NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Moscow
Population: 142.4 million
Area: 6,592,800 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 7
Electricity: 230V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Russia Rubles = $0.03 US Calculate Other Amounts
All foreigners need a visa to visit Russia. This is a complicated process with ever-changing regulations, so plan ahead. Check the U.S. State Department Web site for details (www.travel.state.gov), find a Russian sponsor, and expect to pay at least $150 per visa. Most hotels can provide visa support, and a number of agencies can expedite the process. The Russian consulate in Washington, D.C., recommends several agencies (202-939-8907; www.russianembassy.org/consulat/contact.htm). The Moscow Tourist Office can also expedite visas (47 Ulitsa Myasnitskaya; Moscow; 7-495-207-7117; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.visitrussia.org.uk)
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Entertainment
Russia's extraordinary literary canon stretches from the depths of despair to, well, mostly more despair. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment delivers the feel-good message "you aren't special." Another classic tome, invaluable as reading material or doorstop, is Tolstoy's War and Peace. For an entertainingly irreverent take on Russia's future, investigate author Viktor Pelevin's predictions of pseudocapitalist oligarchy. Russian television has lately taken to adapting literary classics into miniseries hits, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.
Russia's uncompromising climate has created a reliance on hardy produce such as cabbage, potatoes, and beets, often mixed with heavy cream, sour cream, or cream cheese. Russians are notoriously heavy drinkers, favoring straight vodka. Avoid drinking on an empty stomach by insisting on cured herring, smoked salmon, or caviar-topped blini to accompany your $5 liter of Stoli. Moscow has embraced some foreign foods, especially sushi, which can be found on the menu of almost any restaurant. There haven't been any reports of mass poisoning by sushi in Moscow, but you might want to take some vodka with that, too.
Some remnants of Communist inefficiency lingeryou'll still find stores using the unwieldy Soviet system of selecting goods at one counter, paying at another, and collecting at the firstbut even small neighborhood shops are now embracing a supermarket-style system. At independent shops and open-air markets, you can find great deals on art and antiques less than 100 years old (anything older may be confiscated). But watch out for fakes, and keep your receipts to avoid a surprise 600 percent export tariff from the notorious customs officials.
A tip of about 10 percent is now considered standard in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but a 5 or 10 percent service charge might be added to the bill in other cities. Shops have fixed prices, but in markets, merchandise is marked for bargaining. Credit cards are increasingly accepted, but there can be surprises: American Express cardholders had difficulties recently due to a dispute between card processing companies, for example. That's been resolved, but it's always a good idea to bring a couple of cards, some traveler's checks, and an ATM card. When spending money, be wary of "foreigner prices," which may be several times the local rate, especially at theaters and museums.
The U.S. State Department has advised travelers not to visit Chechnya and its surrounding areas. In fact, Chechnya itself is much safer these days. But neighboring Ingushetia is highly volatile. The confrontation between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia has increased tensions in the region. Georgia and Russia have broken off diplomatic relations, so it is no longer possible to travel directly from Russia to Tbilisi, a route that had become increasingly popular with foreign tourists. Such a journey now requires a detour. Transiting through Kiev is regarded as the best option.
Central Moscow can seem remarkably safe and livelyit's become the city that never sleeps and it's not unusual for women to walk unaccompanied in the middle of the night. Still, it's best to exercise caution throughout Russia, particularly at night. Racially motivated crimes have plagued St. Petersburg and Moscow in recent years. Such attacks often occur in the metro or on suburban trains known as elektrichki. Drunken foreign men are occasionally targeted in bars and mugged on their way home.
January:1, New Year's Day; 7, Russian Orthodox Christmas Day
February: 23, Defender of Fatherland Day
March: 8, International Women's Day
May: 1, Spring and Labor Day; 9, Victory Day
June: 12, Independence Day
November: 4, Unity Day; 7, Day of Reconciliation