Russia - a non-understandable land that no matter how hard someone tries to understand, they always fail. Simply letting go of this necessity to always make sense of things will help an individual better appreciate this astonishing country. Call it “mislogic” - it’s not logical, it’s not illogical, its simply missing logic. For Westerners, this is a hard idea to grasp, but in doing so, Russia will make a lot more (non) sense. This is what makes Russia desirable and it has the powerful ability to pull people into it, searching to make sense of that which they can’t. So, if you dare, unlock Pandora’s box because there really is no escaping the mystery that is Russia.
Geography & Demographics
As Russia is such an expansive country, its climate varies by republic. The most northern parts of Russia can sometimes reach -67 C (-90 F) in the winter, but on average temperatures are around -12 C (10 F); though, visitors should be prepared for at least one or two weeks of very extreme cold temperatures during the winter time. Siberia is well known for its cold temperatures, and in the north it can become severely cold in the winter. However, Siberia sees low precipitation and maintains its taiga climate. In the summer, the taiga is very mild, only reaching mid-sixties and barely ever exceeding.
Summer months are short, ranging from the end of May to early October. The taiga extends as far west as Saint Petersburg; however, since St. Petersburg is situated on the Gulf of Finland precipitation is much more frequent, it rains or snows almost every day even if only briefly. In the winter, Saint Petersburg sees temperatures as low as -30 C (-22 F), but on average temperatures are around -20 C (-4 F). In the summer, temperatures stay mild, around 65 F, but can occasionally rise into the 70s or 80s. Due to its northern position, summer days are long and for a few weeks in June, when the city sees only a few hours of darkness, Saint Petersburg hosts the White Nights.
Moscow’s central location gives it the only semi “normal” climate in Russia. Moscow has four distinct seasons and maintains a temperate climate in both summer and winter. While a bit colder in the winter, the weather patterns can generally be compared to those in the mid-west.
Southern Russia is essentially steppe, and thus has very severe winters and summers. In the most open parts of the steppe, winter temperatures can drop into the -40s, while summers reach over 100 degrees. Further southeast, near the Caspian Sea, temperatures are a bit mild, but the area is still affected by steppe winds and a few weeks of bone-chilling cold temperatures in winter.
The diversity of Russia’s climate makes it difficult to advise on the exact time to go. In some areas, summers are way too hot to bear, and in others winter’s chill is very difficult to overcome. However, anywhere in Russia is livable at anytime. Summer months are very popular and enjoyable in Saint Petersburg, as the climate is ideal for touring and sightseeing. Alternatively, winter months provide great skiing conditions in the south, as well as near the Black Sea, and the taiga is as gorgeous in the winter as it is in the spring and summer. Many students who study abroad also enjoy the thrill and success that comes with living through a Russian winter.
Packing Tips. As the aforementioned weather conditions foreshadow, when traveling to Russia it’s extremely important to pack the vitals for any type of weather and to pack many layers. If traveling in the winter, it is advised to bring a very thick, warm winter parka that will withstand the wind, cold, and snow. A raincoat is definitely advised if traveling during the spring or fall. Footwear is also a very important accessory when in Russia. In the winter, a good sturdy, insulated pair of boots is highly advised. These boots should also have good traction, as the walkways often remain icy throughout the winter months. In spring and fall, a good pair of galoshes will help fight the numerous puddles throughout the streets. It is also important to pack some good fleece socks and long underwear for winter wear; this will be used well into spring.
Summer traveling is a lot lighter, and can generally be pants and some light sweaters, though a light jacket is also advised, in case the temperatures drop. For the summer travelers, layers are very highly advised, as it is commonly warm one week and then quite chilly the next. In the south of Russia, as well as Moscow, however, summer can be quite warm, and often these extra layers are quite unnecessary. Unfortunately, there are no real advisable packing tips, as the weather is so diverse and changing. It is best to check the weather in the location before traveling, or if going for a long period of time, to pack a good variety of different weather clothing that can also be useful in various seasons.
Food & Culture
Language. Russian is the predominant language of Russia. It is part of the Slavic language family and is written in Cyrillic symbols. Before going to Russia, it is highly advised to learn how to recognize the written Russian alphabet. In doing so, signs and simple words will be much more clearer; many words resemble their English equivalents, but recognizing the letters is important in understanding the cognates.
