers sometimes prefer the platzcart to other classes where they might end up in a closed compartment with other male strangers (Russian trains do not have separate cars or compartments for males and females).
The second class is called coupe (купейный вагон - koupeinyi vagon) and consists of private compartments of four each. The first class is called SV, and consists of compartments for two persons.
Note that several Russian trains, including many international routes, have only 1st and 2nd class available.
The prices of these trains vary widely by class obviously, but also by train. There are mainly two types of trains - firmenny trains have brand names (e.g., The Red Arrow, Russia and so on) and are generally more comfortable and pricier than ordinary trains. Some firmenny trains provide pre-packed meals, free tea/coffee, and complementary sheets (otherwise, you'll have to pay R100-150 for your own). The more expensive trains are generally cleaner and might even have air-conditioning. It's a good idea to ask when you buy the the ticket exactly what is provided.
Conductors always provide free water in samovars in every car and will usually sell you tea and lend you a mug and spoon for about 10 rubles, or 35 cents. Most long-distance trains also have dining cars.
For example, on 27 july 2006 Moscow-Vladivostok train coupe ticket was 12721.10 rub ($472.55) and SV ticket 23631.30 rub ($877.83). Travel time is 148 hours.
On 29 july 2006 Moscow-St.Petersburg train chair ticket was 400-600 rub, platzcart ticket - 600-700 rub, coupe - 1200-2000 rub (lux coupe - 2000-4000 rub), SV - 13000-18000 rub. Travel time is about 8 hours. Note that there are more types of train between the two capitals than between any other two cities in Russia. Apart from ordinary trains, there are rapid trains (ЭР-200 and The Nevsky Express) that run by day only and cover the 650 km between Moscow and St. 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.
When going through the countryside in the South of the country or in Siberia locals will sell food and liquor at pretty reasonable prices. Often babushkas will even be selling pre-made meals. Frequently, traders will walk through the traincars between stops and sell everything from crockery to clothes to Lay's chips.
Tickets can be bought at the train station, at travel agencies and online on Russian railways website - if you chose the latter option, you will have to pick up the actual ticket at the staion. Most stations have a large room called a KASsovyi Zal where tickets are sold. Lines vary widely - some stations are much better organized than others nowadays, and it also depends on the season. If you find the lines unbearably long, it's usually not hard to find an agency that sells train tickets. Commission rates are generally not prohibitive. (For instance, buying your ticket to St. Petersburg from Moscow, it is much better to walk a flight of steps from the ordinary ticketing office - there are no queues upstairs and R140 is a small premium to pay for this service).
The commuter trains are mostly hard-seat train cars. You don't get a designated seat number - you just find space on a bench. These trains have a notorious reputation for being overcrowded, though this has declined somewhat. The trains make very frequent stops and are rather slow. For example, a 200 km trip to Vladimir takes about 3 1/2 hours. Also, they don't have toilets.
Tickets for commuter trains are sold in a separate room from the long-distance trains, and are sometimes sold from stalls located outside.
A few very popular routes, mostly between Moscow and nearby cities such as Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Tula, and others have an express commuter train that is considerably more comfortable. Your ticket will have a designated seat number and the seats are reasonably comfortable. The trains travel to their destination directly and are thus considerably faster.
Note that all long-dictance 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, busses sometimes are a better option timewise 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 AvtovokSAL. Most cities have just one for long distance busses and the state busses depart from there. However, in Moscow and in some other Russian cities, a number of commercial busses are available, and they generally don't depart from the bus station. Quite often, you'll see commercial busses near train stations. Sometimes they run on schedules, though for popular routes (such as Moscow-Vladimir, Moscow/Yaraslavl, etc.) the busses simply wait to fill up. On these busses payment is usually to the driver.
Russian busses have luggage storage, but if it's an old Eastern-bloc bus, you may find your luggage wet at the end of the trip.
The tremendous distances of Russia make plane travel highly desirable if you plan to travel to some of Russia's more far-flung attractions. It's worth considering for any destination that is farther than an overnight train ride. Travelling across Russia by train can sound awefully 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 abominal 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.
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 official language, so wherever you go in Russia, you'll find someone who speaks it. English is becoming a requirement in the business world, and younger people especially will often know enough to communicate, but by no means is English universally understood and spoken. In upscale hotels almost the entire staff has a working knowledge of foreign languages (including English).
You will not learn the language in a short time; concentrate on learning some key "courtesy" phrases, and the Cyrillic alphabet (e.g. "ресторан" spells "restaurant") so you have a chance to recognize street names, labels and the like.
Russia has hundreds of languages and supports most of them, sending linguists to document them and invent (mostly - in 1920-1960) writing systems for them (all Cyrillic, of course) and making them local official languages. The south border is lined with Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic; the north with Finnic and Samoyed. The southwest corner has a variety of Caucasian languages; the northeast has the few Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages.
Checks Forget about travelers' checks (only some banks, such as Sberbank, will cash even American Express), and bring enough cash to last you for a few days, as occasionally communications networks handling ATM and credit card transactions are not available (as elsewhere in the world).
