Notes on living and working in Russia | Russia Simplified Russia Simplified
Russia Simplified
Notes on living and working in Russia

Subscribe to our mailing list

New Year - the most important holiday in Russia.

The main and the most important holiday in Russia is New Year. History of this holiday is complicated. Before revolution in 1917 New Year was not a big thing. People observed Christmas and it was the main winter holiday both religious and social. Religion was banned in soviet times and Christmas was no longer a holiday. In pursuit of replacing Christmas, at some point of soviet history, soviet government established New Year as a public holiday. Traditions of observing this holiday have been developing throughout decades of soviet history. New Year we have now is a purely soviet holiday that (unlike many other traditions) haven not change much since ussr times.

Celebration of New Year in Russia is massive. It starts few weeks before holiday, with decorations, lights and new year trees appearing on city squares, in public organizations, businesses and private homes. New Year tree in Russia is spruce. They are cut before the holiday in large quantities and sold on special street markets that will be appearing everywhere in and larger shops. In Moscow, in addition to decorations all over the city, there will be holiday markets, on-street performances, concerts. Shows and decorations will have themes from New Year tales, fairytales, traditional festivities.

December and first days of January is a season for New Year events taking place everywhere for kids, called “ёлка”, “yolka” (New Year Tree). Yolka is the show type of event, where kids get entertainment and gifts, play games and do simple ring dance around the tree. The centerpiece of any yolka event is a decorated New Year tree around which the whole show evolves. The main yolka event is held in Kremlin. Hosts of any yolka event are Ded Moroz and Snegurochka.

New Year celebration in Russia has its magical figure, by its role-play very identical to western Santa. Russian Santa’s name is “Ded Moroz” (“Grandfather Frost” in a very rough translation) and he has a female companion, a granddaughter by the role — Snegurochka (“Snowy Girl”, again, a very rough translation). Ded Moroz and Snegurochka come to bring gifts and they ride their sleigh pulled by three horses (troika). Ded Moroz is supposed to have large white beard and be dressed in red and while coat, while Snegurochka is supposed to be a young woman dressed in light blue coat. They might also have snowman and various animals helping them.

Not long time ago I witnessed heated argument between three school boys. The boys were about 8-9 years or age, discussing some cellphone on display in the electronics store. Discussion was about ways of getting that cellphone. One of the boys was very confident that Ded Moroz might get that phone to him as a gift for New Year. The other two were skeptical about Ded Moroz arguing that, “It must be the parents”.

Along with events for kids, adult employees of businesses and government organizations will have New Year corporate events. There will be a separate article on those events.

Because celebration is big and important, people start preparing long before the holiday. Aside from New Year tree, which not every home will have, the centerpiece of New Year celebration is holiday table, full of food. Russians socialize and celebrate over food and New Year is no exception. The key element of any New Year celebration is overnight dinner. New Year dinner starts late in the evening of December 31st and continues throughout the night. I will write a separate article on the New Year food. Important to understand here that New Year table must be real big and provide lots of food not only for the New Year night, but few days after. Eating New Year table leftovers is also a part of holiday tradition. Ideally, New Year food must be home made. However, with all the busyness, many people have no time for cooking and they order some of the food for their New Year table. Cooking services available privately and through many cafes and restaurants.

This New Year table tradition means all families start stocking lots of food long before holidays. They also plan celebration entertainment, buy gifts, new clothing, make new haircuts and so on. December, especially its second part, will be a rush season. Many restaurants will be booked for corporate events. Food shops will be packed with people, especially on weekends, huge crowds of shoppers buying food in bulk quantities. Shopping malls will be crowded with people buying gifts. Delivery services will be overloaded with orders. Car traffic, especially in larger cities like Moscow, will be horrendous. Hair dressers will be fully booked in the last two weeks of December. Many people will be traveling before holidays. This means more airport traffic and higher ticket prices.

Last thing to mention here is that New Year public holidays last for ten days, which makes a nice addition to annual paid vacation.

For Russians New Year is a holiday that comes with feelings of joy, fun, hopes for the better upcoming year. People will be exchanging gifts, sending postcards.

In the next article we will talk about how New Year celebration happens in Russia.

Railroad travel in Russia

This is a third part of the series of articles on the train travel in Russia.

First part of this series of articles on railroad travel in Russia is here

Second part of this series of articles on railroad travel in Russia is here

Boarding the train. For stations, where train originates, boarding starts 30 minutes before departure. For boarding you need to get all traveling passengers registered for a train ride. If I understand correctly, all passengers get automatic registration at a time of ticket purchase. You can check your registration status though RZD website in your personal cabinet.

