Russia (Russian: Россия, Rossiya) is by far the largest country in the world, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area, spanning Eastern Europe and northern Asia, as well as eleven time zones. While geographically mostly in Asia, the bulk of Russia's population is concentrated in the European part, and, culturally, Russia is unmistakably European. Much of the Asian part, however, has more in common with Kazakhstan, Mongolia, or Northeast China than with Eastern Europe. Russia boasts a rich history and culture.
|Central Russia (Moscow, Ivanovo Oblast, Kaluga Oblast, Kostroma Oblast, Moscow Oblast, Ryazan Oblast, Smolensk Oblast, Tver Oblast, Tula Oblast, Vladimir Oblast, Yaroslavl Oblast)|
One of the historic centers of Russian culture, dominated by spectacular architecture and historical buildings, as well as housing the capital city, Moscow.
|Chernozemye (Belgorod Oblast, Bryansk Oblast, Kursk Oblast, Lipetsk Oblast, Oryol Oblast, Tambov Oblast, Voronezh Oblast)|
South of Central Russia and famous for its rich, deep, black soil (Chernozem is Russian for "black soil"), it was an important battleground during World War II.
|Northwestern Russia (Saint Petersburg, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Karelia, Komi Republic, Leningrad Oblast, Murmansk Oblast, Nenetsia, Novgorod Oblast, Pskov Oblast, Vologda Oblast)|
Home to the former imperial capital Saint Petersburg, also known as the "northern capital". It combines the beautiful landscape of the large lakes Ladoga and Onega, and medieval forts of Pskov Oblast, with the lacustrine region of Karelia, and is a gateway from Scandinavia.
|Kaliningrad Oblast (often considered part of Northwestern Russia)|
The historically German region of East Prussia, transferred to the USSR after Germany's defeat in World War II, and now Russia's only exclave, which allows Russia to share borders with Poland and Lithuania.
|Southern Russia (Adygea, Chechnya, Crimea, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Krasnodar Krai, North Ossetia, Rostov Oblast, Stavropol Krai)|
The areas by the Black Sea are the warmest in the entire country, with beautiful resort cities such as subtropical Sochi, juxtaposed with the cold, mountainous and troubled republics of the North Caucasus.
|Volga Region (Astrakhan Oblast, Chuvashia, Kirov Oblast, Mari El, Mordovia, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Penza Oblast, Samara Oblast, Saratov Oblast, Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Ulyanovsk Oblast, Volgograd Oblast)|
The most industrialized region in the country, known for producing wide-scale military equipment in cities such as Izhevsk, with a rich culture and history including the Tatar capital and "Third capital of Russia", Kazan
|Urals Region (Bashkortostan, Chelyabinsk Oblast, Khantia-Mansia, Kurgan Oblast, Orenburg Oblast, Perm Krai, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Tyumen Oblast, Yamalia)|
One of the wealthiest regions, known for producing many of the resources Russia needs today. Named after the vast Ural mountains, which also form the border between Europe and Asia.
|Siberia (Altai Krai, Altai Republic, Buryatia, Evenkia, Irkutsk Oblast, Kemerovo Oblast, Khakassia, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk Oblast, Omsk Oblast, Taymyria, Tomsk, Tuva, Zabaykalsky Krai)|
The largest area in the country - diverse in landscape and yearly temperatures with the stunning Lake Baikal, the world's longest rivers, and swamps in the center and north. This region contains many Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and other ethnic groups that separate Siberia from European Russia.
|Russian Far East (Amur Oblast, Chukotka, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Kamchatka Krai, Khabarovsk Krai, Magadan Oblast, Primorsky Krai, Sakhalin Oblast, Yakutia)|
One of the coldest regions in Russia, home to the coldest city in the world, Yakutsk. World-famous for national parks, beautiful scenery and mountains, and the volcanoes of Kamchatka. Also a gateway to North Korea and China.
Here is a representative sample of nine Russian cities with their Anglicized and Russian Cyrillic names:
- 1 Moscow (Москва) — Russia's gargantuan capital is one of the world's greatest cities and has endless attractions to offer an adventurous visitor
- 2 Irkutsk (Иркутск) — the world's favorite Siberian city, located within an hour of Lake Baikal on the Trans-Siberian Railway
- 3 Kazan (Казань) — the capital of Tatar culture is an attractive city in the heart of the Volga Region with an impressive kremlin
- 4 Nizhny Novgorod (Нижний Новгород) — often overlooked despite being one of the largest cities in Russia, Nizhny Novgorod is well worth a visit for its Kremlin, Sakharov museum, and nearby Makaryev Monastery
- 5 Saint Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург) — formerly called Leningrad, Russia's cultural and former political capital is home to The Hermitage, one of the world's best museums, while the city center is a living open-air museum in its own right, making this city one of the world's top travel destinations
- 6 Sochi (Сочи) — Russia's favorite Black Sea beach resort was largely unknown to foreigners until it hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic Games
- 7 Vladivostok (Владивосток) — often referred to as "Russia's San Francisco," full of hilly streets and battleships. Russia's principal Pacific city is the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Highway and Trans-Siberian Railway
- 8 Volgograd (Волгоград) — formerly called Stalingrad, this city was the scene of perhaps the deciding battle of World War II, and now home to a massive war memorial
- 9 Yekaterinburg (Екатеринбург) — the center of the Urals region and one of Russia's principal cultural centers is a good stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway and an arrival point for visitors to the Urals, the second Russian financial center
- 1 Border of Europe and Asia — it's clearly defined near Yekaterinburg, and a very popular stop for photo ops straddling the continents!
- 2 Golden Ring — a popular loop of pretty historical cities and towns forming a ring northeast of Moscow
- 3 Kamchatka — the region of active volcanoes, geysers, mineral springs, and bears walking in the streets.
- 4 Kizhi — one of the most precious sites in all Russia, Kizhi Island on Lake Onega is famous for its spectacular ensemble of traditional wooden churches
- 5 Komi Virgin Forests — profoundly remote, and hard-to-visit, but this is by far Europe's largest wild area, containing Europe's largest National Park, Yugyd Va
- 6 Lake Baikal — the "pearl of Siberia" is the world's deepest and biggest lake by volume and a remarkable destination for all who love the outdoors
- 7 Mamaev Kurgan — a massive monument and museum on and about the battlefield upon which the twentieth century's most pivotal battle played out: Stalingrad
- 8 Solovetsky Islands — far north in the White Sea and home to the beautiful Solovetsky Monastery, which has served as both a military fortress and a gulag throughout its tortuous history
|Currency||Russian ruble (RUB)|
|Population||146.8 million (2017)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Schuko, Europlug)|
|Emergencies||112, +7-01 (fire department), 02 (police), +7-03 (emergency medical services), 101 (fire department), 102 (police), 103 (emergency medical services)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Russia, by mind, one can't understand,
«Умом Россию не понять,
An imperial power
Russian identity can be traced to the Middle Ages, its first state known as Kievan Rus and its religion rooted in Byzantine Christianity (i.e. Greek Orthodox as opposed to Latin Catholic) that was adopted from Constantinople. However, it was not considered part of mainstream Europe until the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, who ruled until 1725. He was a dedicated Europhile and the first Tsar to visit 'Europe proper', having visited several European countries as an apprentice while traveling incognito prior to his rise to power (there are commemorative monuments to him at Greenwich and some spots in the Netherlands, where he resided briefly).
Peter established the Russian Empire in 1721, although the Romanov dynasty had been in power since 1613. One of Russia's most charismatic and forceful leaders, Peter built the foundations of the empire on a centralized and authoritarian political culture and forced the "Westernization" of the nation. As part of this effort, he moved the capital from the medieval and insular city of Moscow to St. Petersburg, a city built by force of his will and the strength of his treasury. Modeled largely on French and Italianate styles, St. Petersburg became known as Russia's "Window on the West" and adopted the manners and style of the royal courts of western Europe, to the point of adopting French as its preferred language.
The Russian Empire reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many colorful and enlightened figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Nevertheless, the gulf between the authoritarian dynasty and its subjects became more apparent with each generation. While Russia proved to be at least equal to some of the great powers as early as in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) and the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), it wasn't until Napoleon's ill-fated invasion that the rest of Europe took note, that Russia had risen to a great power on equal footing with France, Prussia or Austria. However, due in part to its ultra-authoritarian reactionary government, this position of power didn't last long. By the late 19th century, political crises followed in rapid succession, with rebellion and repression locked a vicious cycle of death and despair. The occasional attempts by the Romanovs and the privileged classes to reform the society and ameliorate the condition of the underclasses invariably ended in failure. A contributing factor may well have been that the (relatively) liberal and reformist "czar-liberator" Alexander II got assassinated by an Anarchist for his troubles in 1881. After his death, his successors were even less willing to reform. To make matters worse, Russia proved unlucky in foreign policy and both the Crimean and the Russo-Japanese wars proved disastrous militarily but even more politically. The 1905 revolution - the last one that could be more or less suppressed - was in part caused by the apparent "non-entity" (in European eyes at least) of Japan humiliating the Russian military.
Russia entered World War I on the side of Britain and France, ostensibly to defend Serbia, like other European Empires with catastrophic results for itself. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, proved to be feckless, weak, and distracted by personal tragedies (such as the heir apparent's hemophilia) and the burdens of the war. While at first the Russian military proved to be stronger than Germany had anticipated and threatened to negate Germany's (than) advances on the western front with victories in the east, after the Russian defeat at Tannenberg, the tide turned, and by 1917, morale was abysmal, desertion rampant and a general call for peace omnipresent.
The government proved unable to hold back the Russian Revolutions of 1917 (a bourgeois one in February and a Leninist one in October). While the short-lived provisional government that resulted from the revolution of February 1917 tried in vain to fight on (in part on French and British urging as they feared the troops engaged against Russia would overwhelm them), the Bolsheviki under their leader Vladimir Ilyich "Lenin" Ulyanov were quick to promise bread, peace and an end to the unfair distribution of land and wealth. Many people believed Lenin's promises and by October 1917 the communist Bolsheviki had taken over Moscow and St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd and soon to be renamed Leningrad) and thus the effective control of the government. Deposed and held under house arrest, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children—and with them, the Romanov dynasty—were killed by gunfire on the order of the new government under Lenin in the basement of a Yekaterinburg manor house and buried in unmarked graves, which were found after the fall of communism and reburied in the St. Paul and Peter Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.
Headquarters of communism
- See also: Soviet Union
World War I strained Imperial Russia's governmental and social institutions to the breaking point of the Revolution in 1917. Following a brief interim government headed by social democrat Alexander Kerensky, the Bolshevik faction (named after Russian "bolshoi" great, due to the faction being the majority in one internal decision although generally in the minority) of the Communist Party under Marxist Vladimir Lenin seized power, withdrew Russia from the war, and launched a purge of clerics, political dissidents, aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, and the kulak class of wealthy independent farmers and landholders. A brutal civil war between the "Red Army" of the communist leadership and the "White Army" of the nobility and middle classes lasted until late 1920. In the civil war, both reds and whites (and variously other, smaller factions) committed war crimes and devastated the country well beyond what it had suffered in the First World War. In his years in power, Lenin used the Red Army (organized and built up in no small part by Lev Trotsky whom many saw as his designated successor), the internal security apparatus, and the Communist Party leadership to kill imprison or exile millions of political opponents, launch a terror campaign to insure strict Communist orthodoxy, secure control over the fragments of the old Romanov Empire, and "collectivize" farmers and farming into gigantic state-owned farms.
The revolutionary state was not directly ruled by the officials in titular control of the government, which was established in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The government in the commonly understood sense was largely irrelevant both in fact and in Communist theory throughout the years of Communist control. The real power lay in the leadership of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the internal security apparatus (secret police).
Following founding premier Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle among the Bolshevik leadership ensued, with Josef Stalin emerging as the new leader of the Communist Party and dictator of the USSR. While Lenin almost certainly would have preferred Trotsky to succeed him, Stalin went as far as inserting himself into pictures with Lenin and removing others to make his claim to power seem "legitimate". Stalin's brutal rule (1928–53) was marked by waves of "purges" in which suspected dissidents in the government, the Party, the Red Army, and even the security forces were executed or exiled to gulags (prison camps) on little or no evidence. In addition to following up Lenin's forced collectivization of agriculture and his destruction of private property and economic liberty, Stalin introduced a ruthless economic system ("socialism in one country") that rapidly industrialized the USSR. While the death toll was abhorrent, Stalin's first five-year plan managed to create a heavy industry almost out of thin air, a fact that would prove decisive in the Second World War. Mao Zedong's later "Great Leap Forward" in China was modeled along with Stalin's plan with an even higher death toll and less measurable economic success as a result. Stalin's rivals to succeed Lenin, and critics arising thereafter typically ended up as victims of the purges. Although seen as less of an idealist than his predecessor, Stalin did relentlessly pursue international revolution through the Russia-based Comintern control over the communist parties of foreign countries, and through foreign espionage. If you want to get an idea about Stalin's rule, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell were in large part based on his disillusion with communism after hearing of Stalin's atrocities.
World War II, from a Soviet perspective, began with Stalin abruptly entering into a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany. The Treaty, which shook Western governments to their core and stunned the Left in Europe and America, guaranteed Hitler a free hand to launch a war against Poland, France, and the United Kingdom. The pact also granted the USSR leave to invade and conquer neutral Finland and take over all of eastern Poland after the German invasion in 1939. Finally in June 1941, having conquered France and most of the rest of Western Europe, Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally and invaded the USSR. A change to an alliance of necessity with the Western nations was instrumental in the defeat of Nazism in 1945. The Red Army's bloody campaigns on the Eastern Front as well as the murderous warfare and related crimes of the Nazis resulted in over 20 million Russian deaths, most of them civilian victims, or soldiers thrown into ghastly land battles. Both sides treated prisoners of war in an abhorrent fashion and a large number of them died on both sides. The last German POWs only returned in the mid-1950s in exchange for political recognition by West Germany.
