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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Russia

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  • Jonathan Brown

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Life in Russia

At a Glance:

  • While the weather can take some getting used to, this is balanced out by Russia’s fascinating culture and welcoming residents (once you get to know them!).
  • Although the country’s healthcare is free, in practice the standard of the facilities is variable, and we would recommend acquiring additional private health insurance.
  • Generally, Russia is a fairly safe country to live in, although it is important to take basic safety precautions and remain aware of your surroundings.


Prepare Yourself for Extreme Temperatures

Even before arriving, many expats are already scared of the infamous Russian winter, and for good reason: the winters are long and harsh, with temperatures dipping as low as -30°C and even lower at times.

However, due to the humid continental climate in most of European Russia (where many expat hotspots are located), you should be prepared for hot summers as well. Experiencing 35°C in Moscow during July is not unheard of and might surprise many an expat who thought living in Russia meant wearing long coats and woolly hats all year round. Pack accordingly!

International Healthcare: No Need to Worry

Theoretically, all citizens of Russia are covered by a complete range of state-funded free medical services. However, the availability and quality of services varies widely, and medical care is especially lacking in comparison to the standard some expats may be used to. We would highly recommend avoiding medical facilities outside of the largest cities in Russia.

Naturally, it is a different story in the expat magnets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg: especially private and foreign-operated clinics and doctors are well up to international standards, and services may be available in multiple languages — although it is still important to do your research beforehand. International institutions are often conveniently located near the well-known expat neighbourhoods. Since they are, however, not state-funded, they require extensive medical insurance.

As of January 2016, non-Russian citizens are required to hold a health insurance policy, funded by either themselves or their employer. Future expats should either acquire an all-encompassing international health insurance policy, or discuss the matter of a corporate health plan with their future employer. Due to the variability of Russian healthcare, it is advised that this insurance policy covers medical evacuation abroad. Bear in mind that, even in case of emergencies, many Russian healthcare providers require payment in advance, either by cash or credit card, and that costs can be much higher than in much of Central Europe.

If you require prescription medication, make sure your particular product is legal and/or available in Russia prior to moving — a Russian-language list is featured on the Rossiyskaya Gazeta website. If your medication is permitted, you must carry a valid prescription in its original packaging with a notarized Russian translation. For further information, consult your nearest Russian Embassy or Consulate.

Sending Your Children to a Russian or International School

If you are an expat with children, you will be satisfied with the available options in Russia, which has many public schools that are generally free of charge. Children begin school at the age of six or seven, and attendance is compulsory until they are fifteen, although many continue onto higher education afterwards: over half of all adults in Russia have attained a tertiary education. Class sizes are also smaller than in many other countries, with less than 20 students per class on average. If you would like your child to be fully immersed in the social and academic life in Russia, this is probably the way to go.

Depending on your chosen city, there might also be a good selection of international schools. Naturally, the selection is largest in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. For more information on the former, take a look at our Living in Moscow guide. Saint Petersburg also has a range of options, from particular teaching styles (like the International Montessori School) to schools directed at certain nationalities (such as the Deutsche Schule Sankt Petersburg) and more general international schools (like the International Academy of St. Petersburg). Outside of Russia’s two biggest cities, the selection is more limited, although there are still options available, such as the Vladivostok International Secondary School. Make sure to do your research beforehand!

As waiting lists and times can be quite long, make sure to enrol your child in your preferred international school as soon as you know you’re going to move to Russia. A word of warning: tuition for these schools can be steep, so if you are on a budget, you might want to look into other possibilities.

Driving Your Car — Or Do You Prefer an Alternative?

Generally, road conditions in the major Russian cities are fairly good, although they deteriorate once you move outside urban areas. However, due to the immense size of the country and harsh weather conditions in large stretches of its territory, cars are rarely used for long-distance travel. All larger cities are accessible by plane, and there are a range of Russian passenger airlines — but remember to check their passenger safety record first, which you can through Airline Ratings. Many larger cities (i.e. Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, and Samara) also use subway (metro) systems and have sufficient public transportation options.

Driving can be quite time-consuming in those cities, as many roads are hopelessly congested most of the day. If you are not dependent on your car, try to either use alternative means of transport or pick your route for your commute to work very carefully.

