The size of a continent and the world’s largest country, Russia is home to endless stretches of snow-covered tundra, forest zones and flat, low-lying plains. It is also a vast geographically and topologically diverse region that can be divided into two main sections—the western and eastern.
In Russian culture, there is a strong sense of community and people feel a responsibility to help their neighbours. This is partly due to Soviet times, when every city was divided into neighbourhoods and there was a person responsible for cultural activities in each of them (this is how Russians developed their love for theatre). There is still an active system of volunteering that goes to lengths a westerner would consider infringement, but it is fading with Perestroika.
Russians are incredibly proud of their military. Many men and women in the armed forces have served for decades and are genuinely dedicated to their cause. They are also incredibly confident and assertive, which is often seen as a sign of strength.
The majority of Russians are Christians and belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. However, religion is not a big part of their daily lives. They visit the church for weddings, baptisms and funerals, but they do not attend services on a regular basis. They pay more attention to their horoscopes than the Bible and pray only when they need something to happen, want to avoid bad luck or remember a deceased loved one.
Many Russians have university or college degrees and enjoy a high standard of living. However, the quality of education has been deteriorating since Perestroika and it is not uncommon to find someone with a degree in engineering or chemistry working as a secretary.
English is not widely spoken and even in touristy areas the menus and timetables will be written in Russian. It’s worth learning a few phrases and the Cyrillic alphabet before you travel to make things much easier for yourself. It is a good idea to use a specialist tour operator who can arrange your visa in advance and make key transport bookings for you. All visitors to Russia are required to register within seven days of arriving, excluding weekends and public holidays. This can be done at hotels, hostels or with a friend, family member or landlord if you are staying in private accommodation. Registration forms must be filled out using European calendar convention and it’s important to know that your dates will always be written in the month, day and year rather than the American method. This will prevent you from overstaying your visa.