THE SINGAPOREAN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO RUSSIA

Всем привет! (Hi all)

So I’ve gotten a lot of questions about Russia from people who are thinking about travelling there, and I thought I’d compile some of the most frequently-asked ones, along with my own tips, into a handy little blog post that will live on the World Wide Web forever and hopefully be a useful resource.

For those that don’t know me personally, here’s a little bit of information about me:

I was based in Russia for a total of 6 months in 2016 on a student visa – 2 months in St Petersburg, and 4 in Moscow. I don’t claim to know both cities intimately, but I have spent enough time in both of them to know them better (and have more misadventures) than most week-long tourists do. I have friends in either city, and a deep spiritual connection to Moscow. And yes, I speak Russian. Pretty well.

THE LOGISTICS

Probably the most common question I get asked is some variation of:

Can I get around with English?/
Do I need to know Russian?/
How much English do they speak?

I wish I could tell you differently, but you’ll at least need to learn to read Cyrillic. All the street names, shop names, the entire Moscow metro, everything is only in Cyrillic. (The St Petersburg metro has signs in English because it’s newer) And trust me – the alphabet takes 1-2 weeks to learn, and it will make your time in Russia so much easier. Even Google Translate can’t help you if you can’t read what it’s saying.

Whether you actually need to know Russian depends on: a) how long you’ll be in Russia, and b) what you want to do. If you’re only going for a couple of days and you’ll only be up and down Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg and around the Palace Square area with all the other tourists, you’ll be fine. Even the bars on Dumskaya Street, Piter’s most famous bar street, have English menus.

If you’re looking to venture off the well-beaten tourist track, though, or to stay longer than a week – all the places less frequented by tourists are likely to only have Russian menus, sorry. Even if the staff speak rudimentary English, they’re not going to be able to translate the menus for you. From my (very limited) experience, though, people generally speak more English in St Petersburg – though I also don’t know if it’s because I spoke more English when I was there too, haha.

I should also probably add that it is very possible to spend months (or even years, in the case of some of my friends) in either Moscow or St Petersburg not knowing Russian beyond how to read street names and order food. It’s not ideal or pleasant, but entirely possible – it all depends on what you hope to get out of your experience.

Of course, if you want to travel away from just Moscow and St. Petersburg (such as take the Trans-Siberian Railway), everything will be in Russian. It’s Russia. If this is part of your itinerary, you should at least learn the Cyrillic alphabet and buy a Russian phrasebook. I’ve always thought that the Trans-Siberian is best experienced when you know enough Russian to get around and speak to the locals, but hey – to each their own, right?

This is not a question I get asked often, but in my opinion it’s the most important thing I’d tell anyone going to Russia.

POLICE/PASSPORTS. I’ve had several run-ins with the police in my time in Russia, and I’ve heard stories of people who have. The main thing is that they want to check that you have your documents with you – because not having your documents on you at all times is a bona fide crime in Russia. These documents are:

– your passport (carry a photocopy with you)
– your migration card (also carry a photocopy), and
– your registration (if you’re staying more than 7 business days; your hotel will do it for you if you ask). One thing to keep in mind is that your registration is only valid for the city you registered in. If you’re going from Moscow to Kazan, you’ll need to get a new registration in Kazan again.

You’re also especially likely to get stopped if you’re an Asian male between 18-35, or travelling with one. It’s just the way it is.

Two (and a half) things:

  1. The Russian police don’t speak a word of English. And there are usually no translators available either. If you get stuck with one, the most helpful advice I can give is to try asking for a translator, but otherwise Google Translate your way, or try to find someone willing to help you (which might or might not happen).

  2. If you’re Singaporean, you’re likely complacent because on a global scale, we are not typically regarded as any kind of a threat. The Russian police do not give a flying fuck. If you don’t have your documents, you will get fined (something to the tune of SGD $150-200 per person) – even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, and no matter who you might think you are.

  3. Of course, I’ve bribed Russian police before and that sometimes solves the problem for less money, but again – don’t try this if you don’t speak Russian.

Some other frequently asked questions, plus some personal tips.

    1. VISAS. Honestly, it’s not that hard. I’m not going to go into this, because it’s all on the VFS Global website. Get your visa invitation letter online. I’ve recommended RealRussia or WayToRussia – which are literally the top two results on Google – to friends/family and no one seems to have had any complaints.
    The biggest tip I can give you is please, for the love of God, give yourself extra time. Chances are, there will be something or other wrong with your paperwork or the photo you provide. It’s happened to everyone I know. Unless you’ve already applied for the visa several times and know exactly how to do it, give yourself lots of time.

 

    2. CURRENCY. Russian rouble. My advice is mostly for those based in Singapore, because my ‘home currency’ is the Singapore Dollar.
    For Singaporeans: Don’t bother trying to change in Russia, they won’t take your SGD. One option is to take USD and change it when you get there. Another is to go to Change Alley in Raffles Place. This is what I did. If you’re going with this option, here are my tips:
    – You will have to check one by one for the money changers that even stock the rouble. Last I checked, the most popular two booths right by the front don’t carry the ruble.
    – Go up the escalators!! Some of the second-floor booths have better rates for more obscure currencies.
    – PLEASE go online and check the rates before you go. Haggle!!! The rates listed on the boards are all shit. When I changed my money in June and August 2016, the Internet rate was about 57 rubles to 1 SGD – all the money changers advertised rates of between 30-40. I managed to get 52.
    Of course, the ruble has since strengthened and it’s now 40 rubles to 1 SGD (as of March 2017), but this all still applies. Haggle, haggle, haggle!
    Another option is just to withdraw cash at Russian ATMs. This is a pretty good option, especially if you’re in Russia for a while. Not all ATMs are made equal, though. When in doubt, look for Citibank (Ситибанк), Alpha Bank (Альфа-Банк), SverBank (Свербанк), Raifaisen (Райфайзен). Also, be sure to tell your bank that you’re going to Russia!!!!!!

