There is a lot of advice in circulation covering various aspects of safe travel within Russia. I’d like to highlight some pertinent issues and topics here, following last week’s overview. First of all, a reiteration of a crucial point concerning the very notion of safety, itself. “Safe” is an absolute: if you plan to step outside your house and cross the street then you can forget about absolutes, right now. Perhaps you live in an inert void, divorced from the laws of physics and the arrow of time; so that even the slow pull of entropy cannot render your existence fractionally “unsafe” to any quantifiable degree. However, I doubt it.
What we are really trying to ascertain is an acceptable level of risk for ourselves, and only we can make the ultimate decision in that regard, based upon our informed opinions. So let’s get some information.
The Elephant In the room: World Cup 2018
Something of a irresistible force meeting an immovable object: the die-hard extremist Russian supporters (as opposed to the regular majority) threatening to maim English fans, versus the hardcore Russian police; absolutely committed to prevent/flatten any trouble, decisively. Russia already has tainted world-image at stake (whatever your opinion on the issue). On top of that there is the attractive tourist ruble at risk and Russian domestic competence/control, soon to be put on global display.
Simply put, Russia cannot be seen to fail at executing and policing the World Cup on the international media stage. Even violent Russian supporters are wary of their police who are renowned for a decidedly ‘hands-on’ approach. With state pride at stake, I don’t fancy the chances of any transgressing hooligan, whether home-grown or temporarily imported.
The heady influx of tourists will no doubt signal an early Christmas for the taxi-scammers, pickpockets, ‘enterprising’ second-income officials (including real/fake police officers), con-men, con-women, bag-snatchers, and other undesirable detritus, washing in for easy pickings. It’s highly probable that many uninformed first-timers will arrive knowing little/nothing of Russia’s language, culture and problems; thereby exacerbating their risk. There’ll be casualties, even if only financial. It makes all the advice about personal security more relevant than ever. It’s the same, but more so.
With ranks of military-level policing likely, a traveler in the thick of it all will (equally likely) be as safe as can be expected under the circumstances. Those circumstances are (subjectively): a recreation of hell; as painted by Hieronymus Bosch. Yes, I can’t stand football, crowds or noisy disruption. You, however, may love them.
It may be a great time to consider a visit to Russia, away from the football crowds. St.Petersburg or Moscow is no more “Russia” than London is “England”. There are a massive amount of destinations across Russia and Siberia that are frankly incredible and which may not even share a single football between them.
Every Eden has it’s serpent, in the case of remoter regions, that particular beast may take the form of your ‘unfamiliarity’ with the locals. Away from Russia’s bustling cosmopolitan centres; English-speakers become rarer, your foreign-ness becomes more apparent and attitudes towards your flashing neon “tourist” beacon may sometimes be less progressive than you would hope. An English interviewee, who had worked in Russia for several months, told me: “For every 20 miles you drive out of Moscow; you travel a decade back in time”. That’s 0.5 years per mile, folks: in his estimation. I can’t verify his maths as I’ve never traversed that particular time-corridor; but the point is: something happens, something is different, and even markedly so. “Different” doesn’t automatically equate with “problem”, though, as Katie Aune revealed about her trouble-free trip on Her Packing List:
“I think it helped that I was wearing the same clothing as the locals and didn’t stand out as a tourist. And of course speaking the language helps a lot. I also just used common sense; not wandering around by myself late at night and not drinking a lot – I always knew where I was and what I was doing”.
Incidentally, on the subject of drink: most will advise you to buy your own and keep watch over your glass at all times. Oh, and don’t drink tap water; ever.
You and Your Money
It’s advisable to always have a financial backup (or several); extra cash secreted in your hotel room, or even the hotel safe (again: no absolute guarantees in either case), extra reserves on your person: so that a single stolen wallet doesn’t render you destitute, -and don’t flash attractive rolls/wads of notes. A credit/debit card may be a life-saver but I’d use it in the field (and have done) to draw modest amounts of cash from a machine inside a bank; rather than swiping it through any apparatus that was presented to me (including cash machines on the street).
Don’t advertise the location of your wallet or have it in an easily accessible location (for thieves). Poking it out of your rear jeans pocket is the classic error, as are open jacket pockets that are easy to dip into. Hidden, deep, sealable internal pockets (or money containers) that are discrete and even a ‘fiddle’ for you to access make sense. If it’s hard for you to grab then it’s even harder for a thief in a moment of haste.
Some thieves employ blatant physical tactics designed to get them into close bodily contact with a target. ‘Sandwiching’ the victim between accomplices in a queue, an entrance/exit or a crush of people to allow time for hands to wander is a method that I have often read about. The ‘hug from a stranger’ is another, with a similar goal in mind. Here the thief pretends to be a friendly drunk, but really he just wants to pat you down, possibly assisted by an accomplice who ostensibly, even apologetically, tries to “get him off you”. Then there’s disorientation tactics; pushing shoving, confronting, approaching forcibly with leaflets/clipboards/brochures that cover their hands whilst their fingers probe your pockets, and variations thereof. The handy backpack announces to the world that you are a tourist, and those buckled-flap pockets are just asking to be opened; behind you. How would you know what is going on back there?
Some setups are more elaborate, the ‘wallet drop’ for instance. Someone drops a wallet/money-bag ahead of you and before you can catch or call the person in question: another picks it up and detains you with whatever nonsense he can devise. The wallet-dropper has now departed and the accomplice now (remarkably) understands you; offering to split the wallet contents, perhaps even forcing some notes into your hands before departing. Pretty soon you will be approached by the wallet-dropper and perhaps a heavy accomplice, demanding all of the money that you have “stolen”, inevitably way more than the few notes pushed into your resistant palms.
Oh, such japes.