Russia is a strange and beautiful place unlike any other in the world. It is a land of contrast that in one minute may feel like the most unforgiving environment on the planet but seconds later may seem like one of the most hospitable. It is this paradoxical nature that continues to draw foreigners to the country. In 2010 when I first studied in Russia, I had done all the preparation I could and was still overwhelmed upon arrival. Now that I am gearing up for my third long term stay, I have decided to share a few of the things I have learned there to help encourage others to venture into this beautiful and often misunderstood country.
One of the main hurdles to overcome when travelling to Russia is obtaining a visa. Depending on the length and purpose of your stay, obtaining a visa can take anywhere from a few days to several months. Regardless of visa type, one must first obtain an invitation to travel to Russia from Russian friends, a host family, hotel, hostel, company, or school. At this point all you can do is to be patient. Russia still has a large bureaucracy and things tend to move slowly but chances are your documents will eventually be processed.
It goes without saying that Russian winters are brutally cold and extremely dark. The cities you choose to visit will dictate just how much shivering you will be doing. When I first landed in St. Petersburg in January of 2010, the sun shone for around 4 hours per day and it snowed at least once a day. By contrast, Russian summers can be relatively hot and most Russians do not have air conditioning. My advice is to pack light and wear what the Russians wear.
Politics and Conversation
Even twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, much of Russia remains relatively isolated. Less than 20% of Russians hold international passports. As a result, many Russians are curious about the outside world and you as a foreigner. Typical conversations may involve your income, the prices you paid for your electronics and even unsolicited advice about your health. Additionally, I have met many Russians that are more than willing to share their views on Putin, Obama, Bush, and just about every controversial political topic they could devise. I have found it’s best to listen patiently and gently change the topic when you can.
Food and Vodka
Russian food is practical, affordable, and hearty enough to keep you alive through the cold winter. Blini (crepes), pastries, caviar, fatty meats, Smetana, and a motley assortment of pickled products are all the norm at the Russian table. The long winters tend to limit the availability of fresh produce to things like cabbage, beets, and potatoes. As an added bonus, vodka is an integral part of Russian cuisine. Russians often chase vodka shots with salted fish, pickles, or even caviar and blini. As a foreigner, it is especially important to be careful with drinking. There are lots of dishonest people waiting to take advantage of a drunken stranger. Also, never try to keep up with Russians in a drinking competition. I can say from personal experience that you will lose every time.
Shortly after arriving in Russia, it will become apparent just how foreign the country really is. This extends to the seemingly strange customs that are integral to daily Russian life. For example, Russians will avoid cross drafts of any kind even in a crowded bus in July for fear of getting sick. They will always remove their shoes when entering a person’s home and wear the provided slippers. Women also avoid sitting on cold surfaces such as park benches in the winter for fear of becoming sterile. While some customs seem strange at first, take a step back and examine some of the customs that Westerners practice and realize just how strange they may seem to an outsider.
Quirky habits aside, Russian culture is heavily centered on the family. They typically live in close quarters and are even closer with their friends and relations. Additionally, babushkas (grandmothers) are highly respected and often command that respect themselves. Try to stay out of their way but do approach them if you need directions or are in trouble. They are generally willing to help.
Russia is a mysterious and fantastic country that more Westerners need to visit. Unfortunately, negative stereotypes, outdated mindsets, and fear tend to prevent people from visiting. Overcoming these will take time, effort, and more than a few brave souls willing to venture into the icy unknown.