Stay safe in Russia
Largely as a result of the transition from state socialism to market capitalism, Russia experienced an increase in criminal activity in the 1990s. As those who controlled capital through the state had to transform their business activities towards the rationality of free enterprise, profits and fraud increased. The truth is that crime has been greatly exaggerated in the media and for the average tourist Moscow, St Petersburg and the rest of Russia are indeed as safe as most major European cities. However, this is not always the case.
Historically very high, crime rates have fallen dramatically and moderated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although crime problems continue to decline, muggings, armed robberies and pickpocketing are the most common crimes – most often in subways, subways, night trains, train stations, airports, markets, tourist attractions and restaurants. Foreigners who have been drinking alcohol are particularly vulnerable to assault and robbery in or near nightclubs or bars, or on their way home. Some travellers have been drugged in bars and others have taken foreigners to their homes where they have been drugged, robbed and/or assaulted. It is important to note that nightclubs are prone to doping. The drug called GHB is becoming increasingly popular in nightclubs and it has been proven that this drug can make you unconscious, give you amnesia and even kill you. It usually comes in the form of a cap filled with liquid that is mixed with a drink.
A threat is also posed by counterfeit money inspectors who seek to extort a bribe from individuals when checking shopping trolley tickets. Using unmarked taxis is also a problem, as passengers have been victims of robbery, kidnapping, extortion and theft. Although there are few registered taxi services in Russia, you should always use the authorised services when arriving at a major airport and it is best to check which service is registered before you leave.
Russian law enforcement agencies are well trained and highly professional in their work. Although historically very inadequate since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government has successfully fought against police corruption. Police officers should not dare to bribe anyone as they will end up with a heavy fine. Although the government is constantly trying to train the police, some police officers remain underpaid and therefore corrupt.
If you plan to walk around at night, take someone with you – going alone will only make you a target for corrupt officials and possibly criminals.
As a tourist, it is highly advisable to travel to the North Caucasus, as this region is the most dangerous in the whole country. This region has acquired a bad reputation for terrorism, crime, corruption and extreme lawlessness.
The safest access area is currently Karachay-Cherkessia, as there have been very few attacks in this region in recent years. If you really need to visit the most dangerous areas of the region, it is best to contact your embassy before travelling there. However, assistance will be limited.
If you are planning to see Mount Elbrus, it is best to postpone this until the situation in the area improves.
Russia has seen a rise in homophobic activity since the beginning of 2013, after a series of events that led to the passing of laws, the setting of fines, and expulsion or deportation abroad in defence of LGBT (‘propaganda’) against minors. Although homosexuality itself is not criminalised in Russia, you can fall foul of the law if you take part in an LGBT activity and the police believe minors may be involved. This effectively includes all public ‘outdoor’ activities, including gay pride, and can also be extended to public demonstration of your sexual orientation and gender identification if minors are present. Participation in indoor LGBT activities and permitted outdoor actions where the necessary precautions have been taken against the participation of minors is legal, but there is always a risk of being targeted by homophobic activists at such events, as they specifically target them. In addition to the events, the common wisdom of keeping your sexual orientation and gender identification a secret will keep you safe in most situations. However, disclosing this puts you at risk of harassment or violence from others, such as hosts if they did not know beforehand, service staff and, more unpleasantly, the police if you need to contact them for help with hate crimes.
The behaviour of the majority of Russians is regularly reckless and has resulted in more than 35,000 deaths per year. Reckless driving, lack of education and a mix of very old cars and older models contribute to a high death rate on the roads. Drivers approach their art with an equal mix of aggression and incompetence. Guidelines are lax and rarely followed. As a pedestrian, be very careful when crossing roads as pedestrian crossings are largely ignored. Most drivers are not very well trained and falsify their licences to avoid problems with the police. More importantly, the rapid expansion of the economy has led to an increase in traffic density. Driving in tunnels is perhaps even more dangerous than driving on roads – tunnels are poorly built due to underinvestment, and they claim even more victims than roads.
You must not be under the influence of alcohol when driving. Russians have zero tolerance in this regard and the penalty is about two years in prison. If you are stopped by the GAI (Russian road police), don’t worry, they will simply check your papers. The law prohibits the GAI from soliciting a bribe – if this happens, you are entitled to report it to the nearest police station. Do not try to run away from them – if you do, they will shoot at your vehicle, even if you are unarmed.
Russia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the police and traffic police are the most corrupt institutions in the whole country. The Russians, who have been used to a police state for most of their history, are unlikely to offer much help if you are dealing with corrupt officers or criminals on the streets. This is why busy main roads are often less safe than quiet side streets – they simply offer more opportunities for the corrupt.
The Russian Mafia
The “Russian Mafia” make funny films, but are absolutely no threat to tourists – at best, they and their friends are a tourist attraction themselves, often dining in establishments that welcome foreigners. Foreigners are disproportionately targeted by pickpockets; non-white foreigners are also more likely to be harassed by street urchins or corrupt officials. But if you take reasonable precautions, nothing bad should happen to you. Remember that the majority of strangers who “find” trouble do so while drunk.
In the cities, keep an eye on youth crime. Russia has a shockingly large problem with orphaned street kids who, unsurprisingly, resort to petty crime to keep themselves alive. ‘Gypsy children’ employ interesting techniques to separate you from your money. These include creating a diversion (and even fighting amongst themselves), pouncing on you to pick your pockets, or simply lashing out at a surprised traveller and running their hands over you in every possible hiding place. Instead of showing weakness in such a situation, just give the perpetrators a good beating and perhaps a few choice words in Russian and they will look for easier targets. You are much less likely to encounter older juvenile offenders, such as belligerent skinheads or football hooligans, but if you do, it is better to give them a wide berth.
