Russia is changing enormously and rapidly
Most Travel Information is Out of Date and Potentially Incorrect
This is probably the most important thing to understand about Russia - its current extraordinary rate of change in every aspect of life and living. And it has an immediate and obvious implication. Just about any source of information that you refer to will be out of date - whether it be a month out of date, a year out of date, or longer. And during that elapsed time, there will have been significant and substantial changes, perhaps so important as to make relevant parts of the information you are now relying on to be no longer correct. Remember that if you are reading a "2000" guidebook, you probably have a guidebook that was mainly written perhaps five or ten or even more years ago, which has been revised somewhat each following year, and which was most recently revised in 1999 based on information received during 1998, before being printed late in that year with a "2000" proudly showing in its title. You can not rely on such information! Many things are changing at a very rapid rate in Russia, particularly things that relate to travel and tourism, and you must do all you can to get accurate and up to date information.
In case you are wondering, the author of these notes is basing his comments on his ten visits to Russia between April 1996 and the present. We'll change this paragraph to reflect the current status of our own observations as and when we update these notes, so you know how reliable and up to date our own comments may be.
The Amazing Change in Russian Society
Freedom for the First Time Ever!
Sure, everyone knows that in 1917 Russia experienced a communist revolution, and for the next nearly 75 years, suffered an autocratic form of dictatorship. But how many people realise that the communist form of autocracy merely replaced the previous monarchist form of autocracy? Communism did not mean less freedom for the average people in Russia, indeed some people would suggest that communism was a form of meritocracy in which average people had more opportunity than was the case before, under the tsars!
What this means is that, for all practical intents and purposes, Russia has no ingrained social concept of freedom, of liberty, of independence. And now, in a few very short years since "independence" in 1991, the country and its people is being expected to embrace late twentieth century western ideals, and the amount of change that this requires in all levels of Russian society is enormous. On a personal level, the people, for the first time ever, are discovering that it is safe and acceptable to hold differing views on just about any subject, and that there is no danger in expressing their honest thoughts and feelings.
On a working level, the concept of "jobs for life" has been largely abandoned, and all of a sudden people are becoming accountable for their work performance. People that work poorly find themselves fired and without a job, and with a significant level of unemployment, getting a different job is not easy. It truly was the case before that customers were just an "inconvenience" for most employees, and no wonder that service was poor. but these days, people are realising that customers are essential and that good service, politeness and helpfulness are essential.
A new President and Parliament
December 1999 saw the election of a new Duma - Russia's equivalent of the US Congress, and then on 31 December, Mr Yeltsin's surprise announcement of his resignation thrust his chosen successor to the fore - Mr Putin. The early Presidential Election in March 2000 confirmed Mr Putin as the new President of Russia, and at present all eyes are focused on him to see what type of leader he may be. It is not for us to say, however we will express some moderate concern and reservations. We are desperately hoping for the best, but very fearful that he may represent a potential grave backwards step away from freedom and towards totalitarianism once more. Time will quickly tell.
Shortages No Longer
Except of Money!
Leave your rolls of toilet paper at home, folks. Russia now has all that you'll likely need! :) And so too should you leave extra pairs of Levi jeans at home - you'll no longer find they are in short supply. And as for American cigarettes - they are very much cheaper in Russia than they are in the US (fewer "sin taxes").
You can now conveniently buy just about any imaginable item in one of Russia's many well stocked shops, and you'll find that the prices are comparable to what you'd pay in most other western countries too. However, these prices, although in line with what we consider to be "normal" and affordable for most of us, are many times quite considerably higher, as a proportion of a person's income and spending power, for local people in Russia. Rates of pay vary enormously, and what we are used to in terms of jobs that typically pay well and jobs that typically pay poorly is often very different in Russia. For example, doctors and dentists in Russia are among the poorest paid jobs there are - many times a secretary in an office will earn as much or more than a doctor or dentist!
Russia went through a period of very high inflation over its first five years of independence, then had a relatively stable period in 1996-1998, followed by a sudden plunge in the value of the ruble late in 1998 (down from 6 to about 22 to the dollar) and since that time, relative stability again through to the present day (current exchange rate approx 28.5 to the dollar). The sudden drop in 1998 briefly harmed the Russian economy, but it seems to now be recovering. Indeed, in 1999 there was a definite increase in overall GDP and the higher cost of imported goods is helping a resurgence in local production of all manner of things, from food to manufactured goods.
Dangerous? Not Really
Russians interact differently than we do
Worried about the Russian "mafia"? The chances are that you'll have no more contact with the Russian mafia in Russia than you have contact with the local mafia in the town and country you come from. Yes, there definitely is "organised crime" in Russia, but these people are not interested in tourists. They don't get to drive their expensive Mercedes cars by taking the occasional twenty dollars from a passing by tourist, they get their money by taking a share of large and profitable, cash-oriented businesses, just as happens in the US and most other countries.
There is, of course, like in any other city in the world, the usual types of semi-random crimes such as mugging, burglary and theft, and even rape and murder. But in 1996 only two Americans were killed in all of Russia, and both of them were people that had been involved in the "underworld" of Russia, rather than just casual innocent tourists, and I'm unaware of any American murders in the years subsequently. There is an element of uncertainty and risk any time you leave your home (and indeed more crimes are committed in the home than outside of it!), and the usual rules of cautious commonsense apply in Russia the same as they do in your home town or elsewhere in the world. Be careful late at night, and don't flash money around, but don't let fear of crime stop you from enjoying Russia. If you can survive New York or Florida, you should be just fine in Russia. :)
Some people say that Russian people are very unfriendly. Nothing could be further from the truth! However, in public and with strangers, Russians behave differently to how we do. If we pass a stranger, it is not uncommon to have brief eye-contact, and if we do, then we usually politely smile to acknowledge their presence and to show that we are friendly, not hostile. It is different in Russia - strangers avoid eye-contact, and if they do have eye-contact, they just look away again with no smile. This might seem "unfriendly" to you, but it isn't intended as such, it is just a different social custom. Another example of different social customs being misinterpreted is in a Russian shop. We are used to, when we are shopping in a store in the US, to having a shop assistant come up to us and, at best, politely offer to help, and, at worst, become a nuisance trying to pressure us into buying something we don't want. In Russia the custom is different. In Russian shops it is normal for the shop assistants to wait until you speak to them before they will approach you. You might be in a store and notice two or three shop assistants, all seemingly rudely ignoring you, but what is happening is that they are politely not bothering you and are waiting for you to ask them for assistance before they approach you. When you think about it, this is perhaps a much nicer way to shop!
Once you get to know Russian people as individuals, you will quickly find them to be more friendly, more generous, and more helpful than just about anywhere else in the world.
Comments? Suggestions? Send mail to David Rowell firstname.lastname@example.org . This page last edited : May 15, 2010