After the Second World War, the USSR rapidly moved to establish control over all of Eastern Europe. It annexed the Baltic states and installed Communist regimes in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania and effectively crushed political dissent. In Asia, it also helped to install Communist governments in Mongolia, China, North Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, and Laos. Western critics came to describe the USSR and its European and Asian "satellites" as trapped behind an "Iron Curtain" of ruthless totalitarianism and command economies. Yugoslavia's Communist Party managed to establish a degree of independence from Moscow, but uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) were ruthlessly crushed by the Soviet Army.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet heavy industry and military might have continued to grow under Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955) and Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964), Stalin's successors as General Secretary of the Party. Although attempts were made to produce consumer goods, the efforts usually failed, and the USSR continued to struggle under the yoke of collectivization and totalitarianism. In 1956, Khrushchev renounced the excesses of Stalin's regime and commenced his purge of sorts to "de-Stalinize" the economy and society of the USSR. Results were mixed, and Khrushchev was deposed. However, as he later remarked, being deposed and not murdered can be seen as a late success of his policies. In the late 1950s, the USSR jump-started the space race and was the first to launch a thing (Sputnik), a living thing (Laika the dog), a man (Yuri Gagarin), and a woman (Valentina Tereshkova) into space. However, soon after those advances, the brilliant head designer Sergei Korolev died of natural causes in 1966, and a combination of infighting among his successors, lack of funds, and incorrect technological and strategic decisions led to the Soviet space program being overtaken by the US thereafter. When the moon landing in 1969 proved that the Americans were now in the lead, the focus of the Soviet space program was instead changed to unmanned probes and a space station. This resulted in the hugely successful MIR (Russian for peace) and large parts of the International Space Station built together with the Western Nations after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union reached its military, diplomatic, and industrial peak during the closing years of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). But continuing corruption and economic malaise marched inexorably to a crisis that led General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–91) to introduce glasnost (openness) and perestroika (limited economic freedom). His initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the empire. The European satellites broke free from rule by the USSR and their local Communist leaders, and the USSR collapsed into 15 independent countries.
A nascent democracy and the rise of Vladimir Putin
The Russian Federation emerged from the Soviet Union, accompanied by a storm of problems. The first leader of the newly formed nation was Boris Yeltsin, who rose to power by standing up to an attempted putsch by the KGB. Yeltsin largely succeeded in transferring control over the country from the old Soviet elite to his oligarchical apparatus. Yeltsin was a charismatic leader widely supported by the West, but his government proved to be unstable and marred by corruption and Yeltsin's alcoholism. A wave of economic hardship put Russia's economy in ruins and left the military underfunded and undisciplined. During this time, Russian organized crime and its relationship with the government, now universally recognized as corrupt and incompetent, assumed greater control over the nation, even as political reforms were taking place. Ironically, before he came to power Yeltsin had labeled Russia as the "biggest Mafia state in the world".
Russia was also at war with Chechen separatists, which had devastating consequences for the already weak Russian economy. Widespread corruption, poverty, and large-scale political and social problems eventually forced Yeltsin to resign, and Vladimir Putin filled his remaining term (January - April 2000) as President. An ex-KGB officer under the Communist regime (serving abroad in East Germany for a while), and head of the revived Russian spy service under Yeltsin, Putin imposed his personality and will on the unruly and criminal quarters of the country, but has been much condemned for his authoritarian behavior. Having served his constitutionally limited terms (2000-2008), Putin titularly stepped down as President but continued to control the government through his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev. To no one's surprise, Putin resumed the presidency when eligible again in 2012. In 2014 and 2015 Russia came under increasing pressure and criticism after numerous foreign and domestic policies including the way Putin and his party handle political opposition and the nationalistic overtones in some of his policies and speeches. The situation in Crimea and Ukraine is said by the EU and US to be Putin's fault though he at least partially lays the blame on them.
Since 2000, under Putin's direct and indirect rule, the economy has bounced back from crisis, thanks in no small part to five-fold increases in the prices of raw materials Russia has in abundance. Inflation has dropped down from the triple digits into single units, poverty has been reduced, and Russia has re-emerged as a dominant global economic, political, and military power. This performance has often been called the "Russian Miracle." Though Putin continues to be much condemned in the West, as a result of Russia's economic and military successes under him, he enjoys a very high level of popularity in Russia, with his domestic approval ratings hitting unprecedented levels amid a wave of national pride following Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Today, modern Russia still has to fully recover from the doldrums that have hit the country since 2014, with inflation driving up prices, an increasingly unstoppable burden to combat pervasive corruption, an under-competitive political system, conflict in the North Caucasus, a demographic crisis, and decreasing economic competition. Russians also appear to be facing up to the problem of reconciling Putin's successes with his totalitarian and self-aggrandizing impulses. Nonetheless, Russians have achieved a much higher standard of living since the fall of the USSR. However, when the prices of some commodities, most notably petroleum plummeted in late 2014 and early 2015 this hit the Russian economy hard and its effects are still visible. Whether Russia can escape this dependence on its resource wealth remains yet to be seen.
The terrain consists of broad plains with low hills west of the Urals; vast coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia; uplands and mountains along southern border regions; mountainous and volcanic throughout much of the Russian Far East.
Russia is a cold country, but there are always shades in the grey. The contrast of tundra's permafrost, which occupies 65% of Russian land and exotic Black sea coast has in between the continental climate, which is the most inhabited zone of European Russia, southern regions of Siberia, and the Russian Far East. Its summers are always warm with a good portion of hot days enabling outdoor swimming in many rivers, lakes, and the seas.
Russia's list of holidays is divided into federally and regionally established, ethnic, historical, professional, and religious. The first two types are all-country day-off and should be taken into account while planning a trip. These are official holidays in Russian Federation:
- New Year Holidays (1–5 January) are often merged with Christmas and make up more than a week off.
- Orthodox Christmas (7 January).
- Fatherland Defender Day (23 February).
- International Women's Day (8 March).
- The Day of Spring and Labour (1 May).
- Victory Day (9 May).
- Day of Russia (12 June).
- People's Unity Day (4 November).
The Russian system of measurement is the same as the rest of the world apart from the US and Myanmar (Burma); the SI system. Expect to encounter degrees Celsius, kilometres, kilogrammes, litres, and so on. The archaic units for distance are versta and vershok; for weight — pud.
As of 2021, Russia spans eleven time zones, and Daylight Saving Time is not used. Formerly the country has experimented with a smaller number of time zones and with DST.
- Kaliningrad Time (UTC+2): Kaliningrad Oblast
- Moscow Time (UTC+3): Central Russia, Chernozemye, Northwestern Russia, Southern Russia, Volga Region (except Astrakhan Oblast, Samara Oblast, Saratov Oblast, Udmurtia, and Ulyanovsk Oblast).
- Samara Time (UTC+4): Astrakhan Oblast, Samara Oblast, Saratov Oblast, Udmurtia, and Ulyanovsk Oblast.
- Yekaterinburg Time (UTC+5): The Urals
- Omsk Time (UTC+6): Omsk Oblast
- Krasnoyarsk Time (UTC+7): Altai Krai, Altai Republic, Kemerovo Oblast, Khakassia, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Novosibirsk Oblast and Tomsk Oblast and Tuva
- Irkutsk Time (UTC+8): Eastern Siberia, except Tuva and Zabaykalsky Krai
- Yakutsk Time (UTC+9): Western Yakutia, Amur Oblast
- Vladivostok Time (UTC+10): Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Khabarovsk Krai, Magadan Oblast, Primorsky Krai, Sakhalin, central Yakutia
- Srednekolymsk Time (UTC+11): eastern Yakutia, Kuril Islands, Sakhalin
- Kamchatka Time (UTC+12): Chukotka, Kamchatka
- See also: Russian phrasebook
Russian is the main language of Russia. The language is a member of the East Slavic language family and is closely related to Ukrainian and Belarusian. Other Slavic languages such as Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech are not mutually intelligible but still share a slight similarity. Russian is considered one of the most difficult European languages for an English speaker to learn, mostly because of very complicated grammar. 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 "restoran" in the Roman alphabet, which means "restaurant") so you have a chance to recognize street names, labels, and public signs. Familiarizing yourself with Cyrillic is immensely helpful, not only for Russia but for several other countries as well, and not very difficult.
Learning Russian can be challenging for those who don't speak a Slavic language. The script, Cyrillic, uses many letters of the Latin alphabet but assigns many of them different sounds. The language employs three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), six grammatical cases, and free-fall stress, all of which conspire to make it a difficult prospect for the native English speaker.
English is becoming a requirement in the business world, and it's the most popular foreign language in the country. Although younger, educated Russians and those working in the service industry know enough English to have a basic conversation, very little of it is spoken, even in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some knowledge of Russian is essential for the independent traveler.
Any knowledge of Russian is bound to impress the locals, regardless of fluency. This said, Russians knowledgeable in English will, in some cases, offer to communicate in English, even if you try to talk to them in Russian. Don't be taken aback by this as it is not intended to discourage your efforts; Russians generally do not consider it good manners to speak to someone in a language they don't understand.
As the quality of instruction of foreign languages isn't that well developed, those who speak English may or may not deny that they know it out of fear of being misunderstood or discouraged. Chances are, you may be one of the very few English native speakers a Russian local has ever come across.
Russia has hundreds of languages and claims to support most of them. Soviet linguists documented them in the first few decades of the USSR and made sure they were given Cyrillic writing systems (except Karelian, Veps, Ingrian, Votic, and Ter Sami). Some were made local co-official languages. Southern Russia is lined with Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic languages; the northern with Finnic and Samoyed tongues. The southwest corner has a variety of Caucasian languages; the northeast has a few Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages.
The Russian Orthodox religion is one of the oldest branches of Christianity in the world and continues to have a very large following, despite having been repressed during the communist period, and has been recognized as the state religion since July 2020. The language spoken in Russian Orthodox church services is Old Church Slavonic, which differs considerably from modern Russian.
The citizens of the following countries do not need a visa:
- Abkhazia, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, South Africa, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela. Also holders of an Estonian alien's passport and a Latvian non-citizen passport
- Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cuba, Laos, Macao, Mongolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Seychelles, Thailand
Norwegians living within 30 km of the border:
- These individuals are permitted to enter Russia for up to 15 days without a visa provided they have been resident in the border zone for at least 3 years, and do not travel more than 30 km from the border.
- A border certificate, which is valid for multiple entries, must be obtained from the Russian consulate in Kirkenes in advance, so one should see it as a special kind of visa valid for multiple entries during up to 5 years. A similar arrangement exists for Poles living near the Kaliningrad area.
There are a few cases which allow visa-free access:
- Transit through Moscow Sheremetyevo, Moscow Domodedovo or Yekaterinburg Koltsovo airports does not require a transit visa, provided the traveller has a confirmed onward flight, remains in the airport for no more than 24 hours and is not in transit to or from Belarus and Kazakhstan (travel to and from these countries use domestic terminals). Passing through St. Petersburg Pulkovo airport requires a transit (or other) visa. Visas can, in very limited cases, be obtained from consular officers at the airports.
- Cruise passengers, arriving in and leaving from Russia by boat, do not need a visa if they stay in Russia less than 72 hours. Examples include the Saimaa canal cruises from Lappeenranta (Finland) to Vyborg and St.Peter Line's cruises to St Petersburg from Helsinki, Tallinn or Stockholm. Check to what extent you must keep to your group. Do not overstay the visa waiver. If you do overstay, you need to apply for an exit visa, need to pay a fine of at least €500 and will not be able to enter Russia on a visa waiver for the next five years. The visa process in this case may take over a week, during which you need to pay for your stay and food.
- Special events: the best known example was the "supporters visa" temporarily available for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. This was a less onerous visa process, but you had to have tickets for matches and booked accommodation, which meant paying top prices. That has come to an end but there are many other sporting and cultural events with a similar visa arrangement: upcoming events are listed on the Russian embassy website. Visitors with tickets to UEFA Euro 2020 games (in summer 2021) in St. Petersburg will be allowed to enter visa free under the same scheme.
Since 1 January 2021, the free electronic visas entitling visitors to enter certain parts of Russia are discontinued. They've been replaced by eVisas costing $40, allowing you to travel freely around Russia for 16 days, for tourism, business and participating in events. One limitation is that you can only enter and leave Russia through certain checkpoints (as of February 2021, 40 checkpoints) including major airports (though very few in eastern Russia) and ports, and a few land crossings (mostly to the Baltic states and to/from Kaliningrad), and two railway crossings to North Korea and nearby to China. In a nutshell: overland travel to and from most countries, including almost all train crossings, as well as entry directly into most of Asian Russia by plane require a full normal visa.
Eligible nationalities for these eVisas are the EU countries, Bahrain, China, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, North Korea, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Philippines, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, Vatican City.
The visa process
Everyone else requires a visa. And for those unfortunates the complexity of the process depends on the class of visa. Thirty-day tourist visas are fairly straightforward to acquire; 90-day (and more) business visas, less so. US citizens are eligible for 3-year multiple-entry business, homestay/private, humanitarian and tourist visas without an invitation (but with proof of booking arrangements). It is best to start the application process well in advance. While expedited processing is available to those who need visas quickly, it can double the application cost.
I want a tourist visa and I don't want to book any accommodation before I have my visa
Specialist Russian visa companies can do this for you and you don't have to worry about filing any paperwork with embassies. Just send them money, your passport and the relevant information.
However, it's cheaper (but slightly more work) to use these agencies to get you an invitation and then lodge your application at the embassy yourself.
Arranging a visa basically involves two steps:
- Getting an invitation and
- Applying for the visa.
You may arrive at any time on or after the start date of your visa's validity and may depart at any time on or before its expiry date. Normally, an exit visa is included in transit, private visit/homestay, tourist, and business visas so long as the visa is still valid. Other classes, such as student visas, still require a separate exit visa that can take up to three weeks to process.
Exit and re-entry during the validity period of your visa requires permits. Getting these permits is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that is best avoided entirely by getting a double- or multiple-entry visa in the first place.
If you're in Russia and have lost your passport, your sponsor, not your embassy, must apply to the Federal Migration Service to transfer your visa to your replacement passport. Having a copy of your old visa helps with this, but is not sufficient to let you depart. An exception is for U.S. citizens, who only need show proof that they had not exceeded their duration of permitted stay in order to depart (but a visa would be required for a return to Russia).
An unaccompanied minor of Russian nationality needs, apart from the regular requirements for adults, a notarized statements in Russian signed by both parents. This statement can be requested at the Russian embassy or consulate. The child is likely able to get into Russia without this statement, but will most likely be prevented by the Russian border guards from getting out of Russia at the airport!
1. Getting an invitation
The invitation type determines the visa. A tourist invitation gets you a tourist visa, a private visit invitation gets you a private visit visa, etc. Except for tourist visas, invitations are official documents issued by Russian government agencies and must be applied for by the person or organization inviting you.
