Avoiding trouble in Russia?
October 8, 2006 2:45 PM   Subscribe

How safe is travelling around Russia by yourself if you don't speak Russian? What's the protocol for bribing? I'm thinking of visitting Moscow, St Petersburg, Tomsk, Novosobirsk. I do have friends in Tomsk.

Also I like to walk around the back streets to get a feel for a place. Is that a bad idea?
posted by vizsla to Travel & Transportation around Russian Federation (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it's a very bad idea unless you're with a local who knows what's safe when. There is a very bad problem in many Russian cities, and you'll basically be a walking, talking ROB ME sign. And I don't think trying to bribe people in a country where you know neither the language nor the culture is a good idea either. I suggest either joining a tour or sticking with your friends. I love lone traveling myself, and investigating back roads, but Russia in the early 21st century is not the place to be doing it.
posted by languagehat at 2:50 PM on October 8, 2006

Best answer: Speaking as a Russian:

It depends on how you behave. First, dress in a way that doesn't mark you out as a tourist (ratty jeans, hoodie/army jacket). Don't wear your camera around your neck or anything like that, obviously. If you're female, try to look mousy and frumpy.

You may be used to making eye contact on the street, smiling at people, saying "hello", asking your cashier how their day is, and so on. None of these things, or anything like that, are appropriate in Russia. Do not smile. Look as unfriendly and "don't fuck with me" as humanly possible. Obviously, do not start conversations. If you're buying something in a store, say "Budte dobry, [item name]." Pay, then leave (saying "spasibo" is usually unnecessary and not customary, as well as exposing your accent more). Think stereotypical New York City at 9am on a Monday morning. Do not expect creature comforts in hotels or anywhere else. People, especially middle-aged women, will yell and curse at you if you cut in front of them in line or on the street, prevent them from moving their little carts on the sidewalk, look at them funny, bump into them, are too young or well-dressed, listen to music too loud, etc.

This is not to say Russians are terrible and unfriendly people. In private, we're very warm, soulful, conversational, etc. In public, though, we avoid engaging with anyone. It's just how it is.

The militsiya is not your friend, not even if you expect to be attacked. Try not to buy vodka anywhere except Moscow/St. Petersburg, because much of the vodka available is counterfeit and may kill you (this, combined with alcoholism, is one reason Russia has a higher death rate than birth rate). Restaurant/bar vodka is usually okay, though.

Do you know any languages other than English? Use these when talking if possible.

I'll post again when I think of more tips.
posted by nasreddin at 3:26 PM on October 8, 2006 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Yup, you need a local guide who can be trusted. I spent several weeks in Krasnoyarsk on several occasions and only occasionally went out by myself. I spoke very little of the language but could read signs and work out things myself with a good Russian-English dictionary.

If you dress like a tourist you will attract unwanted attention from people who will look to take advantage of you. Everything immediately doubles or triples in price as soon as you let it slip that you are a foreigner who does not speak Russian.

You will even have trouble at the airports (especially Domodedovo) since the security guards there will try to trick you into taking your money.

Moscow and St. petersburg are relatively safe since they are tourist magnets and are quite international compared to the other big cities in Russia. As long as you stay near the tourist attractions you should be fine by yourself, though be wary of anyone approaching you, following you, etc. One trick is to attach yourself to an obvious tourist group who has a guide. The con men and thieves leave the groups alone and look for solitary targets. This works great for museums, shopping malls, etc.

If you are traveling around the cities in Siberia, do your research ahead of time and find a local travel agency who can arrange a guide and translator for you. It's well worth the money (not that expensive, actually) and you won't regret it. I flew into Irkutsk once and was met by a driver who then proceeded to drive me several hundred miles to the southern shore of Lake Baikal. He drove like a madman, but it was the most exhiliarating ride of my life since he would frequently veer off the main roads and onto side roads which went though the little villages -- since the main roads were often in terible shape and jammed with trucks.

If you go in the winter, make sure you experience the traditional Russian sauna experience -- get steaming hot and then throw yourself into the snow or jump into a frozen lake, then back into the sauna. Amazing.

My first trip to Siberia is cocumented in pictures here.

Russia is full of wonderful mysteries and people. Just be careful, use your common sense and never forget that you are a visitor in their country. Respect their customs, their language and try to fit in while you are there.

If you want a bizarre experience, stop in at one of the many tiny little casinos that are in any of the larger cities in Siberia. Gambling is a non-regulated industry in Russia so it is mostly run by the mafia. You're relatively safe there as long as you don't act like an idiot. They'll treat you OK since you are there to basically give them money. If you win, walk out calmly. Do not gloat or you may find yourself with unexpected company.

Oh, and try the pelmeni. Damn, I miss that food.
posted by camworld at 3:40 PM on October 8, 2006

Also I like to walk around the back streets to get a feel for a place. Is that a bad idea?

