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Until one visits Russia it can be difficult to comprehend just how monumentally vast the country really is. Straddling both Europe and Asia, Russia covers more than an eighth of the world’s habitable land, encompasses over 6 million square miles and has influenced the world for generations.
Russia has given the world cultural greats from Tolstoy to Tchaikovsky, from Stravinsky to Sergey Brin, founder of Google. Russian is also the second most-used language on the Internet. So whether it’s music, literature or the very latest technology, Russia’s influence can truly be felt around the world.
With one of the world’s largest economies, rich in oil and other natural resources, not to mention the second-largest military on the planet, opportunities abound for expats in this most epic of countries…
As the world’s largest country Russia experiences a large range of climatic conditions. Depending on where you are in the country, and the season at hand, temperatures can range between -30 and + 35’C. Broadly speaking Russia is considered to have a humid continental climate with hot, dry summers and cold wet winters.
While southerly areas understandably experience the majority of the hot summer weather, the heavily forested north experiences significant snowfall on an annual basis and is best defined as having a subarctic climate.
Being located in such a northerly location, there is also significant variation in day-length, where areas such as St Petersburg may experience 24-hour sunlight during the brief summer months.
What is perhaps most noticeable about Russia’s climate is that the annual weather patterns are dominated by two main seasons; summer and winter. Spring and autumn can be barely noticeable, where the only real tell-tale sign before the seasons move on is a prevalence of slush on the roads.
Russia may have a huge population but the country’s vast dimensions mean that the population density is relatively low. Over 80% of Russians are estimated to be clustered around a few major urban areas in the west of the country such as Moscow and St Petersburg.
Outside of these areas, vast swathes of wilderness persist, forming an essential refuge for many otherwise-endangered species of wildlife. Bears, wolves and many other species survive here in impressive numbers. Russia is even home to the critically-endangered Siberian tiger, which clings on with a population of just 500 or so individuals.
The northern forest, which represents over 20% of the world’s forested land, is considered one of the most environmentally significant areas in the world. For this reason Russia is often known as the “lungs of Europe”, helping to filter pollution from the atmosphere and trap away an estimated 1.5 billion tonnes of climate-adjusting carbon dioxide per annum.
It should come as no surprise that Russia also benefits from a wealth of natural resources in the form of oil, gas and metal, not to mention timber, which represent an essential part of the current Russian economy.
Russia has been formed over successive generations as ever more land has been conglomerated under its mantle. Today, Russia represents a huge patchwork of different cultures and languages. Ethnographers claim that traditional ethnic groups in Russia number some 160 different identities, and make up over 80% of the population. Particularly in rural areas, therefore, significant diversity can be found among the languages, cultures and traditional cuisine of Russia.
Russians as a whole are considered quite reserved and formal until they truly get to know you. It is common to dress up in business-attire when being invited for dinner at a Russian’s home, for example. It is also characteristic of Russia that few smiles should be expected from strangers – even in customer-facing business roles. Instead, genuine smiles are reserved more for family and close friends. Don’t take this personally; Russians are far from cold and emotionless as some people have claimed; instead you’ll just need to put more effort into getting to know them.
When you have gained the trust of Russians you will find them almost disarmingly friendly. It is characteristic of Russian culture that socially-familiar locals often stand far closer to one another when talking than you might be comfortable with. These intimate conversations with lowered voices can take some getting used to if you’re used to maintaining a more “Western” area of “personal space”.
In Russia, chivalry is far from dead. While holding doors open for others or helping women to carry heavy items may be dying a death in many other developed countries, in more-traditional Russia the code is still alive and well. Visiting ladies can therefore look forward to being treated with manners and respect. Gentlemen may find acclimatizing takes slightly longer, as they will be expected to pour wine for female companions, assist them when getting into cars and to pay for dinner without question.
The official language is Russian, though in reality over 100 different ethnic languages are also spoken across the country. Of these some of the more popular options are Tatar and Ukrainian.
Russian is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, thanks to its vast array of different words, word-endings and pronunciations. However even more than that of course is that Russians do not use the classic Roman alphabet as utilized in many other languages. As a result learning Russian involves not just understanding the words themselves, but also becoming familiar with the often cryptic Cyrillic alphabet.
That said, it is considered good manners for expats to attempt to pick up at least a few “catch-all” words and phrases. Doing so will ingratiate you to the locals, make navigating around the country much easier and will facilitate a degree of communication in more rural areas where English is unlikely to be spoken.
It is important to note that while English is spoken as a second or third language by many people in the larger cities, outside of these hotspots it may be difficult to communicate without schoolboy Russian or the help of a translator.
Travellers and expats from Europe, Australia and North America typically benefit from an enviable freedom of movement around the globe, with their passports being accepted around the world without question. Russia is one of the few countries, however, where this isn’t necessarily so.
Indeed, in terms of transportation arguably the most problematic part of visiting Russia as a tourist or expat is receiving the necessary visa that will facilitate your entry into the country. For this reason it is worth spending a few minutes discussing the basics of the Russian visa system.