Any invitation will include the intended dates of travel and the number of entries required (1, 2 or multiple). The dates on the invitation determine the period of the ensuing visa's validity. If in doubt of dates, ensure that the invitation covers a period longer than the intended stay: a tourist visa valid for 7 days costs the same as one valid for 30 days.
In the likely situation you have to buy your invitation, shop around globally: all invitations come from Russia and the company that gets it for you will have a base in Russia. It doesn't make a difference whether its website is based in Germany, the UK, the US or Eswatini. Many embassies and consulates only require a copy of the invitation; however this is not always the case so check with the embassy or consulate beforehand. If the original invitation is required, it will have to be flown from Russia anyway. It is only applying for the visa that generally requires the application to be made in the applicant's homeland.
A tourist invitation (also called reservation confirmation) is a letter of confirmation of booking and pre-payment of accommodation and travel arrangements in Russia. It is accompanied by a tourist voucher. These two documents can be issued only by "government approved" tour operators, hotels, online hotel booking services or Russian travel agencies (several Russian travel agencies have offices outside Russia and are adept at facilitating visa applications). "Government approval" here is not an endorsement of quality; it means that the company is registered with the Russian government. An ordinary hotel booking is not sufficient to constitute an invitation. Some hotels charge a fee to issue the invitation. Booking one night in a hotel will get you an invitation valid for one day (maybe two) and hence the resulting visa will be valid for a very brief time.
For independent travellers planning to travel around Russia, it is best to get an invitation through an agency. For a fee, these agencies will issue the necessary invitations and vouchers to any passport holder in any country. They do this without actually collecting any accommodation prepayment (and without providing any accommodation, of course). Two big players in the online tourist visa support document business are Way to Russia, a company with a US base (invitation US$30), and Real Russia with a British base (invitation ₤15). While the strict legality of such is questionable, these companies are well established and do enough not to upset the authorities. Most importantly, their services do not lead to problems for the traveller. However, if your itinerary is confined to only one hotel, then it makes sense to obtain the invitation documents directly from the hotel as the service fee will be similar.
Consider getting a private/homestay visa if you have friends or relatives in Russia (they do not necessarily have to be Russian). They would need to seek an invitation through their local Passport and Visa Division of the Federal Migration Service (formerly OVIR). These invitations tend to take at least a month to process. The inviting individual also becomes solely responsible for all your activities while in Russia and can be penalized heavily if something were to go wrong. Because of this, personal invitations are usually not available for a fee through the net.
Business invitations are issued by the government. They are generally time-consuming and costly to acquire but they can be quickly arranged for exorbitant fees. Any registered company in Russia can apply for a business invitation. Travel agencies and visa specialists can also get them issued for you. Business visas have longer validity than tourist visas. Being a tourist on a business visa is permitted, so anyone wanting more than a 30-day stay should get one of these. As a rough guide, one UK company can arrange a business invitation for a single 90-day stay for various amounts between ₤38 (for 12 working day processing) and ₤121 (for 2 working day processing).
Invitations for student visas are issued by the educational institution where you plan to study. Most universities and language schools are familiar with the process.
Some Russian local governments have a right to invite foreigners for cultural exchanges by sending a message directly to the Embassy or Consulate of Russia overseas, requesting the visa be issued to a particular foreigner or group of foreigners. Such messages are used instead of an invitation. This is normally the way to go if you are invited by the government.
2. Applying for the visa
Different embassies and consulates have different requirements for visa applications. They may issue visas by mail, they may require application in person, they may accept a copy of the invitation, they may require the original. They may accept payment by card, they may insist on a money order. Check with the embassy or consulate beforehand - in most cases it will be on their website. Holders of U.S., Canadian, and British passports typically have to complete a longer application. Getting a Russian visa issued away from your country of nationality or one you have a residence permit valid for at least three months can be tricky. This can ruin plans for east-to-west trans-Siberian trippers. In Asia, success (no means guaranteed) is most likely to be found in Hong Kong and Phnom Penh (if necessary, temporary Cambodian residence is simple to buy and only costs about US$100).
Visa service companies, for a fee, will double-check your application and invitation, go to the embassy for you, and return your passport to you. This service is nothing that you cannot do yourself (unlike arranging the invitation) but it can save time and frustration.
A single entry, 30-day tourist visa for citizens of EU-Schengen countries costs €35 and takes three working days for standard processing (€70 gets express service for next day collection). For UK citizens the price is ₤50 and processing takes 5 working days not 3 (express service is next day and costs £100). For citizens of the USA the price is US$160 with standard processing being at least 4 working days (express service is US$250 and stated to be 3 working days).
In some countries which have a busy trade in Russian visas (eg, UK and USA), the visa processing has been outsourced to private companies. These companies levy a further unavoidable application fee on top of the visa fees stated above. For applications made in the UK (by a citizen of any country) the application fee is ₤26.40 for standard service and ₤33.60 for express service. For applications made in the USA, the application fee is US$30.
An additional complication for UK citizens is the requirement to personally attend one of the visa application centres in London, Edinburgh or Manchester to have biometric data, that is fingerprints, taken.
The total cost of getting a visa usually has three parts: invitation fee, visa fee and application fee. If you're lucky, one or more of these may be zero but be prepared to be hit by all three. Take as an example a UK citizen applying for a 30-day, single entry tourist visa with standard processing in the UK (not the cheapest example and not the most expensive): invitation bought through an agency: ₤15, visa fee: ₤50, application fee: ₤26.40-91.40 .
Usually, tourist, homestay, and transit visas can allow one or two entries. Tourist and homestay visas have a maximum validity of 30 days. Transit visas are typically for one to three days for air travel and up to ten days for overland journeys. Business and other visa categories can be issued for one, two or multiple entries.
Any business visa can permit a maximum stay in any one visit of up to 90 days. However, a business visa generally only permits a total stay of 90 days in Russia in a 180-day period, regardless of how long it is valid for (whether it be 3, 6, or 12 months). If you stay in Russia for 90 days, you have to leave and your visa will not permit you to return for another 90 days. This means (give or take - a year isn't 360 days) that a six-month visa permits as long a total time in Russia as a three month visa!
Once you have your visa, check all the dates and information as it's much easier to correct mistakes before you travel than after you arrive!
Arrival and customs
On arriving in Russia, you'll have to fill out a landing card (usually filled out automatically by an immigration officer). As in most places, one half is surrendered on entry and the other portion should remain with your passport until you leave Russia. It is usually printed in both Russian and English though other languages may be available. If you lose it, then upon leaving Russia, you will be charged a nominal fine, and your departure may be delayed by an hour or two for the formalities.
Usually, you will be permitted to enter and remain in Russia for the term of your visa but it's up to the immigration officer to decide and they may decide otherwise, though this is unlikely.
Those who enter Russia with valuable electronic items or musical instruments (especially violins that look antique and expensive), antiques, large amounts of currency, or other such items are required to declare them on the customs entry card and must insist on having the card stamped by a customs officer upon arrival. Even if the customs officer claims that it is not necessary to declare such items, insist on a stamp on your declaration. Having this stamp may prevent considerable hassle (fines, confiscation) upon departure from Russia should the customs agent at departure decide that an item should have been declared upon entry.
Upon arrival to Russia and then subsequently upon arriving in any new city, you must be registered within 7 business days of arriving. This law is a relic from the Soviet days of controlled internal migration. Today, even Russians are supposed to register if they move cities. The official line is that these expensive pieces of paper with blue stamps, help control illegal immigration from the poorer countries on Russia's southern borders in Central Asia, the Caucasus, China and even North Korea.
Your host in that city (not necessarily the one who issued the invitation) is responsible for registering you. The proof of registration is a separate piece of paper with a big blue stamp on it. Registration can nowadays be done in any post office. You will also have visit a bank to pay the registration fee (about 300 руб).
All legal hotels will not let you check in without seeing your registration (at least if you've been in Russia for more than 7 business days) and police who insist that a lack of registration is your fault are more annoying and more expensive than paying the registration fee.
However, if you do not intend to stay at the hotels, you may, at your own risk, forego the registration procedure. Proofs of registration are never demanded by immigration offices at borders.
Overstaying a visa
If you overstay, even by a few minutes, you will likely be prohibited from leaving until you obtain a valid exit visa. You may be able to obtain a visa extension from the consular officer at an airport against the payment of a fine if you overstayed for fewer than three days, but this is not guaranteed. Generally, though, obtaining an extension requires an intervention by your sponsor, a payment of a fine, and a wait of up to three weeks.
Be careful if your flight leaves after midnight and be aware of the time at which the train crosses the border. Border guards will not let you depart if you're leaving even 10 min after your visa expires!
If your overstay was due to reasons such as medical problems, the Federal Migration Service may instead issue a Home Return Certificate rather than an exit visa which is valid to depart Russia within ten days of issue.
Moscow and Saint Petersburg are served by direct flights from most European capitals, and Moscow also has direct flights from many cities in East Asia, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Non-stop flights from the United States to Russia are offered by Delta (from New York and Atlanta to Moscow, Sheremetyevo), United Airlines (from Washington to Moscow, Domodedovo) and Aeroflot (from New York, Washington and Los Angeles to Moscow, Sheremeryevo).
There are four international airports in Moscow: Sheremetyevo SVO IATA in the northwest, Domodedovo DME IATA in the south Vnukovo VKO IATA in the southwest, and Zhukovskiy ZIA IATA. While first three have an express rail connection (500 руб) to a main railway station in the city, each of the stations are quite far apart which makes traveling between the airports quite challenging, so allow several hours between flights from different airports. A taxi between any of the airports should cost about 1500 руб (be prepared to negotiate hard). By public transport, costs range from roughly 200 руб for buses to just under 700 руб for the aeroexpress trains. The system is very user unfriendly so don't expect an easy, convenient or quick transfer.
Sheremetyevo Airport has five terminals in two clusters, and is the main hub of national carrier Aeroflot. Although Aeroflot had long been notorious for its poor safety record, things have improved greatly since the fall of the Soviet Union and today, it is just as safe as the major Western European airlines. Terminals B (the old Sheremetyevo-1) and C constitute the northern cluster and provide mostly domestic and charter services. New Terminals D and E, along with the older Terminal F (the old Sheremetyevo-2, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics), form the southern cluster and serve international flights, mainly the SkyTeam alliance, and Terminal D also serves domestic Aeroflot flights.
Domodedovo is a high-class modern airport with a single spacious terminal. It serves domestic and international flights by most Russian and international companies, so you'd be better off choosing flights bound for it. It is the main hub for S7 Airlines, which also flies to numerous international destinations.
Vnukovo is a smaller airport and is generally operated by low-cost airlines.
Zhukovskiy is the latest addition to the Moscow aviation hub. It is a relatively small airport that mainly serves flights to Belarus and countries of Central Asia. However, it has the world's second-longest public-use runway that it shares with the adjacent Gromov flight research institute.
There are airports in all large cities in Russia. Some international services can be found in: Novosibirsk, Sochi, Vladivostok, Kaliningrad, Ekaterinburg. International service to other destinations is much more limited.
Local airlines are listed in Get around.
Low-cost air-lines from Europe:
- Eurowings flies to Moscow (Vnukovo International Airport) from Berlin (Berlin Schönefeld), Cologne (Köln Bonn Airport), Hamburg (Hamburg Airport) and Stuttgart (Stuttgart Airport). There are also connections from Berlin (Berlin Schönefeld) and Cologne (Köln Bonn Airport) to Saint Petersburg (Pulkovo Airport). Approximate one-way price: US$100.
- Aegean Airlines flies to Moscow (Domodedovo International Airport) from Athens (Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport) from €155 return ticket, Thessaloniki (Macedonia Airport) from €177 return ticket. Aegean operates seasonally from Heraklion, Klamath, and Rhodes.
- vueling seasonally files to Moscow (Domodedovo International Airport) from Barcelona (Barcelona Airport). One-way fare €110-180 if booked in advance.
From the UK:
Cheaper ways to get to Moscow from the Middle East, India, South-East Asia and Australia:
From/via United Arab Emirates
- Emirates flies from Dubai to Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow and to Pulkovo Airport in Saint Petersburg. New jets, high quality, a little pricey but sometimes they have really cheap sales. A good option to connect if flying from India, South-East Asia or Australia.
- Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi to Domodedovo International Airport. It offers one-way fares which are just slightly more expensive than a half of the return fare (also, return price generally does not become higher in case of a longer stay up to 1 year), the strategy otherwise employed almost exclusively by low-cost airlines. Offers very competitive rates also, especially for the connecting flights.
- Qatar Airways, another player on the Middle Eastern intercontinental connections market, files from Doha to Domodedovo International] airport. One of just 5 airlines of the world rated by Skytrax as 5-star. Nevertheless, connecting airfares from Asia are often quite modest.
Russian Railways RZhD (Russian: РЖД) runs reliable services across dizzying distances. Eastern and Central Europe are well connected to Moscow and to a lesser extent Saint Petersburg. Moscow is also connected to some surprising destinations throughout Western Europe and Asia.
New Swiss carriages run from Moscow to Nice and Paris, but the international trains otherwise are of the same standard as the domestic trains (see Get around: By train). However, any international trains that pass through the Belarusian-Russian border are only for Russian and Belarusian citizens.
The Russian word for railway station (Vokzal, Вокзал) comes from the pleasure gardens (i.e. leisure complex) in Vauxhall, London. In the 1840s early days of railways, visiting Russian entrepreneurs were impressed by these, which created a destination for railway travel and boost to the local economy. Similar gardens were established in St Petersburg around the first Russian railway, and elsewhere, and "vokzal" used to mean such a complex before coming to mean a railway station. The London gardens meanwhile became notorious for thievery and prostitution, and went bankrupt (so, most unlike any big railway station, especially in Russia). The original Vauxhall in London was "Falkes Hall", the home of Sir Falkes de Breauté, who fought for King John against the rebellious Barons, who were furious that he was breaking the terms of Magna Carta. So "voksal" commemorates a 13th-century reactionary warrior against the birth of English democracy!
Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine are very well connected to Russia with many trains daily from cities throughout each country. Helsinki in Finland has four high speed trains daily to St Petersburg and one overnight train to Moscow. Riga in Latvia, Vilnius in Lithuania and Tallinn in Estonia each have at least one overnight or daytime train to Moscow and St Petersburg.