Playing the strict law of averages, it's not a bad idea. But it's slightly dangerous. Don't dick around too much-- everyone who is overtly friendly to you has their own best interests in mind. People who are disinterested in you are just doing business. A few people (but more than we're probably used to) are out to rob you by any means necessary.

The biggest obstacle is being "ripped off," but as my quotes suggest it's a relative term. You can probably afford to pay more than some alley merchant might otherwise get, and I think that's worth it for the experience of being there and interacting with the locals. But BE SUSPICIOUS of anyone who's overtly friendly. And follow your basic rules of the unknown streets with regards to showing the contents of your wallet, etc.

Look confident, be alert and don't flash cash and you'll probably be fine. But never get overconfident. (and the following is second-hand because I never found myself in trouble in Eastern Europe:) And don't offer bribes like you're in a spy novel. Never offer a bribe unless you find yoursef detained and you've played ignorant for a few hours.

Russians are wonderful people with a rich culture and generally more education than befits their prospects. Keep that in mind-- don't insult them, don't condescend them, and don't tempt them and you'll generally be fine. And don't DON'T get drunk outside of the city centers of St. Petersburg. No need to invite trouble.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:41 PM on October 8, 2006

I'd just add to the advice above that if you are going to wander backstreets, to it at daytime - in the old areas of Petersburg and Moscow you should be fine at least, but do try to look mean. But if I were you, I'd be somewhere safe by sundown.

I've never been to Tomsk or Novosibirsk, so I don't know what it's like there, but I did live in Irkutsk last year, and that wasn't a very safe city (I just heard that the boss of the company I was working for was executed recently). Other towns I've been to just had a sullen air of unemplyment and boredom about them, like any distraction (such as the robbery of a tourist) would be welcome. If you get that feeling, go home.
posted by claudius at 5:56 PM on October 8, 2006

Oh, and about bribery: remember, the police know what they're doing. If they want money from you, they'll make sure they get it.

If you try to offer it to them first, they're just as likely to put on a big show of being offended, and possibly extract more later.
posted by claudius at 6:04 PM on October 8, 2006

Best answer: Nasreddin's advice is very good and you should follow it to the letter.

I'm in Russia now and I've been here since January. I was living in Moscow, near (4 blocks from) the building where that reporter was recently killed. I was also un/lucky enough to be only a hundred meters or so from this market bombing, which was terrifying.

I now live in a much smaller town called Obninsk, (site of the world's first atomic power station) and after living here for many months on and off I know what is safe and not safe, more or less. But when I came here, I was as described above, a walking "f*ck me!" sign, despite my best efforts. From personal experience I can say that pickpockets (and most people here) are quite good at spotting non-natives. Over time I learned to scowl, walk only the main streets, talk as little as possible (though I came to learn the language) and avoid all parks, forests, alleys, etc.

Pickpockets, though, are relatively harmless to you. It's muggers you need to worry about. In Obninsk there are regular muggings, but these muggings are not American-style muggings. Usually the mugger will hide around a corner and use a piece of rebar to smash the back of your skull. Then your phone and wallet will be recovered from the resulting mess. I have two friends in Obninsk with family that have been permanently disabled this way, and just a few weeks ago my girlfriend woke up to the police recovering a dead body just outside her window. The girl was killed using the rebar method. Her crime? Walking home late at night. Unfortunately in my experience the Russian response to crime is often blaming the victim "She was stupid to be walking home at night!" "You should be careful with your things!" So be aware of it.

Your new Russian friends will be warm and awesome, as nasreddin said above (they are really amazing people, in person, absolutely excellent), and will love drinking with you at night. You will not be able to refuse all the time. Even taxis are not "safe" and you should look for the most "western" service possible. Until you can find it and know how to call it cold you need a trusted Russian friend who can get you around. In my town there is a service called Taxi Focus where the cars are provided for the drivers and the prices are steep, but the drivers are not scary and they will not kill you, threaten you, or raise the prices when they find out you're not from around these parts (which happened to me twice in Moscow).

I'm looking for some clue as to where you're located but I don't see any. If you are American, be doubly careful, as we're not very welcome in a lot of places right now. I was recently in Paris and Germany and in both places there was clearly a bit of anti-American sentiment. Russia is no different. I teach at a local University now and some of my students are real, stupid, ugly skinheads who go by the slogan "Russia for Russians". They don't like anyone, and that includes Americans. And they are all over St. Petersburg. You probably aren't in much danger from them but it's important to know they exist and how they operate. I happen to look like a skinhead so I get a lot of nods.

Be exceptionally careful with money, as well. Look and act like you have none. The police in Moscow are bribe happy, but you do not get to choose when to bribe them. Should you visit Red Square you will have your documents checked and probably be held for some time. It's best not to try to speak any Russian to them ("I don't understand you! I don't understand you! I'm going to call my embassy now!") and it's even better to have a "muggers wallet" with a few hundred rubles in it. If they see money, it's gone. I paid almost a hundred dollars in bribes over my three months there. And my documents are correct. The police are not your friends and unless they are really nice or female they will not help you at all.

