Government: Federal semi-presidential republic. The President is the head of state and the Prime Minister is head of Government.
Main Language: Russian. There are 35 other official languages
Main Religions: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
Russia – officially the Federation of Russia – is the largest country on earth and covers one-eighth (6.6 million square miles) of the world’s inhabited land area. It has a population of 143.5 million people and its territory extends from Eastern Europe to Northern Asia, sharing borders with 14 countries and covering nine time zones. Russia’s geography is as diverse as its culture – with landscape that includes forests, vast tundra plains, subtropical beaches and arctic mountain ranges. The country is divided into 83 federal ‘Subjects’ (constituent entities of Russia), which can be divided into republics, territories, provinces and cities. Following the partition of the Soviet Union (USSR), 15 independent states have been acknowledged. Russia has since emerged from a decade of post-Soviet economic turmoil to reassert itself as a world power.
Russia, in all its guises, has had significant cultural, economic, political and artistic influence worldwide. The country boasts some of the world’s most stunning architecture with thousands of visitors flocking to see the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and the ice-cream shaped towers of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Russia has also produced legendary literary figures such as Trotsky and Dostoevsky as well as the internationally-acclaimed Bolshoi Ballet.
Russia has a rich cultural history which has influenced classical music, art, literature, architecture, dance and philosophy for centuries. The family and loyalty to one’s country are central to Russian culture and Russians are exceedingly proud of their ancient and modern traditions. Russia is home to at least 190 ethnic groups which have created unparalleled diversity and cultural traditions throughout the Federation and the rest of the world. Present day Russian culture is still greatly influenced by the collective spirit which was forged in the Soviet era, with hospitality and sharing with one another being central to everyday life.
Unsurprisingly due its vast size, Russia incorporates almost all leisure pursuits from high-energy to the more sedate. There are endless opportunities for outdoor activities such as cycling, mountaineering, skiing and water sports. Russians are passionate about angling, particularly Atlantic salmon fishing and winter spearfishing. Football is the national sport and is followed fanatically, particularly in the capital which is home to Spartak Moscow FC. Russia is known for its world-leading cultural activities, with Moscow being home to the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet company and a huge range of museums, opera houses and theatres. The world-famous Moscow State Circus is also high on many visitors’ lists of must-see activities. Many of Russia’s traditional festivals, such as the Russian Winter Festival afford opportunities to enjoy folk dancing, music and arts as well as much vodka drinking! Russians are also passionate about chess, with a succession of Grandmasters, such as Garry Kasparov , hailing from the country.
Food and Drink
Russia has a diverse cuisine which represents its many cultural, political and ethnic influences throughout the centuries. One of the most well-known Russian dishes is borscht a beetroot soup with vegetables, meat and soured cream; its composition varying according to different areas. Staples of the Russian diet are meat, potatoes, cabbage and a huge variety of soups. Pirozhkis (small buns filled with potatoes, meat or cheese) are considered a national dish as well as caviar (ikra) and blini (small pancakes).
The most popular drinks are vodka – of which there are 3,000 varieties – and beer, which has only recently been classified by the Russian government as alcoholic (previously, any drink with less than 10% alcohol was considered a foodstuff).
It is thought that over 80% of Russia’s 143 million people speak Russian as their first language. There are over 100 minority languages with Tatar, Chuvash, Ukrainian, Bashi, Mordvin, Circassion and Chechen among the more widely spoken, although most speakers of minority languages also speak Russian. The Russian alphabet uses letters from Cyrillic script so the language can seem daunting for beginners. However, a number of letters are written and pronounced roughly the same as English. Many Russians speak a good level of English but learning Russian is a must for those who wish to move there, as English is not used in daily life.
Accents and Dialects
Despite Russia’s size and ethnic diversity, the Russian language has few variations in dialect. Standard Russian, in both written and spoken form, is used in almost every area of the country. This can be explained by the historical and present influence of centralised rule from Moscow and also by 20th Century mass migration from rural to urban areas. There is likewise very little difference in accent and pronunciation across the country. A number of dialects still exist in Russia, termed ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ but they are not widely spoken.