Beyond Russia's immediate neighbours and former Soviet dominions, direct trains connect Moscow with Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Most trains from Central Europe to Moscow pass through Belarus, for which westerners need a transit or tourist visa, even if they're visa-exempt for Russia. The Belarus visa needs to be double-entry to return the same way. Although there are often rumours about westerners being blocked and turned off the train at the Belarus-Russia border, this rail route (as of summer 2018) has for some years been trouble-free, and alternative routes via Ukraine or Scandinavia add more bother than they save. It's the road route across that border where troubles sometimes occur.
Western Europe has a different track gauge from Russia, Finland and the CIS so bogies must be exchanged when the train crosses into the ex-Soviet countries (usually Ukraine or Belarus). This adds a couple of hours to the long wait already encountered for immigration. You can stay on the train as the wheels are being changed so it won't disrupt your sleep too much.
Moscow is connected to all the former Soviet Central Asian countries: (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, & Uzbekistan) at least 2-3 times per week. Journeys take 4 or 5 days. For the Caucasus, there is a service from Moscow to Baku in Azerbaijan (3 days), but the Azerbaijan-Russia border is only open to CIS passport holders. There is also a service from Moscow via Sochi to Sukhumi in the disputed territory of Abkhazia. The Trans-Siberian Railway spans the entire country and connects with Chinese cities such as Beijing and Harbin, as well as Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. There is a service at least twice a month from Moscow to Pyongyang in North Korea, which is nowadays open to westerners with the correct paperwork. Its coaches attached to the Rossiya Moscow-Vladivostock train that are detached at Ussuriysk for the 36 hour onward haul into and across North Korea.
- See also: Driving in Russia
You can travel to Russia by car, but the driving experience there does differ from what you'd expect in most western countries; see get around below for details. Also, crossing the border by car is a peculiar entertainment.
A few bus companies, most notably Eurolines, Ecolines and Lux Express, operate international coach services from a number of destinations to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Tallinn, Helsinki, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw and Berlin have regular services to Russia.
Ferry services operate in the summer between Sochi and Turkey's Trabzon. In Vladivostok there is a scheduled roll-on, roll-off ferry to Busan and numerous lines to the different Japanese ports, however they are mostly oriented to the used Japanese car imports and less to tourism, there is also a weekly service in summer between Korsakov on Sakhalin and Wakkanai on the Japanese island Hokkaido. Cruise ships are also call to Russian ports frequently. There is a boat connection from Lappeenranta, Finland to Vyborg. There is now daily (overnight) service between Helsinki and St. Petersburg on St. Peter Line that does not require a visa for stays less than 3 days. If you join a cruise tour of St. Petersburg, then you don't need a Russian visa but you have to stay with the tour. See Russia#Visa free entry by ship.
There are two international cycling routes Eurovelo that pass through Russia including EV2 Capitals Route (from Ireland to Moscow) and EV10 Baltic Sea Cycle Route (Hansa circuit) interconnecting Saint-Petersburg with Estonia and Finland.
The enormous distances hamper all forms of transportation. While the Russian government has tried to make the vast space more accessible since tsarist times much of the country is still hard to reach and even where trains and roads go, travel time is often measured in days not hours. Consider flying for far-off destinations — domestic flight routes cover the country pretty well.
Due to the immense size of the country, and the poor road safety, the best way to get around through the entire country quickly is by train. 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. Although accommodations may not be the best, Russian trains have efficient and courteous staff as well as timely departures and arrivals that would impress even a German. 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 (дальнего следования dal'nevo sledovaniya) trains generally cover trips more than about 4 hours or 200 km (120 miles). Take a look at the Russian long-distance rail timetable. Shorter distances are covered by the commuter trains (пригородные prigorodnyye), which are popularly called электрички elektrichki. Most train stations (железнодорожный вокзал zheleznodorozhnyy vokzal) have separate areas for selling tickets for these types.
Transportation of bicycles
Transportation of a bicycle in a carriage is permissible for one ticket under condition of being compactly folded/dismantled and clean. Usually the bike is taken off its wheels and pedals, put into a bag and stored on the upmost shelf in the Platzkart carriage. The other class carriages have less space or shelves and the bike should be more compact.
Almost all long-distance trains are set up for overnight travel. There are several classes of accommodation:
- Deluxe – myagkiy (мягкий) – with private compartments for two adults and a child, with a private toilet and shower. Few trains have this posh class.
- 1st class – spalnyy/lyuks (спальный/люкс) – with private compartments for two people. Most trains connecting major cities have a car of this class; tickets are quite expensive in comparison with European standards. Colloquially this class is commonly referred to as SV (es-veh, СВ). Frequently these compartments are the same as in kupe with the two upper beds stowed away.
- 2nd class – kupe (купе) – with private compartments of four people. On some trains, compartments may be marked as male, female, or mixed-sex by the ticketing system.
- 3rd class – platskart (плацкарт) – with unwalled compartments of fourfold out beds opposite two beds on the window wall. There is controversy on safety of these compartments. For some these compartments are generally less safe than other classes as they allow uncontrolled access. Others point out that in an open car full of witnesses the chances of becoming a victim of a crime or harassment are less. Anyway, they provide for a much more immersive experience. Nevertheless, they will be abolished slowly.
- Sitting class – sidyachiy (сидячий) – sitting cars for shorter distance, with seat reservation. These are mostly met on slower regional trains.
Every car has its own attendant/conductor (provodnik or provodnitsa), which check your tickets at your boarding, provides you bedding, sells you tea or snacks and can lend you a mug and spoon for about 10 руб. The conductor will usually take your tickets shortly after boarding, they are returned shortly before you arrive at your destination. At the end of each carriage you will find a samovar with free hot water for making tea or soup. Most long-distance trains have dining cars.
Bottom-bunk berths (nizhnie – нижние) are slightly more comfortable than top-bunk berths (verhnie – верхние), because they have more place for baggage under them. There are also discounts sometime for top-bunk berths only (usually not in the tourist season and not in popular directions, which are from largest towns on Friday nights, and back on Sunday nights).
Trains are classified according to their average speed:
- skorostnoy (скоростной, numbered 151 to 178) – the fastest trains (seating only). Sapsan, Allegro and Lastochka trains fall here;
- skoryy (скорый, numbered 1 to 148 all-year and 181 to 298 seasonal) – rapid trains with overnight accommodation;
- passazhirskiy (пассажирский, numbered 301 to 399 all-year, 400 to 499 seasonal and 500 to 598 on specific dates only) – slower trains with more frequent stops;
- mestnyy (местный, numbered 601 to 698) – the slowest trains serving most of the localities along the railways. Typically this kind of trains run shorter routes, often just overnight, for example between adjacent or next to adjacent regional centers, or sideline dead-end branches. A somewhat rough upper limit for route length is about 700 km. Colloquially sometimes called shestisotye or shest'sot-veselye trains, based on their numeration (6XX or 600-happy trains);
- pochtovo-bagazhnyy/gruzopassazhyrskiy (почтово-багажный/грузопассажирский, numbered 901 to 998) – mainly used to deliver post and bulky baggage or goods. By railway regulation, depending on location and typically further from major centers, it may be possible to buy tickers on those trains. Where there is a choice of trains, they are inpractical, as they tend to have long stops on all major stations and thus being slower even comparing to 6XX trains. Expect a lot of police, when boarding and unboarding this kind of trains;
- prigorodnyy express (numbered 800 to 899 and 7000 to 7999) - local express trains, both suburban, such as REXes and Sputniks and interregional, including even trains from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg. Colloquially can be called popugai (parrots) for their bright colors, though further from Moscow regular local trains can be used as expresses;
- prigorodnyy/elektropoyezd (пригородный/электропоезд, numbered 6001 to 6998) – local or suburban trains mostly serving commuters in cities. Typically named elektrichka, or sometimes more informally sobaka (dogs). Although sometimes any kind of local trains are called elektrichka, even erroneously, their types are diverse, especially where rails are not electrified, including diesel-trains and railbuses, or short trains pulled by (usually) diesel or electric locomotive. Local trains, pulled by locomotives, also may be called kukushka (cuckoos).
Generally correspondence between numeration, speed and train types may be somewhat skewed, and trains from 'slower' category may actually be faster than trains from 'faster' category. Typically this occurs for various categories of rapid and express trains.
Service quality usually correspond to the class of train, but besides that, all-year trains usually have better service than seasonal trains, which are usually better than special dates only trains. Also according to their standards of service, some trains are promoted to firmennyy (фирменный) and given a proper brand and higher ticket price. The most distinguished trains use their special liveries.
Since 2011, dozens of local (prigorodny) trains are canceled each year due to lack of financing, and situation worsens each year. Cancellations occur everywhere over the country, except commuter zones of largest cities, such as Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk. Having latest news on cancellations may be essential for trip planning. Typical cancellation traits: most cancellations occur in the start of the year, sometimes some trains are returned into timetable, if local budgets find funds to sponsor them; some trains are cut at region borders, even when there are no roads over the border to the previous train destination; other local trains got cut to 1 a day or several a week, often with timetable, not convenient for tourists.
Reservations are compulsory on long-distance trains, so you need to plan specifically for each leg of your journey, you can't hop on and off. Previously, all Russian railways used only Moscow time in their schedules, which was very inconvenient and misleading, especially for traveling to the Far East, where the difference between the departure time indicated on the ticket and the actual departure time could be 7-8 hours.
On August 1, 2018, the Russian railways finally began indicating local time in their schedules.
Ticket price depends on train class and car class, as well as on season (off-peak day tickets can cost 2/3 of peak day tickets). You can check the ticket price at Russian Railways e-shop.
The best way to buy your ticket is online from Russian Railways website. Where the online system shows the train as ЭР (with a little train symbol), you should print this ticket at home, and it doesn't need validating before boarding. For trains without ЭP you'll need to take your receipt to a counter to pick up your ticket, and this can only be done within Russia - so you can't use those trains for journeys that begin outside Russia.
Alternatively, buy at the station: Kassovyi Zal (кассовый зал) means ticket hall. Lines vary widely – some stations are much better organized than others, 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 Saint 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.
There are many agencies selling Russian train tickets abroad – RusTrains.com, TuTu.travel, Real Russia, Russian Trains, and RussianTrain. They have foreign-language (English, Spanish etc) websites, can post paper tickets to your home address, provide customer support and offer larger number of payment methods, but prices are 30-50% higher.
Travel time can vary from several hours to several days. 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 (Sapsan) that run by day only and cover the 650 km between Moscow and Saint 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.
Moscow-Saint Petersburg Express Train takes 5 hours of travel and costs min. 2400 руб. Trains are only slightly air conditioned. No one in the Moscow train station speaks any English, so if you are not familiar enough with Russian to purchase your train ticket in person, it is suggested that you purchase online or through your hotel concierge or travel agent before you depart. Main signages inside the train station is in Russian and English. The dining car of the express train is nicely appointed with real table linens, and an impressive menu and wine list, but is 3 to 4 times more expensive than eating in the city before and after you travel.
Stop duration may be very different, from as quick as one minute (barely enough for passengers to leave and board the train) to as long as 30 minutes. Check the timetable placed on door at the end of corridor. During stop you can buy various meals and drinks at platform from locals for pretty reasonable prices. Frequently, traders will walk through the cars between stops and sell everything from crockery to clothes to Lay's chips.
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 h 30 min . They do (!) have toilets in the first and the last cars but it is going to be an unforgettable experience (use them in "emergency" cases only).
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.
Which time zone? Until August 2018, all trains in Russia ran on Moscow time, as much as 7 hours off local time in the Far East. This could be surreal, as you stumbled out of a train, platform and station hall all showing 10:00, to emerge into the gloom of a Siberian evening. But at least it was consistent, a boon for long-distance planning. Nowadays however the timetable uses local time, ever shifting as you journey east. Check tickets and timetables carefully to see which time is being used in a particular city.
Most Russian cities have bus links to cities as far as 5–6 hours away or further. Though generally less comfortable than the train, buses sometimes are a better option time-wise 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 Avtovokzal (Ahv-tuh-vahg-ZAHL). Most cities have just one for long distance buses and the state buses depart from there. However, in Moscow and in some other Russian cities, a number of commercial buses are available, and they generally don't depart from the bus station. Quite often, you'll see commercial buses near train stations. Sometimes they run on schedules, though for popular routes (such as Moscow-Vladimir, Moscow/Yaroslavl, etc.) the buses simply wait to fill up. On these buses payment is usually to the driver.
Russian buses have luggage storage, but if it's an old Eastern-bloc bus, you may find your luggage wet at the end of the trip. You normally have to pay a "bagage" ticket for luggage.
Apart from regular buses there are private minibuses called marshrutka (маршрутка). These emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union as an alternative to the moribund public transport system. Legally, they may be licensed as either taxis or buses. They have fixed routes, but usually no timetables and no regular stations. The official designation for them is Route Taxi, (Russian: marshrutnoye taxi, Ukrainian: marshrutne taxi), hence the colloquial marshrutka).
To board one of these, stop at the roadside and wave a hand, if you are lucky and the minibus isn't full, it will stop. In a city, it will stop anyway and offer you an option to stand in the aisle or even stand in some corner bending over sitting passengers. This is neither legal nor convenient, but very common and acceptable. You can arrange with the driver to stop at your destination. If you need to get off, you have to shout: "Остановите здесь!" (Astanaviti zdes, meaning "Stop here!") as loudly as possible so that the driver can hear. Marshrutka will stop pretty much anywhere, even in the middle of the traffic without moving to the side of the road. At main stops the driver may wait and collect more passengers. The waiting time is unpredictable and depends on the schedule, number of passengers, competing buses, etc. There are no tickets, you pay the driver directly. He may give you a receipt, but you have to ask for it explicitly.
Marshrutkas ride both in the countryside (in this case they are more likely to have timetables) and as city transport. Sometimes they look like regular buses, which makes them hardly distinguishable from official buses. Moreover, on long-distance routes you have an option of reserving a place by phone and even buying a ticket in advance. The system is very haphazard and organized in the most odd manner. It is highly advisable to check details about particular route with drivers or at least with locals who should know the current situation in their city. In cities, never rely on the route numbers. Sometimes they match those of the official public transport, but sometimes they don't.
