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Is Russia Really Like What Everyone Says ?

So, you have been offered a job in Russia, it is probably offering good money, accommodation and medical insurance along with the other usual benefits of an international position.   But, you have heard so much bad press about the country and don’t know if you want to risk going there.

If, like me, when I was offered a position in Moscow, you have Googled your heart out on everything you can find out about Russia and spoken to all your friends and family you will have probably come up with the following list of common assumptions about Russia.

The Good

  • You’ll get by without knowing any Russian as everyone knows a little English, and you’ll be able to find your way around without too many difficulties.
  • Russia is full of hot chicks.
  • Moscow is now a pretty modern city.

The Bad

  • Border control are a nightmare and unless you have all of the correct paperwork and more, including a ticket out of Russia, you are unlikely to get through, or even worse detained, separated from your children and interrogated (this came from a travel agent).
  • Moscow is the most expensive city in the world to live.

The Ugly

  • The country is run by the mafia, so you will no doubt have to pay protection money to someone, and make sure you have a quick exit plan in place.
  • You will be continually harassed by policemen looking to supplement their income for a bribe, usually demanding to see your papers.
  • The country is unsafe; it is full of pick-pockets, drunks and thugs, so you have to be extremely careful wherever you go.

Don’t believe everything you read about Russia !

Border Control

Firstly, border control was actually pretty good. Sure, it was shambolic getting to a gate, but once there, everything went smoothly.  Customs seems to be optional at Domededovo Airport at least. When we arrived, we just grabbed our bags and walked through the doors to the arrivals lounge - no cards, no questions.  Not sure if this is typical of arriving in Russia, but as there was nothing in English to tell us otherwise, we just carried on.   Looking back that whole arrival experience was symbolic of Russia in general, shambolic, chaotic and no English……

Mafia

The Mafia control of the country stereotype seems to be a hangover from the early days of post-Soviet Russia, I haven’t experienced any circumstances where I would have thought there was some Mafia control, maybe some of the street hawkers could very well be mafia types, but there is nothing here to outwardly indicate a country run by the Mafia, and nothing to fear with regard to that.

Police

In 3 months in Russia I have yet to be stopped in the street by a policeman and asked for my papers. What did surprise me about the policemen really is the infrequency with which you see them on the streets. In general, they don’t have the body armour on that our policemen in New Zealand wear on a day to day basis, although the revolver on their hip may make that unnecessary.   If you venture out on a day when something is happening in the city or a soccer match is on, then you will see the police state presence that we generally associate with Russia. On these days there will be hundreds of riot police on duty in the city centre or on the metro platforms heading to the soccer stadium, but as long as you aren’t doing anything wrong and keeping away from any trouble that is going on then you should have nothing to fear.

Safety

As for Russia being unsafe, that would have to be the biggest exaggeration of the whole lot. I come from New Zealand - supposedly one of the safest places in the world to live, but I feel safer walking the streets, metros and underpasses of Moscow at any hour of the day, than I would doing the same in any city in my homeland.   We have been out and about in the city and on Metro trains with our young family till reasonably late at night on occasion and have yet to experience a single occasion where we have felt uneasy, threatened or unsafe.   Of course, common sense should always prevail and like in any city, avoid known bad spots and don’t get yourself into any situations where your safety may be compromised, ie. getting drunk, getting into stranger’s cars, etc.   Admittedly, I haven’t been out late into the night here due to having a young family, so can’t comment on the safety of the city in the early hours of the morning with hordes of alcohol fuelled bodies around.  

The only unsafe aspect of Russia that we have experienced is the roads, they are something else, where rules seem to be just a guide and a footpath is just as likely to be used by a car to get past a traffic jam or around a corner when the red light is on as it is by a pedestrian, so whenever you venture out near a road or anywhere a vehicle may be moving, keep your wits about you, and your children close by.

Cost of Living

When you check on the cost of living you will find that Moscow was named “Most Expensive City in the World, 2012”. This was my greatest worry; I didn’t want to move to Russia on what looked like a pretty good salary only to find that it was eroded by the high cost of living, leaving us worse off than we were at home. In some regards, it is expensive to live here, but if like many expats your salary package includes accommodation and utilities, you have probably the most expensive part of living here covered. If you have children, their schooling is the next most expensive, depending on what sort of school you want to send them to. If you are lucky enough to have this covered as well, then you are pretty well set up. An International School education can set you back anything from $US 1,200 - 6,000 per month per child, so shop around.  

Outside of these costs, Russia can be either as cheap or expensive as you want to make it. Again, we find the majority of our expenses here are less than equivalent items back home, although that may be different for ex-pats from larger countries like USA, England, etc. Most international brand products seem to be available in the shops here, and it seems that by substituting a local product for an international brand you can often save 50 – 60% in the supermarkets, and so far we have found some of the Russian brands to be better than the international brands we have always used, it is just a case of being adventurous. Of course, if you have plenty of money and like throwing it around, there are also plenty of designer and international brand name stores who will gladly take it off you. If you are on a budget, look around, there are plenty of low cost shopping options in Russia, and sometimes all it takes is to open a door to a non-descript looking building, and you could open up a world of savings.

Russian Women

For us guys, especially the single ones, the thought of living in a city with 5,000,000 gorgeous women is hard to resist. You would think that even the most aesthetically challenged among us could find a Russian woman. Once you are here though, the odds are not really any different to where you will have come from. There actually seem to be more old ladies here than hot young chicks who look like Anna Kournikova, although on a couple of visits to the heart of Moscow during a business day it does seem that the closer you get to the heart of the city the larger the percentage of good looking girls is. Again, I haven’t been out to a club or anything like that so can’t comment on the chances of meeting the girl of your dreams here, but do know that they exercise face control at most of the good clubs, so would imagine that this is for a reason….

Language

You are probably wondering if you should take some Russian lessons, or whether you will take the advice of everyone (that has never been to Russia), and believe that everyone speaks some English so you should be able to get by. Take the Russian lessons before you go, the more the better, NO-ONE here can really speak any English, and it is a nightmare to get anything done. There are hardly any English Language newspapers, only 1 English Language Radio station (which only started in November 2012), and English signage is notable by its absence. There is no English signage on the Metro, so until you can decipher Cyrillic script (which isn’t as hard as it looks on a basic level) getting anywhere can be rather difficult. There are moves afoot to introduce English signage to the Metro, which while it will make it easier for us ex-pats, would be a shame to see the erosion of the Russian identity to satisfy us westerners.

Architecture

In your Google search you’ll find some pretty impressive pictures of some ultra-modern buildings in Russia, so you will think that it is a pretty modern country. Unfortunately, once you get here you will discover that these buildings are grouped together in little pockets of the cities they are in and the majority of the city is filled with buildings built over the last 1,000 years, or during the Soviet era, and that none of them have had any maintenance undertaken since the day they were finished.   Infrastructure repairs and maintenance here seem to be an afterthought or an unnecessary extra, so buildings and roads can be pretty run down. This does add to the gritty character of Russia that will grow on you.

Russia is What You Make It

Really, Russia is what you make it. It is no more dangerous, or expensive than any other country in the world, it is up to you. There are hundreds of years of history here to be discovered, interesting places to see, and a Metro system that while not flash would be one of the most efficient and inexpensive in the world. Don’t let any of the negatives you have heard about it put you off, for the most part these are unfounded.  So take that job and check out a truly interesting part of the world.

By Tony Fitzpatrick a kiwi businessman who traded a solar powered life in the country with no neighbours for a fourth floor apartment in Moscow. Follow his exploits on http://moscowkiwis.blogspot.ru/