For boarding the train you need photo ID used to purchase ticket, normally passport. If you purchased train ticket electronically, print your e-ticket from your personal cabinet on RZD website. It will have the ticket itself and boarding slip with QR codes. If you purchased your ticket from a ticket office, it will be a ticket with a slip attached at the back. Train attendant checks IDs, tells you your seat numbers and lets you into the train. Later, when train departs, they will come to your seat to collect train tickets, only those purchased from the ticket office. E-tickets are not collected.

Your train ticket has some advantages outside the train. When you arrive to a place of your destination and police questions you about registration, your ticket is an official proof of your arrival (or departure) date. Also, on train stations, with your train ticket you get free use of toilets on the date of travel, otherwise toilets are for a fee.

When boarding, normally you do not expect any help with your luggage from train attendants, as they are busy checking other passenger tickets. They might help, if they are not busy though. Also, many attendants are women and therefore not expected to deal with heavy stuff.

People accompanying you to the station are allowed onto the train to help you bring in your luggage and accommodate. Five minutes before departure train attendant will call everyone not traveling to leave the train.

Onboard train services and amenities Ticket of each class comes with certain services, amenities and options that are included in a ticket price and most of them you can’t remove or add. Variety of options, services and amenities is very big and sometimes tricky, to name a few most common ones: air conditioned carriage (not all of hem are), meals included in a ticket price, handling of oversized luggage, traveling with small pets, free newspapers, luggage compartment, shower, bio-toilet (airline style), travel set (toothbrush, eye-mask etc), TV, slippers, electric outlets and so on. Each ticket will have code of service. Those codes are tricky, but most important options will be displayed as little icons next to a carriage of your choice, when you buy ticket on RZD website. Some trains offer escorting underaged children on a train (if parents can’t travel with the kid). List of services is endless and no way of mentioning all of them. If you have some specific needs for your travel, check what specific train or ticket has included. Below I will explain the most common services and amenities.

Luggage. Official limit for luggage is 36 kilos per passenger. No one really controls luggage weight and enforces this norm, unless your luggage is so bulky that does not fit car storage spaces.

Russian railways does not provide luggage service like airlines do, so you have to bring all the luggage with you. I understand for oversized bulky luggage there are options for luggage service, but it has to ordered separately and it does not seem to be very popular. For storing luggage, railroad passenger cars have various options depending on a train and travel class.

Express trains have special racks and above seat shelves for storing the luggage. Sleepers have storage space under the lower bed, and a shelf above the door. Third class sleepers have upper shelves and space underneath lower bed for storing the luggage. Some sleeper (newer) trains have separate luggage compartments. Availability of such compartment is indicated in the list of services on RZD website that appears when you purchase tickets. Very approximately, for sleeper train, each passenger can take onboard one large suitcase and one smaller luggage item, like backpack or bag. If each of passengers takes these two items there will be enough storage space for everyone. It’s possible to cram more luggage into compartment, but possibility of fitting it will depend on what luggage other passengers have and some other factors.

For storage of smaller items each bed in sleeper cars has individual small shelves, sometimes designed like a small locker.

Each sleeper compartment or seater has hooks and hangers for clothes. Sapsan has cloth racks with hangers.

Some trains (very few though) have option of bringing your car with you. This service is ordered separately.

Toilets. Older cars have one toiler, newer have two toilets. Toilets are of two types: “bio” and “regular”. Regular toilets is nothing but a stall with a hole in a car floor and waste goes directly onto the rail tracks. For this reason, there are “sanitary zones”, around the stations and on the stations themselves, where toilets are locked. This means if train stops for an hour, no one is allowed to use toilets.

Newer cars have ”bio” toilets, that function like aircraft toilets, waste goes into special tanks, and toilets can be used anywhere any time. Each toilet has small sink for washing face and hands, hot and cold water taps, mirror and sometimes paper towels.

On the overnight trains, in the morning of arrival, everyone will want to use toilets and it will create lines. Be mindful of that.

Depending on a train and service, passengers might get basic toiletries set, that includes toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste, hair brush, disposable slippers (for moving around the car). Regardless of ticket and services included, all passengers get small cloth towel for using during the trip. This towel is reusable and you have to leave it on your bed when your ride is over.

Railroad travel in Russia

Showers. Most, like almost all, trains have no showers. Very few newer trains on some routs have showers. If shower is available it will be indicated on a services list when purchasing ticket.

