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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Sunday Travel Section: Russia, a Guide for the Cautious Traveler

Russia: A Guide for the Cautious Traveler

by blogger Ivan Jaan

(exclusive to La Russophobe)

“I don't reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we are. They are much less interested in being civilized than in making us believe them so. They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric then they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized”

-- Marquis de Custine, “Russia in 1839

A mindful international traveler should be aware of the risks and dangers associated with visiting foreign countries. There's pickpocketing, mugging, infectious deceases and tortuous bureaucracy. Russia is not exception. Planning a trip, and even more so when considering relocation or doing business in Russia, one should consider the relevant risks and prepare to face them, starting with choosing reliable travel agent and ending with getting one's travel documents in order. The following guide is designed to prepare those with such intentions, and may be seen as a bit critical or conservative, but it is in fact quite realistic. The country at issue is infamous for lawlessness. Lack of attention to local requirements may just lead to increased chances of experiencing the reasons for that infamy, which could be unfortunate, unnecessary or even tragic.

Russia is hardly a featured destination promoted by many travel guides or the subject of much promotional advertising, and in fact regularly vies for many titles in the league of the “world's worsts” often finding itself near the very top of that dubious heap. Examples of several of these instances are given in this overview.

Violent Crime

Russia has got one of the highest murder rates in the World. According to the latest available statistics (PDF) on Russia from the UN crime watchdog, in 2000 the country held 5th place among the most murder-friendly countries, with 20 persons out of every 100,000 killed intentionally every year. A significant portion of the Russian press is permanently dedicated to news about violent crime. Robberies and homicides play prominent role in the lives and in the deaths of Russians. However, as the capacity of the press is limited, only the most significant cases get coverage, with most of the attention going to mass-murders, acts of terrorism, assassinations as well as attacks and accidents involving prominent people and celebrities.

Every year serial killers with body counts reaching dozens are discovered. One of the most prominent of them is Alexander Pichushkin (see his Wiki entry), charged, convicted sentenced to life in prison for murdering 48 persons in Moscow -- with his actual toll said to be significantly higher. Of course, it's not just serial killers; gangs terrorize the population too. Crime in Russia includes everything you have seen in the action films. While at the lower levels the country is infested with street thugs, drug dealers and armed robbers, higher profile groups, such as gangs of professional assassins long ago became part of the Russian landscape. Russia is infamous internationally for political killings, particularly the assassination of prominent opposition journalists, but on the local level it is mostly businessmen and local government officials who are preyed upon.

One such criminal group originates in the town of Kingisepp just several kilometers away from the Estonian border, the so called Kingisepp gang. Over the past decade the gang has been officially connected to assassinations of dozens and dozens of businessmen and business managers (see in Russian). In 2007 members of the group were convicted of assassinating 6 business executives, with that number allegedly reflecting only a small part of their actual operations. The group was able to function without punishment because of its connections. The prosecution claims one of the key clients of the gang was Russian Federation Council member (similar to the U.S. Senate) Igor Izmestyev
(see in Russian), now under investigation for his alleged involvement. Members of Russian anti-narcotics police were also convicted of aiding the gang (see in Russian). Most other assassinations, though, remain mysterious to this day.

Other sensational incidents of crime are prevalent as well, for example kidnapping, on which the Moscow Times reported last week:

University students traditionally celebrate Jan. 25, or St. Tatyana's Day, by getting drunk while police turn a blind eye to their excesses on the last day of the winter session. But one student from a prestigious Moscow institute spent the holiday chained up in a hole in the ground before police freed her from kidnappers. Police freed the 20-year-old woman, a student at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, or MGIMO, from captivity Saturday after she was kidnapped two days earlier outside the institute in southwest Moscow, city police spokesman Igor Tsirulnikov said Tuesday. The suspects placed the girl in a hole 2 meters deep, 3 meters wide and 4 meters long that they dug in a service bay sunk into the floor of the garage, where they kept her chained up while they called her father -- a "state official" -- and demanded $60,000 in ransom money. The suspects -- Rodion Sinelshchikov, Alexander Chernykh and Dmitry Komrakov -- staked out students at MGIMO because it is one of the choice universities for children of the country's political and business elite, so their parents are able to pay ransoms, Tsirulnikov said.