- See also: Driving in Russia
While trains, planes and buses will get you between big Russian cities and many of the smaller places as well, car travel can be a good way for going off the beaten path and travel at your own pace. Nevertheless if you're not used to local road conditions and driving culture and don't understand Russian, independent car travel can be challenging and even dangerous. Roads may be poorly marked, if marked at all, and poorly maintained, especially outside the cities and towns. Road numbers are not well marked, and direction signs are normally in Russian only.
Most federal highways (marked as M-1, M-2 and so on) are surveilled by automated systems, but minor roads are patrolled by State Auto Inspection (ГИБДД or GIBDD, though also known by its former name GAI). GIBDD roadblocks are inside every federal district border (about every 200 km). It's very useful to have a detector for radar speed traps and a video recorder. A video record is your ultimate defence in all problem cases with GIBDD.
If you're involved in a collision as the driver, the main rule is not to move your car and don't leave the scene of the accident until a GIBDD inspector draws an accident plan and you sign it. Any violation of this rule may cost you 15 days of freedom. All other questions should be directed to your insurance company.
Not all highways in Russia are free: on some highways, toll gates block the way, so the traveller may need 20-60 руб per toll (may be paid by a credit card).
Petrol in some regions may be extremely bad; it's always better to find any branded filling station.
Car rental services are expensive. If you don't understand Russian, one option is using a private licensed guide. Guides generally provide their own cars or vans and know the roads, the customs and the countryside, making it possible to see small towns and historic sites.
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 awfully 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 abominable reputation in the 1990s due to uncertain safety records, unreliable timetables, terrible service, old airplanes, and substandard airports. Due to substantial improvements the airline market has now mostly caught up to international standards. Aside of a very few exemptions on niche flights, all flights are nowadays operated with state-of-the-art equipment with excellent safety records. The on-time performance is very good as well nowadays with delays usually only happen in case of adverse weather conditions. On the other side, most Russian carriers have also copied carriers around the world regarding additional fees for refreshments, meals, luggage and seat selection.
Most Russian airports as well have international standards now. Lines at security and check-in are usually short but do not expect the staff to speak English. If you have done online or mobile check-in (available for almost every airline) you need to have a printed boarding pass. For those passengers doing mobile check-in, there is a small self-service kiosk at many airports that allows you to print a kind of boarding pass sticker.
Given the many different airlines operating domestic services, it is a good idea to use multi-airline flight search pages or (online) travel agencies. However, sites common in your home country does not know all carriers or do not show the lowest fares available. Therefore, use Russian sites like Biletyplus and Agent.ru.
- Aeroflot based at Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow, is Russia's national airline, with both domestic and international services. Prices for flights from St. Petersburg back into Moscow vary, but you can get them for about US$32 (Feb 2016) and makes this less expensive and less time consuming than taking the train. Aeroflot operates both domestic and international flights from Terminal D next to the old international terminal (now Terminal F) serving non-Aeroflot international departures. Many international flights and most internal ones are operated by Boeing and Airbus aircraft, though several regional routes are operated using Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100s.
- S7 airlines (ex-Siberia or Sibir Airlines) Russia's largest domestic carrier with international service to many cities in Germany, China and ex-Soviet republics.
- Rossiya Airlines has a substantial network based at St Petersburg Pulkovo airport to both major cities in Russia, and to western Europe.
- UTair operates the largest aircraft fleet in Russia and ranks among the top five largest Russian carriers by passenger volume.
- Yakutia Airlines is Siberian/Far Eastern air carrier having extensive flight network around Siberia and abroad.
- Red Wings
- Ural Airlines
- Nordavia operates domestic and regional services mainly in Northwest region
- Aurora Far East regional air carrier, also serves international flights to Japan and South Korea
- Pobeda Airlines low-cost carrier operates both domestic and international flights from Vnukovo airport
- Nordstar (Taimyr Air Company) domestic and international air carrier
- Azimuth domestic and international low-cost carrier based in Rostov-on-Don and, for some of its flights, in Moscow
Many of these airlines were formed out of the onetime-Aeroflot operation at their home city from Soviet times when the old Aeroflot was broken up.
For remote locations, general aviation can be the fastest option.
In the summer cruise boats are frequent on the rivers in European Russia. Most frequent cruise lines is:
Weekend cruises, from Friday to Sunday
- Moscow - Uglich - Moscow
- Saint-Petersburg - Valaam - Saint-Petersburg.
- Moscow - Konstantinovo - Moscow via Moskva river
Long distance cruises
- Moscow - Saint-Petersburg via Lakes Ladoga and Onega, 6 nights.
- Moscow - Yaroslavl - Astrakhan with stops in different cities
- Moscow - Yaroslavl - Rostov-on-Don with stops in different cities.
- Moscow - Nizniy Novgorod via Oka river.
These are the main lines, as well as other, more rare routes. Some cruise lines, like Moscow - Saint-Petersburg sold for foreign tourists. Most cruises are roundtrip, but you can use cruise ships to travel between some cities too, if you search for rare one-way routes, like Nizniy Novgorod - Moscow.
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.
Russia is immense, and extraordinarily long on attractions for visitors, although many lie in the hard-to-reach stretches of the planet's most remote lands. The best known sights are in and around the nation's principal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Russia's history is the number one reason why tourists come to this country, following the draw of its fascinating, sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutal, and always consequential national saga.
Derbent, in the Caucasian Republic of Dagestan, is Russia's most ancient city, dating back 5,000 years. Home to the legendary Gates of Alexander, the walled fortress-city, alternately controlled by Caucasian Albania, Persian empires, and the Mongols (until its eighteenth century conquest by the Russian Empire) was for 1500 years the key to controlling trade between Western Russia and the Middle East. Other ancient peoples of Russia left less evidence of their civilization, but you can find traces of the Kurgan people of the Urals, in particular the ruined pagan shrines and burial mounds around the old capital of Tobolsk and throughout the Republic of Khakassia.
Of early Russia's city states, one of the best preserved and most interesting include Staraya Ladoga, regarded as the nation's first capital, established by the Viking Rurik, to whom the first line of Tsars traced their lineage. Novgorod, founded in 859, was the most important city of Kievan Rus in modern Russia (with Kyiv itself in modern day Ukraine), and home to Russia's first kremlin.
Early Medieval Russia saw two major civilizations, that of the independent Novgorod Republic and the Mongol Empire, which dominated the Russian principalities of former Vladimir-Suzdal (whose initial capital of Vladimir retains an excellent collection of twelfth century monuments and kremlin) and Kievan Rus. While the Mongols left mostly devastation of historical sites in their wake, the wealthy trading nation to the north developed grand cities at the capital of Novgorod, as well as Staraya Ladoga, Pskov, and Oreshek (modern day Shlisselburg), all of which have extant medieval kremlins and a multitude of beautiful early Russian Orthodox churches filled with medieval ecclesiastical frescoes.
As Mongol power waned, the Grand Duchy of Moscow rose to power, and particularly under the later reign of Ivan the Terrible, consolidated power in all of Western Russia, including the conquest of the Kazan Khanate (and establishing another grand citadel there) and concentrated power in Moscow, building its kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, and several other of Russia's best known historical sites. The cities of the Golden Ring surrounding Moscow likewise saw significant construction during this period. A really neat off-the-beaten-path destination also rose to prominence in the extreme north of the country—the Solovetsky Monastery-fortress on the islands of the White Sea, which served as a bulwark against Swedish naval incursions.
- See also: Russian Empire
Ivan the Terrible's reign ended in tragedy, the Time of Troubles, which only saw destruction and ruin, and you will find little evidence of civilizational development until the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty in the early seventeenth century. Peter the Great, after having consolidated power, began the construction of his entirely new city of Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, the Window to the West. Saint Petersburg from its foundation through the neoclassical period became one of the world's most magically beautiful cities, and the list of must-see attractions is far too long to be discussed here. The surrounding summer palaces at Peterhof, Pavlovsk, and Pushkin are also unbelievably opulent attractions.
The Russian Revolution was one of the twentieth century's defining moments, and history buffs will find much to see in Saint Petersburg. The two best known sites are found at the Winter Palace, which the communists stormed to depose Tsar Nicolas II, and the beautiful Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva River, which housed numerous revolutionary luminaries in its cold, hopeless prison. For those interested in the grisly end of the Romanov family of Nicholas II, perhaps inspired by the story of Anastasia, look no further than the Church on the Blood in Yekaterinburg, built on the spot of his family's execution. Moscow, on the other hand, has the most famous monument from the revolutionary period—Lenin's himself, with his embalmed body on display in Red Square (against his wishes).
- See also: Soviet Union
The Soviet Era saw a drastic change in Russian history, and the development of a virtually brand new civilization. Mass industrialization programs came with a new aesthetic ethos which emphasized functionality (combined with grandiosity). The enormous constructivist buildings and statues of the twentieth century are often derided as ugly monstrosities, but they are hardly boring (whereas the industrial complexes polluting cities from the Belarussian border to the Pacific are genuine eyesores).
Both World War II and Stalin's reign of terror made their presence felt greatly upon Russia's cultural heritage. The bombings involved in the former virtually wiped out anything of historical interest in Russia's extreme west (the Chernozemye region) and damaged much more throughout European Russia. It did, however, lead to the construction of monuments to the war throughout the entire country. For military buffs, a visit to Mamaev Kurgan, the museum complex at Volgograd (former Stalingrad) is an excellent destination. Kursk, for its enormous tank battle, and Saint Petersburg, site of the Siege of Leningrad, make interesting destinations.
Maybe the saddest of the Soviet legacies is the network of prison camps known as the Gulag Archipelago. The term Archipelago really does not capture the scope of suffering across 10,000 kilometers of cold steppe. Perhaps the most interesting sites for those interested in this legacy are on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, and the devastatingly bleak Kolyma gulag system of Magadan Oblast. If you were hoping to see where Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, you'll have to travel beyond the Russian borders to Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan.
Russia has several of the world's greatest museums, particularly in the field of the visual arts. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is the true star, with an enormous collection amassed first by the wealthy tsars (particularly by its founder, Catherine the Great) and later by the Soviets and the Red Army (which seized enormous treasure from the Nazis, who in turn had seized their bounty from their wars around the globe). Equally impressive is the edifice housing the collection on display, the magnificent Winter Palace of the Romanov Dynasty. Saint Petersburg's often overlooked Russian Museum should also be a priority, as it has the country's second best collection of purely Russian art, from icons of the tenth century on through the modern movements, in all of which revolutionary Russia led the charge ahead of the rest of the world. Moscow's art museums, only slightly less well known, include the Tretyakov Gallery (the premiere collection of Russian art) and the Pushkin Museum of Western Art.
Other museum exhibitions certainly worth seeking out are the collections of antiquities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, particularly at the Hermitage Museum, and the Armory in the Moscow Kremlin. For military buffs, Russian military museums are often fantastic, truly best-in-the-world, regardless of whether you are at one of the main ones in the Moscow—the Central Armed Forces Museum, Kubinka Tank Museum, Central Air Force Museum, Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), or way off in the provinces. The other category in which Russian museums outshine the rest of the world would be within the literary and musical spheres. Nary a town visited, if only for a day, by Alexander Pushkin is without some small museum dedicated to his life and works. The best of the big city museums include the Bulgakov Museum in Moscow and the Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky museums in Saint Petersburg. Great adventures await in quieter parts of the country, at Dostoevsky's summer house in Staraya Russa, Tolstoy's "inaccessible literary stronghold" at Yasnaya Polyana, Chekhov's country estate at Melikhovo, Tchaikovsky's house in Klin or remote hometown of Votkinsk in Udmurtia, Rakhmaninov's summer home in Ivanovka, Pushkin's estate at Pushkinskie Gory, or Turgenev's country estate at Spasskoe-Lutovinovo near Mtsensk. The best museums are in the countryside. For classical music lovers, the apartment museums of various nineteenth and century composers in Saint Petersburg are worth more than just nostalgic wanderings—they often have small performances by incredible musicians.
All tourists in Russia find themselves looking at a lot of churches. Ecclesiastical architecture is a significant source of pride among Russians, and the onion dome is without question a preeminent national symbol. The twentieth century, sadly, saw cultural vandalism in the destruction of said architecture on an unprecedented scale. But the immense number of beautiful old monasteries and churches ensured that an enormous collection remains. The best known, as usual, are in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, in particular the old baroque Church on the Spilled Blood, Alexander Nevsky Lavra, and the monumental Kazan and Saint Isaac's Cathedrals in the former, and Saint Basil's Cathedral and the massive Church of the Annunciation in the latter. The spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church is to be found at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad on the Golden Ring circuit (lavra is the designation given to the most important monasteries, of which there are only two in the country), although the physical headquarters of the Church is at Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Vologda Oblast is often considered Russia's second most important (and is a neat way to get off the beaten track). Other particularly famous churches and monasteries are to be found at Saint Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir, the fascinating Old Cathedral of Königsberg (home to Immanuel Kant's tomb) in Kaliningrad, Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, Optina Putsin (the basis for Father Zossima's monastery in The Brothers Karamazov), and Volokolamsk Monastery in West Moscow Oblast. Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega and Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga are also popular sites, especially with those cruising between Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Ecclesiastical architecture does not, however, end with the Russian Orthodox Church—Russia also has a wealth of Islamic and Buddhist architecture. The nation's most important mosques are the Qolşärif Mosque in Kazan (the largest mosque in Europe) and the Blue Mosque in Saint Petersburg (originally the largest mosque in Europe!). Notably absent from that list is the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, which was formerly considered the principal mosque in the country, but was very controversially demolished in 2011. Russia's most prominent Buddhist temples are in both Kalmykia—Europe's lone Buddhist republic, and the areas closer to Mongolia, especially around Ulan Ude in Buryatia and Kyzyl, Tuva.
While the distances are great between them, Russia's natural wonders are impressive and worth seeking out for nature lovers. Most of the country is rich in Eurasian wildlife. The best known destinations are far to the east in Siberia, with Lake Baikal known as its "jewel." At the extreme eastern end of Russia, nearly all the way to Japan and Alaska, is wild Kamchatka, where you will find the Valley of the Geisers, lakes of acid, volcanoes, and grizzlies galore.
Other highlights of the Far East include the idyllic (if kind of cold) Kuril Islands to the south of Kamchatka, whale watching off the coast of arctic Wrangel Island, the remote Sikhote-Alin mountain range, home to the Amur Tiger, and beautiful Sakhalin. The nature reserves throughout these parts are spectacular as well, but all will require permits in advance and specialized tours.
