There are many anecdotal tips and curiosities that you are likely to encounter on your trip, so it’s really worth an occasional dip into prevailing wisdom to help keep you on the right track and fend off any unwanted surprises. It’s a veritable smorgasbord and often a case of just diving in. So where to start?
A good place would be the subject of safety, a wise concern for any responsible traveller. After researching the various opinions of those familiar with major Russian cities such as St.Petersburg and Moscow, the general consensus is that the associated risks are neither greater nor lesser prevalent than those faced by any foreign visitor in any other major centre, irrespective of the global location. That’s what I hear; ruling out war-zones and the like, of course.
In other words: if you are careless or foolishly go looking for problems then you’ll find them. If you are sensible and take standard precautions then the chance of blundering into an issue is hugely reduced. Walking alone in the dark, especially in the vicinity of bars that are on the outskirts of town is a bad idea. These (and other locales) are often gathering-points for gangs of thugs who may wish to hang around the street and harangue easy targets. If they were to discover that you are a “rich westerner”, then that particular novelty could garner extra, unwanted interest. What could you do in such circumstances? Best not to be in that situation in the first place.
Nocturnal wanderings in or around shadowy parks are also a very bad idea, but frankly if you are prone to take such risks as described here; then perhaps you really should stay at home after all. How have you survived to adulthood?
Contrast the above locations with a central mall or plaza containing bars, restaurants, good lighting and other civil amenities, guards, police, security cameras and ‘regular’ folks. The choice should be obvious, though being about at night-time and/or travelling alone always increases risk.
One piece of sound advice given to me by a Russian contact is to be wary of over-friendly behaviour towards you, particularly if it comes out of nowhere. This should definitely ring an alarm bell as Russians just do not behave this way on the street where strangers are concerned. (You’ll have to assess this against polite curiosity and just being helpful towards a tourist of course).
At any rate their grim, unsmiling reputation arises partly from this very aspect of their character (though it’s more complicated, still). It’s also worth noting that this reputation (as a whole assessment) is often greatly over-exaggerated, even complete rubbish in many cases, but only once you have crossed their threshold of trust and are encountering them socially.
Until that time; you are an outsider, to be kept at a safe distance and in quarantine whilst the jury is out. It’s also worth being aware that once you are on the inside, so to speak, you’d better be ready for more familiarity, friendliness and hospitality (with equal expectations on their side) than you perhaps bargained for. But, great! Right?
Arguably, being an American (or being mistaken for one) would stack the odds slightly away from you due to the current situation with USA-lead sanctions (though the EU is involved too) and the burgeoning NATO missile shield project in Poland/Romania. But again, you would have to find the wrong person in the wrong situation for this to escalate into a problem. It should be fairly obvious to most that you are not an evil agent of Obama. By all accounts, the most common line would be polite enquiry with perhaps some (typically) direct questions – most questions tend to be direct, incidentally. Nothing to put a crimp in your stay.
A minority of extreme nationalist types will be a problem no matter where you are from and particularly so if you are from a non-white ethnic group. We live in sad times.
The most likely threat for all of us is via the pickpocket or opportunist thief. With that in mind it’s best to take appropriate precautions: several duplicates of (all) your travel documents plus scans emailed to yourself, spreading your money around your person/baggage, having a convincing ‘dud’ wallet with a few notes in it to drop if you are accosted whilst you hastily depart, having restricted access/fastenings to your inner pockets, utilising a money belt or similar, not flashing your cash or accessing your belt/inner-pockets in public view, avoiding situations of close proximity in crowds (queues, the Metro etc), lockable baggage/pockets etc. The usual tourist advice really. That includes avoiding ‘spiked’ drinks incidentally: usually a precursor to being extensively robbed (or worse). Sadly this is now a global phenomena. The least you can do is buy your own and keep them in sight.
The more brazen pickpockets will try ruses to blatantly place their hands on you; pushing leaflets into your coat (whilst grabbing what’s there), pretending to be a friendly drunk who leans on you whilst he pats you down, deliberately bumping into you or sandwiching you amongst accomplices whilst they slip their hands into your clothing, hiding their thieving hands with a clipboard or similar. Take a look at our Scam-Tastic series on the blog for more info, and do your own research too. There’s way more to be aware of than we can cover here so it is a case of getting wise before the fact, no matter where you are travelling to. Your own governmental travel advice site is as good a place as any to start (but it is only a start).
Sometimes problems arise through the collision of different cultural norms, rather than overt criminality, as illustrated by an article on the Solo Traveller blog:
“The rules of the road are different in Russia, especially in big cities like Saint Petersburg. The reality is — they will run you over and consider it to be all your fault for getting in their way. Never assume that a driver will stop for you when crossing the street.”
A sad, final note concerns the LGBT community. Yes if you gender-identify with the above and openly display the fact; through acts of non-heterosexual affection for instance, then tragically it seems that it is only a matter of time (and not much, at that) before someone assaults you both verbally and physically. It’s a ‘given’ unfortunately. Also it’s fair to say that even without overt hostility, many Russians will still feel uncomfortable when witnessing (or even talking about) such aspects of your being. Definitely a case where “just be yourself” would be the worst advice ever; for your own safety’s sake. It’s that clear-cut.
[Photo by freephotocc]