The Top 17 Things I Learned about Russia during this Trip
I have been to Russia multiple times - on trips lasting from just a few days to several weeks. It's certainly not my favorite country, but it's an interesting one that raises many questions. Here is what I learned on this trip.
Russians are the world's rudest people
I have had my share of rude people when traveling (the US itself is no stranger to that). NO, you won't be spit on in Russia (like in China) or constantly bossed around, but everyone will ignore you, refuse to talk to you or just walk 'through you' in daily life. It's hard to find a place in the world that comes with such minimal hospitality. I could not escape the feeling that almost everyone wished that I would have never shown up in Russia.
It has a good infrastructure
It's not China, but Russia has been investing in infrastructure to make its citizens more efficient. Most airports are in excellent shape (they're way ahead of America's), many roads are sealed (despite the cold Russian winter) and the Internet is usually fast.
What's missing is modern housing; strangely enough, it seems that no investment has gone into people's homes.
Everyone is so punctual
Russians would have no problem competing with Germans or Japanese people for punctuality. All the flights I had in this country took off and landed on the scheduled minute and taxi drivers were always on time as well.
There are no tourists!
Save for a few sights like Moscow's Red Square or Lake Baikal, there are NO tourists (or even English speakers). The stringent visa requirement, the Russian-only language skills and the rather high prices will make sure it stays that way.
Russians have one of the world's strongest superiority complexes
Being born in Germany, I'm no stranger to national superiority complex. Some countries have it and some do not. For instance, China and Japan have it. Russia is no exception and the superiority complex is evident in almost all interactions. Modern day Russia doesn't live up to much of a leadership role, but to most Russians this is very temporary.
A superiority complex is a dangerous psychology and too many country leaders have used it for their own agendas. Seen this way, Putin is likely one of the best leaders you can imagine in Russia.
Ne govorish po Angliski!
English isn't a major language in Russia at all. It's treated like Italian - not a world communication tool, but more like a random country language. Now this has more to do with the Russian superiority complex than practical skills, but given the rather limited interactions with other countries and tourists this won't change anytime soon.
Suspicion rules in Russia
I can't count the number of times I was 'interrogated' in Russia about what I do in a city and why I'm in town in the first place. Note that I was never approached by an official, though - those were all 'amateur' interrogators. I never had the impression that the suspicion was directed only to Americans - it was just about anyone who wasn't local.
There is no friendliness lost in everyday interactions
People treat each other as enemies and try to ignore everyone around them. There is NO kindness and NO decency; this behavior includes cutting in line, trying to be rude and not speaking any words. Things change when you give people a reason to be friendly (e.g. hotel and restaurant staff) but outside of these oases, it's just rude (and that applies to foreigners and locals).
It's a police state without police
Uniformed police is a VERY rare sight in Russia - as rare as in San Francisco (which at times seems to hide from SF locals). However, Russia relies on a more effective way of intimidation, with citizens spying on each other. Plus there are, no doubt, tons of plain clothes officials and amateur spies working against their own citizens. You really don't know who you can or should trust in Russia.
The country is huge!
Russia spans 11 time zones and you can fly 4,135 miles from St. Petersburg to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Pacific coast. While there is some diversity, the country is very similar despite the huge geographic distances.
The Russian soul is sad - and it likes it that way
You can't shake the feeling that you encounter mostly sad, apathetic people in Russia. Stress levels are generally lower than what you encounter in American cities (there's much less social media in Russia!) but it still puzzles me why everyone chooses to be so sad. There is no 'pursuit of happiness' in this country and it seems people are rather sad and try to find someone to blame. What an odd way to live.
There is too little entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship and innovation outside of major corporations is almost non-existent. It seems impossible to grow a service business here. This is especially shocking as Russian engineering skills are easily some of the best I have ever seen - from civil engineering to computer sciences. Too many things in Russia are top-down - there is little bubbling up. Russia still reels from almost 80 years of communist rule and its dehumanizing effects.
There's no more indoor smoking
Smoking is huge in Russia but indoor smoking has finally been banned! There are masses of outdoor smokers everywhere now.
It's still affordable
With the ruble at 60:1 in Russia, outside of Moscow is pretty affordable. The country is still in a recession, but there is no shortage of money in Moscow it seems.
As with other police states, safety isn't a big issue in Russia. Yes, there is organized crime, but they don't target tourists. It's not easy to get mugged or assaulted in Russia unless you insult locals or get into bar fights.
There's no visible extreme poverty
Unlike most US city centers which have been taken over by large homeless shelters, Russian cities don't have much visible extreme poverty. This does not mean it does not exist - it's just really difficult to find.
Credit cards are everywhere
Visa and MasterCard credit cards are as universally accepted in Russia as in America now; it's almost impossible to find a store that does not accept cards (and there's also no minimum spend). My transactions always worked without fail.