Although scores of foreign visitors fall prey of theft and violence, crime against tourists does not receive special attention unless it is outstanding, as was the case of recent beatings of British football fans in Moscow (see in English: Kommersant and BBC News). Specific dangers tourists can face in Russia include police harassment and, provided the visitors are unfortunate enough to have the necessary facial features, violent attacks by neo-Nazi and skinhead groups.

Law Enforcement

you decide that the prime source of danger in Russia is crime, let me tell you about those charged with protecting law and order. It is widely known that Russia is not just one of the most criminal, but one of the most corrupt countries in the World. The scale of the problem is so enormous that this issue, unlike some others, is recognized as serious one even at the top level of the country's secretive and defiant leadership. It is not without reason "Transparency International," the global corruption watchdog, ranks Russia among world's worst countries in societal corruption. Some African and many Latin American countries routinely considered as "corrupt" are in fact more honest than Russia. Experts estimate that the Russian black market and bribes related to it attain a share of GDP of almost astronomic proportions, with many layers of society and government drawing their main income from such shadowy activities.

The problem is not limited merely to bribes, extortion and other garden variety corrpution; the situation is much more sinister. To get an idea of the true extent of what is going on, let's turn to public opinion surveys. Opinion polls indicate that it is not the criminals the people of Russia fear the most, but Russian police themselves (curiously in Russia police is officially called "militia," милиция, a word typically associated in the West with an army). Russia's inhabitants (see these news sources in Russian: 1, 2) consider their police the most dangerous organization among the forces of organized crime in Russia. Russians characterize their police in following terms (Public Opinion Foundation, in Russian):

"Тот же преступник, но в форме и под защитой закона"

"They are the same criminals, but under protection of the law"

"среди них - сплошь преступники, которые насилуют, крадут, убивают безнаказанно"

"Criminals throughout the force, they rape, steal and kill at will"

"часть криминала"

"Part of criminal elements"

"бандит по сравнению с милиционером - святой человек, даже у бандита есть какие-то обязанности перед своим патроном, а у милиционера - вообще нет".

"Compared to a member of militia a bandit is a saint, at least he's got some responsibilities before his superiors, militia member has none"

73 per cent of Russians believed in 2005 that they could become victims of police force despotism, while only 4 per cent completely ruled out this possibility, according to a poll by "Public Verdict Foundation." As much as my personal opinion can be of interest, the 4 per cent confidence figure seems awfully close to the number of law enforcers and their associates in the country. One can watch videos on police force brutality if so inclined.

Law Enforcement Case Study: Rape

If you think "robberies, rape and murder" being committed by police forces is an exaggeration, think again. It is not without good reason that Amnesty International calls the situation in Russian police stations a "litany of horror," citing "regular beatings rape and torture" according to BBC News. The Russian press is full of reports on the criminal activities of the police force. I wouldn’t attempt covering the full range of it in this overview, turning instead to one of them, rape. In certain regions rape seems to have become almost like police official business. Unfortunately for tourists Moscow are not excluded. One can read pieces like one found on regarding policeman charged with raping and robbing dozens of women in Moscow. This is just one example, the sordid and shocking details of which I will decline to repeat. Those with an interest may explore them.

Two years ago the media exploded in stories about gangs of Moscow metro (subway) police engaging in regular rapes. According to the reports of the press “normally” Moscow police limit their sexual prety to prostitutes and immigrants, but by 2004 more and more cases of mainstream women being raped emerged. The activities of a "police rape ring" or "rape club" were chronicled, as they engaged in picking random females for rape in Moscow metro, by human right activist German Galdetsky and his associates. Soon after this he was taken out of equation by a gunshot to the head (sources in English 1, 2; in Russian 3). The scandal faded as Moscow police responded to the accusation decisively, namely by cracking down on human rights groups who were reporting the news.

Despite everything said above the most visible and widespread criminal activity of the police remains bribes and extortion. The participants see immigrants from Central Asian and Caucasian countries as their primary source of income, with tourists left intact if they have their papers in full order. This conclusion is supported by message boards and Internet forums by travelers with experiences in Russia. Unfortunately, foreign tourists are also usually "left alone" when it comes to their reports of crimes being committed against them.