Russian Food. As in many other countries, food plays a major role in Russian life, dominating their culture as well as their personalities. Russian food is not overly spicy and can be seen as somewhat simplistic, yet extremely tasty. As with many other cuisines, Russian food has been influenced by the surrounding regions, including the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. For example, the quite popular soup Borsht, made from beets, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and onions, topped with sour cream, originated from the Ukraine, yet many say the Russians do it better. The commonly served Pilav, which is a dish of rice, beef, and some vegetables, is a spin-off of the original Central Asian dish. In the summer, many Russians enjoy going to the lake, riverside, or to a park to grill Sashlik, or meat skewers, which is also a common tradition in Central Asia and Turkey.
There are also many primarily Russian favorites, such as Blini or crepe-like pancakes. These are often served for breakfast, topped with various jams or honey, and also served as the symbol of the Russian Orthodox holiday, Maselnitsa, or the celebration of the end of winter and the start of Lent. Another famous local dish is pirozhki, or small little pastries filled with minced meat, potatoes, or various fruits – there are always an abundance of choices and one can never go wrong. Another unique food to Russia is caviar, or ikra. Caviar is used abundantly, mainly on blini or on a piece of bread with some butter in the form of a small sandwich. Red caviar is the most common type, however, one can find black caviar for a very high price. Overall, there is a common theme of ingredients in most Russian dishes: potatoes, cabbage, carrots, meat, sour cream, fruit (jams), and bread.
Russians love their food – as in they love making it and serving as much as possible to guests. Often, the hosts themselves will barely eat, yet from their guests they expect a clean plate and a test trial of all the dishes on the table. If one really does not want to eat, it is necessary to be very adamant about that desire, otherwise, the host will continue to ask for you to have second, third, or even seventh helpings. This food tradition has become the subject of many jokes, especially regarding Babushkas who tend to force feed even more severely than their younger counterparts and are more easily offended by a decline.
In terms of beverages, most Russians will finish a meal with a cup of tea. Tea bags are the most frequently found from of tea, originating in England. Loose-leaf tea is quite pricey, but can still be found in many cafes, if asked for by name. Russians do not normally drink a lot of coffee yet at any coffee shop there is a choice of various lattes with syrup, and late into the night patrons will sit around tables and converse over tea or coffee. Alcohol is quite prevalent in Russia, beer and liquor can be found in almost any watering hole, including coffee houses. Russians almost always prefer beer or vodka, though other liquors are attainable. Wine is a lot less popular and much more expensive, unless visiting a Georgian or Armenian restaurant. Don’t be shocked if you see Russians drinking on the streets or in parks; while recent laws have tried to put a cap on this cultural tradition, beer is still often drank in public places and groups of young people will crowd around benches to socialize.
Everyone knows Russian Vodka. However, vodka has a tradition of its own, and is most commonly served amongst close groups of friends or family with a side of pickled items, such as pickles or mushrooms, and other appetizers, such as potato chips. Vodka is always drank straight, often with a chaser of nectar or cherry juice, and it is always preceded with a toast, whether it be to a specific occasion, friend, or idea, or simply Nazdaroviya - to health!
As a foreigner, come to Russia with an open stomach — be prepared to eat until your eyes bulge and drink until your overflowing in vodka. And learn how to say Net, Ya ne hochu poyest! (No, I don’t want to eat!).
Currency & Affordability. Russia’s currency is the Rouble (рубль), which consists of the most commonly seen colorful bills in the form of 5000, 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20, 10, and the disappearing 5 Rouble notes. Each note has a landmark from a different Russian city and its own distinct color. The current exchange rate is 1 Russian Rouble to about 0.30 U.S. cents.
Generally speaking, Russia is not an extremely expensive country; however, it is also not cheap. This excludes Moscow, the second most expensive city in the world, according to a report by Mercer. In the rest of Russia, grocery store prices are about the same as their American counterparts, with the more common Russian staples, such as potatoes, onions, cabbage, and sour cream being a bit cheaper. Western products or food brands are always much more expensive than their Russian equivalents, yet the level of quality cannot really be differentiated, unless you are searching for a specific type of foreign product. In terms of goods, clothing and shoes are relatively expensive, whereas transportation, the metro, busses, and cabs are significantly cheaper; a single ride on the Saint Petersburg metro costing approximately one U.S. dollar and an average cab ride around three dollars.
