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Guide to Russia > Geography and History


► Russia is very cold and there are polar bears walking around the streets

No, there are no bears on the street. Only in the zoo or circus (but in Siberia, the bears sometimes really do come to town!). As for the climate, this really depends on the region: Russia is large, and one place may be completely different from another. Let's look at the situation in an even broader context. The largest northern countries are Canada and Russia, but most of the population of Canada lives in the south of the country - on the border with the United States. Geographically this means that most of the Canadian population lives to the south of the Russian city of Volgograd, and it follows most of Russia including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Ekaterinburg and many other cities are situated in areas further north than most of the populated parts of Canada. Consequently there are extremely low temperatures in winter. Summers can actually be quite hot because much of Russia is landlocked - generating a hot continental climate in the summer (Siberia for example). At the other end of the scale, in the central part of Russia it can get down to negative 30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit), but only for a week or two in January or February. The temperature in the winter is more typically around -10 C or in the teens in Fahrenheit, and in the summer in the upper 20s and low 30s Celsius or the mid 70s to mid 80s in Fahrenheit.

► Russia is dangerous and it is scary to walk around

Generally, Russia is not as peaceful as, let's say, Finland. If we are talking about crime and safety in big cities it should be remembered that big cities are much the same wherever you happen to be in the world. Normally, life goes by without any problems. The best way to stay out of trouble is to lock your door and never go outside (just kidding); really, the best way to stay out of trouble is to be careful and alert. In public places, your wallet or cell phone can easily be stolen if you carry them hanging out of your back pocket or in a backpack (on your back). So keep your documents, money and other important stuff up front and close to your heart. This means in a safe place! Also, don't leave your bag or coat, or even a hat or scarf lying around without watching it.

Pay attention when you are on the streets. Don't forget that Russian drivers are crazy. They drive fast along downtown streets and sometimes drive on the wrong side of the road. They might go through a red light when people are crossing the street - they think that THEY have the right of way - not pedestrians! So, be alert, pay attention to the rules but know that the drivers may be breaking them.

Probably the last important thing is not to walk alone late at night, especially in areas of the city outside of the center. If you demonstrate such braveness you are more likely to get into trouble, just like every common citizen here. And if you do get into trouble and end up going to the police station in search of help, understand that this can be a truly fascinating adventure. You could get into even more trouble there (believe me)! You might be treated badly and rudely by the police even if you are the victim. Also be prepared to pay lots of money to get out of this escapade. So the main advice here is to be careful late at night, not to attract any attention, and not to hang out by yourself in doubtful places and districts, unless you have already lived in Russia for a while and are well adjusted to the place. Above all, understand that problems happen everywhere in the world, whether you are in St. Petersburg, New York or even peaceful Finland - use your common sense.

► Russia is a very expensive country for foreigners

Prices for Russians and foreigners should be the same in most places that you go (except for some museums and theaters) but you still have to be aware that Russian people can be eager to make money off of foreigners, who are not accustomed to daily Russian practices. This happens because people consider the standing of living in Europe or America to be much higher than in Russia, thus justifying a price hike for foreigners. It is hard to do anything about the prices in museums, or theatres (unless you get a Russian friend to buy your tickets, but this works less and less because of the old women, ticket police that stand at all the entrance to these places and are experts at spotting foreigners… you could still try…), but it is easy to negotiate with taxi-drivers, at the market and in galleries and souvenir stores. The main advice here is not to give your money away immediately. Do your own small market survey - check out the prices of the competition, don't commit. Then, once you know the prices, get a quote and negotiate down. Once you have a basic feeling for prices it is much easier to determine if someone is trying to cheat you. Also, it is a great idea to ask locals for advice on where to go and what to buy. Don't feel embarrassed about asking such advice. You'll find that many people are ready and happy to help.

► Russia is an impossible place to visit

The West is still full of rumors about rampant crime and prostitution, relentless drug-trafficking, mile-long queues for nonexistent food and a general end-of-the-world aura encompassing Russia. Most of these things have been left far behind in the past, especially in Russia's major cities. The country is definitely not as frightening as it is sometimes depicted by the foreign media - those guys are always looking for a good, sensational scoop. In Russia today, you can get almost every type of food no matter where you decide to go. The water is not so good in some places, but you can buy good

bottled water in every grocery store. The general cost of living is low. Crime and drug issues won't touch you at all unless you create these problems yourself and put special energy into nurturing their creation. So it is very possible to happily visit or live in Russia and to take advantage of Russia's countless cultural treasures. Russia is definitely a must-see destination and it's not difficult to get by here.