Various online guides are available to laymen who may need to deal with interactions involving the Russian police (see in Russian), but it is generally assumed a simply negotiated "donation" will help to soften the strict eye of the law in most cases.

Health and Disease

It's not a secret that the Russian habit of heavy drinking adds to the general unhealthiness of the population. For a tourist, of course, this should not be a problem in itself, though there are always some “buts” to consider. Just one drink of unchecked quality can create problems for an incautious tourist. Some scientists estimate that fake spirits, a cheaper and more unhealthy replacement for legal spirits, cause up to one third of the deaths in the country (see, in Russian). Acute cases of alcohol poisoning can dwarf the impact of many known infectious diseases, with alcohol emergency situations sometimes declared in the federal regions. Imagine a horror movie about an unknown virus sweeping the country, with an army of doctors cordoning off the area, replace "virus" with cheap vodka and you won’t find yourself too far in the realm of Sci-Fi where Russia is concerned. For example, one piece (in English) reports that "dozens of Russians have died and more than 1,000 received hospital treatment in a wave of alcohol poisoning sweeping the country" and tells about emergency situations declared throughout several regions, while another piece (in Russian) gives some more details from ground zero in three Russian regions becoming catastrophe zones because of massive poisoning in bad spirits.

As the German publication Die Weft puts it:

"Doch Schwarzbrenner sind immer noch ein großes Problem. Experten schätzen, dass der Inhalt jeder dritten Flasche illegal ist. Die Ärmsten greifen sogar zu hochprozentigem Badewannenreiniger."

"Fake vodka is still a major problem. Experts estimate that every third bottle in circulation is illegal. The poorest people even drink high alcohol content bathtub cleaners"
According to the German paper, Russians hold first place in the world when judged by the amount of alcohol consumed, with each inhabitant imbibing 17 liters of pure spirits annually, both clean and illegal. A foreigner attempting to introduce himself to this lifestyle would surely find himself shortly in need of urgent medical aid.

Medical aid

As cold, northern country, Russia doesn’t have many threatening or easily communicable infectious diseases. But if you get sick and must see a doctor don’t hold high expectations for your recovery. As a Western travel guide puts it:
“Medical care is usually far below western standards, with severe shortages of basic medical supplies. Access to the few quality facilities that exist in major cities usually requires cash payment at western rates upon admission."

In other words, if you are unlucky, you may die of lack of aspirin in a Russian hospital.

A summary of some of the worst examples of medical treatment can be found in the reportings of the Russian major portal, with reference to the German journal Focus. In short, many doctors in Russia have little respect for professional ethics and are either unprofessional or won’t stop at killing or mutilating their patients if it brings in more money than keeping them alive and healthy. For example there are media reports (see in Russian) about doctors in Khabarovsk who are under investigation for killing 56 of their patients for the purpose of organ removal and sale as well as for cutting out organs from the bodies of hundreds of more patients who were lucky enough to be released alive. One should not think that this phenomenon is limited to remote provincial locations; one can read (see in Russian) about organ removals from live patients in Moscow as well. Here, again, medics are under official investigation for their activities, having been caught red-handed. In particular case a patient A. T. Orekhov was discovered by the police during an anti-organ trade “dawn raid,” in act of organ removal, with the patient's guts lying open. Mr Orekhov, a victim of an accident, was already prepared to be registered as “dead” by the medics. But as police and police medical experts were looking at Mr Orekhov’s body, the body looked back at the police, figuratively speaking. He died shortly after (see an overview of the Orekhov’s case in English). As a traveler you should take care of assuring the medics you can pay them. If you don’t want to end up as Mr Orekhov did, that is.

Skinheads and Nazi groups

In this domain too Russia has a prominent position. Russia's racist and neo-Nazi groups are recognized as world's strongest, with 50 thousand fanatical members. A report by the San Francisco Chronicle states that nearly half the world's skinheads live in Russia." Last week, the Moscow Times reported that race crimes increased 13% in Russia last year.

