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“Russia is big. Damned big. Getting a real sense of the place is almost impossible, even though only a relatively small part of the country is actually inhabited, and open to visitors. Even if you only want to see ‘European Russia’, it’s still bigger than the rest of the continent put together.

The fact is, though, there are only a very few places that are worth travelling hundreds or thousands of kilometers to see, and almost all of them can be reached by train. Between the former capital, Saint Petersburg, and the current capital, Moscow, the former is of course the more interesting. You could easily spend a week here and have things to see all day every day.

Moscow didn’t strike me as such a big deal, but it’s still worth a visit, because you sense that it’s the capital of a vast empire. Nor is it just a decaying old communist metropolis, as I’d long pictured it, but an evolving, ‘westernizing’ city. In the countryside, meanwhile, the further east we go, the fewer sights there are to see, and those that do exist aren’t all that impressive. It’s relatively easy to get almost everywhere, but finding out how to do so isn’t so easy. As a rule, if the train doesn’t go there, it isn’t worth visiting (the exception is Baikal).

The habit of listing everything according to central, ‘Moscow’ time is extremely annoying, but you just have to get used to it. Don’t make the same mistake I did, and end up having to spend two full days in the world’s most boring city, Krasnoyarsk. I recommend the night train, because in terms of attractions, most cities are worth no more than a few hours.

Nightlife in Russia is totally different to what we’re used to in the West, but I’d only recommend sampling it in the larger cities. The Trans-Siberian Railway is no longer the week-long vodka party most people imagine, for the simple reason that ordinary people can no longer afford to travel on it. It’s a very boring, stimulus-free journey, and there’s hardly even anything interesting to see from the window either – just the endless forests. The only excitement comes with the arrival of an occasional settlement.

Public transport coverage in cities is excellent, but it’s a good idea to buy a guidebook that includes minibuses, because communication can be difficult. Timetables and route maps are extremely convoluted in the countryside, and the largest cities are enormous. It’s almost impossible to get around on foot in cities, and the taxi drivers are cheats, so get yourself a Lonely Planet. It also doesn’t hurt to have some sort of GPS that shows where you’re going, because there’s usually no indication of which stop you’re at. This is obviously even more true when you take a taxi, but it depends on the city.

Unless you speak good Russian you probably won’t get to know the locals, because though contrary to popular opinion they aren’t hostile towards foreigners, hardly any of them speak a foreign language. Locals in big cities aren’t too friendly, but in smaller towns and villages people are extremely hospitable, and you can always count on being invited in for a drink. Only a small percentage of young people can speak English, but those who do are remarkably fluent. Since the Russian media is more or less a brainwashing device, English-language media is almost the only way they can get information about the more ‘normal’ half of the world.

Many people are afraid of the internet and where it leads. If you do get into a conversation with a young person who has more than two braincells, the conversation is likely to quickly turn to politics, and you’ll begin to see that life in Russia, especially in rural areas, is both bleak and unpredictable. The situation has gotten so bad in recent years that many can’t even afford the train fare, meaning that they’re stuck in their small towns and can’t get to Moscow. Many people are extremely thirsty for some other news than what they’re fed by their leaders. I was pleasantly surprised by the attitude of the young people I met.

If you’re waiting for a bus, don’t be surprised if an old lady pushes you right in front of it, because she has to be first on to get the seat. No one pays any attention to others – they focus exclusively on themselves. This is equally true on the roads, so avoid driving if you can.

Accommodation is expensive and not high quality. You can find a lot of cheap, terrible places, but be cautious with booking.com. You can sleep well on the train, which saves a lot in accommodation costs, but for the above-mentioned reasons I’d rather recommend Couchsurfing, and you can expect an invitation everywhere except the two biggest cities. Be aware: hosts will often want to have a real conversation with you, so put aside some time for that as well.

Eating and drinking costs approximately the same as in most Central and Eastern European countries, but you can find gold in the little eateries. I lived in these places, and came out with more money than if I’d shopped for groceries in the supermarket. A little bit of adventurous spirit doesn’t hurt when it comes to such places, especially if you don’t speak Russian.

It’s difficult to talk about ‘Russian cuisine’ – this is a country, after all that spans half the world. Some ethnic groups have their own cuisine, and you should absolutely try them. It’s possible to eat very well in Russia, and cheaply. But try to avoid too much drinking! You can buy vodka for about the price of tap water, but whoever drinks it deserves what they get.