Firstly there are a number of different “classifications” of visa on offer, including those for tourists and for expats. Landing a visa to enter Russia is essentially a two-part process. Firstly one will need to receive a visa invitation, then secondly one uses this invitation to apply for the visa proper.
Costs vary considerably based on the type of visa required, the anticipated length of your stay and the speed of processing necessary. If possible, try to plan well ahead to facilitate processing of your visa application, thus avoiding the extortionate “rapid processing” fees if a visa is needed at short notice.
Tourist visas are typically the easiest to obtain. Under such circumstances your invitation will be issued by a “government approved” agent on proof of your booking and pre-payment for accommodation in Russia. When booking a site-seeing tour to Russia it is therefore advisable to seek advice from your booking agent about how your invitation will be provided and how long the process is likely to take. The agent themselves may be able to issue this with the right authorization, or they may need to use a third-party provider.
Working expat visas can be rather more difficult to obtain in light of the fact that they are issued only by the Russian government on request from a Russian-registered company.
Expect when applying for a Russian visa three possible fees, which can be payable for the invitation, the visa application and the visa itself. You may or may not be charged for any or all of these but don’t be surprised if you are asked to pay three separate times for these charges.
On the granting of your visa you will then be free to enter Russia any time after your visa begins, and to leave any time before it expires. Over-staying your welcome after a visa expires it treated with great seriousness and can result in fines, imprisonment or being barred from future re-entry.
Upon finally entering the country, your legal obligations are far from over. Firstly, on entry into the country you will be issued with a “migration card” which comes in two parts. The first must be filled in on entry, while the other half is filled in on your exit. Note that without this official document some hotels will refuse your stay so ensure it is filled in properly and stamped by the authorities to prove your legitimacy.
It is also a requirement in Russia to register at your accommodation within 7 business days of your arrival. Many hotels will carry out this process on your behalf, but if you are an expat moving into a private residence, it would be worth checking whether your employer will be filing the necessary paperwork on your behalf.
Once inside Russia it is critical that you familiarize yourself with the transportation options on hand. Fortunately, in this regard there are numerous options.
Firstly there are a large number of internal flights though many of the local Russian airlines have questionable historical safety records. While standards are reputed to have improved dramatically in recent years, some travellers still opt for rather safer options for long-distance travel.
Possibly the best alternative source of public transport is the extensive rail network. Trains in Russia are typically clean, modern and run with impressive efficiency. Numerous “sleeper” trains cross-cross the country, enabling one to sleep in a cabin during long-distance trips.
Cheaper, but with rather less charm, are the many buses which travel both locally and nationally. In addition you will find privately-owned minibuses known as “marshrutka” which travel fixed routes around towns and cities. Simply wave them down as they pass, then let the driver know where you would like to be dropped off.
Long-term expats may finding renting or purchasing a car to be the most practical option. Thanks to Russia’s largely oil-based economy, fuel tends to be cheap.
Visitors with a UK driving license may drive for up to six months before requesting a Russian license. Visitors from most other countries will require a Russian license from day one. Russians drive on the right, and it is a legal requirement to carry with you a warning triangle, fire extinguisher and first aid kit at all times.
Note that most road signs are in Russian only, so with the complexities of the Russian alphabet it can be wise to invest in a decent English-language map book or satnav to help you navigate around the country.
Note that driving in Russia can be fast and dangerous, partly due to the national driving standards, and partly due to extreme winter conditions. Road conditions tend to be good in cities, but can be far more variable in more rural areas. Great care should be taken to ease into the “Russian way” of driving to stay safe during your time in the country.
While Russia offers free universal healthcare for her citizens, many public hospitals are below the standards you might be familiar with. This is especially so in more rural areas, if you can find a medical facility at all. The good news is that Russia and the UK maintain a reciprocal healthcare agreement, offering free medical care to British visitors. The bad news is that this arrangement is set to end at the beginning of 2016, where after visitors will be expected to pay for any care required.
The reality is that the best standards of medical care are generally experienced in the private hospitals found in Moscow, St Petersburg and other major cities. With the reciprocal arrangements coming to an end it is recommended that you consider investing in an overseas healthcare policy before visiting Russia, thus facilitating affordable care in the best possible establishments.
The other consideration is that Russian doctors are famous for “over investigating” medical concerns. Even a simple routine enquiry can lead to a full-on health check, together with body scans and more. Medical care in Russia can therefore be expensive, thanks to the vast number of tests and checks that may be carried out. Attempting to pay for such care out of your own pocket is therefore likely to be unfeasible, further underlining the importance of travel health insurance.
The currency in Russia is known as the “Ruble”. This is then further sub-divided into 100 Kopeks. In Russia it is illegal for any businesses to accept any other currency, so unlike many other countries your US Dollars or Euros won’t get you far.
Note that only in larger cities do a handful of businesses accept credit cards; generally-speaking Russia is still a largely cash-carrying nation. Furthermore exchanging travellers’ cheques can be problematic, with only a tiny handful of banks accepting them. The cashing fees can also be considerable.
As a result you will most likely need to make use of currency exchange offices or ATMs (“bankomats”) in order to withdraw Rubles for spending during your time in Russia.
Compulsory education exists in Russia between the ages of 6 and 15.
