And so, here you are. Looking at the map of the world and once again thinking where to go next. But this time is different. This time Russia is on the list of options. Whatever it is attracts you to this place, let’s take a closer look at what Russia today actually is, what can you possibly expect from it, and is it really worth going to?
The short answer to that last question is definitely ‘Yes, it’s worth it’ and ‘You absolutely should visit Russia at least once in your life’. But it’s not always for reasons you’d expect.
Let’s start with the positive here. Visiting Russia right now (as of December 2018 at least) is certainly not the worst time for doing it. In many different respects (with a huge exception of the political one) Russia has dramatically changed in the last couple of decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and continues evolving. Things are getting renovated, streets are getting cleaner, crime is reducing, security is increasing, new tech is being constantly integrated everywhere. And the city administration of Moscow is going out of its ways to try to impress or at least keep you entertained with a bombardment of never-ending thematical street fairs, lights and decorations, exhibitions and all sorts of open-air shows in the city center.
Sitting in an open restaurant veranda warm summer night with a glass of wine slowly munching on your ‘Russian salad’ watching people passing by, partying nights long in nightclubs, hooking up with locals on Tinder - all your conventional vacation activities work wonderfully. There’s no lack of evening and night events from DJ sets to ballet and classical orchestra. As well as opportunities to satisfy your cultural and information thirst and do numerous sightseeing and museum tours.
Russia has an extensive history deeply intertwined with that of both Europe and Asia knowing which helps you to paint a more detailed picture of the world as a whole. Over the last couple of centuries Russia has managed to spread its community all over the world. Today even in the most remote corners of the planet you can at times hear echoes of Russian culture, customs and vocabulary. So it’s not unusual even for a deep western foreigner to have every now and then those ‘Aha’ moments along the way, when you suddenly realize that something very familiar, in fact, has some Russian origins or starts making more sense knowing Russian perspective on it.
Plus, learning Russian history in the west remains a very niche hobby, and knowing even the general picture of it after your trip should make you feel like a member of a special club. Which could be satisfying on its own.
Now, all of this is of course great, you’d say. But what could go wrong?
Well, you know how Russia is the butt of many jokes in the West, where it’s presented as ruthless, wild, crazy and unpredictable? And not just jokes, most of western mass culture and media normally support the general image of Russia that leaves lot to be desired. As if coming here would imply a reasonable chance of you disappearing, being killed or kidnapped, forced to work for Russian mafia or left toiling for the rest of your days in a Siberian lumberjack facility chained to a bear. I mean, just try telling your friends that you’re going to Russia. Chances are there will be some of them hugging you like they are never going to see you again.
Now, is it really that bad? Absolutely certainly no! But at the same time I do want to remind you, and I can’t stress this enough, that all stereotypes in the world, while being two-dimensional, exaggerated representations of reality, always carry some underlying truths in them. I can promise you that you will certainly dispel most of your own cliches about Russia throughout your trip, but would most likely also notice where from and why they might have originated.
What I’m saying is that Russia today is miles away from its Soviet self in terms of how things look and work. But somewhere deep inside in the sense of what people think and what drives this country, it often remains the same history textbook Russia that your grandparents would warn you about. And everyone ringing the alarm back home most likely has a point, it just shouldn’t be an obstacle. Because every now and then someone has to go and verify existing stereotypes. If not to completely get rid of them, then at least to bring them up to date. And as you’ll see there’s usually a lot of such bringing to be done today.
Let’s see what are people’s worst apprehensions about Russia: it’s criminal, it’s racist, it’s super unfriendly and mean, it doesn’t like foreigners.
The first, is the biggest improvement today. All those stereotypes about Russian mafia usually come from the 90s. And since the end of that era things have dramatically changed. There’s constant police presence in the city center of Moscow with thousands of cameras everywhere. It’s such a big deterrent that there almost no chance whatsoever for anything criminal to happen to you in the central area regardless of the time of the day, your gender or race. I won’t say that about all cities of Russia. But it would certainly apply at least to the biggest ones.
That is not to say that there are no bad areas. Even in Moscow you can find a lot of neighborhoods that you wouldn’t want to find yourself in in the middle of the night. But those are not normal tourist areas anyway. And there’s a very slim chance you’ll ever get to see them.
Heck, the country survived the World Cup and, most importantly, everyone visiting Russia at that time survived it too. And a surprising number of the world’s media outlets gave the event pretty good reviews specifically and predominantly from the perspective of safety. So, you’ll certainly survive it too.