 

    3. TAXIS. I cannot stress this enough: 1) never get a taxi off the streets, unless you can speak Russian well, because 2) you will get ripped off.
    The best way to get a taxi in Russia is this handy little app called Yandex Taxi. It’s basically Russian Uber, except you pay in cash. You never have to talk to the driver unless they can’t find you, and there’s English support.
    Also, don’t bother with Uber. It kinda works, but it really doesn’t. Between all the American taxi apps, Gett is your best bet.

 

    4. METRO. The Moscow Metro is amazing and probably my favorite in the world. It’s also almost entirely in Cyrillic. The announcements are also impossible to understand – even if you speak Russian. You definitely won’t be able to hear your stop. It took me 4 months of listening to it day in, day out before I could make out every word. It’s not like the London Tube or the Paris Metro either, where they emblazon the stop name outside every window. Your best bet is to count the number of stops religiously.
    The St Petersburg Metro is, fortunately, not like this. It’s newer, and you will probably understand the announcements if you speak Russian well. And from what I remember, they have the stop names in Latin letters. My advice still stands, however: count your stops. And learn to read Cyrillic.
    On a side note, if you’re in Moscow, take a self-guided Metro tour. It continues to remain one of my favorite ‘sights’ in the world.

 

    5. SIM Cards. A good idea, because a) Google Translate, b) the Yandex Metro app, c) Taxi apps, and d) Instagram. When you get to the main arrival hall at the airport, there will be little booths from MTS (МТС in Russian) and Beeline (билайн). If you want to get a SIM card, get it here – there’s some kind of special tourist package which is 10GB (which you can use until it runs out) for something crazy like $15-20 SGD.

 

    6. FOOD. Russian food is honestly not that great, and there is practically no street food scene to speak of. Of course, there are things I love about it – try buckwheat, kvas, black bread, blini with caviar, and my one of my favorite things: pickled herring (or red caviar if you’re fancy) on black bread, with shots of vodka. But the one thing to try in Russia is definitely Georgian food (and wine), especially if you never intend on visiting Tbilisi. There’s a pretty good place in the Red October complex (Metro: Kropotkinskaya) called Mizandari. I dream about egg and onion prata a lot, but I also sometimes dream about khinkali and Georgian wine.

THE POLITICS

  1. Is it a safe as a person of East Asian descent/person of color to be travelling alone/studying there for any amount of time?
    I’m not going to lie – Russia can be a pretty fucking racist place. Social justice is not a thing for most Russians, and that’s just the way it is. If you’re not white or just don’t look Russian, you will get people asking you “Where are you from?” approximately five times a day. They’re just curious about people who look foreign, and are not shy about it.
    There’s a chance that, if you’re spending extended periods of time there, you might get a racial epithet or two hurled at you. Don’t let one or two cunts ruin your Russian experience. Racist people are everywhere (looking at u USA) 🙂
  2. As a queer person, is it safe to travel to Russia?
    I’m all for celebrating your queer identity, but Russia’s probably not the place to be kissing your same-sex partner on the streets. That being said, I have seen same-sex couples holding hands on the street (only one or two in my entire time there, but they do exist). Of course gay bars, gay people, and gay life all exist in Russia – but the rule of thumb seems to be ‘keep it to yourself’.
    My Russian friends have also told me that it’s okay for women to be gay (thanks, t.A.T.u) but not men. A friend of mine used to get beat up because he looked gay, but I also know queer women who live in Russia. There’s really no straightforward answer to this – my advice is just to exercise caution.
  3. Is there something you shouldn’t talk about under any circumstances?
    I’m just gonna come right out and say it: politics. Of any kind, but especially not Russian or American politics. There are, of course, many Russians who are very Europeanized and international and therefore very liberal. It’s a humongous country – you’re gonna meet all kinds of people. The problem is that you never know who might be an ardent Putin supporter, and much of the sentiment appears to be Trump-leaning.
    Talking about politics is not a bad thing if you’re open-minded enough to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone whose has an opinion that’s completely, totally different from yours. They might have their facts completely wrong and think that Obama is basically Satan’s spawn – but bear in mind that these are the stories they have been fed by the media. If you’re passionate about politics and have a firm idea about how a country should be run, this is not the place. Don’t start a political conversation if you’re not prepared to entertain an opinion radically different from yours.

Finally:

Is there more to Moscow beyond the Kremlin and Red Square? Is there more to St Petersburg beyond Palace Square?

Yes. Moscow is a city of 11 million inhabitants, and Piter has 6 million. There’s tons to do in either city, you just have to look (and be willing to use Google Translate). The saying about New York has never been more true here, too – if you’re bored in Moscow, it’s your own fault. You could spend a lifetime there and still find new things to do all the time. It’s one of my favorite things about the city.

Let me know if you’d like individual Moscow/St Petersburg city guides! Again, I don’t claim to know the cities intimately, but I hope some of my experiences will be useful.

Спасибо всем за чтение!! (Thank you for reading)

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