Air conditioning and heating. Heating is available in all trains. Long distance sleeper trains are heated by burning coal. Each car attendant is in charge for keeping inside temperature comfortable and this is a challenge for them. I must say most trains are overheated and this is one of the downsides or train travel. In winter it’s so intensely hot inside, people get most of their clothes off, when sleeping, but still it’s extremely hot. Windows in newer card do not open, so letting outside air inside is not an option and you suffocate at night, when compartment door is normally closed.

Newer cars have air conditioning — in theory. In reality they either do not work or car attendants do not know how to operate them properly. Most complaints from passengers are about air conditioning not working and uncomfortably hot temperatures.

Power outlets. Older cars have very few, close to no power outlets. Newer cars have power outlets in each coupe. Not many though, perhaps one per passenger, so if you have many gadgets, bring outlet multiplier for the trip. Having external battery for charging your gadgets is also very useful.

Lights. Each bed in a sleeper car has individual reading light. Also each compartment has ceiling lights for the whole compartment.

Wi-fi. Some (newer) trains have wi-fi. The problem is that train wi-fi internet is coming from public cellular networks and coverage between stations is very limited. If you are on a long distance train, I would not count on having stable internet connection between stations and on some stations connection also can be quite weak.

Food. All long distance train have restaurant or buffet car. Seaters normally have buffet cars, sleepers have restaurants. Both serve variety of food depending on a specific train, its rout and where train consist originates. Sapsan for example employs its own chef to provide passengers sort of “fine dining“ onboard. Regular long distance trains have more menu options for food, but dishes served are simpler.

An interesting fact, all dishes in train restaurant cars are made to order from scratch, no heating up. This means longer wait for your order, but since you have time traveling long distance this should be fine. Every dish you order will be fixed by chefs on a restaurant kitchen especially for you. I ones ordered potato wedges and it took forever to cook, but when they arrived, I found they were made from raw potatoes and not unfrozen.

Prices vary and I believe depend very much on where the train originates and some other factors. In general, restaurant car food is affordable on most long distance trains. For many passengers train food is still pricey, so they bring their own food onto the train. A classic train food people bring is boiled eggs and chicken, sandwiches, burgers (Russian style), sausage, vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers. The idea is to have food that does not spoil for longer time without refrigerating. Some people just bring instant noodles.

In addition to restaurant car you can buy some simple snacks from a car attendant. They will also make and bring you a hot tea or coffee (instant coffee only!) for your order. You can order food from restaurant car to your coupe.

Some tickets include meals. This is indicated when you buy a ticket and you options are dinner or breakfast. No choice of food though, they will serve what they serve, you either eat it or not eat it. The meals included in ticket price will be served in your cupe.

Alcohol is officially banned in trains, except for alcohol served in the restaurant car. This ban works in theory, in practice passengers bring their own alcohol and drink in their cupe. No one will pay any attention as long as your behavior is not abusive or disruptive in any way to other passengers.

If you are traveling for many days on a train, on longer stops there will be an option of buying food on the platform. It’s sort of business fo locals to sell “homemade” food on the platform or nearby platform when train arrives. Without getting into details you should avoid any of this food unless it’s a factory packaged product.

Railroad travel in Russia

Water. Some, very few trains have public drinking water dispensers for passenger use. In all other trains you can buy bottled water from train attendant or from restaurant car or bring your own water supply for the trip. You can also buy water on stations during long stops if time allows.

Each long distance train has public water heater (see on picture above) and hot water is available for free to all passengers.

Safety. Each coupe can be locked inside. Modern cars have electronic keycards that can also lock coupes outside, but cupe on older cars can not be locked outside. Each train has police aboard. In general train travel is very safe, but do not undermine basic safety precautions. Theft seems to be the most common train crime, so make sure you keep all your valuables secure. People getting drunk can behave strangely or violently and police should deal with them, you just report any abusive behavior to the car attendant. This does not happen very often though, most passengers understand they will be removed from train at a nearest stop, fined or even jailed for any misconduct.

Railroad travel in Russia

First part of this series of articles on railroad travel in Russia is here

Buying Russian railroad tickets.

Primary website for buying rail tickets in Russia is Russian Railroads (RZD) website This link gets you to the search form where you pick travel destination and dates. The website is Russian/English. You need to register on RZD website to buy tickets. Payment is by plastic card of almost any type. Their system gives you train options with tickets available on the date of search for a chosen destination. If tickets or specific type of ticket not available at a time of search, go not give up, as ticket availability is dynamic.