Prices are generally similar to Central Europe, or maybe a bit higher, but if you’re clever you can find ways to stretch your money out further here. Eateries, supermarkets, Couchsurfing and fourth-class railway cars – these are the keys to the backpacker life in Russia. Of course, there are places where we have to open our wallets, but it would be a crime to skip the Hermitage, for instance, to save a couple of dollars. The most important thing is to plan the trip well in advance, or, if you have a Russian boyfriend/girlfriend, don’t sweat it!

Would I go back? No! It’s a sad, run-down country, full of people who deserve much better, but who have long given up hope that things will ever be better for them. I felt this with the young people too, and I have no wish to feel it again.



Russia - Karelia - island of Kizhi - v.g.

Practicals

Transport

Driving a car

Russia is a vast country with huge distances between settlements, so discovering by car is time-consuming and even dispirited for someone used to living in densely populated areas. Another disadvantage is that roads' quality is inconstant, and their low quality in some distant regions might badly challenge you. At least the major highways are usually adequate.

Train

We highly recommend making experiences with long-distance train travel. It is unique, especially traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. You can see a large part of the country, various climatic zones, landscapes.  
Sometimes the train stops for an hour, so you can look around in a countryside station, mingle with locals.

Food

Meals almost always start with soup.  Most dishes are served with rye bread. Russians often add sour cream (called smetana) to many dishes. The dessert is often black tea with lemon along with a few sweets.

Russian cuisine neglect chili. Even if the menu says a dish is spicy, it is not for many foreign visitors.

We warn you that wine prices are very high in the restaurants, and just in the top ones. Usually, a glass of wine costs as much as the main course. A bottle of mediocre quality wine can easily cost you more than 30-40 USD. We must say, vodka is a cheap alternative.

In Russia, for many foreign tourists, the restaurant service may seem somewhat hasty.  Even in high-end restaurants, the waiters may snatch your plate almost before you finished with the dish.  Don't get upset as that is not about urging you to eat faster, but - in the best case - to show attention (in the worst case, just the contrary: inattention).  




Russia - Murmansk - fresh cod fish with mashed potatoes and crab salad - Ata photo

Russia - Murmansk - Tundra Grill&Bar - Solyanka (Russian Sweet and Sour Beef Soup) - Ata photo

Fun


Russia - radiant smile - Elter photo

Public safety

In Russia, foreign tourists are very seldom the target of any violent crime.

Russian police officers can routinely and for no specific reason check your identity, make you show your document. That can happen even more if you don't look Slavic, specifically if you look like southerners from the former Soviet Union. Police officers may suspect that your documents might not be OK.  Always carry at least a copy of your passport, including the page about your visa. In case you don't have any documents, police officers can detain you for up to three hours to identify you.

An identity check is very likely if you are drunk in a public place.

Health


Tap water is primarily used for brush, not for drinking. You better prefer to drink bottled water.

Russia - anti-COVID burger (5,30 USD) - a.a. photo (2021)

Background

Russia - national flag - российский национальный флаг

Russia - CCCP (Soviet Union) Ice Cream - v.g. photo

Destination in brief

Russia is located in the northern part of the Eurasian continent. With 77% of its territory in Asia and 23% in Europe, it is a transcontinental country. Russia has 14 neighbors: its westernmost neighbor is Poland (at the Kaliningrad enclave) and its easternmost one is North Korea.
 
Size: 17,100,000 km² (6,602,000 mi²) – Russia is the world’s largest country, 2,3 times bigger than the runner-up, Canada. – The longest east-west distance is about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) – A train journey from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok takes a little over 6 days.
 
Capital city: Moscow  - 10,4 million people live just in the city area. It is, both by population and by area, the largest city in Europe.
 
Population (in 2020): 146 million  – 77% live in the European part of the country.
Four-fifths of the population is ethnic Russian.
 
Language: Russian – an East Slavic language. Russians use the Cyrillic alphabet and have never in their history used the Latin one.
 
Religion:  75% of the population is Orthodox Christian, 5% Muslim – about 66% of the population does not practice any religion.
 
Russia is a presidential republic. The president has extensive powers. Russia was the largest republic of the Soviet Union, which existed until 1991.
 
