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.
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.
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.
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.