You will need photo ID to buy a ticket (normally passport). ID number, name and type will be requited for buying a ticket. Exactly the same ID will be required for boarding the train. If you do not have an ID you used to buy ticket, you will not be allowed onto the train.

Tickets go on sale 90 days before train departure (45 and 60 days for some trains). Prices are dynamic, reflecting popularity, demand and availability. This means buying in advance gives you more chances of cheaper tickets. All railroad tickets now are electronic (paper tickets are still available if you buy from a ticket office). If for whatever reason you need a paper ticket, you can print standard paper ticket from the ticketing machine on any major rail station in larger cities. When you buy a ticket on RZD website, they will email you e-ticket in PDF format. Russian railroad tickets are Russian/English.

You can buy one-way or return ticket and sometimes you get some discount on two-way ticket.

Alternatively to electronic tickets you can buy regular paper tickets from ticket offices on any of nine major rail stations in Moscow. Difference is that buying from ticket office you will have no options of choosing specific seat on a train. There will be lines. There are many resellers online and offline. When buying from a reseller you will pay commissions and availability of tickets might be limited. Also, not every reseller provides seat choice and other Russian Railroad services. All tickets are returnable, you get fraction of a price if returned on the day of travel. There was an idea of cheaper non-returnable tickets, but I am unsure if it is implemented yet.

Types of railroad tickets and service

When you get list of train options available, each train has different types of cars and services included in a ticket price. There will be indication of number of seats of each type available in each car. If you click on a specific car on the list, you will get car map with occupied and available seats (beds for sleepers).

By the level of service, there are two types of trains: “firmenniy” (branded) or “ne firmenniy” (regular). “Firmenniy” train consists tend to have newer cars, better maintenance and passenger service. “Firmenniy” trains always have a brand name, which is written next to the train number on the online ticketing RZD website. They are also pricier. Regular trains are not necessarily worth. They can have older or newer cars in consist and good service. It depends on a number of factors, and I believe the most important one is where the train originates. Each RZD division that builds and maintains train consists have their own specifics.

Regardless of branded or regular all rail Russian railroads cars come in four major types.

Seater cars.

Type of seater car depends on destination and train that service the destination. Each seater has its own class system. Each seater train service is unique because they have train consists and car layouts built for specific rout and service. Each seater worth separate article. I will outline some of the most popular seater train services below.

Railroad travel in Russia

Sapsan (on above picture), “branded” train that runs between Moscow and St.Petersburg has tickets of seven classes. Sapsan trains are built by Siemens and provide excellent travel quality and comfort that comes with very good passenger service. Each of seven classes of Sapsan provides different accommodation or services included.

Nevsky Express (below picture) en rout between Moscow and St.Petersburg has been in operation long before Sapsan. Nevsky Express consist is built by a Russian manufacturer and runs almost with the same speed as Sapsan. Nevsky Express cars have separate compartments for six passengers each. That is 3 seats in two rows facing each other. The compartments have glass doors, luggage shelves, small table, and TV sets. Nevsky Express has only one class of service, and it comes with food included in a ticket price. All passengers get lunch delivered to their seat.

Railroad travel in Russia

Moscow — Nizhniy Novgorod route is serviced by Sapsan and Strizh. Photo below has 2nd class of Strizh train.

Railroad travel in Russia

Strizh consist is a Talgo train, provides three classes of service. One class is seater and two classes are sleepers, completely different from regular RZD sleeper cars explained below.

Many destinations are services by Lastochka trains. Lastochka is built by Siemens and it’s a very comfortable simpler type of seater that provides accommodation similar to airline economy seats (wider seats and more room for legs though).

Other seaters are Russian built and provide airline type of seating arrangement, 3+3, 3+2, 1+2 or 2+2 seats in one row. Some seaters serve regional destinations like Tula or Kaluga and have only seaters in their consist. Some long distance trains have 1-2 seater cars in their consist to serve regional passenger traffic.

Seater train options have less availability compared to sleeper cars as they serve less destinations. Sleeper cars come in 4 classes, explained below. International train services may have completely different accommodation and class system. Also, there are few deluxe trains operating on some routs by private companies, not RZD, and their class system can be different. Bellow class system is found on 99% of Russian long distance trains.

All long distance sleeping cars have small compartments called kupe (купе). Kupe or compartments come in 4 types, explained below.

DeLuxe.

Modern cars that have fewer compartments for 1-2 passengers each with private toilet and shower. Available on a very few trains and they are very pricey.