Not only are the Russian Nazis numerous, but their cruelty is legendary. Their second favorite activity after greeting each other with Nazi salutes is beating up people who appear to hail from Central Asia, Caucasian republics of the former USSR, former African satellite countries, former East Asian allied countries and Jews. They don't have the habit of checking passports first, but rely on looks. Therefore a traveler with facial features like the people of the above mentioned countries should take good, very good care. Better still, consider not going. The Russian public remains somewhat unaware of these events, learning only about sensational incidents that involve celebrities, such as Zair Tutov, the singer and holder of the "People's Artist" designation, a high Russuan honor, and of the position of minister of culture in the North Caucus Region, who was beaten famously up by skinheads (see this overview in Russian).

Foreign embassies may file official protests to the Russian government demanding protection of their citizens all they want, as does Amnesty International and the United Nations’ refugees body, but little is achieved on positive side.

Some of the more cruel cases of Neo-Nazi assaults have included:

1. Murdering anti-Nazi activists such as anti-Nazi expert Nikolai Girenko. See the overview of Mr Girenko’s case in Time Magazine as well as this overview (PDF) of attacks on human rights activist in St Petersburg by the World Organization Against Torture.

2. Beheading immigrant workers and posting the video of their execution on the internet (BBC News). Warning: Very bloody.

3. Capturing a woman looking like an immigrant in the street, dragging her away to a cemetery, cutting chunks of her flesh while she is alive, cooking the meat over the fire and eating the meat. No kidding. See the full story in, in Russian.

4. Instantaneous gang-style attacks on pedestrians in the streets of major cities in broad day light, including the killings of 5 and 9 year-old children (San Francisco Chronicles, BBC News, video).

5. Pogroms. BBC News reports that "an estimated 300 skinheads attacked market places in Moscow two years ago, killing three people." See also a video on skinhead attacks in Russia (video). Or the video on the pogrom in the city of Kondopoga (video).

6. Advancement in the neo-Nazi hierarchy ranks according to the number of foreigners "executed." The most prominent known case is 18 year old Artur Ryno, who is under investigation for murdering 37 persons, both foreigners and people from ethnic minorities in Moscow (see Russia Today in English).
But how about police, don't they do something? Of course they do, as demonstrated by the case of Magomet Tolboev (Wiki). He was beaten up in the street of the capital by the police, for being ethnic Chechen (see in Russian). He was stopped for a routine document check (“face control”). With the worst ethnic case confirmed, the cops went nuts on him. Unlike thousands of others Tolboev’s story became a scandal, because Mr. Tolboev is a highly decorated Soviet test pilot and astronaut, holder of the title of “Hero of Russia” and adviser to a member of the parliament.

Finally, one should not relay too heavily on the idea that getting into trouble with skinheads would create sympathy within the rest of the population. The share of public support for the skinheads’ chauvinist ideas goes to 61 per cent (Time Magazine). Therefore what can actually happen is that instead of helping a victim the people around would rather help the attackers with an extra kick or two.


In the last decade terrorist attacks have claimed hundreds of lives in mainland Russia (the number would go into thousands if the Caucasian region of the country was added). Under the leadership of president Vladimir Putin the country saw hostage taking incidents with probably the world record for fatalities during so-called rescue operations. Because these events are as gruesome as they are well publicized, I’d leave this subject out of this overview.

It should be mentioned though, that foreign tourists too get killed and injured during terrorist attacks in Russia. For example, in one of such crisis, Moscow's Dubrovka theater siege, 9 out of total of 129 hostages killed by the poison gas released by the police were foreign nationals. A Wikipedia article lists a specific detail of the incident. According to Wiki the terrorists, who probably wanted to minimize their negative media coverage in the West, offered to unilaterally release the foreign hostages, but the negotiators refused to allow the foreigners to leave. To explain this decision, one might reference the foregoing section.

Lack of safety and catastrophes

Deadly accidents and catastrophes are everyday affairs in Russia as most of the country’s infrastructure is inherited from the times of the USSR and hasn’t seen any significant repairs since. There are accidents in the mines, gas explosions, building collapses and much more. Some of the most troubling to the authorities are breakdowns of central heating systems in apartment blocks, as they happen every year in Sibirian cities in winter, with outside temperature in dozens of degrees below the freezing point. These accident have sometimes lead to riots and clashes with the police.

