Russia in detail

Directory

Bargaining

Prices are fixed in shops, but at souvenir markets, such as Izmailovo in Moscow, polite haggling over prices is a good idea.

Dangers & Annoyances

Despite the strain in relations with the West, Russia is generally a safe country in which to travel.

  • Don’t leave any valuables or bags inside your car. Valuables lying around hotel rooms also tempt providence.
  • It’s generally safe to leave your belongings unguarded when using the toilets on trains, but you’d be wise to get to know your fellow passengers first.
  • Pickpockets and purse-snatchers operate in big cities and major towns. Keep your valuables close.
  • Avoid drinking with dodgy strangers and discussing international politics when drunk.

Dangerous Regions

Check with your government’s foreign affairs ministry at home or your embassy in Russia for the latest danger zones. Although it's possible to travel in Northeast Caucasus (Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia) these days, the area remains volatile. An Islamist insurgency is smouldering at all times and law-enforcement bodies are rarely concerned about sticking to the law.

In other parts of Russia, certain isolated villages suffer from the unpredictable side effects of chronic alcoholism, especially in western Tuva, where locals are frequently drunk and armed with knives.

In more remote areas of the country, specific natural hazards include bears and, from late May to July, potentially fatal tick-borne encephalitis (particularly in Siberia and Ussuriland in the Russian Far East). And, if trekking in Kamchatka, remember that many of those volcanoes are active.

Border Zones

Official border crossings aside, Russia's borders are usually off-limits and care should be taken when approaching. Trekking in some border areas is allowed, but you will need to possess a permit, which although free can take at least 60 days to process. Being caught near borders without a permit could result in a large fine at best and deportation at worst. The same goes for Russia's closed cities (usually associated with the military in some way).

Then there are regulated areas (Зоны с регламентированным посещением для иностранных граждан), mainly wilderness zones scattered across the country, for which you need official permission from the FSB to enter. These are not obvious and rarely marked – if you are planning any serious back-country exploration, it's worth checking first what official permits you may need to avoid incurring fines or deportation.

Government Travel Advice

The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.

  • Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
  • British Foreign Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
  • Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca)
  • US State Department (http://travel.state.gov)

Racism & Discrimination

Racism is a problem. Russian neo-Nazi and skinhead groups are violent and have been linked to many murders.

Although the number of incidents has significantly decreased over the last 10 years, attacks on Africans and Asians on city streets are not uncommon. Visitors of African, Middle Eastern and Asian descent should be aware that they may not always receive the warmest of welcomes, though Russian racism seems particularly focused on Central Asians and people from the Caucasus.

Racist attitudes or statements can also come from highly educated Russians. Anti-Semitism, which was state-sponsored during Soviet times, is still easily stirred up by right-wing political parties.

It’s a good idea to be vigilant on the streets around Hitler’s birthday (20 April), when bands of right-wing thugs have been known to roam around spoiling for a fight with anyone who doesn’t look Russian. Another potentially risky day is 2 August, when streets and parks are swarming with ex-paratroopers who celebrate their holiday with copious amounts of alcohol.

Widespread anti-American and anti-Western sentiments may sometimes create tense situations, though violence is unlikely.

Scams

Be wary of officials, such as police (or people posing as police), asking to see your papers or tickets at stations – there’s a small chance they will try to find something wrong with your documents and hold them to ransom. The only course of action is to remain calm and polite and stand your ground. Try to enlist the help of a passer-by to translate (or at least witness what is going on).

Transport & Road Safety

Take care when crossing the road in large cities: some crazy drivers completely ignore traffic lights, while others tear off immediately when the lights change (which can be suddenly), leaving you stranded in the middle of the road. Many cars stop at zebra crossings these days, but some don't, so make sure all lanes are safe before crossing.

Discount Cards

Full-time students and people aged under 26 can sometimes (but not always) get a substantial discount on admissions – always flash your student card or International Student Identity Card (ISIC) before paying.

Electricity

Access electricity (220V, 50Hz AC) with a European plug with two round pins. A few places still have the old 127V system. Some trains and hotel bathrooms have 110V and 220V shaver plugs.