Currency: Ruble (RUB) - In the early 1960s, the ruble was almost equal to a gram of gold, and was a more valuable currency than the US dollar (in 2020: 1 USD=78 rubles)
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Average net monthly salary: 470 USD (2020) – It is 900 USD in Moscow, however, and about 640 USD in Saint Petersburg. The minimum wage is 195 USD (303 USD in Moscow).
 
An estimated 50% of Russia’s policemen take bribes.
 
Most frequent surname: Ivanova (wives or widows of Ivanov’s)
 
In Russia, lowering your ushanka’s (fur hat) earflaps is frowned upon unless the temperature drops below -20°C (68°F).
 
Optimal timing for a tourist visit (for Moscow and Saint Petersburg): June-August
 
The most popular tourist attractions in Moscow:
 
 Moscow Kremlin, Red Square, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow metro stations
 
 
The most popular tourist attractions in Saint Petersburg:

Historical center of Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, rivers and canals, Peterhof, St. Isaac Cathedral & Colonnade , The Peter and Paul Fortress, Tsarskoye Selo

Geography

Russia spans 2 continents, borders 14 countries, features 11 time zones, and has access to 3 world oceans.

75% of Russia’s territory is in Asia.

Within Russia, the longest west-east distance is almost 10,000 km (6200 miles), maximum north-south width of 4,000 km (2500 mi).

The Bering Strait's narrowest point is about 85 km (53 mi) wide, but there are two islands in its center, Little Diomede (U.S.) and Big Diomede (Russia). Between these two islands is the shortest distance between Russia and the U.S.: four km (2,5 mi).    

20-22% of the world's forests are in Russia.

Russia is number one in the world in the number of divorces per 1,000 Population (in 2021)

Russia - Kamchatka - Monument Russia Begins Here - Elter photo

Russia - Magnitogorsk - Central Bridge over the Ural River - Few steps from Europe to Asia - c.a. photo

Climate


Moscow - winter outfit - n.e. photo

History

According to legend, in 988, the Russians chose Christianity over Islam because they did not want to go without alcohol.

In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for only $ 7.2 million.

Nowadays

The poverty gap in Russia is enormous. The official number of people living in poverty is 18 million, but the actual figure can be far higher.  There is a small social group: wealthy people. Russia's middle class has been shrinking over the past few decades.

In Russia, it is currently illegal to tell children that there are homosexual people. Officially, the law aims to protect children from any information that ,, promotes the denial of traditional family values" and bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors.


Russia - Our president - p.i. photo

Russia - Karelia - Petrozavodsk - iPhone in hand on the horse carriage - Ata photo

People

According to some estimation in 2019, only 6% of Orthodox Christians in Russia say they attend church weekly.

Sadly enough, Black African and dark-skinned Asian visitors often feel that Russians are unfriendly, aloof to them. Many Russians are not doctrinally racists, which means that their prejudices are not ideological; they are just narrow-minded, mistrustful of otherness. Beyond big cities, many locals seldom see anybody else than other Russians

,, Russians usually freely express their minds on sensitive matters cause such thing as PC culture is not present. They are not afraid to tell someone of a different race if they are somehow dissatisfied with his behavior or even act in response and will be very surprised if someone will accuse them of racism because of that."

Russians typically have firm opinions on issues, and they will certainly let you know what they think if they disagree with you. They don't mind telling you views that you don't want to hear. They are very critical thinkers and love reading. So, they usually know lots of facts, which makes a conversation very interesting.

In Russia, smiling while showing your teeth in public is vulgar. Russian smile at those they know, definitely not to a stranger! Smiling in services shows a lack of seriousness, so don't expect waiters and salespeople to smile at you.


Russia - Nizhny Novgorod - a character - k.g. photo

Russia - Blagovescsenszk (Amur oblast) - school ceremony - t.d. photo

Russia - Svobodnensky District - old school Russian - t.d. photo

Tourist etiquette

1. As a foreign visitor, be cautious when discussing Russian history, culture, religion, Russian politics, etc. Russians don't like it if a foreigner tries lecturing them on these issues, especially talking on a high horse.

2. Dress code is essential in theaters and some restaurants. No one will stop you from entering, of course, but you'll feel uneasy wearing jeans in a crowd of formally dressed people.

3. Visiting Russian Orthodox churches involves some rules: women must cover their heads and wear long skirts (pants are usually allowed), and men must wear long pants and headwear.


Gastronomy

As for the fish, the Russians mainly opt for salmon, trout, herring, and cod.

Attractions

Russia - Yaroslavl - church -v.g. photo

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