Rubles only All payments in Russia are officially made in rubles. However, in many shops catering to tourists as well as in companies selling major items (such as cars, real estate and computers) you may find the prices indicated in USD or Euro (for legal reasons called "conditional units"--х. у.е.). This became common after the financial problems of 1998. Even for these shops, however, you can pay only in rubles in most cases, and exchange rate can be both an official rate set by Central Bank, and arbitrary which is usually higher--posted in small font, if at all.
"У.е." Some private vendors, such as kiosk sellers, guides and taxis may accept payment in dollars or in rubles--unofficially and giving no receipt. Price may become higher in some cases, and nearly the same in the others.
It's very easy to find currency exchange offices (called bureaus in St. Petersburg) throughout Russia--many Russians keep their savings in U.S. dollars. Banks and small currency exchange bureaus offer very good rates; hotels and casinos are generally expensive and thus not recommended. You need to show your passport at banks.
Small window-in-the-wall offices abound in Moscow and St. Petersburg but are rare in other cities. They usually offer better exchange rates but don't require identification nor provide any receipts in most cases. Branches of large banks can be found in any major city, and Sberbank outlets are a must in any village down to rayonny centr. Branches of banks are more trustworthy for not-so-attractive rates, and exchange session would last longer requiring a passport and giving you all the receipts you can imagine.
Window-in-the-wall exchanges frequently attract clients by declaring rates for amounts >$1000 / >EUR1000 (but stating this in small font). Rates for smaller amounts are demonstrated only in the window itself--and are typically less attractive than even at regular banks. Frequently, people don't notice that rates are different. To make the difference even less evident, rates are set exactly 1.0 rouble different, like 34.18 and 35.18 per Euro.
Another trick used by windows-in-the-walls is tray that makes 1-2 banknotes stick so they become hidden from you. Always check the amounts you are given.
Many exchange bureaus will also convert other currencies beyond USD and EUR, although often the rate is not as good. You can compare rates if you buy USD/EUR in your country and sell them in Russia vs direct exchanges from your local currency to roubles at --it displays exchange rates for cash in Moscow for every currency exchanged in Russia.
You will have easier time changing money if your banknotes are absolutely clean, and dollars should be the most recent updated design, as few places will accept the older versions.
Don't change money on the street. Unlike during Soviet times, there is no advantage to dealing with an unofficial vendor. There're 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 St. Petersburg. Other large cities also have them but many times there are restrictions on foreign cards. They usually offer services in multiple languages, and some give out U.S. dollars or local currency. In smaller towns and villages they are often difficult to find or non-existent. Russian ATMs will often limits withdrawals to about USD$100 per day. Those in larger cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg to 12,000 roubles a day ($446). Big hotels are good places to find them.
In Moscow and St. 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, souveniers, meals and transportation.
Russian cuisine is world-renowned (caviar and beef Stroganoff are but two examples), and there are now many restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg that cater to an educated palate.
Russian specialities include:
Both St Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated, world class dining and a wide variety of cuisines including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. It is also possible to eat well and cheaply there without resorting to the many western fast food chains that have opened up. Russians have their own versions of fast food restaurants which range from cafeteria style serving comfort foods to streetside kiosks cooking up blinis or stuffed potatos. Although their menus may not be in English, it is fairly easy to point to what is wanted - or at a picture of it, not unlike at western fast food restaurants. A small Russian dictionary will be useful at non- touristy restaurants offering table service where staff members will not speak English and the menus will be entirely in cyrillic, but prices very reasonable. Russian meat soups and meat pies are excellent.
It is better not to drink the tap water in Russia and to avoid using ice in drinks, however bottled water and Coca Cola is available everywhere food is served.
Stylish cafes serving cappuccino, expresso, toasted sandwiches, rich cakes and pastries are popping up all over St Petersburg and Moscow. Some do double duty as wine bars, others are also internet cafes.
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 naturaly carbonized drink made from fermented dark bread) and mors (traditional wild berry drink). Beer in Russia is cheap and the varieties are endless of both Russian and international brands. It is found for sale (warm) at any street vendor in the center of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the center) from about 13 Rubles (about 50 US cents) to 60 Rubles (about 2 US Dollars) Popular local brands are Baltika, Stary Melnik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tinkoff and many others.
Mixed alcoholic beverages as well as beers at nightclubs are extremely expensive and are served without ice, with the mix (for example, coke) and alcohol charged for separately. It is advisable to drink your heart out beforheand, as drinking in public is legal.
Wines from Georgia and Moldova are quite popular (although all drinks from Georgia are out-of-law unavailable since spring 2005). In Moscow and St. Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines--generally at a high price.
Soviet champagne is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price, but the quality may vary dramatically.
In most cities quality hotels are really scarce: most were built in Soviet times decades ago and are recently renovated in decor, but rarely in service and attitude. Even for a local it's quite a problem to find a good hotel without a recommendation from a person you trust. For same reason it may be really hard to find a hotel during mass tourist-oriented events like StPete anniversary.
