Sometimes we hear and see so many striking, odd and new things about Russia on TV or in newspapers or from the people we meet, that I think I'm missing something. Really, it turns out I live at such a dangerous place, which is ruled by authoritarian regime, flooded with mafiosi, catastrophes, bombings happening all the time, with deadly cold winters, demolished economy, depressed people... I'm really surprised I'm still alive and living here. The point is that all those things about Russia are either not true or very much exaggerated.
Myth: Russia is an orthodox, conservative police state.
Truth: There are a lot of people with orthodox and conservative beliefs and yes, Russia is one of the most heavily policed countries in the world. However, think about the other facts. Russia had the most revolutions in the last 100 years than most "progressive" countries of the West. Russia dispensed ideologies like trends: monarchy to communism to democracy wild-west style to the "sovereign democracy" of today. Russian society is anything but conservative and orthodox. Russian love experiments. They are also traumatised by them and that's why sometimes – in the times of uncertainty – they grasp religion and brute force to make sense of the crumbling world around. Besides, Russians hate rules, so even though police is there, the sense of freedom is much higher than anywhere else in the world. As we say, "the strictness of the Russian law is compensated by the lack of necessity to follow it."
Myth: Russia is full of mafia and it's dangerous here!
Truth: Really, many people think that Russia is some place filled with Mafia and it's so dangerous to come here. Well, there is Mafia, but the wild west nineties are left in the 20th century. Nowadays it's like any place in the world and Russia is not more dangerous than anywhere else. If you know where to stay, keep away from the "bad" places, do your normal traveler's things and practice your normal traveler's safety, you'll be okay. You can only have contact with criminals when you're into something illegal, like buying or selling drugs, or are really looking for trouble. Really, think about it: why would anybody have problems because of you? The mafiosi spend all their time making business, the gangs spend all their time dealing with each other, so you certainly will not experience any of that. Also there's so much police on the streets of Moscow it seems like the safest place in the world. Definitely places like New York and some areas of London are much more dangerous. There's no gang crime in Moscow, only serious stuff.
Also, you should know about so-called "gopniki". These are the working class youngsters hanging out in the poor neighborhoods. Back in the 90s they could be a real nuisance, but these days they are more like endangered species. We at Way to Russia created a small online museum to keep them alive (at least in our memory), and you can check it out on Russki Beat's page. Or watch the educational video below:
Myth: It's a real hassle to travel to Russia – too much effort and paperwork
Truth: If you know how it's done then it's no problem. All the paperwork you need are your passport and an invitation from Russia. It's easy now to get the invitation, and you don't need to book a hotel for the whole period of your stay. The invitations can be made through hotels/hostels (which will ask you to book one night), or travel agencies (which will ask only your money), and the price in both cases will be $25-$35 US for an invitation. The invitation can be sent to you by fax or e-mail. After you received the invitation (or its copy), you just need to bring it to Russian consulate to get your visa. A Russian visa costs around $50-$60 US (for this price it's ready in 7-14 days), and if you pay more it takes only one day to process. Actually, while we're at it, let's do some covert advertisement. You can get the invitation online through the companies listed on Way to Russia. You get 100% reliable and fast service, we get some commission from them, so we can continue building the site. It's like donating to charity :)
Now, some people say it's too long and expensive to get here, but if you travel to Eastern Europe, Russia is really close and not expensive to get to. Besides, since a few years several no-frills budget airlines have regular flights to Moscow from Germany and from Italy. So, a return flight to Moscow from Berlin may cost you only 100€ if you book early. Otherwise, a ticket from most European capitals costs $350 US return, and if you're on a tight budget, you can get one of those EasyJet or RyanAir flights from London or Berlin to Riga (Latvia) or Tallin (Estonia), and then get a bus or a train to Russia for $10-$25 US.
If you want to know more about these and other better options to get to (and from) Russia, check out our Transportation section.
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Myth: There are so many catastrophes and bombings, I will die!
Truth: Not more than anywhere else. It's just that Russia is a very big country and it's size is like both Europe's and United States', do you think there are more disasters happening in Russia than in the whole Europe and United States together?
Myth: Ok, but what about Chechnya and the terrorists?!
Truth: You might be thinking more about it than we do, really. Of course it's sad that the situation in Chechnya is unstable and we regularly get reports about people being murdered there in some sort of small local conflicts (mostly between the local centers of power), but however cynical it sounds, we got used to it. People live their lives and try to be as happy as they can. Unfortunately for most Russians Chechnya is like a bad dream – it affects you, but it's so far from your reality that you tend to forget about it. Chechnya seems to be very far away and unless you travel there, you most probably will hear about it only on the news. There are occasional terrorist attacks still, but nobody knows if the Chechen guerillas, who often assume responsibility, were really involved or just use the events to promote their agenda. Nowadays, a terrorist attack always has a chance to happen in other other country, so in this sense it is as dangerous as anywhere else nowadays, unfortunately.
We think that actually it would help a lot if the attention in the media shifted from the political aspect of the problem towards the social one. There are a lot of people without a shelter, lots of orphans left after the war. If all the propaganda effort goes towards humanitarian causes, we believe it will do much more good than constantly talking about the fragile peace and the means through which it was achieved.
Myth: The economy is destroyed and not at all diversified, Russia has no future!