Railroad travel in Russia

Mostly seen on trains between Moscow and St.Petersburg and obviously targeted to business use or private use for passengers who can afford them. I understand this type of carriage comes with multitude of services included in ticket price. Suffice it to say, if you can afford this type of ticket — go for it. If you travel in DeLuxe type of carriage you can skip all below reading, because DeLuxe cars are different in every way from “mass” type of rail car accommodations.

Railroad travel in Russia

1st class sleeper (Russian — “spalniy vagon” — “спальный вагон” or “СВ”).

Railroad travel in Russia

Each first and second class car has small kupe, compartments with sliding door. In 1st class, each compartment has two lower bunk beds. 2nd class cars have four bunk beds — two upper, two lower, and this is the main and the only principal difference between 1st and 2nd class.

Each bed in kupe is sold separately on RZD website. This means if you travel alone, you will have company of a total stranger, of whoever buys second bed in the same kupe with you. You can buy both beds on separate tickets to your name and occupy the whole compartment, but this is pricey as you have to pay for two full tickets. This is an option though, and this is the only way to get maximum privacy and safety. If you are lucky and no one buys second bed, you will travel by yourself. You might get company of a passenger, getting on the train on some of the stops though.

Your kupe bed serves as a couch at daytime and for sleeping it turns into bed. In older cars the bed linen is provided separately and car attendant makes your bed on request before sleep. For trains departing late at night, kupe comes with bed already made, so when you board the train your bed is ready to sleep. In newer cars, the bed linen stored inside the back of the couch. The back of the couch collapses and turns into a bed, that’s been pre-made already. You do not need car attendant, just flip the back of the bed and your bed is ready. Bed linen include one or two pillows (depending on service), mattress (slim) blankets and cover.

Railroad travel in Russia

Other kupe amenities include: mirror, foldable table, TV set (in some cars), individual reading light, storage space for luggage, hooks and hangers for clothes, electric outlets (only in newer cars!). Normally each passenger provided small cloth towel. There are individual smaller shelves for keeping small personal items for each bed. Windows have shades. There can be other service options and amenities, I will discuss them later in part three.

A bit more about 1st class cars. First class is not available in every train, and where it is available, it’s usually only one car, perhaps two on some trains. This means first class tickets will sell quicker, despite they are priced more than double compared to 2nd class.

Since 1st class cars have less passengers, it’s more quiet. 1st class passengers get more attention from attendants and better overall service. There will be less morning lines to the toilet in the 1st class carriage.

Although Russian Railroads are making big effort in rebuilding or replacing old soviet rail cars, a big bunch of older cars is still in operation. This means even if you buy a first class ticket, you might travel in an older car.

Each 1st class ticket comes with different options and additional services and we will discuss them later in part three. Again, the main difference between 1st and 2nd class is number of passengers in one compartment — kupe.

2nd class sleeper (Russian — “kupe”).

In Russian, second class is just called “kupe (купе)”. Technically it is the same type of accommodation as 1st class, with only one difference — kupe, or compartment, has 4 bunk beds. Two upper beds and two lower beds. Again, similar to 1st class, all 4 beds sold separately and when traveling alone you get company of three strangers. It is good to travel with family or company, you can buy all 4 beds and have maximum privacy.

Railroad travel in Russia

Second class sleepers have the same bed system as first class. Bed linen is either stored in a collapsible back of a couch type seat or bed is provided separately. Train attendant will make bed for you upon request or you can make it yourself.

Second class has absolutely the same amenities as 1st class, including mirror, foldable table, TV set (in some cars), individual reading light, storage space for luggage, hooks and hangers for clothes, electric outlets (only in newer cars!). Normally each passenger provided small cloth towel. There are individual smaller shelves for keeping small personal items for each bed. Windows have shades.

Since 2nd class has upper beds, there is foldable ladder to help passengers get to their upper bed.

If you are traveling for more than one night, normally lower beds (turned into a couch with bed linen removed) and table by the window are shared with upper bed passengers during day time.

Tickets for upper beds are cheaper, but because of inconvenience to some passengers getting to/from upper bed, lower beds are sold much quicker. When you get list of available beds on RZD website, there will be clear indication which bed is upper which is lower. Upper beds has its individual reading light and smaller shelf for keeping personal items.

Railroad travel in Russia

Most 2nd class kupes are mixed sex. On some trains, there are female only kupes. This is indicated on the list of available beds on RZD website when you search for tickets. Male passengers can’t buy ticket to a female kupe.

Each train consists would have 1-3 2nd class cars and they are less popular as they are pricier. This means on a busy destination 2nd class tickets are sold quicker.

Trick for making your overnight train travel more comfortable.