Due to Russia’s enormous size, the country incorporates most of the world’s climate zones so generalising about the weather is difficult. However, on the whole Russia’s weather is characterised by mild to hot summers and very cold winters, with temperatures plummeting to below -35°C in Siberia. Northern and Central European Russia has the mildest climate, with mostly dry summers. Russian winters generally bring a large amount of snowfall, so heavyweight clothing is essential.
Safety and Security
Popular opinion and hype about Russia’s high crime rate is slightly misplaced. In reality it is only marginally higher than the UK and USA. Moscow sees high levels of violent crime, although no more than London and New York. Bribery and corruption constitute Russia’s most widespread criminal activity. Visitors to Russia should feel relatively safe in the main tourist areas, although care should be taken in large cities such as Moscow, where it is not advisable to venture out after dark alone. Alcohol-related crime and violence are a particular problem so it is best to stay with a group when going out and keep an eye on personal possessions. Terrorist threats and attacks in Russia have seen an increase in recent years so check Foreign Office advice before travelling.
Russia has traditionally invested heavily in education, which is considered to be of a high standard. It is estimated that the country has an adult literacy rate of 99.7% and the education system was ranked 13th in the world in 2014 (OECD). Education in Russia is compulsory for all children between the age of 6 and 15. On completion of primary school at age 10, children continue to secondary school until age 15. At this point pupils have the option to carry on in further education to gain the diploma necessary for university admission. All schools in Russia are state-funded and managed by the Ministry of Education and Science. There are very few private schools (less than 1%) although major cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg have a choice of international schools for expat children.
The Russian school year starts in September and is divided into four terms. Each term ends with a holiday (the first week of November, the first two weeks of January, the last week of March and three months in summer) and the school year finishes at the end of May. The school day generally begins at 8.30 am and ends at 4pm. Children have their lunch at school. The university academic year begins in September and ends in May, with two semesters (Autumn and Spring).
Russia has around 650 public higher education institutions and over 200 private universities. Higher education is highly accessible – a UNESCO report estimated that more than half of the country’s adult population has attained a tertiary education, twice as high as the OECD average. Russia’s highest ranked universities are the Lomonosov Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University, which ranks 15th among the BRIC countries. University courses are taught in Russian, although some institutions have introduced some courses (usually Master’s degrees) taught in English in order to attract international students, who comprise around 5% of the student body. Most Russian universities have individual admissions requirements and there is no central application process. International students who do not speak Russian are required to complete a ‘pre-academic year’ and pass an entrance exam in order to enrol.
State higher education is free to Russian citizens, with the exception of some courses. Foreign students are required to pay tuition fees which are relatively low – around £2,500 to £5,000 per year – compared to the UK and USA. Tuition fees may vary from one institution to another. A number of scholarships are available to foreign students such as the Russian Federation State Scholarship which can help cover fees and living expenses.
Russian universities offer a wide range of courses, from law, arts and languages to computing, mathematics and sciences. Higher education in Russia has undergone significant reform since the country signed up to the Bologna Process in 2003, bringing the system in line with the majority of European countries. There are now two levels of higher education: Bachelors (Bakalavrs) degrees, which take around 4 years to complete and Masters (Magistrs) degrees, taking 2 years to complete. After a Master’s degree students can continue to study towards a doctoral degree: Kandidat Nauk (the first level, equivalent to a PhD) and Doktor Nauk degree (the highest level).
Research is well funded in Russia, with particular investment in scientific and technology fields. The major funding body is the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) which is a self-governed state organisation supporting scientific research.
Primary and Secondary Education
Children begin primary education at age 6 and follow a core curriculum of Russian, mathematics, science, foreign languages, history, politics, arts and sport. On completion of primary school (around age 10), students continue their basic general education at secondary school which are divided into; general secondary schools and vocational/technical schools (Technikum Kolledz Uchilishe). Upon completion of upper-secondary school (age 17/18), students are awarded the Attestat o Srednem (Polnom) Obshchem Obrazovanii (Certificate of Secondary Complete General Education, School Leaving Certificate), which is necessary for admission into university.