Embassies & Consulates

For a list of Russian embassies and consulates overseas see www.russianembassy.net. If you will be travelling in Russia for a long period of time (say a month or more), and particularly if you’re heading to remote locations, it’s wise to register with your embassy. This can be done over the phone or by email.

Australian Embassy

Belarusian Embassy

Canadian Embassy

Chinese Embassy

Finnish Embassy

French Embassy

German Embassy

Irish Embassy

Japanese Embassy

Latvian Embassy

Lithuanian Embassy

Mongolian Embassy

Netherlands Embassy

New Zealand Embassy

Norwegian Consulate

Polish Embassy

UK Embassy

Ukrainian Embassy

US Embassy

Emergency & Important Numbers

Russia's country code7
International access code8
General emergency number112
Fire101 or 01
Police102 or 02
Ambulance103 or 03

Etiquette

Russians are sticklers for formality. They’re also rather superstitious. Follow these tips to avoid faux pas.

  • Visiting homes Shaking hands across the threshold is considered unlucky; wait until you’re fully inside. Remove your shoes and coat on entering a house. Always bring a gift. If you give anyone flowers, make sure it’s an odd number – even numbers of blooms are for funerals.
  • Religion Women should cover their heads and bare shoulders when entering a church. In some monasteries and churches women are also required to wear a skirt – wraps are usually available at the door. Men should remove their hats in church and not wear shorts.
  • Eating & drinking Russians eat resting their wrists on the table edge, with fork in left hand and knife in the right. Vodka toasts are common at shared meals – it’s rude to refuse to join in and traditional (and good sense) to eat a little something after each shot.

Insurance

We strongly recommend taking out travel insurance. Check the small print to see if the policy covers potentially dangerous sporting activities, such as diving or trekking. For medical treatment, some policies pay doctors or hospitals directly but most require you to pay on the spot and claim later (keep all receipts and documentation). Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home. Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Internet Access

Installing a pay-as-you-go Russian SIM card with unlimited traffic on your smartphone is the easiest way to ensure constant access. These are available at airports and most shopping malls.

Wi-fi is common across Russia and usually access is free (or available for the cost of a cup of coffee). You may have to ask for a password (parol) to get online. Most of the time these days you also input your mobile phone number. Sometimes this will need to be a Russian number (ie one starting with +7); if you don't have one, ask a local if you can use their number.

If you don't have your own wi-fi-enabled device, it's probably easiest to get online in the business centres of hotels or at hostels that have a computer terminal.

LGBT Travellers

  • Russia is a conservative country and being gay is generally frowned upon. LGBT people face stigma, harassment and violence in their everyday lives.
  • Homosexuality isn't illegal, but promoting it (and other LGBT lifestyles) is. What constitutes promotion is at the discretion of the authorities.
  • There are active and relatively open gay and lesbian scenes in both Moscow and St Petersburg. Elsewhere, the gay scene tends to be underground.
  • Visit http://english.gay.ru for information, good links and a resource for putting you in touch with personal guides for Moscow and St Petersburg.
  • Coming Out (www.comingoutspb.com) is the site of a St Petersburg–based support organisation.

Media

  • Newspapers Main ones are government-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the popular dailies Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda, and the left-leaning daily Trud. Novaya Gazeta is known for its investigative journalism, as is the online news site Meduza (https://meduza.io)
  • TV Channel 1 (Pervy Kanal), NTV, Rossiya, Kultura, Sport 1, RenTV and the English-language Russia Today. Each region has a number of local channels, while in many hotels you’ll have access to CNN and BBC World, plus several more satellite channels in English and other languages.
  • Radio Broken into three bands: AM, UKV (66MHz to 77MHz) and FM (100MHz to 107MHz). A Western-made FM radio usually won’t go lower than 85MHz.
  • DVD Russian DVDs are region code 5.

Money

Credit and debit cards accepted. ATMs plentiful. Euros or US dollars best currencies for exchange.

More Information

  • If prices are listed in US dollars or euros, you will still be presented with a final bill in roubles.
  • There are ATMs on every corner around the country these days; look out for signs that say bankomat (БАНКОМАТ).
  • Credit cards are commonly accepted in urban centres, but don’t expect to be able to use them in more off-the-beaten-track spots and rural areas.
  • Inform your bank or credit card provider of the dates you’ll be travelling in Russia and using your card, to avoid a situation where the card is blocked.