When choosing kupe, aim at those located in the middle of the car. Soundproofing is not that good in Russian rail cars. Kupe close to sides of the car get lots of noice from wheels, car coupling mechanism that makes loud banging noise, doors opening and closing all the time, people gettin on and off the train at stops, talking at the platform, toilet that makes loud noise when flushed. This applies to all four classes of sleeper cars.

Railroad travel in Russia

3rd class sleeper (Russian — platskart).

Same thing as 2nd class, except that compartments have no doors. This is a communal type of sleeper, cheapest and for that reason most demanded. Compartments are open and you get company of 50+ passengers for the entire trip.

In addition to open compartments with four bunk beds, there are two bunk beds on the side of the corridor. Lower side bunk bed folds and turns into two seats and a table for the day time, so both passengers (from upper and lower beds) can sit during day time.

Beds in 3rd class are shorter compared to 1st and 2nd class. This means if you are tall, your feel will hang in the corridor when you’re sleeping. 3rd class has less luggage storage space and 3rd class passengers get less of additional services and amenities. There will be no TV, no mirror (except toilet), in most cases no extra amenities like toiletry kits. I understand 3rd class never comes with food included in a ticket price.

Railroad travel in Russia

In this type of car you get no privacy at all. It is noisy, smells with body odors, bad breath of drunk people, food people eat.

Generally speaking 3rd class is not recommended, unless you are on a very tight budget or for whatever reason you wanna be around Russians, socializing with them. Socializing is an inevitable part of Russian rail travel and we will talk about this in further articles.

3rd class is convenient in absence of seater service on chosen destination, when you travel long distance during day time and do not need to sleep on a train. This gets you very cheap and comfortable seater. Picks lower side bed (боковое место or боковушка), it will be a wide chair during the day with table, at the window.

Good thing is that almost all third class sleepers were renewed in the past years, so chances of getting an old car is much less (almost none) compared to 1st and 2nd class. 3rd class has less luggage storage space and 3rd class passengers get less of additional services and amenities, that will be discussed on the next article.

Railroad travel in Russia

Finalizing ticket purchase.

Choose travel dates, destination. Check available train options and car options. Select preferred seat or bed. Finalize purchase by entering each passenger data. Pay for the ticket using plastic card. Ones the ticket is purchased, you receive confirmation e-mail with e-ticket in PDF format. You can always access your tickets through RZD website logging into your account.

Rail tickets are returnable and you get full refund if you return them before the day of travel. For tickets purchased from RZD website, returns can be made from your account.

Railroad travel in Russia

This post begins series of articles on railroad travel in Russia.

Russia has extensive railroad system and railroad is a primary mode of long distance travel. Most places in Russia have railroad connection. Trains are affordable, timely and, for the most part, convenient and comfortable.

Speaking of comfort, in soviet times little attention was paid to the comfort of travel. Bringing people to places was more important and train travel was simple and not sophisticated in terms of passenger experience. Nowadays Russian Railways makes notable effort in making rail travel more comfortable, enhancing customer experience and service. However upgrading (for the most part rebuilding) a big system, like Russian railways, requires effort and time. In practice this means, when you become a passenger, along with examples of immaculate customer service, you can easily run into disappointing experiences like bad treatment of passengers from staff, old carriages, faulty equipment and so on. Likelihood of really bad experiences is quite slim though, but if something happens not up to your expectations, be patient, your emotional reactions will not change the system, but will hurt you only.

Russian Railways (РЖД) with its multitude subsidiaries is the only company running Russian railroad system. The company is 100% owned by Russian government. Russian Railroads provide roughly 1% of all jobs in Russia, this is to demonstrate how huge the company is.

Let’s get into practicalities of railroad travel in Russia.

Types of trains in Russia.

Sleepers. Trains in Russia are slow. Most trains cover routes of thousands of kilometers, making multiple stops. Passenger trains share tracks with freight trains. Train traffic is quite heavy on most destinations. Railroad infrastructure dates back to soviet era and despite all renewals is not suited for speed travel. Distances and slow train speed combined, require overnight travel or perhaps several days and nights of travel to most destinations. Thus, most long distance trains in Russia are sleepers. Seating trains are very few and most of the trains have just sleeper cars. Some long-distance trains have one or two seating carriages in consist to service regional destinations, but this is very few.