The northern half of Russia stretching thousands of miles from the Komi Republic through Kamchatka is basically empty wilderness, mostly mountainous, and always beautiful. Getting to these areas is problematic, as most are not served by any roads, infrastructure, or really anything else. Russia's great north-south rivers are the main arteries for anyone moving through the area: the Pechora, Ob, Yenisey, Lena, and Kolyma. Beyond that, expect to be in canoes, helicopters, and military issue jeeps will be the only way of getting around, and you'll likely want to go with a guide.
Russia's other mountainous territory is in its extreme south, in the Northern Caucasus. There you will find Europe's tallest mountains, which tower in height over the Alps, including mighty Elbrus. Favorite Russian resorts in the area include those at Sochi (which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic Games) and Dombai. As you go further east in the North Caucasus, the landscapes become ever more dramatic, from the lush forested gorges and snow capped peaks of Chechnya to the stark desert mountains of Dagestan, sloping downwards to the Caspian Sea.
Throughout the entire country, there are over a hundred National Parks and Nature Reserves (zapovedniki). The former are open to the public, and considerably more wild and undeveloped than you would find in, say, the United States. The latter are preserved principally for scientific research and are often not possible to visit. Permits are issued for certain reserves, but only through licensed tour operators. If you have the opportunity, though, take it! Some of the most spectacular parks are in the aforementioned Kamchatka, but also in the Urals, particularly in the Altai Mountains (Altai Republic and Altai Krai).
- Circum-Baikal Railway is the road on the shore of Baikal Lake.
- Golden Ring — the classic route around ancient cities and towns in Central Russia crowned with golden cupolas of its churches and convents.
- Green Ring of Moscow — Natural Parks and Reserves in Moscow vicinities.
- Silver Ring — the chain of Northern towns surrounding Saint Petersburg.
- Trans-Siberian Railway — the endless train ride that needs no introduction.
- Music — Russia has a long musical tradition and is well known for its composers and performers. There is no doubt you will find more orchestra performances the bigger the city. Classical music is played in various theaters, where domestic and guest concerts are scheduled for weeks ahead. Russia has one of the world's strongest classical music traditions, having give rise to numerous great composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, and even today the Moscow Conservatory is regarded as one of the best in the world. Besides that, the state supports folk ensembles in smaller towns or even villages and singing babushkas gatherings are still a well-established tradition in many areas. In areas traditionally inhabited by non-Russian ethnic groups, you may encounter ethnic music of every possible sound, like throat singing in Tuva or rare instruments of Chukotka. Sometimes only specialists can differ the Cossack songs of the Urals from the Cossack songs of Krasnodar. Professional jazz players meet at Jazz over Volga festival in Yaroslavl. Walking along the main street on a Sunday will definitely enable you to hear guitar, saxophone, harmonium or flute in any city.
- Military Parade on the Victory Day, which is celebrated on the 9th of May is commonly all-Russia holiday with city squares getting full of uniformed men and military vehicles both dated to Great Patriotic War/WWII and new ones. The Defender of Fatherland Day is a holiday when women in families or at work congratulate their men and co-workers. It happens on 23, February, just a couple of weeks before men return the favor to ladies on International Women's Day, 8 March.
- Dancing. Russian classic ballet is renowned in the world and some national troops exist even in such remote areas like Dagestan or Yakutia. The two most renowned ballet companies in Russia, which are both considered to be among the best in the world, are the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg. Lezginka is a vibrant folk dance, always performed at big Caucasian events. If you are interested in folk style then watching a concert of Igor Moiseyev Ensemble alive is simply a must. Out of big cities you may easily find Irish dance, belly and Ball clubs, not to mention hip-hop and all.
- Cinema festivals. The major movie event in Russia is Moscow International Film Festival held at the end of June during 10 days and boasting first-class stars from all over the world. Kinotavr of Sochi, Moscow's Festival of Latin America and international film festival Zerkalo, named after Andrei Tarkovsky, in Ivanovo are also of interest for film fans.
- Watch sports: - Ice hockey is the leading sport. 23 teams contest the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), with four based in Moscow and one in St Petersburg; there are also teams from Helsinki, Riga, Minsk and Beijing.
- - Football - 16 teams play soccer in the Russian Premier League, the country's top tier; five are based in Moscow and one in St Petersburg. The playing season is August-May with a three month mid-winter break. The national team don't have a fixed home stadium but move north or south with the seasons.
The association between Russia and its two biggest metropolises, Moscow and St Petersburg, is strong in the minds of tourists, but given its vast expanses and low population density, Russia is a nature lovers paradise as well. Russia has a network of exceptional natural areas, comprising 35 National Parks and 100 Nature Reserves (zapovednik) covering a total land mass larger than Germany. List of Russian Nature Reserves (in Russian) one can find here
Some Russian Nature Reserves on the internet:
- [dead link] The Great Arctic State Nature Reserve.
- [dead link] Central Forest State Nature Bioshere Reserve.
- Ilmen State Reserve.
Provided your paperwork is in order, you may visit these areas independently. For those wishing to seek guidance, there are travel agencies specializing in ecotourism in Russia such as:
Exchange rates for Russian ruble
As of September 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
Throughout its history Russia has had various versions of the ruble (рубль), which is divided into 100 kopeks (копеек). The latest manifestation, whose ISO code is RUB (replacing the RUR), was introduced in 1998 (although all notes and first issues of coins bear the year 1997). All pre-1998 currency is obsolete. The ruble is sometimes symbolised using ₽, but Wikivoyage will use руб to denote the currency.
Coins are issued in 1, 5, 10, and 50 kopek and 1, 2, 5 and 10 руб denominations. Banknotes come in 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 руб banknotes. The 5-ruble note is no longer issued or found in general circulation. The 10-ruble note ceased being printed in 2010 and will suffer the same fate, but as of 2020 is still found in circulation. Both remain legal tender. Kopeks are generally useless, with most prices given to the nearest ruble. The 1-, 5- and 10-kopek coins are especially useless: even places that quote prices in non -whole rubles will round to the nearest 50 kopeks or ruble.
All banknotes have special marks (dots and lines in relief) to aid the blind in distinguishing values.
Russian law forbids payments other than in rubles.
Travellers cheques are generally inconvenient (only some banks, such as Sberbank, will cash even American Express, though they do it without commission). So bring enough cash to last you for a few days, or rely on ATMs and credit card transactions.
Currency exchange offices (called bureaus in Saint Petersburg) are common throughout Russia in banks and, in the larger cities, small currency exchange bureaus. Banks tend to offer slightly worse rates but are more trustworthy. Hotels generally offer much worse rates but could be useful in an emergency. You need to show your passport to change money at a bank and fill in copious amounts of time wasting forms.
Take your time to count how much money you received; different ways are sometimes used to trick the customer, including better rates, prominently displayed, for large transactions and worse rates, difficult to find, for small transactions.
Branches of large banks can be found in any major city. Sberbank has a presence even in unexpectedly small villages.
US dollars and euros are generally better bought outside Russia and then swapped to rubles once in Russia as changing other currencies, while possible, will not attract great rates. You can check the rates that are being traded in Moscow online.
You will have an easier time changing clean, new banknotes. US dollars should be the current issues, although changing older versions shouldn't be impossible.
Don't change money on the street. Unlike during Soviet times, there is no advantage to dealing with an unofficial vendor. There are several advanced street exchange scams so better not to give them a chance.
ATMs, called bankomats (банкомат), are common in large cities and can generally be found in smaller cities and towns. Though some may not accept foreign cards. English language interface is available. Some may also dispense US dollars. Russian ATMs often have a withdrawal limit of around 100000—150000 руб. (US $1,500—$2,000) per day. Big hotels are good places to find them.
In Moscow and Saint Petersburg almost all shops, restaurants, and services take credit cards. Visa/MasterCard are more accepted than American Express; Discover, Diners Club and other cards are rarely accepted.
Museums and sightseeing places take cash and credit cards, with rare exceptions.
Train stations may accept plastic, even outside the big cities, be sure to ask as it won't always be obvious. Otherwise take plenty of cash. ATM machines at train station are popular and often out of cash, so stock up before going to the train station.
Taxis rarely accept credit cards even in large cities. This needs to be checked before boarding. Emphasize that you need a card-accepting cab accepting when ordering it through hotel concierge or a bell-boy. However in big cities there are a number of taxi services (such as Uber, Yandex Taxi or Gett) that accept online payments by cards and can be called by iOS or Android applications.
Like anywhere in the world, it's better to avoid street ATMs (or at least to be very careful), as sometimes swindlers attach spy devices to them, to get your PIN and card details; the safest option is the ATMs in hotels, banks or big shopping centres.
While tipping was traditionally frowned upon in Russia it has been emerging after the fall of socialism. Tipping is not necessary, but expected. A tip exceeding 10% would be unusual. Some restaurants may include service into the amount, but that is very rare; if a service charge is included then a tip is not expected. Round up when paying your bill at a restaurant, particularly if it happens to be more or less like 10% above the total, and it may be interpreted as a tip. If the service was particularly bad and you don't want to leave a tip, ask for your change. It is impossible to write-in a tip into restaurant credit-card payment.
Tipping is not considered customary for taxis, in fact, you should negotiate and settle upon your fare before you get in the taxi.
In general, Russian-made items are cheap although Russia has become a major player in the luxury goods market, but products imported from the West are often expensive.
- Chocolate (шоколад) — Russian chocolate is very good
- Ice-cream (мороженое) - Russian ice-cream also especially good. In general check dairy products, you may like them.
- Halva (халва) — it's different from the Turkish kind (in that it's made of sunflower seeds, rather than sesame), but Rot-Front products are really good
- Honey (мёд) — produced around the country; sorts and quality vary dramatically, but the higher-quality are worth seeking. Moscow hosts a honey market in Kolomenskoe some part of the year. A number of honey shops working all the year round can be found on VDNKh/VVTs grounds.
- Red caviar (красная икра) — Before buying, examine or ask if it's "salmon caviar", because there is a risk of "knock-off" due to about 30 species of fish which give a caviar of red colour. And this knock-off caviar often tastes bad.
- Black caviar (черная икра) — is still possible to buy. High risk of knock-off. But it is considered a delicacy and it is expensive.
- Sturgeon meat (осетр, белуга) and meat of other fish of the sturgeon family. Considered one of the top delicacies in Russia. Very expensive but very tasty.
- Hard cheese — mostly produced in Altai; occasionally available from there in large stores in Moscow
- Sparkling wine (шампанское) — Sparkling wine, "Russian Champagne" is surprisingly good (Abrau-Durso is believed to be the best brand, yet there are other good ones, too). Make sure you order it "suKHOye" (dry) or Brut. Many restaurants serve it at room temperature, but if you request it "cold" they can usually find a semi-chilled bottle. The cost is surprisingly low also, about US$10
- Matryoshka (матрёшка) — a collection of traditionally painted wooden dolls, each one stacking neatly within another
- Ushanka (ушанка) — a warm hat with ears (ushi)
- Samovar (самовар) — an indigenous design for brewing tea. If you are buying samovars of value (historical, precious gems or metal, etc.), it is wise to check with customs before attempting to take it out of the country
- Winter coats in department stores are well made, stylish and excellent values
- Military greatcoats (sheeNEL) available in hard-to-find stores of military equipment
- Down pillows of very high quality are to be found
- Skin-care products. While when it comes to make up, you'll find all the same products, that are popular on the West, a lot of people prefer locally produced skin-care products because of their superior price/quality combination. Brands to check: Nevskaya cosmetica (Невская косметика) and Greenmama
- Gjel' (Гжель) — porcelain with cool authentic Russian ornaments.
- Khokhloma (Хохлома) — wooden tableware with flower-like paintings, red,gold,black colors.
- Luxury products— Russia has become the go-to place for people seeking luxury goods. For example you can buy limited edition IPhones made with rare materials. You can buy Faberge eggs.
There are a number of cheap food/goods chains.
- Billa. A bit more expensive than the others.
- Perekrestok (Перекресток). Also one of more expensive ones.
- Carousel (Карусель).
- Auchan (Ашан). A French supermarket chain. One of the cheapest, notorious for occasionally selling out-of-date food, so double-check expiry dates; however, it is mostly OK.
- Magnit (Магнит).
- [dead link] Pyatyorochka (Пятёрочка).
- Lenta. (Лента)
- Diksi. (Дикси)
- O'Kay. (О'Кей)
- See also: Russian cuisine
The foundations of the Russian cuisine was laid by the peasant food in an often harsh climate, with a combination of fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, buckwheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavourful soups and stews centred on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. Russia's renowned caviar is easily obtained, however prices can exceed the expenses of your entire trip. Dishes such as beef Stroganov and chicken kiev, from the pre-revolutionary era are available but mainly aimed at tourists as they lost their status and visibility during Soviet times.
Russia has for many decades suffered a negative reputation for its food, and Russian cuisine was known for being bland and overly stodgy. However, the food scene has improved in the past years and Russia has also been known and famous for delicacies like caviar.
Russian specialities include:
- Ikra (sturgeon or salmon caviar)
- Pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings, similar to pot-stickers, especially popular in Ural and Siberian regions)
- Blini (thin white flour or buckwheat pancakes, similar to French crepes)
- Black bread (rye bread, somewhat similar to one used by North American delis and not as dense as German variety)
- Piroshki (aka Belyashi - small pies or buns with sweet or savoury filling)
- Golubtsy (Cabbage rolls)
- Ikra Baklazhanaya (aubergine spread)
- Okroshka (Cold soups based on kvass or sour milk)
- Schi (cabbage soup) and Green schi (sorrel soup, may be served cold)
- Borsch (Ukrainian beet and cabbage soup)
- Vinegret (salad of boiled beets, eggs, potato, carrots, pickles and other vegetables with vinegar, mustard, vegetable oil and/or mayonnaise)
- Olivier (Russian version of potato salad with peas, meat, eggs, carrots, and pickles)
- Shashlyk (various kebabs from the Caucasus republics of the former Soviet Union)
- Seledka pod shuboy (fresh salted herring with "vinegret")
- Kholodets (aka Studen' - meat, garlic and carrots in meat aspic)
- Kvass (a fermented thirst-quenching beverage made from rye bread, sugar and yeast, similar to young low-alcohol beer)
- Limonad (various soft drinks)
Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated, world class dining and a wide variety of cuisines including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. They are also excellent cities to sample some of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Georgian and Uzbek). 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, shawerma/gyros, piroshki/belyashi, stuffed potatoes, etc. 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 are 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, kvass, limonad, and Coca Cola are available everywhere food is served.
