10 “Don’ts” for Foreigners Traveling in Russia | Learning To Know Russian

10 “Don’ts” for Foreigners Traveling in Russia

If you read world news or look through travel forums, your brain will immediately form one of two opposite opinions when reading about traveling in Russia:
  • If you set one foot outside of an airport in Russia, you’ll find yourself in a whole world of trouble.
  • Russia is so safe, even small children could travel there unaccompanied and have a blast!
things you should not do in russia

Obviously, the first opinion is more prevalent. Someone once—completely seriously—asked me, “Should I hire armed security while traveling in Russia?” I’ll let you know how I answered this question at the end of the article. However, before we get there, remember one thing:

People like making conclusions about places to which they’ve never been.
I’m Russian, and I know this country very well. Yes, it’s very different from European countries, but there are no unbelievably terrible or strange things awaiting you. After all, is it dangerous to walk through the streets of New York? Think of Moscow the same way. Like New York, in Moscow, there are different people and various districts. Your safety depends on many local factors. You’ll hear the same kinds of precautions about any country, and Russia is no exception.

So, without further ado, here are 10 Don’ts for Foreigners Traveling in Russia:

1. Don't wander off main roads at night

do not wander off main streets at night

This is a common rule for all big cities around the world. While the possibility of getting lost is a major concern, the much more dangerous consequence of such exploration is running into criminals who would love to meet a foreigner or two. I don’t think this topic requires any further explanation.

2. Don't put money in outside pockets when taking public transportation

pickpocketing in crowded places in russia

Once when I was riding the Moscow metro, somebody stepped on my foot really hard. I looked around for the culprit, and some guy started apologizing. He said he was very sorry, calling himself a “clumsy elephant” and an “oaf,” to which I answered, “That’s ok. No problem.” However, even after my reassurance, his apologies were endless. When I left the car, it turned out that my wallet had disappeared from the back pocket of my jeans, and I could only watch helplessly as the thieves melted into the crowd.

Criminals are very clever. They often “play in pairs”: one of them distracts their victims while the other takes money or anything else valuable. Don't make the same mistake I made! Keep money and any important documents or personal belongings in inner pockets. Hold your bags tight.

3. Don’t eat shawarma (Arabic fast food) at street stalls; avoid cheap sushi restaurants

fast food in russia

There is a traditional Russian joke about shawarma: “Was this food meowing or barking yesterday?” Yes, it’s rude but very clear. Nowadays, the authorities have begun to exert stricter control on eating establishments, so there is only a small chance you will be offered cats’ or dogs’ meat as a dish. However, it’s still not worth the risk. Furthermore (and perhaps even more disgustingly), this food is out all day under the hot sun. Would you call that a sanitary way to store and prepare food? I don’t think so.

Update from our reader:
 First of all, half a year ago city's government destroyed every small shops around the metro stations. That's why now you can not buy shawarma. Secondly, as I know in pharmacy sales-managers do not speak English. And the last, I do not remember beer point in this summer (this thing was typical in summer same years ago but now I think, it's out of law).
--Ekaterina Krasnova from russian4foreigners.info

Cheap sushi restaurants also can be harmful. You can never be sure where this or that fish originally came from. Some cheap restaurants might ignore essential food processing steps and you probably would want your first trip to Russia end up at a hospital. So, it is better to eat in a plain but decent cafe or canteen.

4. Don’t take rides from illegal taxi drivers

russian illegal taxi drivers

I remember Russia in the 90s. Official yellow taxis were very rare, so it was common to use unlicensed cabs (meaning anyone with a car could pull up on the curb if you waved your arm to hail a taxi). Today there are hundreds of official taxi services, but for some inexplicable reason, many foreigners and locals alike still prefer unlicensed cabs. Why!? An unofficial “cabby” will make you pay three times as much for a ride. Moreover, these “cabbies” will intentionally choose a longer route to raise the fare for their services. Such drivers like to cash in on unsuspecting foreigners. Remember: unofficial drivers can be crooks.

5. Don't forget to take your passport when you go out

documents check in russia

If you’re not from Europe, you may not know that some government offices require you to show your passport upon request. You may also not know that a policeman can stop you to check your ID, usually your passport. Are you sure you need the hassle of being asked for your passport and not having it? Just put the little book in your pocket--your inner pocket (don’t forget Don’t #2!). Thieves might not be interested in your documents, but they won’t waste their time separating your passport from your money. They take everything and leave you with plenty of troubles.