Preschools in Russia generally accept children from the age of two and a half, although some private nurseries will accept younger children. Russia has a number of free, municipal kindergartens, however these are heavily oversubscribed. Most expats choose to send their children to one of the many private international preschools situated in the larger cities. You can find more information about private preschools in Russia here.
The cost of living in Russia is considered low compared to many western nations. However, living costs depend entirely on where (and how) you live in Russia. Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Volgograd are the most expensive places to live. Even those on generous international salaries will find they pay through the nose for luxury apartments, eating out and socialising in these cities. Accommodation takes the largest chunk of salaries, although rental prices are low compared to some parts of Europe. The Russian Ministry of Education and Science estimates that international students, teaching staff and academics would need 23,650 RUB (£209) month to cover living costs (not including rent) in Russia. Most western expats will find food, utilities and transport in Russia to be significantly lower than what they are used to.
There are no restrictions on foreigners buying property in Russia, however most expats choose to rent a property before tackling the rather bureaucratic property market. Rental prices depend on the area and type of property but as a general rule, properties will be significantly more expensive the closer they are to the city centre, particularly in Moscow. Expats should get used to the idea of apartment living in Russia, as most detached houses are reserved either for the very wealthy or those living in remote areas. Apartments in Russia range from pre-revolutionary style (with larger rooms and antique fixtures), Soviet-era apartments (small, often communal apartments in large tower blocks) or ‘western-style’ apartments (renovated apartments with ‘western’ fittings and less emphasis on communal living).
Depending on the property, rental prices in Russia are low compared to some European countries. An average apartment in Moscow or Saint Petersburg city centre will cost around 40,000 RUB (£350) per month and a more luxurious ‘western’ apartment around 113,215 RUB (£1000 per month). To rent or buy property in Russia, it is almost essential to use an estate agent, so expect to pay a hefty percentage in fees.
A deposit of one month’s rent is usually required by Russian landlords, to insure against damages to the property. In fixed period rental contracts, a tenant must give one to three months’ notice before vacating the property.
All homeowners are liable to pay a property tax of around 2.2% of the market value of their property in Russia. However, this is covered by the landlord so no payments are necessary for those renting a property.
The cost of utilities is comparably high in Russia, particularly in Moscow. There are a number of electricity and gas providers, such as Moscow Region Energy Company and Mosgaz. Electricity and gas are calculated by meter and paid monthly. Water is supplied by state-run and private companies such as Rosvodkanal. Tap water is not considered suitable to drink so most people use a filter or buy bottled water. The majority of urban apartments are well set up for broadband connections and most Russian providers offer a range of combined broadband/phone/TV packages.
The cost of basic utilities (electricity, gas, water, refuse removal) for an expat living alone in an 85m² apartment in Russia is around 7,385 RUB (£64.31) per month, with 477.61 RUB (£4.16) per month for a broadband connection.
Russia has no TV licence fee. Russian TV is dominated by channels that are either run directly by the state or owned by companies with close links to government. However, most major cable and satellite TV providers offer English-language channels along with some standard local Russian channels. You will typically find BBC, CNN, Eurosport and Discovery within most TV packages.
Healthcare and medical costs
Healthcare in Russia is considered to be of poor quality, with a lack of facilities and long waiting times for medical treatment. Although the government has introduced positive reforms in recent years, Russia’s healthcare system has been deigned one of the worst in the industrialised world by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In theory, healthcare is universally free to all Russian citizens and expats with permanent residency. However, the system has been beset by corruption in recent years and many find themselves paying for preferential treatment. There are a number of private hospitals and medical facilities in larger cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg which offer a higher standard of care. All those without permanent residency status should take out a private health insurance policy before travelling to Russia.