Stylish cafes serving cappuccino, espresso, toasted sandwiches, rich cakes and pastries are popping up all over Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Some do double duty as wine bars, others are also internet cafes.
Unlike the United States, cafes in Russia (кафе) serve not only drinks, but also a full range of meals (typically cooked in advance—unlike restaurants where part or whole cooking cycle is performed after you make an order).
Generally speaking, Russian table maners follow traditional European norms.
- When having food with hosts, do not get up until you are invited to leave the table. This is not considered polite.
- The hosts might get quite persistent when offering an alcoholic drink. You will often have to be very firm if you want to reject that second (or third, fourth, tenth...) shot. Claiming problems with medicine or pregnancy, or stating that you're driving a car are imperfect options. Simply and grimly stating that you are an alcoholic can do the job too, but will depress your hosts.
- Sometimes you will be urged to take second helpings ad infinitum. If so, take it as a form of respect. Moreover, they really will love you if you keep eating.
- Do not rest your elbows on the table. This is considered rude (especially for kids).
- When a mixed group of people dine together, sometimes the bill can split among the men, and then the women are not expected to pay. This is not always be the case, so it's better to follow the example of your fellow diners.
Tipping in restaurants
Restaurant staff in Russia are not as dependent on tips as in the United States, but tipping is still encouraged, even if it is not common among the locals. A tip of 10% of the total bill, usually paid by rounding up the invoice amount, would be reasonably generous. Don't tip in cafeteria-like settings, where you travel along the counter with a tray and pay at the cash register. Drop a couple of 10-ruble coins (or the older notes) into the tip jar for staff. There is no way to leave a tip on your credit card so keep enough small notes in your wallet to hand to the staff.
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 naturally carbonized drink made from fermented dark bread) and mors (traditional wild berry drink).
Beer (пиво) is cheap in Russia and the varieties are endless of both Russian and international brands. It is found for sale at any street vendor (warm) or stall (varies) in the centre of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the centre) from about 17 руб to 130 руб for a 0.5 liters (0.11 imp gal; 0.13 U.S. gal) bottle or can. "Small" bottles and cans (0.33 liters (0.073 imp gal; 0.087 U.S. gal) and thereabouts) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 litres (0.22, 0.33, 0.44 imp gal; 0.26, 0.40, 0.53 US gal) or even more, similar to those in which soft carbonated drinks are usually sold — many cheaper beers are sold that way and, being even cheaper due to large volume, are quite popular, despite some people say it can have a "plastic" taste. Corner stores/cafés, selling draft beer (highly recommended) also exist, but you have to seek them out. The highest prices (especially in the bars and restaurants) are traditionally in Moscow; Saint-Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for the cheaper and often better beers. Smaller cities and towns generally have similar prices if bought in the shop, but significantly lower ones in the bars and street cafes. Popular local brands of beer are Baltika, Stary Mel'nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin'koff and many others. Locally made (mainly except some Czech and possibly some other European beers — you won't miss these, the price of a "local" Czech beer from the same shelf will be quite different) international trademarks like Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality doesn't differ so much from local beers. Soft drinks usually start from 20-30 руб (yes, same or even more expensive than an average local beer in a same shop) and can cost up to 60 руб or more in the Moscow center for a 0.5 liters (0.11 imp gal; 0.13 U.S. gal) plastic bottle or 0.33 liters (0.073 imp gal; 0.087 U.S. gal) can.
Cheap beer (less than 50 руб per 0.5 liters (0.11 imp gal; 0.13 U.S. gal)) may not contain natural ingredients at all and can cause an allergic reaction.
Street vendors usually operate mainly in tourist- and local-frequented areas, and many of them (especially those who walk around without a stall) are working without a license, usually paying some kind of a bribe to local police. Their beer, however, is usually okay, as it was just bought in a nearby shop. In the less weekend-oriented locations, large booths ("lar'ki" or "palatki", singular: "laryok" ("stall") or "palatka" (literally, "tent")) can be found everywhere, especially near metro stations and bus stops. They sell soft drinks, beer, and "cocktails" (basically a cheap soft drink mixed with alcohol, a bad hangover is guaranteed from the cheaper ones. Many of these alcohol cocktails contain taurine and large doses of caffeine and are popular with the nightlife fans) and their prices, while still not high, are often 20-40% more than those in supermarkets. The chain supermarkets (excluding some "elite" ones) and malls (mostly on bigger cities' outskirts) are usually the cheapest option for buying drinks (for food, the local markets in the smaller cities, but not in Moscow, are often cheaper). Staff of all of these (maybe except in some supermarkets, if you're lucky) do not speak or, at the best, speak very basic English even in Moscow. And furthermore, staff of many markets in Moscow and other large cities speak very basic Russian (its mainly migrants from Middle Asia).
Mixed alcoholic beverages as well as beers at nightclubs and bars are extremely expensive and are served without ice, with the mix (for example, coke) and alcohol charged for separately. Bringing your own is neither encouraged nor allowed, and some (usually dance-all-night venues oriented to the young crowd) places in Moscow even can take some measures to prevent customers from drinking outside (like a face-control who may refuse an entry on return, or the need to pay entry fee again after going out), or even from drinking the tap water instead of overpriced soft drinks by leaving only hot water available in the lavatories. Any illegal drugs are best avoided by the people not accustomed to the country — the enforcement is, in practice, focused on collecting more bribes from those buying and taking, rather than on busting drug-dealers, the people selling recreational illegal drugs in the clubs are too often linked with (or watched by) police; plain-clothes policemen know and frequently visit the venues where drugs are popular, and you will likely end up in a lot of problems with notoriously corrupt Russian police and probably paying multi-thousand-dollar (if not worse) bribe to get out, if you'll get caught. It really doesn't worth the risk here.
Wines (вино) from Georgia, Crimea and Moldova are quite popular. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines—generally at a high price. Russians prefer sweet wine rather than dry. French Chablis is widely available at restaurants and is of good quality. The Chablis runs about 240 руб per glass. All white wines are served room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.
Soviet champagne (Советское Шампанское, Sovetskoye Shampanskoye) or, more politically correctly, just sparkling wine (Игристые вина, Igristie vina) is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price. The quality can be quite good but syrupy-sweet to Western tastes, as by far the most common variety is polusladkoye (semi-sweet), similar to Asti Spumanti, but the better brands also come in polusukhoe (semi-dry) and sukhoe (dry) varieties. Brut also exists but is rare. The original producer was Abrau-Dyurso, but Ukrainian brands like Odessa and Krymskoe, are also very popular. Among quality Russian brands, the best brands originate from the southern regions where grapes are widely grown. One of a quality Russian brands is the historic Abrau-Dyurso (200-700 руб for a bottle in the supermarket depending on variety); Tsimlyanskoe (150-250 руб) is also popular. The quality of the cheapest ones (from 85-120 руб, depending on where you buy) varies, with some local Moscow and St. Petersburg brands (produced out of Crimean and southern Russian grapes) being quite good. You can buy if you do want to have a try while not paying much, but it's wiser to stick to something better.
Good genuine kvass (квас) is non-trivial to buy. Non-refrigirated PET bottles typically contain an imitation of varying quality. A reasonably close to genuine product can be found in some supermarkets in refrigerators. The key difference is that it is specifically marked to store in a refrigerator or the bottle may explode.
In warm periods, genuine kvass can be bought from huge metal barrels on trailers (bochkas). Originally a symbol of soviet summertime, bochkas became rare after 1991. Soviet nostalgia and these trailers' no-nonsense good functionality have given them a revival. There are also modern, plastic, stationary, upright barrel-like dispensers but these may not sell the genuine article. Towards the end of an especially hot day, avoid genuine kvass from bochkas as it may have soured.
Medovukha (медовуха) aka mead, the ancient drink brewed from many a century ago by most Europeans was widespread among ancient Russians. It has semi-sweet taste based on fermented honey and contains 10-16% alcohol. You may see it sold in bottles or poured in cups in fast-food outlets and shops.
Tea (чай) is drunk widely in Russia. Most Russians drink black tea with either sugar, lemon, honey or jam.
In most cities, quality hotels are really scarce: most were built in Soviet times decades ago and have been 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 trusted person. For the same reason, it may be really hard to find a hotel during mass tourist-oriented events like St. Petersburg's anniversary.
Generally a chained-brand hotels provide better service than independents.
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 Saint Petersburg would rather rent out to tourists than their own countrymen: foreigners are considered more trustworthy and orderly. Expect to pay US$60-70 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.
Another useful option is short-term apartment rental offered by small companies or individuals. This means that certain flats in regular living buildings are permanently rented out on a daily basis. The flats may differ in their location and quality (from old-fashioned to renovated), but in any case you get a one- or two-room apartment with own kitchen, toilet, and bath. Additionally, the hosts provide bed linen as well as cups, plates, and other kitchen equipment. The apartment rental provides great autonomy and flexibility (e.g., there is no strict check-out time). On the other hand, you do not get certain hotel facilities, such as breakfast, laundry service, etc. The price for the daily apartment rental normally does not exceed the price for the hotel of similar quality, so it is a very useful options, especially in large cities. The negotiations are usually quite official: the host collects the data from your ID, while you get a bill and a rental agreement.
A new phenomenon has been the development of "mini-hotels" in large Russian cities. Such hotels usually (but not necessarily!) provide clean modern rooms with private baths at far lower costs than conventional large hotels, approximately US$60 vs. well over US$150. These small hotels are located within existing apartment buildings and include one, two, or more floors located a story or two above street level. They also often serve breakfast. Saint Petersburg has quite a few with more opening all of the time and some are appearing in Moscow.
Couchsurfing is very popular in Russian cities.
Russia has a long-standing tradition in high-quality education for all citizens. It also has one of the best mass-education systems in the world, with excellent results at international educational competitions. Moscow State University is Russia's most prestigious university, while the Moscow Conservatory is one of the world's foremost institutions for aspiring classical music performers.
One of the great attractions of education in Russia is the cost, especially when compared to the quality. Degree study tuition can range from US$2,000 to $8,000 per year, with other costs (room & board, books, etc.) ranging from US$1,500 to $5,000 per year, depending on location and spending habits.
The academic year lasts from September 1st to mid June everywhere, with long summer vacations from July 1st to August 31st. The year is divided at "autumn semester"(from 1st September to 25th January) and "spring semester" (from February to June)
Several universities and private schools offer Russian language courses with either individual or group tuition.
It is generally difficult to obtain a work permit, as Russia has a relatively strict immigration policy.
Largely because of the transition from state socialism to market capitalism, Russia did experience a rise in criminal activity during the 1990s. As those who controlled capital through the state had to reconfigure their business operations towards a free enterprise rationality, profiteering and scams have increased. The truth is that crime was greatly exaggerated in the media, and for the average tourist Moscow, Saint Petersburg and the rest of Russia are actually just as safe as most major European cities. This, however, is not always the case.
Historically very high, the crime rate has fallen dramatically since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and is moderate. Even though the crime issues are continuing to drop, assault, robbery, or pickpocketing are the most common crimes - more common in underground walkways, the subway, overnight trains, train stations, airports, markets, tourist attractions, and restaurants. Foreigners who have been drinking alcohol are especially vulnerable to assault and robbery in or around nightclubs or bars, or on their way home. Some travelers have been drugged at bars, while others have taken strangers back to their lodgings, where they were drugged, robbed and/or assaulted. Of significant note: nightclubs are vulnerable to acts of spiking drinks. The drug called GHB is gaining popularity in nightclubs, and it has been proven that this drug can knock you unconscious, give you amnesia, and can even kill you. Typically it's in the form of a capful of liquid mixed with a beverage.
The use of unmarked taxis is also a problem, as passengers have been victims of robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and theft. Although there are few registered taxi services in Russia, you should always use authorized services when arriving at a major airport, and it is best to ask which is registered before moving along. Bogus trolley inspectors, whose aim is to extort a bribe from individuals while checking for trolley tickets, are also a threat, if an increasingly rare one in the 2020s.
Russia's law enforcement are well-trained and are extremely professional in their jobs. Although being historically very inadequate since the Soviet Union's breakup, the government has fought police corruption fiercely with success. Policemen should not dare to bribe anyone, as they themselves will end up being fined huge amounts. While there is an ongoing effort to shape up the police force initiated by the government, some policemen still remain underpaid, and therefore corrupt.
If you intend to take a stroll during the night, have someone to accompany you — going alone can only make you a target for corrupt officials and maybe criminals.
As a tourist, you are strongly discouraged to travel to the North Caucasus, as that region is the most dangerous in the entire country. The area has garnered a bad reputation for terrorism, crime and extremes of both corruption and lawlessness.
The safest region to access is Karachay-Cherkessia, as that region has encountered very little attacks in the past few years. If you really need to visit the more dangerous pockets of the region, it's best to contact your embassy before traveling to the area. Assistance will be limited, however.
If you are planning to see Mt. Elbrus, it's best to put it on hold until the situation in the region improves.
Male partners are strongly advised to avoid shows of affection and physical contact other than a handshake. Female partners can get away with non-sexual affection and physical contact, as it is considered acceptable. Cross-dressing is a strong no-no unless you know very well what you are doing.
Russia has seen a spike in homophobic activity, since the beginning of 2013 after a series of events that led to the adoption of a law establishing fines and deportation of foreigners for LGBT advocacy ("propaganda") directed towards minors. Although homosexuality is not illegal in Russia, you may have problems with the law if you participate in any LGBT advocacy activities where police would believe that minors can be involved. This effectively includes all public "outdoors" advocacy events, including gay pride parades and festivals, and may also be extended to public demonstration of your orientation and gender identification where minors are present. Participating in indoors LGBT activities, and allowed outdoors actions, where necessary precautions against participating of minors have been taken is legal, but there is still a threat of being hunted by homophobic activists during such events, as they specifically target them. Besides the events, general wisdom about keeping your orientation and gender identification secret will keep you safe in most situations, but if it is exposed, you may face harassment or violence from people, including hosts, if they didn't know beforehand, service workers, and more unpleasantly, lack of cooperation from police, if you'll have to turn to them seeking help against hate crimes.