Racism is widespread in Russia and has increased in violence in recent years. Although travellers generally do not experience violent hate crimes, it is important to be careful if you are not white and/or visibly non-Christian. Although federal law (Article 105 of the Russian Criminal Code) prescribes harsher penalties for perpetrators of hate crimes, the investigation and prosecution of such crimes is very inadequate. Many of these crimes are committed by neo-Nazis and skinheads in groups, although non-violent racism by individuals can be found all over the country. Most attacks take place in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Voronezh. If you feel in danger, be aware of your surroundings, walk in groups if possible and carry pepper spray if you feel particularly threatened.
A detailed account of the current situation of racism in Russia can be found on the website of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
For more information on xenophobia and hate crime in Russia, see the website of the SOVA Information and Analysis Centre.
It is a misconception that everyone in Russia must have an ID card. They don’t. However, the absence of identity documents, although not in itself a criminal offence, can lead to detention for 3 hours “for identification purposes” (the law says “up to 48 hours”). Formally, arbitrary checks of documents are not allowed. They still take place, although much less frequently than before, especially in big cities. Document checks are now more common in places with few tourists – some police have very narrow ideas of what should be appropriate for tourists.
Missing documents can lead to a detention of up to 3 hours, but not to an arrest. The detention should not take place behind bars and they should not take away your personal belongings (such as your mobile phone): You may be taken to the police station where you end up sitting on a chair in a normal room while the police “identify” you, but this also rarely happens. As in most countries, you can be arrested if you are suspected of having committed a crime, but not being able to identify yourself is not a crime and does not incur a penalty. No physical force may be used during custody unless you use it first. If you are arrested, be confident and remember that the police are not allowed to shout at you. The passport controls that take place are mainly directed against dark-skinned people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants. Western, Caucasian-looking people are very rarely asked for their ID on the street.
To avoid potential problems, carry your passport, immigration card and registration form with you. If so, keep a separate photocopy in case you do.
An arrest for ID is not necessarily a pretext for a bribe. Usually a police officer will greet you and ask for your passport (watch out for words like “paspart”, “veeza” or “dokumenty”). Give it to him, he will look at it, give it back to you and greet you. Although this is usually an unsettling experience for new tourists, there is nothing scary about it.
A corrupt police officer may claim that there are problems with your documents (passport, immigration card and residence permit) and demand a fine (bribe). There are three options: You can explain in a friendly and firm way that everything is fine, that there is no problem with your documents and that you are ready to go to the police station to sort things out; you can pay (300 roubles should be enough in big cities); you can threaten. The first option is difficult without knowledge of Russian (and strong nerves), but it usually works. The second option allows you to buy peace, but encourages corruption. The third option is more confrontational and requires some nerves: take out a mobile phone and threaten to call your embassy. This might work and the police might back down.
Keep your money folded, with the small notes on the outside and the larger ones covered. Only take your cash out when you actually put it back in. Separate the large amounts and hide them from the small, everyday notes.
It is possible to encounter packs of aggressive strays or guard dogs, but not chained or tethered, especially off the beaten track. It may be sufficient to remain calm and keep your bags in front of you. If this is not the case, follow the other tips in the related article.
Stay healthy in Russia
Medical facilities are generally variable. A large proportion of hospitals are very well equipped, clean and state of the art, while some are far below western standards, with medication shortages and neglected equipment.
Make sure all your vaccinations are up to date and that you have enough of any prescribed medication you are taking. Pharmacies are common in big cities and offer high-quality western medicines.
The quality of tap water varies from country to country and can even be different in cities. In older buildings, tap water may not be drinkable. In the big cities of European Russia, the water may be clean and free of biological contaminants, but it often suffers from the presence of heavy metals due to outdated urban sanitation. If you can’t buy bottled water, boil the water before drinking it, or even better, use a special filter for tap water that you can buy in any supermarket. Bottled water costs only about 20-30 roubles (0.80-1.10 USD) for 2 litres, but be careful with the filled bottles that are sold.
In addition to local doctors (usually of good quality, but often working in poor facilities), there are several Western-run medical centres in major Russian cities. They all have different payment policies (some accept credit cards, others require cash payment in advance, even if you have insurance), so make sure you know what you are paying for (and when and how) before you accept a service.
Be careful not to buy fake vodka, which can be dangerous (seriously, here “dangerous” does not mean “strong”; it can contain methanol). Buy vodka only in department stores or specialised shops like Aromatnyi Mirà Moscow, with the sticker on the cap and/or the barcode of the region on the side.
A significant number of grocery shops, including some grocery/department shop chains, independent grocery shops, kiosks and convenience stores are known to sell poor quality food, including expired or even expired food with a printed expiry date with a later date. Although most of them are quite good, if possible, check the quality of the food by visual observation and do not particularly rely on best-before date labels that are added in an interchangeable manner. You can also pay attention to what others are buying, sometimes even asking other shoppers what is better, that is considered normal. This could help you make a good choice. Examples of generally inferior foods sold are most fish products, including smoked and salted savoury products (be extra careful), pre-cooked salads, fresh vegetables and fruit if you cannot pick it by hand (check it at markets after the vendors have picked it for you, The, you don’t like, you can usually exchange them, in shops they usually don’t allow this and are used to putting the wrong products in the bag), preserved vegetables sold at a reduced price (and usually with an older production date), cheaper dairy products, although less consistent, here it can help to check what others are buying. Since 2008, juice producers are no longer allowed to label their production as juice (rus: сок) if it is not 100% juice. Today, all low-quality juices called nectar (rus: нектар) contain up to 50-70% water and “fruit drinks” (rus: фруктовый напиток) can contain anything!
HIV prevalence in Russia is steadily increasing, especially among sex workers, young adults and drug addicts. Stay safe.