Must KNOW About Russia

by Rikki Brown

Russia can be an extremely challenging place, and many times creates severe frustration.  However, it is also an extremely rewarding place to live, work, or intern for a few months. Before embarking, get to know the country and you will be on your way to overcoming any challenge ahead.

Traditional Baskir Dance, Ufa, Russia
Traditional Baskir Dance, Ufa, Russia. Photo by Rikki Brown

If the cold doesn’t shock you, the culture might.

Russia is a particularly hard culture to deal with at times, mostly because of its climate. Winter can be quite daunting, as, for example, during the month of November in Saint Petersburg it is more than likely that one will see only a few hours of sunlight. January and February will be intensely cold, yet sunny, and March will be rainy and muddy, all the time. For many individuals, this type of weather pattern can easily set off depression, an intense case of homesickness, and a possible despise of Russia.

Culture shock, in its essence, cannot entirely be avoided; it will happen and the worst aspect is stage two, a loathing of the local people and culture and the unfortunate tendency to pick apart each aspect of the culture and compare it to one’s native land. Generally, stage two is only reached after a few months into the stay, and any trips shorter than four to six months usually keep the traveler in stage one, the honeymoon; during the first stage, everything is interesting, fascinating, beautiful, and just plain awesome. However, if one is intending to achieve a longer stay in Russia, stage two is inevitable. There are many recommendations to ease stage two culture shock, yet for Russia, some specific suggestions may be given:

  • Embrace winter; it will come and it cannot be stopped, so it is best to be prepared – attain warm outdoor garments, some blankets for the apartment, and stock up on tea and coffee.
  • Mentally prepare, by facing the realistic temperatures and the fact that the commute to work will still need to be done.
  • Realize that the sun may not present itself for awhile, so perhaps take a short vacation before winter approaches to enjoy the last rays of fall.
Red Square, Moscow

You'll have to dress like a local to survive.

What do actual Russians wear? How can one fit in everyday on the streets? Well, unless someone looks super Slavic and chooses one’s wardrobe exactly like a Russian would, it’s pretty hard not to stick out. That being said, most people can dress as they normally would and at least blend in. Foreigners will know they are choosing the right clothing when a babushka (a Russian grandmother) even stops to ask them for directions.

One stereotype about Russia that actually does exist is the fur coats. Almost everyone has one and almost everyone wears one during the winter season. It will be tempting to buy one while in Russia, and actually it can be advised, as it is the only way to keep warm during the chilling Russian winters. It is not always the best idea to wear as much clothing as possible during the winter, however. While it may be cold outside, the Russians keep their heaters cranked inside, so piling on the layers is needed to go outside but once inside the layers will be gradually thrown off. Thus, it’s always advised to, as the Russians put it, “dress like a cabbage” - lots of layers. This is true almost any time of the year.

Generally speaking Russians dress just like everyone else. However, don’t be surprised by some of the short skirts and high heels worn by women. Russians get really dressed up for even the most basic occasion, so it's advised to bring some good dress clothes with you; more formal clothing will be especially helpful when going to the theater or any dinner or evening event. The modern youth dress just like a Westerner and they love any sort of brand from America or Europe.

It will take some time to learn how to get around affordably.

The most common type of taxi is called a “Gypsy Cab”. Essentially, one sticks their hand into the road and flags down a random car. This car is usually quite beaten up and often of the Russian mark Lada. The driver takes the destination and a short bout of bartering takes place, after which one arrives safely at their destination. The drivers are usually immigrants from the Caucasus or Central Asia. Keep in mind that these should never be very expensive rides and anything that may seem a bit pricey is probably so.

The Kremlin, Moscow

Don't be afraid to make yourself at home.

Living arrangements should be cozy and personal. This could be in the form of candles, or some simple decorations like lamps, picture frames, or a rug. If the apartment feels personal it will be personal, and can be a haven when homesickness appears.

The price of rent for an apartment in Russia, especially for foreigners, is always a tricky subject. It is highly advisable to go apartment searching with a Russian by your side, unless you feel comfortable enough with your Russian skills to barter, argue, and stand up for yourself while communicating with real estate agents. Real estators often try to rip off foreign tenants, charging them significantly more than they would a Russian tenant.

In larger cities with a stronger expat and foreign student community, it is quite easy to find another foreigner with whom to rent an apartment with, or from whom one may safely rent an apartment at a comfortable price. In Saint Petersburg, for example, one can find a decent apartment for 7000 Roubles (apx 220 USD) a month; however expect to live a bit far from the center, though potentially on the metro line. It is also just as possible to find a cheaper, though smaller apartment closer to the center, especially when willing to share with another foreigner or even a Russian. For 17000 Roubles (apx 500 USD) a month, a more luxurious apartment can easily be obtained and when shared is a very affordable venture.

Russian housing is extremely versatile; with everything from the traditional Kommunalka of the Soviet Union, where in one apartment has each room transformed into its own separate living quarters, housing potentially four different families who share a community kitchen and bathroom, to a penthouse suite overlooking the city center. For any budget, there is adequate housing to be found. In smaller cities, one should never settle for any apartment that is over 12000 roubles (400 USD).

Explore the niche that speaks to you.

Whether it be football (soccer), dance, theater, photography, Russian language, literature, or skiing, Russia has it all, and there is a local club for almost anything you want to do. Finding a niche that fits your interests and hobbies creates an outlet for the emotions that come from stage two. 

Furthermore, Russians are quite artistic. It’s very common to see a hipster-dressed youth carrying a camera – many locals are quite into photography. It is also easy to find singers, dancers, actors, and musicians within any social circle. Russians love to perform, and after a few shots of vodka the accordion frequently comes out for a concert of traditional Russian ballads. Any school or university has a variety of performances throughout the school year, and every city has many gorgeous theaters with local performers providing entertainment in the form of Chehkov and other Russian staples. Ask about these events at the local place you are interning and rest assured there will be plenty of entertainment to choose from.

Moscow cityscape

Build relationships with locals and create your own Russian family.

Find a good babushka, and if that’s not possible, then some great friends. Dive into the culture fully. Russians love guests and will never say no to serving you borscht and perozhi. When stage two hits and the best cure is some family love, a Russian family will be waiting to help with Mama’s home cooking and some warm tea, take advantage of family and hospitality.

You will learn how to survive in Russian.

In major Russian cities, especially Saint Petersburg and Moscow, many Russians speak some degree of English and can help with directions or any other immediate needs. However, in smaller cities and towns it is much harder to find an English speaker and in some areas no other languages are spoken.

If traveling with the desire to learn the Russian language, you should stay away from Moscow and Saint Petersburg and head to some of the smaller, more remote cities such as Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Volgograd, and Astrakhan. These towns provide a separation from the expat and foreign student scene of the major metropolises, and provide an opportunity to really learn Russian through cultural immersion and necessity. If staying in Russia for a longer period of time, say for a few months, it is also highly advised to learn some basic Russian. Russian courses are offered at many different locations, including private companies or language schools, as well as at local universities. Private tutors are also very popular in Russia and English speakers can easily find a language exchange partner; this is also an appealing and helpful way of making friends and immersing oneself into the culture.

Don’t get frustrated by the Russian language; it’s always much easier said than done for most people. Living and working in Russia will really increase your speed of progress and help you obtain a better grasp of the language. You will be pleasantly surprised at the speed in which you pick up the basic language needed for survival.