Hotels in Russia may be quite expensive in metropolises and touristy areas. If you do speak a bit of Russian and are not entirely culture shocked it is much smarter to seek out and rent a room in a private residence. Most Russians are looking to make extra money and, having space to spare, will rent it out to a tourist gladly. Native Moscovites or residents of St. Petersburg would rather rent out to tourists than their own countrymen: foreigners are considered more trustworthy and orderly. Expect to pay 60-70 USD a night (usually with breakfast prepared by your host) and the accommodations will certainly be very clean and proper if not modern. When it comes to home/family life, Russian culture is very warm and inviting.
A new phenomenon has been the development of "mini-hotels" in large Russian cities which are providing clean modern rooms with private baths at far lower costs than conventional large hotels, approximately $125 versus well over $250. These small hotels are located within existing apartment buildings and may consist of one, two or more floors located a story or two above street level and often include breakfast. St. Petersburg has quite a few with more opening all of the time and some are appearing in Moscow.
Russia has a long-standing tradition in high-quality education for all citizens. It probably has also one of the best mass-eduction systems in the world producing a literacy rate (98%) exceeding most Western European countries.
Basic general education lasts for nine years. Graduates of this level may continue their education at senior high school to receive secondary general education. They may also enter an initial vocational school or non-university level higher education institutions.
Higher education is provided by public and non-public (non-State) accredited higher education institutions, of which Lomonosov Moscow State Universityand St.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).
The unemployment rate is 7.6%, whilst the percentage of the population below the poverty line is 17.8%.
Largely because of the difficult transition from police state to democracy, Russia did experience a rise in criminal activity during the 1990's. The truth is that crime was greatly exaggerated in the media, and for the average tourist Moscow, St. Petersburg and the rest of Russia remain as safe as any major Western city, and likewise common sense goes far in protecting oneself against problems.
A note about police: Although they do have a bad reputation, the majority of Russian police officers are respectful of position as public servants.
Note that everyone in Russia must carry state-issued identification papers, which means that foreigners should carry their passport and visa at all times and present it to police officers if asked, however a very wise policy is to carry a photocopy of each. This can seem intimidating to people who grew up in the West but it is the law in Russia. 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.
Juvenile delinquency, organized crime and corruption may occur in Russia. The murder rate per 100 000 is one of the world's highest, at 21. The Russian Mafia is infamous, and has a business of smuggling drugs from and in the country.
The police are widely regarded as corrupt, and (may) take bribes. They may hassle you for your travel documents (passport, immigrations card and residence registration), actively hunting for bribes. Stay friendly and act like everything is fine. If they're just fishing for bribes, it's a real hassle for them to take you to the station. In tight situations, a 500 ruble bribe is really the most you should give in metropolitan areas.
Many Russians are ranging from nationalist to xenophobe to racist to militant fascist. Isolated acts of random violence have been recorded against people with darker complexions, but also against people with a "leftist" look like punks.
The conflict in Chechnya is also a major problem.
When buying items, make sure money is folded backwards with small bills on the outside and larger on the inside. Try to get bills in 50-500 ruble amounts to keep the numbers on the bills small.
Also, don't take your money out to pay before the total is told to you. This is considered stupid or odd. It also helps to keep your money from being snatched from you.
Ensure that all of your vaccinations are up to date, and you have sufficient amounts of any prescription medicine you may be taking. Pharmacies are common in major cities and carry a large supply of quality western medications.
You are recommended to buy only bottled water in Russia, readily available in any hotel's shop or in neighborhood stores. In St. Petersburg you should not brush your teeth with the tap water, nor open your mouth during showers.
Quality of tap water varies dramatically around the country, and even may be very different within one city. Ask your trusted locals whether they recommend drinking tap water. If you can't buy bottled water, boil water before drinking. But normally price should not be an obstacle: bottled water costs only about 20-30 rubles ($0.8-$1.1 USD) for 2 liters.
Besides local doctors (generally good quality but often working in poor facilities) there are several Western-run medical centers in major Russian cities. These all have different policies for payment (some take credit cards, some require payment in cash up front, even if you have insurance) so make sure you know what you are paying for (and when and how) before you agree to any services.
Be careful not to buy fake vodka (could be very dangerous). Buy only vodka in large stores or specialized ones like Aromatnyi Mir in Moscow with the sticker over the cap and/or the region's barcode on the side.
Some kiosks could sell meals of bad quality. If you are not confident, just throw it away. Although most of them are quite good, take note of who buys and what they buy. That could help to make a good choice.
It should be noted that paying the bills at restaurants may often be very frustrating. You will sometimes not be given a proper receipt, and if you leave more money than the exact total, it is automatically interpreted as a tip, and you have to be very persistent in order to get your change back. 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 very few understand that it's up to the guest to decide how much he or she wants to tip. Be persistent in your demands, and look out for attempts of fraud. What most tourists do is to give up, because they are tired, and they can easily spare a few rubles. Remember, if they are successful in taking money from one tourist, they will keep harassing the next.
On the other hand, many Russians and Russian families are very welcoming and kind. The general rule in all countries is to treat people with the same respect as what you get in return.