Please keep in mind that your driver’s license is usually only valid for the first 60 days of your new life in Russia, although this is worth checking with your local Russian embassy. After a certain period of time, you will need to apply for a Russian driving license at the nearest office of the Russian General Administration of Traffic Safety (GIBDD). For this, you must provide your passport, Russian visa, medical certificate, and original driving license: all of these require notarized translations. If your original driving license is still valid, you only need to pass a theoretical driving test. However, if it has expired, you must also pass a practical test — and both tests are conducted in Russian! It is also mandatory to have car insurance.

Russia: Language, Customs, Safety

The Russian Language: Learn the Basics

We have outlined the Russian school system and the high level of education in part one of this article. While the educational focus tends to be more on scientific and technological fields, you are likely to meet people with a good grasp of the English language in most parts of the business world. In daily life, however, it will be very difficult to get by without speaking any Russian at all, even in the expat hotspots of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

First off, you will obviously face challenges in everyday life if you cannot read the Cyrillic script, as there are not many signs or labels using the Latin alphabet. Furthermore, completely lacking any understanding of the local language will not endear you to local residents anywhere in the world.

In order to make the most of your time as an expat in Russia, not only on a social and intercultural level, but alsoin everyday life, you need to know at least basic “survival” Russian. We strongly advise you to pick up at least a few basic words and phrases prior to your relocation to Russia, and, if your busy schedule permits, look for a reputable language school in your new home city. Check out the popular chains Liden & Denz or Language Link, or ask your employer for contact details!

Everyday Etiquette: Straightforward and Less Restrained

In a professional setting, it is likely that  most of your co-workers will already have a good understanding of Western culture. Many smaller faux-pas will be met with sympathy or forgiveness, and there is usually little need to be concerned about seriously offending someone if your misbehavior is not too glaring. Even if you experience a somewhat rocky start in your first few days or weeks, stay motivated to interact with and learn from your new coworkers and neighbors, who will be happy to teach you the basic etiquette.

Do not feel intimidated of offended if your Russian acquaintances are very straightforward in conversation. They are not rude or trying to offend. It is simply the norm to bluntly ask about somewhat personal things, such as finances or political viewpoints. Also, behavior in public tends to be more aggressive and less restrained than you might be used to. This will become apparent when you use public transportation, where being pushed by strangers is part of the daily grind.

Do not feel alienated if you are not greeted with smiles everywhere you go. The situations in which smiling is acceptable are a lot less numerous in Russia. Smiling at every greeting might come across as a sign of insincerity, and usually, people only smile as a sign of friendship or if something amusing happens.

For a brief overview of business etiquette in the Russian workplace, please see our article on working in Moscow.

Most Importantly: Feeling Safe

Generally, Russia is a safe country for expats. However, both the US Department of State and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against travel to the North Caucasus region or to the Crimea, due to ongoing political unrest in these areas. If you absolutely must travel to or work in those regions, please consult your employer on safety precautions. Check the websites of both governments regularly for security updates.

Furthermore, it is important to be careful when out and about, as tourists and expats are often targeted by criminals and pickpocketed or worse. Never take an unmarked and unregulated taxi off the street, as passengers can often become victims of mugging. Be careful when around large crowds and demonstrations or when out at night, especially if you are consuming alcohol. Corruption is widespread throughout society, and it is not uncommon for law enforcement to exhort money from tourists for little or no reason. If this occurs, note down the officer’s name, badge number and patrol car number, so that it can be reported later on. The national emergency number is 112, and it is also worth noting down the contact details of your national embassy.

In 2013, an “anti-gay propaganda law” was introduced in Russia, making public expressions of homosexuality illegal. Although same-sex relationships are still legal, this law has led to an increase in homophobic attacks, and if you identify as part of the LGBT community, it is advisable to refrain from showing affection in public or displaying any pride flags or symbols. Attitudes towards same-sex relationships are still hostile in Russia’s conservative society.

On a similar note, it is unfortunately not uncommon for so-called “visible minorities” to become victims of unprovoked xenophobic violence by right-wing extremists. This is a known problem throughout the Russian Federation. If you are a member of a visible minority, please be alert and aware of your surroundings and take any necessary precautions.

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  • Jonathan Brown

    InterNations is the ideal networking site for me. I use it for private as well as for business contacts here in St.Petersburg. Great!

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    What I really like about InterNations is the international mix of people. I got to know there who became very good friends .

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