Express train service is on the rise in Russia, however express trains cover mostly regional or inter-regional destinations where travel time is, roughly, within one day. Express trains normally have seating carriages. Good example of express train destination is between Moscow and St.Petersburg with Sapsan train servicing the rout. It takes roughly four hours of comfortable non-stop travel to cover roughly 700 kilometers between two largest cities in Russia. Other express destinations from Moscow include Nizhniy Novgorod, Tula, Kaluga and others. There are express seating trains originating from other cities, servicing local destinations.

International trains. Aside from local destinations, Russian Railroads run trains to many European cities. International trains from Moscow service destinations to Paris, Berlin, Helsinki, Nice, Prague, Warsaw, Tallinn, Beijing. There is an express train between St.Petersburg and Helsinki called Allegro. In this and following articles on Russian rail travel we will talk about domestic rail service only. Types of trains and services vary per international destination, some are one of its kind.

Good things about railroad travel in Russia.

Cheaper. Ticket prices are regulated by government to ensure regular Russian passenger with average income can afford train travel. We will talk about ticket pricing in a later article. Ticket prices for each destination vary from very affordable, simpler type of service to pricier, more comfortable options. In general, train tickets are cheaper compared to airline travel options.

Better coverage. Very few places in Russia have airports and some areas are only accessible by train. Car travel sometimes is not an option due to limited road coverage and road quality.

Convenience. Coverage, frequency of trains and its timeliness, variety of service options, central location if train stations are just few of multitude of factors making train travel convenient. Trains do not require lengthy security checks, do not impose luggage restrictions, provide more space compared to say, airlines.

Scenery. If you are on a long distance train for a day or more, it’s like a sightseeing tour. You don’t get to see places where train stops (except stations), but looking out the window, gives you unparalleled experience of seeing huge territory of Russia in a relatively short period of time. This is I understand one the primary reasons, expats take trains from Moscow to Siberia and Far East. In several days of travel you see areas of the country that otherwise would require years to visit one by one.

Time consuming. If you are on a train, you don’t have much to do, so this is an excellent time to read a book, watch some movie or work on a project. Aside from scenery, it’s very few distractions on a train, so you can focus on something important.

Downsides of long distance trains in Russia.

Time consuming. In today’s world, spending days on a train is a real luxury. For business travel most people seek faster options, that might combine airline and car. If the only travel option you have is train, you will have to spend days on the road, for the most part completely out of reach.

Hot. Long distance trains are heated by burning coal. Each carriage has independent heating system and in practice, all carriages are overheated and you suffocate in the heat and lack of fresh air. Windows on newer carriages do not open. Most newer passenger rail cars come with climate control with air conditioning. In reality train attendants either do not know how to operate them properly or equipment is faulty. Uncomfortably hot temperatures in summer is one of the most frequent complaints from train passengers.

Noisy and shaky. Rails can be bumpy as they are used by heavy freight trains. Passenger carriages can be shaky, especially when train starts to move or stops. Trains make many stops at night, so you will hear station loudspeaker announcements, people talking on platforms, getting on and off the train. Soundproofing is not a main thing in carriages, so you can also hear your neighbors. At night if someone is snoring, all passengers know. Sleeping on a sleeper train paradoxically can be quite difficult especially for those sensitive to disruptions.

Unpleasant passengers. Long distance sleeper trains provide communal type of accommodation. Unless you can afford 1st class or DeLuxe service, you will be traveling with a bunch of total strangers. Other passengers can annoy you in different ways, like talking too much or too loud, eating smelly food and drinking. Some people travel for days and smell bad. Most Russian trains have no showers.

The story about Russian railroad travel will continue.

Where to find organic, natural food in Moscow.

First off, what is organic food? Here is my definition — organic food is a type of food grown in a natural way, not using genetical modifications, fertilizers, chemicals, hormones or other methods to artificially speed up growth or to enhance taste and other qualities.

Almost all of the food produced in Russia or sold in stores and “farmer’s” markets is not organic.

Russia has no standards, no certification on organic food. Therefore when you see labels like “organic”, “farm produced” it’s just marketing (reads “lie”).

There is no one single place to buy all organic. Where you can spot “organic” or “natural” food in Moscow?

“Farmer’s” markets. Almost all of sellers on farmers markets are just re-sellers, merchants. They have nothing to do with producing of what they sell. They are not real farmers. They buy products from variety of sources: wholesale warehouses, small and large farms and retail them on those markets. You never know exactly where the product comes from, how it was produced and to what degree it is “natural” or “organic”. Very few products sold on “farmer’s” markets can be truly called “organic”.

To understand what to buy, you have to be a food expert yourself. Try everything, talk to sellers, question them on the origin of products and how the product was made or grown. Learn how to identify organic food. All the sellers speak only Russian and will lie to you, so be suspicious and picky. Look where other people line to buy specific products. Research, try, check, compare, ask recommendations from people you can trust.