Ethnic Russians will tell you to look out for people from the south - Chechens, Kazakhs, Azerbaijaniis, even Georgians. They'll tell you these people are murderous and vile. And sometimes they are they are, but more often to ethnic Russians than to anyone else. They're treated much worse than say, Mexicans in the US but used the same way, to build things, to do work other people don't want to, and to generally take a lot of shit. Even though in all the above cases (bombing, pickpocketing, and murder) the perpetrators were real Russians, it's still important to avoid minorities and not to speak to them if possible. Sucks, but keeps you safe.

After being here for 9 months I can say that I've had an amazing experience, etc. But I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else without previous experience. If you have time check my comment linked above for strategies to avoid common scams that target tourists.

If you decide to come, please stay out of the alleys and anywhere other than the wide-open, well-lit main streets. And enjoy yourself as much as possible.
posted by fake at 10:22 PM on October 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

I went to Red Square and generally walked a lot around Moscow for 4 days (including a walk from the Olympic Stadium to the Red Square) exactly one year ago. Not a single cop harrassed me and I generally felt safer walking around Moscow than I do Warsaw, for example.
posted by jedrek at 3:31 AM on October 9, 2006

Well, I speak the language pretty well, but I look like a total goon when I'm in Russia. Last time I was there I wore a bright red jacket, had a camera around my neck at all times (often taking pictures of people without their knowledge or permission), and said hello to everyone I met. No one in the country seems to wear glasses like mine, and I didn't have fancy shoes or pants like the other Russians. I've done this in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Vorkuta, Syktyvkar (or however that's transliterated). I had no problems whatsoever, although once in my hotel in Vorkuta, a man asked for money and produced a knife from his sleeve to back up his inquest. The conversation ended amiably, and I ended up learning a bit about the shoemaking trade, but I suppose it could have gone badly. In all of the places I've been in Russia, I wandered around strange back areas and abandoned buildings, hitchhiked, used legal and illegal taxis, used all forms of public transit, hung out with the nice and not-so-nice sides of society, approached military on marches and police officials at checkpoints, drank with security guards and police and teachers and everyone else, played American pool in packed bars with other Americans while speaking English, seen mafia activity, played Russian billiards with Russians in packed bars while speaking Russian, spoken with communists and Nazis, sang and drank to my heart's content with locals or foreigners until the bar owners asked everyone to leave, and so on and so on; basically everything that everyone warns you not to do when you're in Russia. As soon as it came out that I was American, I found that doors opened and food came out, regardless of any sort of socioeconomic indicator of the person who'd just found out I wasn't from around there. Sure, there were a lot of people I wouldn't tell my nationality, but there were plenty I would. A good rule of thumb for determining a person's intentions, I've found, is whether they offer something to you or whether they ask something from you. If they ask something from you (a drink, a light, a lift, a cup of sugar), usually they've got bad intentions in mind, but if they offer, they're being friendly and things should go well. In my 6+months in the country on two different occasions I never had my documents checked (beyond visa registration and one time when we had to kick a drunk out of our train cabin) and never had to bribe anyone, either...

Point being, be vigilant about what you're doing, where you are, and who's near you, but that's what you do in New York City or anywhere else. Basically, I don't think there's any reason to be more scared of Russia than anywhere else. Guidebooks can likely tell you about neighborhoods or places that should be off-limits due to muggings or nazis. Keep your wits about you and you'll be fine. People are very helpful, even if you're just pointing to a map or trying to find some setting from Master and Margarita, and in the big cities you'll probably find someone who knows a little English. You'll often be asked to help their English a bit. You'd do well to learn at least the basics of pronunciation of the cyrillic alphabet; I'd think navigating the Moscow metro would be murder without that. For a different way of seeing the country, maybe think about volunteering at a private English as a foreign language school for a conversational session. I'm sure someone in one of the adult classes or a teacher will invite you over for dinner. And see if you can get a group of people to go out to a forest for shashlyk (Russian shishkabobs). I don't think there's better way to spend your time in Russia than that!
posted by msbrauer at 7:09 AM on October 9, 2006

You've been lucky, msbrauer. Congratulations, and may your luck continue. You may be one of those people to whom Bad Things don't happen, in which case I'll rub your head for luck should we ever meet. But it's irresponsible to use your good luck as a template for all mankind. Russia is by any measurable standard a worse place than other "Western" countries, the crime rate is far higher, and it's simply not the case that if you "keep your wits about you" you'll be fine. You may well be fine, but the same is true if you play Russian roulette. Just because you survived the game doesn't mean it's a good thing to do.
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on October 9, 2006

« Older vegan shortening for baking   |   Looking for advice on selling goods at a popular... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.