DANGERS & ANNOYANCES
Heading to parts of Russia afflicted by war or bandits on the loose is obviously a dumb idea. We’re talking about Chechnya here, but Dagestan has also been a scene of civil unrest and general lawlessness. Check with your government’s foreign affairs ministry at home or your embassy in Russia for the latest danger zones.
Transport & Road Safety
Take care when crossing the road in large cities: some crazy drivers ignore completely traffic lights, while others tear off immediately the lights change (which can be suddenly), leaving you stranded in the middle of the road.
In Russia, ‘Mafia’ is a broad term encompassing the country’s small- and bigtime gangsters, as well as the many thousands of corrupt officials, businesspeople, financiers and police. However, they will be the least of your problems while traveling in the country. Despite occasional beat-ups in the Western media, the lawless situation of the early 1990s has largely disappeared – big-time crime’s impact on tourists is now pretty much nonexistent.
Moscow and St Petersburg streets are about as safe (or as dangerous) as those of New York and London : there’s petty theft, pocket-picking, purse-snatching and all the other crimes endemic to big cities anywhere. Travelers have reported problems with groups of children who surround foreigners, ostensibly to beg, closing in with dozens of hands probing pockets (or worse).
The key is to be neither paranoid nor insouciant – use common sense and be aware that it can be pretty obvious you’re a Westerner. Try to fit in: shun burn bags (fanny packs) and bright Western clothes, and scrap the day-pack and carry your goods in a plastic bag.
We’ve been alerted to several current scams. Be wary of officials, such as police (or people posing as police), asking to see your papers or tickets at stations – they might hr on the lookout for a bribe and will try to find anything wrong with your documents. The only course of action is to remain calm, polite and stand your ground. Try to enlist the help of a passer-by to translate (or at least witness what is going on).
Another scam involves the use of devices, in ATMs that read credit card and PIN detail, when you withdraw money from the machines, enabling accounts to be accessed and additional funds withdrawn. In general, it is safest to use ATMs in carefully guarded public places such as major hotels and restaurants.
There have been reports on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railway routes of official-looking men or women requesting that you buy insurance for around US$10 – there is no need to do this.
Break-ins are epidemic. Don’t leave anything of worth in a car, including Sunglasses, cassette tapes and cigarettes. Valuables lying around hotel rooms also tempt providence. At camp sites, watch for items on clotheslines and in cabins. If you stay in a flat, make sure it has a well-bolted steel door.
Generally, customer service is improving. However, the single most annoying thing the majority of travelers encounter in Russia is the combination of bureaucracy and apathy that turns some people in ‘service’ industries into surly, ill-mannered, obstructive goblins. At times you still have to contend with hoteldesk staff struck deaf (or, at best, monosyllabic) by your arrival, as well as shop ‘assistants’ with strange paralyses that make them unable to turn to face customers.
Then there’s the tangle of opening hours whereby every shop, museum and cafe seems to be having its lunch or afternoon break, or the day off; or is remont (closed for repairs); or is simply closed full stop, just when you want to visit.
Russians also have very specific rules for queuing (holding someone’s place in the line while they shop or whatever for several hours b common, as is pushing in at the last minute if you’re at the train station, say, and the train (is about to go). In most cases, neither politeness nor anger will help. If you have the head for it, sharpen your elbows, team a few scowling phrases, and plough head first through the throng. Good luck.
Prostitution is common, and unsolicited prostitutes still visit or telephone hotel rooms offering sex. Be prepared for strip shows, male and female, at many nightclubs and some restaurants.
Racism & Discrimination
A disturbingly high level of entrenched 1Kism exists in Russia, despite decades of ‘let’s-all-love-our-comrades’ communism. In recent years some embassies have issued Warnings to foreigners to stay off the streets around Hitler’s birthday (20 April), when bands of right-wing thugs have been known to roam around spoiling for a fight with anyone who doesn’t look Russian. Frightening reports of racial violence appear from time to time in the media, and it’s a sure thing that if you look like a foreigner you’ll be targeted with suspicion by many (the police, in particular).
What is most surprising is that racist attitudes or statements can come from otherwise highly educated Russians. Jews, targets of state-sponsored anti-Semitism during the Communist reign, are more distrusted than hated, although the hatred certainly exists, especially when stirred up by right-wing political parties.
Do your best to avoid contact with the myriad types of police. Some are known to bolster their puny incomes by robbing foreigners – either outright or through sham ‘fines’. The legal age for alcohol consumption is 18, although you’ll see plenty of younger people drinking. There is zero tolerance for alcohol consumption by drivers, and the age of consent for both sexes is 16.
If you are arrested, the Russian authorities are obliged to inform your embassy or consulate immediately and allow you to communicate with it without delay. Although you can insist on seeing an embassy or consular official straight away, you can’t count on the rules being followed, so be polite and respectful towards officials and hopefully things will go far more smoothly for you. In Russian, the phrase ‘I’d like to call my embassy’ is ‘Pazhahl-stuh, ya kha-tyel bi pahz-vah-neet v pah-solst-va ma-yey strahn-ih’.