The retail landscape in Russia has undergone huge changes in recent years, with modern shopping malls and designer stores springing up all over the country. There is now a wealth of western chain stores in Russian cities, such as Marks and Spencer, Zara, Topshop and Mango, but expats may find prices for clothing and accessories to be much higher than at home. Grocery shopping in Russia has likewise gone through enormous transformation and there is now a vast range of supermarket chains to choose from such as Karusel, Auchan and DIXY. Shoppers should be aware that the price of imported produce, alcohol and groceries will be significantly higher than home-grown Russian brands.
The standard VAT rate charged on goods and services in Russia is 18%. Certain goods are exempt from VAT, such as basic food staples (bread, milk, etc.), children’s clothing and shoes, medicines and some printed publications.
Rent 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – 40,412 RUB (£351.90)
Rent 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – 27,750 RUB (£241.64)
Price of apartment per square metre in city centre – 134,316 RUB (£1,169)
Price of apartment per square metre outside city centre – 91,307 RUB (£795)
It is possible to living frugally in Russia by shopping around, buying Russian brands and groceries and avoiding tourist and/or expats areas. Russians do not eat out often so restaurants can be very expensive, although many offer cheaper lunch deals.
Russia’s huge expanse is well connected by a network of motorways and secondary roads. However, roads outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg can be poorly maintained so care should be taken to avoid potholes and fissures in the road surface. Russian drivers are famous for their chaotic and aggressive driving style, so only confident expat drivers should consider taking to the road. Federal motorways connect all major cities and towns and can be identified by the ‘M’ prefix, although some more remote places are better reached by rail or aeroplane.
Motorways in and around Moscow and Saint Petersburg are heavily congested, with lengthy traffic jams in rush hour. Using the country’s efficient public transport is the preferred choice for those in a hurry. Speed limits are 100km/h (60mph) on motorways, 90km/h (50mph) on secondary roads and 60km/h (40mph) in built up areas. Foreigners staying in Russia for up to six months are permitted to drive with an International Driving Permit (IDP). All foreign nationals intending to stay longer must apply for a Russian driving licence. More information can be found here.
Taxis are widely available in Russia although many are unlicensed. The government has taken steps to regulate drivers, however the lack of official taxis continues to be a problem, with unsafe vehicles transporting passengers at inflated prices (particularly foreigners). Official taxis cannot be stopped in the street so the best way to avoid being ripped off by unscrupulous drivers is to pre-book your taxi from a reputable company such as Welcome Taxi and agree on a price before starting your journey.
Russia’s extensive bus services are run by a mix of private and public companies. Buses are a cheap way to get around Russia’s major cities. Information about timetables and routes tends to be scant so if in doubt, you can ask about bus schedules at the local tourist information office or in train stations. Tickets can be bought on board (with cash only) or from the many kiosks marked with the ‘proezdnyve bilety’ (public transport tickets) sign located outside metro and train stations. Bus tickets are also valid for metro and tram networks.
Coach travel is a cheap and basic way to see the sights in Russia. However, due to Russia’s size, reaching your destination by coach may take many days. There are a number of coach tour operators which connect some European countries to Russia, such as Eurolines, who operate in the west of the country and Leger.
The Russian rail network is the second longest and most extensive in the world (after China), with trains serving almost every town and city. Russia’s vast rail infrastructure is divided into 17 regional railways running fast intercity trains and local services which although slower, are punctual to the second. The state-owned Russian Railways (RZD) is the largest rail company and runs services across vast distances, connecting Russia with the rest of Europe. Discounted tickets can be bought in advance at the RZD website.
For the more adventurous, the Trans-Siberian Railway – the longest single railway in the world – offers an epic six-day journey connecting Moscow to the Russian Far East, Mongolia and China.
Trams and Light Rail
Metro is the most popular form of urban transport in Russia and there are extensive underground systems in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara and Yekaterinburg. Tickets can be bought from kiosks or manned booths situated inside and outside stations. Most large cities are covered by efficient tram and trolleybus networks which offer a low cost way to get around.