Truth: The funny thing is that two years ago we'd just say it's not true: look how fast the GDP is growing, look at the millions of people who managed to climb from the poverty in the last few years.... Well, nowadays things are quite different. After the financial crisis hit the country it became very obvious that you can't build a solid economy on natural resources, like oil and gas. On one side it made things quite unstable again. On the other side, many people finally got a kick in their ass and started to do something about innovation rather than thinking about it. The bottom line is that Russia still has a huge human resource potential. Even though the education is hopelessly outdated, the economy is hopelessly dependent on the outside markets and not at all diversified... We still have small grass-root initiatives here and there that keep Russia on the international map (for example, tandp.ru below). If the society (and through it – the government) realizes that it should nurture these attempts and give resources to talented and passionate people instead of bureaucrats, we'll see a very fast rise and diversification of the economy.
Anyway, there's still a huge progress from empty shelves and overall poverty in the end of 80s and the average country-wide wage of $500 US these days ($1000 US in Moscow). In just 20 years millions of Russians climbed out of poverty and are able to lead normal lives and think about their future and their children having a comfortable life. So, things are getting better, just not as fast as they could have.
Myth: The winter is so cold in Russia!
Truth: It's not very cold, though sometimes it might be quite freezing. But if you have warm clothes, you'll be ok. Generally, the lowest is minus 10 or 15 Celsius in the winter, though it might sometimes (rarely) go as low as minus 25 or 30, but even that is not very cold, because it's not humid. And the true thing about Russian winter is that it's very beautiful, that is right. I like it!
Myth: Many Russians are racists, arent' they?
Truth: Russians are not racists. Even in the communist time people were raised up on the idea that everybody was equal. The only thing is that few middle-aged and old people have something against the States. But they'll not insult or offend a tourist because of that. Just don't hurt anybody's patriotic feelings.
Anyway, Russians are more often than not very open and generous to the foreigners.
Myth: Russians drink too much... way too much...
Truth: Maybe, but after ages of driking they have a strong immune against alchohol, so they don't become drunk too fast. Also vodka is considered to be the best thing to warm oneself up with in winter. And, in fact, I have the same stereotype about .. uhm... British. Do they really drink as much beer every day as they say?
Seriously, alchoholism is a big problem in Russia, especially among older people. After the collapse of Soviet Union, many people got lost and instead of dealing with the new challenges, they decided to escape their problems through drinking. Because of that, families are unhappy, many people are unemployed, people don't want to build something new, but want to drift into the 'careless' state of mind and not to do anything.
Myth: Putin is the new Tsar, your country has a dictatorship and no democratic freedoms.
Truth: Only a few years ago we wrote that Putin was just a very popular politician and that he acts accordingly doing what the majority wants him to do. Nowadays things have changed. The recent events of 2011, the decision to run for the third extended presidential term, the rigged parliamentary election, the unwillingness of the current government to ease the political processes in the country have angered a lot of people, especially those who consider themselves to be middle class.
Lots of things have improved in Russia during his 8 (unofficially 12) year reign. Putin was good for the country in the beginning of 2000s when all people wanted was stability. Russia is a huge country, somewhat even uncontrollable, so many people were happy to see someone with a strong hand being able to manage this mess and regain respect internationally (at least comparing to Eltsin's times). However, after a few years it also became clear (at least to the people who think beyond the official newsline) that Putin's main power and talent is in usurpating and controlling the media. He is an amazing actor and in that he is also a talented politician. He managed to get the complete control over the major media outlets in the country therefore being able to shape public opinion in the way that corresponds to the ideology that he expresses. This is when the system he built started to short-circuit itself because it got into a feedback loop and stopped listening to what people wanted.
Many people realize that Putin is not the man you see on the picture above. There is a dynamic combination of various power interests and this man just happened to be a good mediator that managed to keep a sort of balance between the different forces that want to control the Russian political life. Therefore, yes, in this sense Russia is a dictatorship but the dictators are the semi-government corporations that see Russia and Russian people as the resources they can use to increase their profits. Whatever is left from democratic freedoms is just something to make "corporation Russia" look good in the outside world. It's a huge spectacle directed by the Kremlin's spindoctors and it's not a coincidence that film and theater directors are so popular among Russian politicians.
So to answer this myth, Russia is not a dictatorship, it's one huge live performance produced by the oil and gas corporations, directed by a team of spindoctors such as Surkov and others, with Putin having the lead role. The monopolized information machine usurpated by this team of people is working to enslave the population with promises of the stable future. The best people get so far is the "euroremont" - a cheap cosmetic renovation of their surrounding. Russia is in the state of ideological dictatorship and as long as people continue buying the myth of stability versus development and personal growth it will stay the same. Hopefully people like Navalny will be able to change something but it will only happen if there are thousands of them. The first change would be to create institutions that really work, like independent courts, independent governing systems, watchdogs, press...
Truth: It's a myth. During the privatization in the 90s every single Russian person (even children) got a "piece" of the country in the form of a voucher. Most of them didn't have anything else. So, a director (who was not paying them any salary) told them: "you'll get your salary, but you need to give me the voucher you have".
It's like you are invited to a casino and you are given a chip. But you don't have any money. Then the manager comes up to you and tells you not to risk and just give you your chip and get 10 bucks instead.
The same thing happened in Russia: the vouchers (or shares) accummulated in the hands of directors who were then selling it to big players. The big players would make their stakes and only 1% survived and now own the majority of production in Russia. The people who sold their vouchers stayed where they started and that's why there's a lot of social tension in Russia nowadays.
At least one positive thing is that the middle class is now forming in our country, so the gap is not that huge anymore. But this little story explains why so many people approve that even such an intelligent and charming man as Yukos' former Khodorkovsky is made into criminal. What they don't want to understand though is that the "casino managers", those who gave them the chips first place, and they themselves are responsible, too.
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What are the best places to visit when you go to Russia? If you have only a few days, Moscow and some small provincial town (Novgorod or a town along the Golden Ring)would give you a very good idea about the country.