Credit Cards

Credit cards are commonly accepted, but don’t rely on them outside of major cities and towns. Visa and Mastercard are the most widespread card types, while American Express can be problematic in some hotels and shops. Most sizeable cities have banks or exchange bureaux that will give you a cash advance on your credit card, but be prepared for paperwork in Russian.

Note that Western credit cards are not accepted in Russian-occupied Crimea, which officially is the territory of Ukraine, due to economic sanctions.

Currency

The Russian currency is the rouble (рубль), abbreviated as ‘р' in Russian or R in English. There are 100 kopeks in a rouble and these come in coin denominations of one (rarely seen), five, 10 and 50. Also issued in coins, roubles come in amounts of one, two, five and 10, with banknotes in values of 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 roubles.

Exchange Rates

AustraliaA$1R49
CanadaC$1R51
Europe€1R76
Japan¥100R59
New ZealandNZ$1R45
UKUK£1R87
USUS$1R67

For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.

Exchanging Money

You’ll usually get the best exchange rates for US dollars and euros. British pounds are sometimes accepted in big cities, but the exchange rates are not so good; other currencies incur abysmal rates and are often virtually unchangeable.

Any currency you bring should be pristine: banks and exchange bureaux do not accept old, tatty bills with rips or tears. For US dollars, make certain they are the post-2006 designs printed with large offset portraits.

Carrying around wads of cash is neither a necessity, nor the security problem you might imagine – nowadays there are a lot of Russians with plenty more money on them than you. For security, though, divide your money into three or four stashes hidden out of view about your person.

Every town of any size will have at least one bank (most often Sberbank) or exchange office. You might be asked to show your passport. Rates can vary from one establishment to the next (and are linked to how much cash you want to change – larger amounts get better rates) so it’s always worth shopping around.

Tipping

It is customary to tip in restaurants and cafes, but elsewhere it's optional. You are not expected to tip when you buy drinks from a bar.

  • Hotels Only in the most luxurious need you tip bellhops etc, and only if service is good.
  • Guides Around 10% of their daily rate; a small gift is also appreciated.
  • Restaurants Leave around 10% if the service warrants it.
  • Taxis No need to tip.

Travellers Cheques

Travellers cheques are no longer a preferred method of carrying funds and will prove difficult to exchange in Russia.

Opening Hours

Banks 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday, some open 9am to 5pm Saturday

Bars and Clubs noon to midnight Sunday to Thursday, to 6am Friday and Saturday

Cafes 9am to 10pm

Post Offices 8am to 8pm or 9pm Monday to Friday, shorter hours Saturday and Sunday

Restaurants noon to midnight

Shops 10am to 8pm

Supermarkets and Food stores 9am to 11pm or 24 hours

Photography

  • Use judgment and discretion when taking photos of people. It’s always better to ask first, and if the person doesn’t want to be photographed, respect their privacy; older people can be uneasy about being photographed. In Russian, ‘May I take a photograph of you?’ is ‘Mozhno vas sfotografirovat?’
  • Be very careful about photographing stations, official-looking buildings and any type of military-security structure – if in doubt, put your camera away.
  • Some museums and galleries forbid flash pictures, some ban all photography and most will charge you extra to snap away (typically R100). Some caretakers in historical buildings and churches will also charge you for the privilege of using a still or video camera.

Post

The Russian postal service is Pochta Rossia (www.pochta.ru). Pochta (ПОЧТАМТ) refers to any post office, glavpochtamt to a main post office and mezhdunarodny glavpochtamt to an international one.

Outward post is slow but fairly reliable; if you want to be certain, use registered post (zakaznaya pochta). Airmail letters take two to three weeks from Moscow and St Petersburg to the UK, longer from other cities and three to four weeks to the US or Australasia. To send a postcard or letter up to 20g anywhere in the world by air costs R37.

In major cities you can usually find the services of at least one of the international express carriers, such as FedEx or DHL.

Incoming mail is so unreliable that many companies, hotels and individuals use private services with addresses in Germany or Finland (a private carrier completes the mail’s journey to its Russian destination). Other than this, your reliable options for receiving mail in Russia are nil: there’s no poste restante, and embassies and consulates won’t hold mail for transient visitors.