Due to Russia’s size, air travel is the quickest way to travel between cities. There are 270 airports in Russia, with Moscow’s Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo International Airports being the largest and busiest. Aeroflot is the country’s largest airline and there are over 100 other international and domestic airlines to choose from, such as Rossiya, offering cheap internal flights between all major cities. The average price of a one-way plane ticket between Moscow and Saint Petersburg is 5,200 RUB (£46) with a journey time of around 1.5 hours.
Other ways to get around
Russia is connected by ferry to Finland, Sweden, Korea, and Japan and tickets can be booked through AFerry. Although Russia is a vast country, cycling is becoming an ever more popular way to beat the horrendous traffic in cities. Moscow’s Department of Transport has recently pledged to install 700km of bike lanes across the city, although those choosing to cycle in Russia should be acutely aware of the country’s rather erratic drivers.
Under Russian Labour Law, employees cannot work more than 40 hours per week. Most employees work 9-5 Monday to Friday. People under 16 can work no more than 16 hours a week (five hours for disabled workers). There are also restricted hours for those working at night. Overtime is not permitted for those under 18 or for pregnant women. For more details, visit the website.
Holiday entitlement in Russia is on a par with most European countries with workers granted 28 calendar days (including weekends) of annual leave a year. This equates to around 20 working days of paid leave. Under Russian Labour law, women are entitled to 140 days fully paid maternity leave (70 before birth and 70 after). However, workers can return to their jobs during maternity leave, which can be extended to a maximum of three years.
There are 12 paid public holidays in Russia. Each major city also has events to mark their official founding. City day in Moscow is 3rd September (2016, dates change each year) and 27th May in St Petersburg.
Public holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Bank Holidays: 2th to 8th January
Orthodox Christmas Day: 7th January
Red Army Day: 23rd February
Women’s Day: 8th March
Labour Day: 1st May
Victory Day: 9th May
National Day: 12th June
Day of Unity: November 4th
City Day: Varies between cities.
Visas and eligibility to work
Under Russian law there are certain nationalities which qualify for visa waivers for trips usually up to 90 days in any 180-day period. Most European countries fall outside of this remit so most EU, USA and Australian nationals will require a visa which must be applied for before travelling to Russia. It can take several weeks to process visas, especially during busy periods, so make sure you apply for one well in advance of your trip. There are nine types of visa to apply for in Russia. Before you travel it is advisable to contact the Russian Embassy in your home country to check which visa is most appropriate for you.
In Russia the tax years runs from 1st January to 31st December. Tax returns are generally due on the 30th April of the year following the tax year. Foreign nationals may have to file a departure tax return a month before they leave Russia and must pay tax if they are residing and employed in the country for 183 days or more. The tax rate is set at 13% on the income of most workers. For foreign nationals in Russia for less than 183 days this jumps to 30%. Russian employers are required to deduct tax and national insurance from workers’ salaries each month and companies are subject to Federal and Regional taxes. Value Added Tax (VAT) in Russia is set at 18% which is reduced to 10% for children’s food, clothing and medicines.
Since 2002, pensions in Russia have undergone huge reform to create a multi-pillar system. Public pensions are paid for by workers contributing 26% of pay in social security tax. Basic pensions are linked to inflation and are broadly available to men aged 60 and women aged 55. Workers can also save privately through non-state pensions. Foreign workers are usually exempt from making pension contributions if they are on a six-month contract or are highly skilled.
Russia is considered to have a limited welfare state and benefits system compared with many Western democracies. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country has moved away from centralised welfare. Healthcare, however, is free, but workers are required to pay national insurance contributions to cover the state-run national health system. The maximum unemployment benefit is around 4,900 RUB (£44) a week which is just below the average level of pay in many sectors.
Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2012. Since that time, the rights of disabled people and workers have improved, albeit gradually, across most industries in Russia. Improved access to buildings and public transport are noticeable and major events such as the Paralympic Games in 2012 have brought the issue into the public consciousness. There is still a long way to go to bring the county into line with much of Western Europe but there does seem to be a growing commitment to protecting the rights of disabled people in Russia.