Culture. It is a commonly known stereotype that Russians are not nice and never smile, and from walking down the street, one can clearly understand how that stereotype came about. Russians rarely talk to strangers unless it’s to ask for directions or inquire about something, thus they seem standoffish at first. Cashiers get upset when you give them big bills at the register and baristas won’t respond when you stop and ask them for directions to the nearest metro. However, this is not always true, and it is really a fifty-fifty shot that you may be modestly turned down with a glare and look of annoyance.
It is really true that while walking Russians do not smile at others nor do they say hi to those they are passing. It was an old Russian legend that anyone who smiles at strangers came straight out of the crazy house, and simply speaking they think that it is a weird tradition to be friendly to those they don’t know. However, once Russians break into conversation, pass into an inner circle, or get to know each other, they become extremely friendly; an hour conversation can easily turn into a dinner invite (with their mom’s great culinary skills at work) and a trip to the dacha, or summer house. Russians are very inviting often striving to help make foreign guests feel comfortable in their city and keep them busy with various cultural activities.
Foreign cultures intrigue Russians as well. They can ask hundreds - literally - of questions about any foreign country and are curious about every aspect of life. It could be the fact that some Americans wear their shoes inside their homes, to the price of cars and gasoline (a favorite topic of men). It’s always advised to bring some small souvenirs from your homeland – they make great gifts and excellent talking points, as well as provide entertainment for your hosts.
Things to Do
Whether it’s a passion for history, a love of hockey, a desire to taste some of the world’s most famous vodkas, or the pleasure in watching famous ballets in some of the world’s oldest theaters, Russia offers it all.
From the old Russian Empire, to the Tsars, from WWII to the Cold War, Russia has seen just about every major historical event known (and probably others) to man. The best part is that they have conserved so much of their history that the modern, historically naive eye can actually see it all in person.
Just take a close look at some of the best NHL players’ last names and it’s easy to guess their heritage. Russia’s minor league, KHL is an off-the-record feeder team of the NHL. It is possible to not only watch future leading skaters, but also listen to the devoted fans who enjoy swearing as much as cheering; and tickets to KHL games are ridiculously cheap.
A fan of Vodka? Well then it seems there is not a better place in the world to go. With Russian distilled vodkas and scrumptious appetizers, a limitless supply is cheap and nearby anywhere in Russia. Just take note of any home “distilled” vodkas, as they will most likely taste like windshield wiper fluid.
There is simply nowhere that can top performances in Russia. Even if there is a close second, it seems Russia would win by the architecture of their venues - purely breathtaking.
There is a great ability to travel throughout all areas of Russia, giving individuals the chance to explore activities in many cities, through the modernized and practical Russian train system (RZD). The RZD travels to pretty much every city in Russia, as well as some neighboring countries, and it is host to the famous Trans-Siberian expedition. Exploring Russia by train is an eye opening experience in and of itself, a trip packed with vodka drinking, cigarette smoking, and conversations that truly abuse the Western idea of a personal bubble. If traveling by train, there are more comfortable second-class wagons called Kupe, as well as less-personal-spacy wagons called Platskartny to choose from. It is highly suggested to buy your tickets in Russia from the local train station because on-line services are greatly taxed.
Interning in Russia
For anyone desiring to work or study in Russia, there are many options, and the focus should be on what will be achieved as well as personal hobbies and interests. Those who are looking to work or intern in the areas of politics, business or law will definitely benefit from staying in Moscow, or less possibly in Saint Petersburg. Those interested in the arts, such as dance or theater, would prefer Saint Petersburg.
However, if looking to study minority dances or traditional Russian art, the villages or smaller cities give a better cultural experience. Someone interested in really learning
should avoid Saint Petersburg or Moscow due to the number of foreigners, and travel to a more secluded destination. Anyone interested in agriculture or the environment should also stay away from the metropolises and venture into Siberia or southern Russia. Russia has something for everyone, and it is easy to match desires with location.
While this serves as a great list of pointers, giving a general overview of the country and possibly making it seem quite similar to any other foreign country, Russia has an amplitude of things to offer beyond what is listed above. Have no expectations and you will be surprisingly pleased. Have a million expectations and you may be let down. Go to Russia with an open mind and an open heart, and you’ll be dying to go back.