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► Russians drink vodka all the time

Yes, it's true! You really have to admit that vodka is everywhere you look - the same goes for beer and cigarettes. Russia unfortunately is not the healthiest nation on earth. You won't see too many people jogging in the morning, but you might see someone walking around drunk and talking to themselves. People here really like to drink and have a good time (like that Prince song "Let's Go Crazy" or "1999"). People really enjoy hanging out and partying the night away. For some this can happen almost every night. There are lots of people who enjoy long, vodka or beer "kitchen talks" as well (you just get together in the kitchen and hang out for hours drinking alcohol and tea, then someone makes some eggs or something). After all of this most of them go to work in the mornings. It is difficult to understand why the lifestyle is like this. Maybe it has something to do with the "magical and deep Russian soul" which is always searching for the answers to really difficult life and death questions. Or maybe it is something left over from serfdom or Soviet times, when people always had some type of father figure that took care of them - taking away some of their own responsibility (before the revolution this might be the master or feudal lord and during Soviet times this was obviously the State).

The younger generation is dealing with all of this in a much more efficient fashion than the older generations, but this also depends very much on which region or place we are talking about. The best thing is to just be careful around alcohol and the drinking problem won't touch you at all. If you really aren't up for drinking or going all out, just refuse, no one will really insist (although they will try). The main problem is that if you start to try a little (just for good company) then you can quickly get into trouble. Russians can drink a hell of a lot before they start to show signs of drunkenness, but most other people who are not conditioned to alcohol in this way will get sick much sooner - so watch out! And the last tip: don't ever buy hard alcohol from unknown, dubious or strange kiosks or shady characters. It might not be alcohol at all but paint thinner or sun tan lotion! And if you do get drunk, try to avoid going outside on the street, especially at night. If you are in a club stay in and chill out, if you are at friend's house, try to spend the night there. If you don't have this opportunity call a taxi. It will be a bit more expensive but also safer.

► Russians are not friendly, do not smile and don't like foreigners

People in Russia are quite nice and open. They like to talk and in most cases will kindly answer questions and give directions or explanations. However if they don't know the language they might be ashamed and confused and may just walk away. To get advice it is really better to ask younger people. They probably know some English and can help answer your questions. Also hotels, information centers, big stores, cafes and restaurants have English speaking staff, so these are usually good places to go for help. Most Russians won't pay much attention to you just because you are a foreigner. They just go about their normal life and don't take much notice unless you are behaving strangely, speak or laugh too loudly in public, dress really weirdly, or act rude without any reason. Other than that you are going to be treated nicely and many people will actually take an interest in you if you are acting sociably in a club for example. However, some older people and not very well-educated people may go overboard with their patriotism. But if you don't attract their attention they won't disturb you. If unfortunately you do get noticed by these types, it's better if you don't pay attention and just walk away. Most of the population here is very normal, polite and nice to tourists and guests from abroad. Sometimes you will even be surprised at how disarmingly generous and hospitable Russian people can be.

► Russian women are very beautiful and hardworking

This is true. Girls and women in Russia are beautiful. This is easy to understand because Russia is a big, multi-ethnic country. This mixture gives Russians a very diverse, interesting and often attractive appearance. Many young women are career-oriented; they are independent and know what they want out of life. They are also much more in tune with Western culture - MTV has definitely come to Russia. Middle-aged and older women who grew up in the Soviet Union tend to be very family oriented. Since WWII took away many great, brave men there was a lack of men in the country. Maybe this why many women in the older age group were taught to take extremely good care of their men and to always put themselves in second place. This also made them quite strong and unflinching in their ways. Because Russian women are very open, extremely caring, generous and emotional, they are thought to be very nice. But you always have to keep in mind that people are people wherever you go. However, regardless of their age or place in society, Russian women expect very polite treatment from men: they will wait for men to open doors for them, to give them seats on public transportation, to stand up when a woman comes into a room and to pay for them if they are invited out.

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