Well, yes and no. While there is a good quantity of blatantly or at least borderline racist stuff happening in the country’s day to day life and even in its media, it often can be explained by Russia’s different cultural background and general whiteness. Sort of it’s assumed by some that just because a certain nationality and its ideas predominate in the region, certain controversial words or behavior would just be somehow more tolerable. As if some people in Russia just out of curiosity constantly keep prying and trying to figure out how much racism is OK, whereas the rest of the world has long agreed that it’s zero. More than 90% of Russians simply don’t have any experience of interacting with people of other races in their daily lives. And sometimes people can genuinely be not aware of how racist certain things can be.
So first of all, a lot of it is non-intentional. And second, almost all of true, mean, white nationalist racism in this country is normally experienced or noted by people coming here to live or to study. If you try to move here for good and start a family, then you might start noticing how certain things and norms concerning this topic might be different. But as a tourist staying here for a couple of days you’ll have nothing but a good reaction from everyone, even from potentially racist people.
Because again, it is still quite an unusual experience for many locals, and no one would want to spoil it and would rather try to talk or take a picture with you. Last time I had a group of black Americans, we had to interrupt the tour every 2-3 minutes because of how many people wanted to take pictures with them. Which is rather weird, yes. But not dangerous.
People being mean and not liking foreigners
This, in my opinion, has to be the real concern for anyone traveling from the West. Because yes, if you approach people with a question or try to ask to ask for help as a western tourist, you’ll see nothing but smiling faces and positive responses. (By the way, you have to actually initiate a conversation to see people smiling; otherwise, people’s default facial expression on the streets is like they just ate a turd. It’s just how it is, don’t take it personally). But at the same time, there’s a very strong idea on people’s minds of an ever-pending threat from abroad.
Just think about it. It’s the country that just some 50 years ago used to control almost half the planet (if we consider all socialist countries at some point being somewhat under Moscow’s influence). And it’s not about socialism or world’s equality. People couldn’t care less today about that. It’s more about the sense ‘badassery’ that living in such an ‘empire’ used to provide.
‘Things were big, things were real. And everyone respected or was terrified of us. Then came Gorbachev and with a bunch of his foreign friends outside and Jews inside the country ruined everything’, that or something to that effect would be the main line of thinking of a predominant part of the population here. And that’s just by default. With all the recent media scandals and government propaganda doing everything possible today to reinforce that idea of everyone outside has nothing else to do but to constantly conspire against Russia, the number of people being very suspicious, to say the least, about the true intentions of the western community has been growing by day over the last decade.
And here are bad and good news for you. Bad is that there’s some chance you’ll meet that kind of people, good - that those chances are not necessarily that high for you as a tourist.
People can be mean. Don’t discard that completely. There are people in this country that would attribute literally everything bad that has happened or is happening with this country to foreign influence. Because otherwise, Russia, as we know, is absolutely infallible. And such people can do or say weird things sometimes. And not like, something accidentally mean. One can look right into your eye and be purposely and proudly mean to you, or at least try. Or sometimes you can meet a person who would look like he’s really exited to try to talk to you. And then halfway through your conversation you realize that all of this effort on his part wasn’t really to say anything good whatsoever. And then you’re just left to keep listening to it till the end all while thinking, ‘What on Earth is happening’?
So that can happen. But the good news is that, again, your tourist luck will most likely protect you from all of that. You see, the country today is split about 90/10 between conservative and liberal people respectively. Where the latter 10 are adequate people living in big cities with progressive views and foreign connections. And that is the category you’ll be dealing with most of the time throughout your trip. Simply because that’s the category that is most prepared to receive you here.
Remember, just by virtue of being a western tourist you will mostly to talk to, essentially, the ‘best’ of Russia and be treated better than any Russian person has ever been throughout your stay. You can consider any minor hiccup along the way simply part of the experience that helps you better understand the ‘mysterious Russian soul’ and your own. After all you don’t learn anything new about yourself traveling to places where people only smile to you, right?
So, what’s the bottom line?
It’s that you absolutely have to make this trip. Will it trump other options on the list like some tropical lands with parties and beaches. Probably not, especially if that’s what you’re looking for. There ain’t no beaches here. But as a kind of enlightening experience that would extend your horizons and help to understand yourself and the world better, it could very well be your choice.
You don’t need to buy a shotgun on arrival to survive, and all that political stuff surrounding the country today doesn’t really significantly affect your tourist experience here. If anything, it might even make it more exciting.
So, throw all the prejudices and pre-set expectations, open your mind to new people and opinions and come paint your own unique picture of Russia that no one has even seen before.