If sending mail to Russia or trying to receive it, note that addresses should be in reverse order: Russia (Россия), postal code (if known), city, street address, then name.

Public Holidays

In addition to the following official days, many businesses (but not restaurants, shops and museums) close for a week of bank holidays between 1 January and at least 8 January. Bank holidays are typically declared to merge national holidays with the nearest weekend.

New Year’s Day 1 January

Russian Orthodox Christmas Day 7 January

Defender of the Fatherland Day 23 February

International Women’s Day 8 March

International Labour Day/Spring Festival 1 May

Victory Day 9 May

Russian Independence Day 12 June

Unity Day 4 November

Smoking

  • Smoking Banned in public places, including bars, hotels, restaurants (if there is a smoking area, it will be separate or on a street terrace), children’s playgrounds, train station platforms and at the end of carriages on long-distance trains. If you're caught smoking in such places, you could be liable for fines of up to R1500.

Taxes & Refunds

Sales tax (VAT) of 18% (10% for food and children's products) is included in the prices of goods and services.

At the time of research a pilot project was in the process of being set up to allow visitors to recover part of the VAT paid on purchases (other than food) of R10,000 or more. The project will involve a limited number of outlets, mainly fashion and luxury brand retailers such as some Bosco stores, TSUM, DLT, Grand Hotel Europe gallery and the Crocus City Mall in Moscow, St Petersburg and Sochi.

Telephone

Local calls from homes and most hotels are free. To make a long-distance call or to call a mobile from most phones, first dial 8, wait for a second dial tone, then dial the area code and phone number. To make an international call dial 8, wait for a second dial tone, then dial 10, then the country code etc. Some phones are for local calls only and won’t give you that second dial tone.

To place an international call from a mobile phone, dial + and then the country code.

Mobile Phones

Prepaid SIM cards are readily available. International roaming possible.

More Information

Major phone networks offering pay-as-you-go deals include Beeline, Megafon, MTS and Tele2.

Reception is available right along the Trans-Siberian Railway and increasingly in rural areas. MTS probably has the widest network, but also the worst reputation for customer service.

To call a mobile phone from a landline, the line must be enabled to make paid (ie nonlocal) calls. SIMs and phone-call-credit top-up cards costing as little as R300 are available at mobile phone shops and kiosks across cities and towns as well as at airport arrival areas and train stations. Call prices are very low within local networks, and domestic roaming, which used to be an issue when moving between regions in the huge country, is being phased out.

Topping up your credit can be done online or via prepaid credit cards bought from kiosks or mobile phone shops, or, more commonly, via paypoint machines found in shopping centres, underground passes, and at metro and train stations. Choose your network, input your telephone number and the amount of credit you’d like, insert the cash and it’s done, minus a 3% to 10% fee for the transaction. Confirmation of the top-up comes via a text message (in Russian) to your phone. You can also use the websites of mobile phone companies to top up your phone with a credit card.

Time

There are 11 time zones in Russia; the standard time is calculated from Moscow, which is GMT/UTC plus three hours year-round. In 2011, Russia abandoned the summer time switch, so the gap with European neighbours increases by an hour in winter. The following table is based on the summer time.

Moscow, St Petersburg, Kaliningradnoon
Samara1pm
Yekaterinburg & Tyumen2pm
Novosibirsk3pm
Krasnoyarsk & Tuva4pm
Irkutsk & Ulan-Ude5pm
Chita6pm
Vladivostok & Sydney7pm
Sakhalin region8pm
Kamchatka9pm
San Francisco2am
New York5am
London10am
Paris & Berlin11am
Riga, Kyiv, Helsinki & Minsknoon

Train Time

Right across Russia, timetables for long-distance trains are written according to Moscow time. The only exceptions are those for suburban services that run on local time – but not always, so double-check. Station clocks in most places are also set to Moscow time. We list how far ahead cities and towns are of Moscow time, eg Moscow +5hr, meaning five hours ahead of Moscow.

Toilets

  • Pay toilets are identified by the words платный туалет (platny tualet). In any toilet, Ж (zhensky) stands for women’s and М (muzhskoy) stands for men’s.
  • Public toilets are rare and can be dingy and uninviting. Toilets in major hotels, cafes or shopping centres are preferable.
  • In all public toilets, the babushka you pay your R20 to can also provide miserly rations of toilet paper; it’s always a good idea to carry your own.