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6. Don't drink beer outside or on public transportation

kidnapping caucasian style soviet movie screencap
A screencap from "Kidnapping, Caucasian Style", a Soviet comedy (by Leonid Gaidai, 1967)
It’s prohibited by law. Yes, Russians drinks cold tasty beer on trains, in parks, and near malls and cinemas, but no matter how much you’re tempted to do the same, resist the urge to follow suit. They are in their own country and know the rules. You aren’t. Be very careful with alcohol. It’s best to keep a clear mind in a foreign country.

7. Don’t invite girls that you just met to go back to your place

talking to strangers in russian streets

This tip applies to men. Let me guess: you’ve heard all about Russian beauties, and now you’re eager to spend some one-on-one time with a lovely lady? Newsflash: criminals are perfectly aware of your plans! Any sweet girl can easily turn out to be a thief who will take all your money and valuables. What do you think: is it a fair price for a pleasant evening? As if that isn’t reason enough to think twice, imagine if she slipped something into your wine when you weren’t looking. Better hope it’s only an ordinary sleeping pill...

8. Don't give your stuff to strangers, and don't take strangers’ stuff (especially wallets)

be careful with money in russia

I’d like to tell you about another crooks’ trick. 
Five years ago, my friend Aleksey was across a public square when suddenly a man called out, "You dropped your wallet!" As Aleksey’s wallet was still in his pocket, the stranger then said, “Let’s share the money, since we found it together.” Aleksey didn’t want to, but he agreed anyway. He needed some money, and this was a lucky coincidence. He followed the guy around the corner so they could split up the cash. Suddenly another man accompanied by a policeman approached them. "Give my money back!" he shouted. The first man silently disappeared, leaving Aleksey to give back all the money, including his own.
This is just one example. There are numerous ways to trick naive people. Be careful! Don’t change money, don’t take strangers’ stuff, and don’t hand a stranger your phone if they ask you to make a call for them.

9. Don’t take any medicine sold without a prescription

buying medication in russia

Do you know what Russians do if they’re ill? They don't like to visit doctors, so they just go to a pharmacy. I once heard a man say to a pharmacist, "My temperature is 37.3°C (99.14°F), and I have red spots here and here. Please, give me some pills."

The pharmacist understood him and gave him the pills without an examination, diagnosis, or prescription! Of course, not all Russians treat their health so carelessly, but it’s very common. Maybe if you live in Russia for a long time, you’ll get into the habit of skipping doctor’s appointments, but I kindly advise you to avoid this. Let me remind you: Russians are in their native country. They have free health insurance. You must think of the consequences of self-treatment. Even though prescription medicine is expensive, avoiding the doctor might cause you to misdiagnose yourself, which can lead to greater health problems.

10. Don't kiss strangers

russian wedding in traditional costumes

The idea that it’s appropriate and expected to kiss complete strangers as a greeting is another myth about Russians, one whose origin can be found in politics. Have you heard of Leonid Brezhnev? He was a Russian leader who used to kiss foreign visitors right on the lips. It was how he demonstrated his respect. Now, neither politicians nor ordinary people observe this tradition. They just shake hands. Kisses are for close friends and relatives only.

These are just a few of the tips I’d offer to prepare you for a trip to Russia. I hope my “Don’ts” weren’t too scary. If you did freak out a bit, maybe you’ve already bought kidnap insurance. Have you learned how to use a gun? Have you hired a bodyguard?

No? Right you are! If you are an ordinary person traveling to Russia for pleasure or business, you don’t need any of those things. 

OK, what do you need?

I’d recommend these three essential things:
  1. A Russian phrasebook with key phrases
  2. Basic knowledge of the Russian language (one hundred words ought to do it)
  3. Some prudence
Unfortunately, I can’t help you with the third one, but the Russian Program for Fluency will solve the first two problems! With the Program, you won’t just learn the words. You will learn how to pronounce them properly and use them in conversation. You’ll be able to understand simple but very important traveling questions by ear so you can enjoy a carefree trip to Russia.

Many people think the Russian language is very complicated. Believe me, the Program will help you conquer the great and mighty Russian language!

Try to notice Russian peculiarities, and you'll feel comfortable in this country.

Cheers, Denis P. Ivanov

denis ivanov learning to know russian co-founder

P.S. Oh, I almost forgot: don’t smile for no reason to strangers. Russian people don't do this. Their emotions and kisses are only for people very close to them. Try to understand this, follow the rules and subscribe to the Russian Program for Fluency :-)


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