As a side note, all the food sold in “farmer’s markets” is safe to consume. All the markets control safety very strictly. Thus if what you buy is not 100% organic, but at least it is in compliance with safety regulations, quite strict in Russia.

Street “farmer’s markets” on summer weekends. Again, there is no real farmers on those markets. In summer farmers have no time to stand under those tents in Moscow, they have to take care of the crop. People selling on those markets are re-sellers, buying products from wholesalers and retailing them. Origin of food can be import or local (meaning produced in Russia), can be organic, but most likely it is not. If you ask about where the food comes from, they will lie to you in most cases. The only way to find out is to request quality certificate on a specific product they sell. They must have those certificates, but reluctant to show them. Again, safety is strictly controlled and not an issue, even if those “farmer’s” tomatoes you buy is an imported product from, say, Morocco.

“Organic” and “natural food” shops (including internet shops). Some shops name themselves organic and they claim to have their own selection and certification processes. They take responsibility to ensure all of their products are of organic origin. Again, no one can really verify those statements. It is up to you whether you believe them. In my experience those natural food stores are double fold. On one hand I see they stock products (especially fruits and vegetables) of the same origin and quality sold by large retailers. Those organic shops definitely do stock lots of import from different parts of the world and I doubt they have checked all of the food suppliers for “organic” compliance. On the other hand, they sell food that is (at least according to labels) has more healthy and more natural ingredients compared to regular grocery store food. Examples are: sausages and burgers made of meat; no-yeast, no-sugar bread; real milk that actually spoils in a few days, real smoked fish, urbech, unusual types of vegetables like kale and so on. With internet shops you have to be even more cautious, because you only see pictures and some information. “What you see is what you get” is not necessarily the case.

Organic farms. There are few businesses in Moscow area and more in neighboring areas claiming their production to be organic. All of them are smaller types of businesses scattered everywhere. Their volume of produce is not enough to satisfy demands of large retail networks. Some of them have direct sales (website and delivery), some supply their produce to shops in Moscow. To find their organic produce you need to understand exactly which farm produces what, where and how you can get their products. To find such farms, ask recommendations, do internet research, look for events where real farmers come to sell and advertise their products. Those events are advertised in social networks — all in Russian.

Apply common sense in your pursuits of organic or just quality food in Moscow.

Consider prices. Real organic food takes much more time and effort to produce and that is always reflected in a price. If someone sells product labelled “organic” or “natural” at a price comparable with retail prices, it’s a fake.

Try products from different places. If you find a place that is good for you in terms of price and quality, keep buying from there. Seller will remember you, and if you can exchange some phrases with them in Russian, sort of relationships will start to build. Ones they recognize you as a regular customer, you will get real information on their products and they will give trustworthy recommendations. This is proven by experience. Every seller is interested in keeping regular customers, so being honest, not cheating on weights becomes a thing for them.

Consider seasonality. Real fruits and vegetables are always seasonal. When it’s winter, produce does not grow organically. It has to be imported or grown in greenhouses. There is limited number of crops you can have in greenhouses unless you use modern agricultural technologies and those almost always involve fertilizers. You need to understand what comes when — naturally.

For example, in May, early June, tomatoes start to come from Azerbaijan. Not sure if they are fully organic, but they are real tasty and of a good quality. In June we get strawberries, grown in Moscow area, they are sold in limited season mostly from specialized tents on streets. Cherries grown in Russia are not that tasty, but those from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan (pricey) and Moldavia are excellent. Peaches are all imported and almost never good. July and August is a season for Russian grown tomatoes and cucumbers. End of August and September are for watermelons, grown in Russian South. The list is endless, examples here for you to have an idea of how it works.

Non-organic food is not necessarily bad. Although some fertilizers can be used in conventional agricultural businesses, they are not that harmful. Of course, this is questionable, but considering effort needed to locate, identify and buy real organic food, just quality but not 100% organic food can be an option to consider. Especially seasonal, local produce can be of a very good quality, albeit their non-organic origin.

Final thoughts. In absence of “organic” standards, limited availability, lack of honesty from sellers, the only real reliable source of food is — dacha. If you have time, willing to put effort in growing your own produce — rent or buy dacha. Along with fresh, guaranteed natural food it will bring you many more delights, spring through late fall.

If you subscribe to Russia Simplified mailing list, I will send you a list of all farmer’s markets in Moscow along with some recommendations on shops to buy organic food.