Driving by the majority of Russians is routinely reckless (hence the viral dashcam videos), and claimed almost 26,000 lives in 2016. Reckless driving habits, the lack of proper training, and a mixture of very old to old model cars all what contributes to a high death rate on roads. Drivers attack their art with an equal mix of aggressiveness and incompetence. Guidelines are lax and not always followed. As a pedestrian, take great care when crossing the roads, as pedestrian crossings are sometimes ignored. Most drivers are not very well trained and some have forged their licenses to avoid problems with the police. More importantly, the rapidly expanding economy has led to an increase in traffic density. Driving in the tunnels is perhaps even more dangerous than driving on the roads — the tunnels are improperly built as a result of underinvestment, and they claim even more casualties than on the roads.
When driving you must not be under the influence of alcohol. Russians have a zero tolerance to this, and the penalty is about two years imprisonment. If you are pulled over by the GIBDD (Russian Traffic Police), don't worry — they will simply check your papers. By law, the GIBDD should not try to solicit a bribe — if that happens, you are entitled to report it to the nearest police station. Under no circumstances try to run away from them — if you do, they will shoot your vehicle, even when you're not armed.
Russia is a multicultural nation, due to historical conquests and immigration from parts of the former USSR and other parts of the world. Racially-motivated violent crimes, once a major issue, have dropped steadily since 2009, and the common traveller is unlikely to face any major problems.
People from the North Caucasus are often viewed with distrust and contempt, and are often discriminated against by landlords. Similarly, individuals who aren't Russian and/or not from a Slavic-language speaking country can also be barred from renting homes in certain areas.
Interracial couples, particularly those in a relationship with a Russian local, may often attract unwanted stares and/or curiosity.
There is a mistaken belief that everyone in Russia must carry identification papers. This is not the case. However, a lack of proper identification, while not punishable in itself, can lead to 3-hour detention "for identification purposes" (the law says "up to 48 hours" ). Formally, arbitrary document checks are not permitted, and the police officer that checks papers must introduce himself and explain the reason for checking. They however do still happen, though with far less frequency than previously, especially in the larger cities. Document checks are now more likely in places with little tourism – some police officers have very narrow notions of what should be appropriate for tourists.
Having no documents can lead to being held for up to 3h but not arrested. The detention should not be behind bars and you should not be deprived of your belongings (such as mobile phone): you can be taken to a police station, where you will end up sitting on a chair in a normal room while police "identify" you, but again, this rarely happens. Like most countries, you can be arrested if you are suspected of having committed a crime, but being unable to provide ID is not a crime and carries no penalty. No physical force can used in the detention, unless you apply it first. If you are stopped, be confident and remember that police officers are forbidden from shouting at you. The passport checks that do happen are primarily targeted at darker skinned people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants. Western-looking, Caucasian people are very rarely asked on the street for ID.
To spare yourself of potential problems, you may choose to carry your passport, migration card and registration slip on you. If you do, keep a separate photocopy just in case. You may also choose to bring a photocopy of the passport (id and visa) and of the immigration card.
Being stopped for ID is not necessarily a pretext for a bribe. Normally a police officer will salute and ask for your passport (listen out for words like 'paspart', 'veeza' or 'dokumenty'). Hand these to them, they will look at them, hand them back and salute you. While generally an unnerving experience for first time tourists, there is nothing sinister in this.
A corrupt policeman may claim that there are problems with your documentation (passport, immigrations card and residence registration), and demand a fine (bribe). You have three options: you may in a nice, friendly and firm manner explain that actually everything is fine, there is no problem with your documents and you are willing to go to the police station to clear things up; you can pay (300 руб should be enough in metropolitan areas); threaten. The first option is difficult without some Russian proficiency (and solid nerves), but will generally work. The second option buys you peace but encourages further corruption. The third option is more confrontational and requires some nerve: get out a mobile phone and threaten to call your embassy. This can work and the police may well back off.
Keep your money folded with small notes on the outside, concealing the larger ones. Bring out your cash only when actually handing it over. Keep larger amounts separate and hidden from smaller day-to-day money.
Meeting packs of aggressive dogs that are strays or on guard duty but not chained/restrained is possible, especially off the beaten path. Staying calm and holding your bags in front of you may prove sufficient. Follow other advice from the linked article if it's not.
Medical facilities in general vary. A majority of hospitals are extremely well equipped, clean, and possess all of the latest technologies, while there are some that are well below western standards, with shortages in medication and neglected equipment.
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 quality western medications.
Quality of tap water varies around the country, and may even be variable within cities. In old buildings tap water can be non-potable. In the big cities of European Russia, the water is clean of biological contaminants, but often suffers from the presence of heavy metals, due to outdated city plumbing. If you can't buy bottled water, boil water before drinking, or better yet use a special filter for tap water, which you could buy in any supermarket. Bottled water costs only about 25-50 руб for 2 liters (0.44 imp gal; 0.53 U.S. gal).
Besides local doctors (generally good quality but often working in poor facilities) there are several Western-run medical centres 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, which can be dangerous (seriously here, 'dangerous' doesn't mean 'strong'; it can contain methanol). Only buy vodka in large stores or specialized ones, with the sticker over the cap and/or the region's barcode on the side.
Significant number of food stores, including some food/goods chains, standalone food shops, kiosks and food markets are famous for selling food of bad quality, including out-of-date or even out-of-date with expire date reprinted with a later date. Although most of them are quite good, when possible, check the quality of the food with visual observation, don't especially trust expire date labels, that are added in a replaceable way. Also you can take note of what others are buying, sometimes you can even ask other buyers which product is better, it's considered normal. That could help you make a good choice. Examples of usually bad quality food sold are most of fish products, including smoked and spicy salted (be especially care), pre-made salads, fresh vegetables and fruits, when you can't handpick them (at markets check them after shop-women picked them for you, you can usually change those you don't like, at shops they usually don't allow to change, and use to add some bad ones into bag), vegetables conservatives sold with discount (and with older production date usually), cheaper dairy products, though less consistent, checking what others buy may help you here. Producers of juices can not mark their production as juice (rus: сок) if it isn't 100% juice. Today, all low quality juices marked as nectar (rus: нектар) are up to 50-70% of water and "fruit drinks" (rus: фруктовый напиток) can contain anything!
Russia's HIV prevalence is steadily rising, mainly for prostitutes, young adults and drug users. Be safe.
Russians are reserved and well-mannered people, and tend to be more traditional than Western Europeans.
Smiling in Russia is traditionally reserved for friends, and smiling at a stranger may make them self-conscious. Smile at a Russian in the street and most likely they will not respond in kind. An automatic US-American or romanic-European smile is widely regarded as insincere. While that tradition is slowly changing as Russia smiling is still very rare in customer service. Sales assistants, public servants and the like are expected to look serious and businesslike. Hence the very common misconception about Russians that they are a very grim folk and never smile — they do, once they get to know you, and become very welcoming and kind.
When approaching a stranger with a question, attempt to use Russian at first and ask if they speak English, Russians are very proud of their language and people will be noticeably more aloof if you approach them speaking English. Even just using the Russian equivalents of 'please' and 'thank you' will make a noticeable difference to people.
Women are traditionally treated with chivalry. For women travellers, there is a good possibility that Russian male friends could pay their bills at restaurants, open every door in front of them, offer their hand to help them climb down that little step or help them carry anything heavier than a handbag — this is not meant as condescending. Male travellers should understand that this will be expected of them by some Russian women too.
The "OK" gesture is okay.
Russians have a marvelously and intimately quiet way of speaking with one another in public. It's best to try and follow suit to avoid standing out like a sore thumb and generally making everyone around you really uncomfortable—stand a little closer to your interlocutor and ease up on the volume.
Much care is required when it comes to talking about World War II and the Soviet Union. That conflict was a major tragedy for Soviets and every family has at least one relative among the 25-30 million people who died (more than Western Europe and the United States combined) and the scars of that conflict are still felt today. Also avoid discussing the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
Avoid discussing relations with the Georgians or the Ukrainians. Talking about these subjects can lead to hostility and maybe even fierce debates. Tense relations between neighboring countries have led to many conflicts, and there exists a high sense of national pride regarding the Russian government's actions in Georgia and Ukraine.
Also avoid bringing up the state-sponsored doping scandal and subsequent bans on Russian athletes. A significant part of Russian society views them as false allegations that are a deliberate ploy by the West to discredit Russian sports for political reasons.
Homosexuality is a sensitive issue, with official government policy increasingly restricting the rights of the LGBT community. Many Russians don't hide their highly negative attitudes towards LGBT people (thanks to propaganda and some other factors), so you should avoid discussing the gay community and their rights, even if a person seems to be liberal-minded – you'll run the risk of provoking a hostile reaction.
Likewise, keep your political opinions to yourself. Ask as many questions as you like, but avoid making statements or comments about its past and current political situation. Russia and the Soviet Union had an often violent history and most Russian people are tired of hearing "how bad the Soviet Union was" from Western people. They lived it, are proud of both its triumphs and tragedies, and they probably know much more about it than you. There is also a high degree of nostalgia for the Soviet Union among Russians, and many people look back proudly and fondly at the time when the Soviet Union was a legitimate rival to the United States in power and international influence.
Also avoid criticizing the conflict in Chechnya. The war in the Chechen republic was horrific for both sides. The separatist forces are regarded as Islamist terrorists after mass terrorist attacks in 2000-2005. Political opinions in Russia are very polarized and political discussion is always very tough. Better to avoid it.
Also keep in mind that a significant part of the society is ashamed of the country's stagnation during the Western-friendly regime of Boris Yeltsin, and is proud of the role Putin has played in restoring Russia's international influence.
The political status of Crimea is also an inappropriate topic of conversation.
- If you're invited into someone's home, bring them a small gift as a form of respect. However, most will end up protesting when offered a gift. Reply that it is a little something and offer the gift again and it will generally be accepted, hopefully. It is reasonable to bring a bottle of alcohol if you expect to spend the evening in a less formal way.
- If you bring flowers, the quantity must always be odd; that is, one, three, five, seven, and so on. An even number of flowers is always brought to funerals. Another superstition related to flowers is the yellow colour of flowers — if possible do not give yellow ones, especially for a woman in a relationship. In Russia, this colour is considered as a sign of cheating in love and separation and especially never used for wedding bouquets.
- Do not give a baby gift until after the baby is born to a particular family. It is bad luck to do so sooner. Verbal congratulations before a person's birthday is often thought as a bad sign.
- When arriving at someone's house, remove your outdoor shoes, even if the hosts says it's not necessary – that's just a courtesy. You may be given slippers to wear.
- In someone's house, dress in formal clothes. Dressing well shows respect for your hosts. However, this rule may not work among young people.
- When traveling by train, you would better share your food with others near by, since then you will be viewed as polite.
- When visiting churches, men are required to take their hats off, while women are required to wear a shawl covering their head.
As of 2014, the Russian government is moving to restrict access to public Wi-Fi on the grounds that the Internet is "a CIA project" and laws requiring identity documents from anyone attempting to access the network are needed to fight extremism and terrorism. Often you still simply need a Russian phone number and you can register at free Wi-Fi, especially in train stations or banks. Even Wi-Fi at hotels often require a Russia phone number, if you don't have one hotel staff sometimes accept to do it for you and tell you the SMS code.
Some messaging applications (such as LINE) are blocked, but this is easily circumvented by using any free VPN app, and way less enforced than in China.
The country code for Russia (and Kazakhstan as a former member of the former Soviet Union), is 7.
Russian phone numbers have an area code with three, four or five digits (according to their province), followed by an individual number with, respectively, 7, 6 or 5 digits, always yielding 10 digits in total. The three-digit code 800 is used for toll-free calls. Mobile phones always have three-digit "area" codes and seven-digit numbers.
Calls within any one area code may omit the area code (except in Moscow).
Inter-area code calls within Russia: 8 (wait for tone) full Russian number including area code.
The international access code for dialling out from Russia is the sequence of 8 (wait for secondary tone and then) 10
International calls to Russia, as always, replace the plus sign (+) in the international phone format with the local international access code for the country you're calling from, followed by Russia's country code of 7 followed by the individual Russian phone number including area code.
Prepaid SIM cards
There are 5 GSM operators in Russia, which all use the 900/1800 MHz standard for 2G, 900/2100 MHz standard for 3G, and 800/2600 MHz standard for 4G/LTE, the same as Europe and Asia. Check that your phone supports one of these standards before bringing it to Russia. The 5 operators are Beeline, Megafon [dead link], MTS, Tele2, and Yota. There is also one CDMA network: Skylink but you need to purchase a Skylink phone to use this network.
All carriers offer cheap SIM cards with data plans that are always a better alternative to paying roaming charges. Megafon is considered to have the best coverage but Beeline is considered to be the cheapest. MTS does not charge differently between areas, as other mostly do. Data is very cheap in Russia and you can buy unlimited packages for all Russia.
If you buy a SIM card in a shop, you'll need your passport for identification and it will take around 5 minutes to complete the required paperwork. If you don't speak Russian, you will need to find someone who speaks English. Alternatively, you can buy a SIM card from automated kiosks in metro stations. Calls to landlines from mobile phones are more expensive than calls to other mobile phones, especially those that use the same network. Incoming calls are free. You can add value to your card at the stores of the company you are using or at automated kiosks or online. You can buy a prepaid card for international calls, but online services such as Skype are often cheaper.
If you want to connect your laptop or computer to a data network, you can also buy cheap SIM cards for a USB-modem.
Useful smartphone apps
- Yandex.Maps (Яндекс.Карты): Yandex is the Google of Russia and this is their map application. It provides a search function (also by category), routing, traffic and parking information. In cities, it shows the real time position and routes of buses, marshrutki etc. The interface is available in Russian, English, Ukrainian and Turkish. Non-native English speakers must add English to their phone languages, otherwise the interface will be in Russian.
- Maps.me is known for its offline maps.
- RZD Passengers (РЖД Пассажирам): The official app of the Russian Railways allows you to buy long distance tickets. Suburban tickets must be bought at the station because for those, foreign passports are not accepted as identification document in the app (Oct 2019). If you don’t find a train connection where there should be one, try writing the departure and the destination in Cyrillic letters.
- Taxi apps: There are several taxi apps, with Yandex.Taxi, City-Mobil, Uber and Gett being the most popular.
- BlaBlaCar: The app connects drivers and passengers willing to travel together between cities and share the cost of the journey.
- Offline Readers like Kiwix enable you to download Wikivoyage and use it offline.
- izi.TRAVEL: Several Russian museums and organizations provide free audio guides via this platform.