State-run schools, while free for nationals and expats alike, tend to be considerably under-funded. Class sizes are large and facilities are below par. In addition, it is important to appreciate that public schools like this teach almost exclusively in Russian, further complicating the situation for expat children.
For this reason most expats opt for private international schools which persist around Moscow and St Petersburg. Private education in Russia can be extremely expensive so it is advisable for expats to consider factoring in these costs when discussing expat packages. Waiting lists can also be considerable so families relocating to Russia with school-age children should aim to plan well in advance to facilitate speedy enrolment on arrival.
Just as Russia has given the world much in the form of culture, so a number of her culinary delights are also world-famous. Beef stroganoff, for example, originates in Russia, as does caviar and that most Russian of beverages, vodka.
What does perhaps surprise some first-time visitors to the country is that vodka in Russia is rarely drunk by itself; instead it is typically accompanied by food. Quite what this food compromises can vary widely, from some simple fresh bread through to a tray of luxury nibbles. Whatever the case, don’t be surprised to find people simultaneously slurping vodka and chomping on food.
Traditional Russian cuisine tends to revolve around foodstuffs that are native to the country or could be easily farmed here. This means visitors should expect lots of dishes comprising various combinations of fish, poultry, mushrooms and grains.
One popular example of a traditional Russian dish is “borshch”, a hearty beet soup steeped in meat and vegetables. For a slightly different experience, consider ordering “golubtsy” – rolls of cabbage filled with various meats.
Of course it’s not just traditional fare on offer these days. Russia’s major cities are considered world culinary hotspots, rife with fine dining establishments to rival any in Paris or New York.
Questions remain over the safety of drinking water in Russia. Visitors are generally advised to focus their attentions on bottled water, especially in St Petersburg, whose public services are ancient and in need of considerable upgrading.
Questions exist regarding the safety of visitors to Russia. On the one hand the vast majority of visits are without incident. Equally, there are a number of concerns raised by travellers and expats of which you should be aware.
Firstly, assault and robbery are not unheard of in Russia, and may be directed against nationals or visitors alike. Take suitable precautions to lower your risk such as learning which areas should be avoided after dark, taking only official marked taxis and taking particular care when walking alone. These issues are typically confined to more affluent urban areas.
Possibly more worrying are the reports of corrupt police officers who have been known to demand bribes from visitors. In such circumstances it is normally easiest to simply pay up. Stories exist of those refusing the pay up having drugs planted on them which are later “discovered”. For those with nerves of steel however there are a number of possible alternatives. For one, you can demand to attend the local police station to discuss the situation, threaten to call your embassy or – possibly most effective of all – simply explain you speak no Russian and hope they leave it at that.
Russia is considered to have a high threat of terrorism, with a number of suicide bombings, abductions and shootings occurring in recent memory. Visitors should in particular avoid the North Caucasus where Islamic separatists have caused persist problems. Pay attention to your government website before travel in order to be altered to any current hotspots for avoidance.
Emergency services can be reached by dialling 112 from any phone, though be aware that very few police officers speak English.
Visitors to such a huge and culturally-important country shouldn’t be surprised by the wealth of visitor attractions on offer. From the world’s largest lake, to the long railway line to a palace with over 100 stair cases, Russia certainly seems to offer the biggest and best of everything…
This UNESCO-listed lake contains an astonishing 20% of all the world’s unfrozen fresh water. It is both the deepest lake in the world and the largest by volume. 395 miles in length, two-thirds of the wildlife living here can be found nowhere else on earth. Whether it’s hiking around the rocky hillsides or bringing your binoculars for a spot of bird watching, no visit to Russia would be complete without setting eyes on this monumental body of water.
The world’s longest railway line, reaching an astonishing 5,772 miles in length, it is possible to travel by passenger train from Moscow all the way to the Sea of Japan or even Mongolia. Originally completed in 1916, just a short trip through the wild and wintery Russian landscape is truly an experience that will stay with you for life.
Valley of Geysers
The second-largest geyser field in the world, the Valley of Geysers in Kamchatka represents over 30 thermal vents erupting water up to 40 metres in the air, at temperatures of 250’C or more. As if seeing this incredible natural spectacle weren’t enough, the area is so remote that the only real way to visit it in comfort is via helicopter. Swooping over the mountainous terrain, clothed in thick plumes of water vapour provides a truly unique experience.
Hermitage Museum & Winter Palace
The Winter Palace represents one of the world’s largest and most luxurious royal residences. Topping out at 250 metres in length and 100 metres in height, the palace contains 1,500 rooms, 117 staircases and almost 2,000 windows. Visit to explore the sheer indulgence enjoyed by the early Russian Tsars and to learn more about the history of Russia as an imperial power.
St Basil’s Cathedral
This world-famous building was designed in its current form my Ivan the Terrible, well-known for his introduction of the onion domes which are now so synonymous with Russian imperial architecture. Interestingly, the cathedral isn’t designed simply as one huge place of worship but rather a collection of eight different churches arranged symmetrically around a central atrium. Today the cathedral operates as a museum, allowing tourists a glimpse into her vast expanse, the story behind her original construction and her repeated renovations and redevelopments.
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