Bloodier however are the cases of airplane crashes. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports:

"If you're planning a plane trip in Russia this summer, you might want to think again. A study released this week by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that Russia and other former Soviet countries are the world's most dangerous places for air travel"

Reuters seconds:

"Russia remains the most dangerous place to fly despite global improvements that made 2006 the safest year on record, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported on Tuesday. Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) had an accident rate 13 times the global average, IATA said."

"In the CIS the rate was 8.6 accidents per million flights, or twice the rate of Africa, where the level fell to 4.31 from 9.2."

As opposed to air travel, trains are safer on the operational side, though they are bombed more often by the terrorists. Road traffic can be characterized as chaotic and very dangerous with Russia competing with other C.I.S. countries for the title of the country with the highest rate of deadly car accidents per capita in Europe.

Despite the obvious lack of modernization of the old Soviet infrastructure, the situation can actually be seen as even worse in the case of many newly erected facilities and buildings, constructed without competent, honest supervision. reports in a story titled “Experts: living in Moscow skyscrapers is extremely dangerous” on the unsound engineering design of most new housing structures in Moscow. According to the report, Moscow's skyscrapers, hundreds of which were and are erected at an amazing speed, are unsafe. Safety experts warn that living in one of Moscow numerous newer apartyment towers is dangerous. Caverns are constantly forming in the wet soil beneath the structures, with cracks appearing here and there as the first sign of the danger. To make the case worse, the skyscrapers aren't equipped for evacuation in case of possible emergencies, with Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu calling existing staircases inadequate. To have a sense of the situation take a look at some fresh photographs taken under the foundation of one of Moscow’s new "elite" apartment housings by a Moscow blogger.

Examples of deadly construction accidents include the collapse of an arch in Transvaal Park (an aqua park) in Moscow in 2004 (Wiki), which killed 28 guests of the facility and the collapse of the roof of Moscow’s Basmanny market (Wiki) in 2006. Erected in 19074 and thereafter neglected, 66 people were killed in the accident inside the Moscow-owned market when it collapsed.

The Army

Foreign visitors are largely safe from the danger of being drafted into the Russian army, which otherwise has dreadful reputation (see report by Human Rights Watch) with scores of draftees killed and mutilated every year. See photographs of private Andrei Sychev, before and after or videos on hazing. The fear of being drafted into the army is so strong that only 9.5 per cent of males of draft age are actually conscripted into the army, as revealed in 2004 by then minister of defense Sergey Ivanov (see in Russian). According to the minister, this figure, 9.5 per cent is a "world lowest rate" and it is several times lower than the number Russia was pulling into the army in the beginning of the 90s. Young people and their parents stop at nothing to escape the draft with many Internet forums dedicated to exchange of best practices. Thus the army relies on the peasantry, representatives of ethnic minorities as well as of non-mainstream groups now forming the bulk of soldiery.

While soldiers of many armed forces are accused of using prostitutes for their needs, Russian soldiers are in addition accused of being prostitutes. Indeed, the Russian media widely reports on male prostitution in the army with underpaid officers forcing the soldiers subject to their authority engage in acts of homosexual sex, with their officers as pimps. According to the media (see in Russian) soldiers are widely forced and coerced to prostitute themselves en masse. Advertisements for army sex services are found on the Internet’s gay forums.

According to the media, in Russia even a slave trade in draftees is possible. Drafted soldiers sometimes disappear from their barracks. These cases are normally blamed on escapism. However, cases exist when the soldiers later appear in the mountainous areas of the Russian North Caucasus, mainly in Chechnya, as farm slaves (slavery is common in that area), instead of their homes, accusing superiors for selling them. Press reports on these cases include this opposition site.

When I said that foreigners are "largely protected" from the threat the army poses to the local male population I meant that a foreign citizen is unlikely to end up as a soldier in the Russian army. But theoretically it is possible. The press, including daily Komsomolskaya Pravda reported in December about a new wave of young male citizens snatched on the streets of Moscow. Kidnappings were done by the police to fulfill the annual draft plan with the year’s end approaching. This is a periodic occasion in Russia when the police is out looking for men of draft age to force into conscription. Foreign citizens can be drafted into the army as well if they lack proper IDs. A foreigner lacking proper ID in Russia is in trouble despite his nationality.

