We’ve been revisiting the topic of safe travel to Russia; it’s something that ought to be touched on from time to time, safety needs to be a consideration for any trip, anywhere. This is especially true for excursions into unfamiliar territory where you are both inexperienced and “wealthy” (by local standards, at least). What could be more attractive to a crook? With this episode we’ll be bring this current thread to a close, but it’s by no means the end of the subject, frankly, all of this amounts to a mere introduction.
Russia Experience provides (for certain trips) a handy ‘Trip Info-Pack’ in book form; a portable volume that contains info/history, a wealth of practical tips angled towards getting more out of your visit, and some definite “dos” and “don’ts” to boot. It’s well worth a read. So are many other sources on the net; particular those quoted from first-hand experience (hopefully). Bear in mind though that some perspective is required; there are enough travellers out there for every
horror story to be true, somewhere, if you look hard enough. You can easily assemble a list of reasons why you should go, or not-go, to any destination; should you decide to put your mind to either task. It’s a good idea to find someone with some solid knowledge and get some calm, rational advice from them.
Also, some information may have been true at the time of it’s writing, but is now merely history; permanently adrift on the internet’s eternal ether. Unfortunately, it’s often returned by your search engine – alongside the subjective/objective truth. A classic example of this are the groups of young “vagabonds”, typically with a Fagin-style adult in charge, who would (reportedly) mob and steal from tourists in St.Petersburg. If you are especially PC in your outlook, then you may need to find your ‘safe space’ when your Russian street guide confirms that indeed: “the gypsies have moved on after the police cleared them off the street”. This (or words to the same effect) were quoted plainly to me on a walking tour around St.P. Russians are aware of western/European political correctness; but are not remotely interested in it and will simply tell it ‘like it is’. Anyway, the predatory behaviour in question is largely a phenomenon that occurred 10 years or more ago. At least that’s what I heard from the horse’s mouth! I certainly never experienced (or saw) any such trouble in 2016.
You also need to become aware of the way things work in Russia, the kind of information that locals take for granted. Your normal expectations about life don’t always translate well to central St. Petersburg for instance. Yes, I’ve been there, without many “issues” (taxi drivers notwithstanding: see below); a fact that was largely down to preparation and some foreknowledge. Let’s address a few things.
St.Petersburg is not Russia, neither is Moscow, Ekaterinburg or any other single location. Russia (with Siberia attached) is large enough to be a great many things. England, and let’s include the rest of the UK too, is tiny by comparison, and still not wholly represented by London – capital or not. Your experience in Russia will depend to some degree upon your location. Larger cosmopolitan centres (compared to remote Siberian towns) are likely to be more amenable to foreign tourists. They get them all the time and the English language is relatively common too; sometimes not fluently spoken, but (probably) still better than your Russian. Visiting these “touristy” locations stacks the odds in favour of an easier ride. That’s a relative comparison. Hardened travellers may not want “easy”, of course. Every location has its problems; do a little research, identify the areas (and times of the day) to avoid, then stay away.
Also, in some instances: you may be regarded as a problem by certain members of Russian society because of your “non traditional” gender/preferences (if you display them). There’s much to be said on the subject, but World Nomads sums it up as follows:-
“Homosexuals, transsexuals and transgender people are often unfairly persecuted by both citizens and the police. And although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, very little is done to protect gays and lesbians from harassment and discrimination”.
You will need to be street-wise. You need to know that accepting an offer to change money with some “helpful” individual on the street for “a better rate” is illegal and stupid (read: dangerous). You also need to know that some freelancing taxi drivers will try to overcharge you, either by cooking the meter, lying about prices, having some “small print” to trip you, or by pressuring you otherwise (I hope it’s only verbal, if at all).
I had this nonsense straight off the plane, after fending off these vultures in Pulkovo airport foyer I was then chosen for a scam attempt by an official, ranked, taxi driver! Even after confirming the price with the attendant. I wasn’t going to take it (and didn’t) but imagine if the driver was unofficial, if I had not be forewarned and if there was no stated/agreed price at the onset of the trip. I was advised by a local to use Uber or Yandex Taxis instead. I did, and the difference was like night and day! Be careful with taxis and don’t get into any vehicle that you are remotely unsure about. Your agent/hotel/host, who presumably want to keep you alive- will surely be able to offer advice in this regard.
You will undoubtedly discover the monosyllabic and unhelpful shop attendants, although you may get them to crack a smile occasionally (probably when you do something stupid), just roll with it. I also met ones that seemed vary wary of me and others that were perfectly helpful and open.
Police and paperwork
You’ll need to know that the police (and especially the traffic police) may bring their own problems to a crisis. Or not. Tales of exploitation tactics abound, and there was an
exposé of police corruption in 2009 when several officers revealed the system to be little more than a semi-official crime ring; the locals certainly still seem to be wary of any involvement with them.
A reported ploy is to demand documents from tourists, highlight a convenient “problem” therein and then offer you the chance to pay a fine (in cash of course) right there, to “sort things out”. However this appears to be overstated across the internet, whilst still falling short of being an absolute myth. I had no problems with the police, even when one stopped me at a Metro station to ask (in English) why I was wearing a cycling mask! Travellers from various ethnic minorities are likely to draw more scrutiny from the police, especially in these migration-phobic times.
Check the rules and regulations regarding documentation prior to travel (rules do change) but consider, if possible, carrying/presenting copies of every essential document whilst in the street; including your passport, rather than the real items (even if you do elect to also carry the genuine items, -securely). This way nothing can be held to ransom.
Oh, and you may wish to avoid driving altogether, especially in cities. I had a conversation with a local recently about the level of insanity (and mortality) on Russian roads. I can also vouch for this after being a passenger in a car that cut across 3 lanes in St. Petersburg; -in the wrong direction.
This is not the end; the topic is vast, but for now.