Tourist Information

Official tourist offices are rare in Russia. Along the main trans-Siberian route, Western-style hostels are good sources of local information.

You’re mainly dependent on hotel receptionists and administrators, service bureaus and travel firms for information. The latter two exist primarily to sell accommodation, excursions and transport – if you don’t look like you want to book something, staff may or may not answer questions.

Travel with Children

Families planning to travel to Russia with their kids should have few problems, though there are a few things to note.

Baby changing rooms are uncommon, and you wouldn’t want to use many public toilets yourself, let alone change your baby’s nappy in them. Head back to your hotel or to a modern café or fast-food outlet where the toilets, while typically small, should be clean. Nappies, powdered milk and baby food are widely available except in very rural areas.

In all but the fanciest of restaurants children will be greeted with the warmest of welcomes. Some restaurants also have special children’s rooms with toys. Kids’ menus are uncommon, but you shouldn’t have much problem getting the little ones to guzzle bliny or bifshteks – a Russian-style hamburger served without bread, and often topped with a fried egg. Make sure you check whether the milk is pasteurised – outside major cities it often isn’t.

There’s no shortage of toyshops, but don’t expect to find many, if any, English-language publications for kids. In Moscow and St Petersburg there several restaurants with play sections for kids.

Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children contains useful advice on how to cope with kids on the road and what to bring to make things go more smoothly.

Travellers with Disabilities

Travellers with disabilities are not well catered for in Russia. Many footpaths are in poor condition and potentially hazardous and there is a lack of access ramps and lifts for wheelchairs. However, attitudes are enlightened and things are slowly changing. Major museums such as the Hermitage offer good access for those with disabilities. Liberty is a tour agency specialising in wheelchair-accessible tours in St Petersburg.

Before setting off, get in touch with your national support organisation (preferably with the travel officer, if there is one).

Nican

Mare Nostrum

Tourism For All

Accessible Journeys

Mobility International USA

Volunteering

Local enterprises, environmental groups and charities that are trying to improve Russia’s environmental and social scorecard are usually on the lookout for volunteers. A good example is the Great Baikal Trail (www.greatbaikaltrail.org) helping to construct a hiking trail around Lake Baikal.

  • CCUSA (www.ccusa.com/programs/campcounselorsrussia.aspx) This US-based organisation runs programs for those wanting to volunteer on Russian youth summer camps.
  • Go Overseas (www.gooverseas.com/volunteer-abroad/russia) Lists a range of opportunities, from working in hospitals to summer youth camps.
  • International Cultural Youth Exchange (www.icye.org) Offers a variety of volunteer projects, mostly in Samara.
  • Language Link Russia (http://jobs.languagelink.ru) Volunteer to work at language centres across the country.
  • School of Russian & Asian Studies (http://students.sras.org/volunteer-opportunities-in-russia) US-based SRAS has complied an online list of volunteer opportunities in Russia.
  • World 4U Russian volunteer association.

Weights & Measures

  • Weights & Measures Russia uses the metric system.

Women Travellers

Russian women are very independent and, in general, you won’t attract attention by travelling alone. That said, it’s not uncommon for a woman dining or drinking alone to be mistaken for a prostitute. Sexual harassment on the streets is rare, but a woman alone should certainly avoid ad hoc taxis at night – have one called for you from a reputable company.

Stereotyping of gender roles remains strong. Russian men will also typically rush to open doors for you, help you put on your coat and, on a date, act like a ‘traditional’ gentleman. (In return, they may be expecting you to act like a ‘traditional’ lady.)

Russian women tend to dress up and wear lots of make-up on nights out. If you wear casual gear, you may feel uncomfortable at a restaurant, a theatre or the ballet; in rural areas, wearing revealing clothing will probably attract unwanted attention.

Work

Bureaucracy makes getting a job or starting a business in Russia a hassle. It is wise to use a professional relocation firm to navigate the country’s thicket of rules and regulations surrounding employment of foreigners. Good websites for expats are www.expat.ru and www.redtape.ru/forum.