On political side-effects of this military environment see this article by Washington Post.

Other Army-related threats include getting too close to its bases of operation, given the 'sparanoia towards foreigners. Or accidentally running into army representatives, anywhere. Especially bad timing would be on and around the annual celebrations of the “Airborne Troopers Day” (2nd of August) when there are violent attacks by veterans of the special airborne forces on the general population. Attacks by celebrating veterans mainly concentrate on males “too civilian” in appearance, wearing glasses for instance, and people looking like they are of ethnically non-Russian (Caucasus mountains or Central Asian) origin. An overview of the situation is provided by Russian Muslims portal (“Airborne Troopers Day: Survival Guide for Persons of ‘Muslim Nationality’”, in Russian). On positive side it should be mentioned that the airborne veterans don’t seem to actually kill their victims, just severely beat them up with the police pursuing its usual non-intervention policy. There’s no actual advice in the article on how to survive an encounter, however.

Chechnya and North Caucasus

I intended this overview to be based on and accurately reflect the facts in mainland Russia, thus not addressing the area of North Caucasus. But a word to the wise may not come amiss. From Wikitravel:

“WARNING: Chechnya is most emphatically NOT a tourist destination and not safe for independent travel or sightseeing. Most foreign governments advise against non-essential travel. Those visiting for business, research, or international aid purposes should consult with their organization and seek expert guidance before planning a trip. If you must go, see War zone safety.“

Conventional Wisdom Travel Advice
(and why it won’t work in Russia)

1. Don't trust people who look like they may be criminals
(Hard to follow as it could cover large part of the population)

2. Stay away from anyone in uniform
(Again difficult as they are too many. Your success may depend
on whether
you look like a source of income.)

3. Always have your documents in order
(Think of a country famous for its bureaucracy, to get a sense
of Russia multiply by two – chances are you’ll miss a
document or two)

4. Move in groups, try not to get separated from the others
(There are always places to get you when you are alone, like public
toilets or if you are smoker.)

5. Avoid medical facilities not in the Embassy-recommended list,
private ones are marginally better than government ones

(As opposed to public hospitals private clinics will put you to
rest with equipment and pain killers.)

6. Exercise caution eating and (especially) drinking
(It's a lottery unless you brought your own food field tests)

7. If inside, check escape roots in case of emergency
(Absence of escape roots in the building is what

the Emergency Ministry officials, remember?)

8. Be careful upon seeing a celebration with
music and happy people

(If it is a gathering of army veterans chances are they can easily outrun you)

9. Follow traffic signs and regulations
(There are scores of pedestrian victims who did nothing wrong.)

10. Go somewhere else
(Likely the only advice that counts if your
prime concern is personal survival)


Anonymous said...

IJ: Thanks for introducing me to Marquis de Custine in your epigraph. My reaction on following the link to his entry in Wikipedia and learning about his "Russia in 1839" was like Mr. Toad's on first seeing a motor-car: "Egad! What have I been missing?!"

Custine is the kind of Russophobe who gives genuine respectablity to the name. Best Custine line from the Wiki article: Russian nobility [read: New Russians] are like "trained bears who make you long for the wild ones." Bravo!!

Unknown said...

A few years ago, a friend of my expert on tourism, went to a tourist fair in Moscú. He bought on the street some reproduction of religious icons, and when he was going back home, the police stop him at the border and supposed the incons where authentic, but they were not. He spent 3 days on Jail with no food and just 1 blanket. He is still depressed about it, after a few year the Moscú Goverment apologyse him, but he had a very bad time, next year to it I could had go to Russia, but I did'nt.

Anonymous said...

When I was in Moscow a few years ago, they had a scam that had been running for many years, in which street vendors would sell tourists Soviet-era military medals, which would get confiscated at the border (sometimes with fines as well), then the customs agents would sell them back to the street vendors. A lot of otherwise normal Russians I talked to thought this was the funniest damn thing in the world. And they wonder why they have such a problem with corruption, why people don't want to come visit them... etc.

Anonymous said...

Just one question re: Conventional Wisdom Travel Advice.
Guys, are you sure it's not Rwanda you're describing?
This is kind of my impression, from my lame Moscow perspective, LOL