While some observers say Russian organisational structure still carries the weight of the Soviet era, evidence of a more liberal and inclusive style has emerged in recent years, particularly among new businesses. The country’s post-Soviet move towards capitalism means that Russia now has many more entrepreneurs, with a vast number of new and progressive business ventures sprouting up at a terrific rate. However, on the whole, businesses in Russia remain strictly hierarchical. Expats used to a more consensual style will find that the majority of economic and political power is in the hands of a few individuals, with a central powerful figure and a small group of trusted advisors. When engaging in negotiations with Russian businesses, it is important to approach the most senior person if you wish to move a deal along quickly.
Management styles in Russia are generally dependent on the seniority and age of managers. Those brought up in the Soviet era tend to have a more autocratic style, issuing direct orders to subordinates with very little debate. Younger, post-Soviet managers have adopted a more westernised style, allowing for more consensus and networking within a team. However, in general, Russian managers take on an authoritarian role, with major decisions being made by the most powerful people in the company. Managers are expected to manage in Russia, giving precise and detailed instructions to subordinates. Inclusive or ‘caring’ management styles are often viewed as weak within Russian workplace culture.
Russian business culture is highly structured and formal. Titles are always used between associates who don’t know each other well so it’s a good idea to introduce yourself with your title (in your own language is fine) and surname. Russians rarely use humour or informal chitchat in a business setting. Cracking jokes with new colleagues may make you seem untrustworthy, especially if you are discussing important matters.
Harmonious relationships between workers are highly prized in Russian companies. Teams are expected to work closely together under the authority of the manager. There remains a suspicion of outsiders in Russian society, so coworkers will often have known each other and worked together for many years. Moving from role to role within different teams would be unusual – once a group of people have worked successfully on a project, they tend to stick together on future projects.
Getting to know your Russian counterparts as best you can is key to forging new business and working relationships. Russians prefer to do business face-to-face and communication is expected to be calm and respectful. Listening intently and taking time to silently mull things over is a prominent feature of Russian culture, so don’t be put off if you are met with a wall of silence once you have finished speaking – it is most likely that people are just processing the information.
Dressing smartly is a sign of wealth and power in Russia. Men will usually wear a smart suit, shirt and tie and women a business suit (either trousers or skirt) with a blouse or shirt. Dressing expensively will give you more credibility in a Russian business setting. Sloppy or casual clothing would be frowned upon and mark you out as a person of little influence. Also bear in mind that Russian winters can be exceptionally cold, so make sure you have a warm overcoat, hat and gloves.
A firm handshake is the accepted business greeting in Russia, for both men and women, along with a greeting for the appropriate time of day dobraye utra (good morning), dobryy den (good afternoon) or dobryy vecher (good evening). A man and a woman may give three kisses on the cheek, alternating sides, if they know each other well.
Russians are very punctual and expect their foreign counterparts to be on time to meetings – turning up late is reserved for the very high powered. Meetings will always start on time, regardless if key figures have arrived or not. If you are going to be late, it is best to phone ahead to let your new colleagues know.
Meetings in Russia tend to be focused on the dissemination of information, rather than being forums for discussion. Meetings are highly structured and serious, with the most senior person setting the agenda. Overt disagreement or informal behavior would be construed as showing a lack of respect. Russians are skilled negotiators and equate compromise with weakness. So expect lengthy (sometimes theatrical) meetings where your propositions will be analysed and sufficiently ground down before coming to an agreement.
Although Russians have a reputation for being formal and serious, they are also very welcoming and hospitable, so it would be considered exceedingly rude to turn down the offer of a drink or meal during business meetings. Any attempt to discuss or criticise past and present political issues in Russia would also be frowned upon – Russians are fiercely loyal to their country so it’s a good idea to bear this in mind, especially in social situations.
Most business is conducted in Russian. Levels of English vary greatly, with younger Russians in the cosmopolitan centres of Moscow and Saint Petersburg being more proficient. Russians are used to having interpreters present at international business meetings so if your Russian language skills are limited, it’s a good idea to call ahead and arrange for an interpreter to attend.