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Notes on living and working in Russia

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Safety in Moscow: essentials

Moscow is a safe place. Like any big city however, basic precautions have to be taken whether you are visiting short-term or staying in Moscow for a while. Below precautions are valid not only for Moscow but most large cities in Russia.

Never exchange money in the airport. Not exactly a safety threat, but exchange rates in airports especially before customs is a rip-off. You will get almost double Rubles for your currency exchanging it in the city center. Use ATM to withdraw money or pay by card, cards are taken almost everywhere.

Do not use taxi drivers offering their service at the airport arrival area. When you arrive to any Moscow airport, upon exiting from customs area you will be met by a crowd of taxi drivers offering rides to Moscow. Never use any of those drivers, no matter how official their badges look. Use express trains. If express trains do not work for you, you can order taxi from official taxi counter (available in all airports) or through apps like Yandex taxi.

Do not take taxi on streets. Use apps like Yandex taxi or Gett (acquired by Yandex). If your business contracts taxi company use their service even if there is wait to get the car.

Do not buy sim cards from street sellers. Go to an official retailer. You will need passport to buy a card.

Beware of pickpocketing, especially in public transport. Keep your passport, wallet and other valuables secure. In subway don’t stand near the doorway playing or texting on your smartphone.

Do not leave your luggage, bags, valuables out of sight even for a split second — everywhere.

Be extremely cautious crossing streets. Even if you are on pedestrian crossing, going on green light, be absolutely positively sure that cars actually stopped before the crossing.

Never give money to any beggars, especially in subway.

Always check bill, when eating out, before paying, to make sure you pay for what you ordered. Information on related subject — tips, can be found here.

Avoid walking in remote areas of Moscow or have company (preferably a local).

Do not walk alone in the dark, in areas where there is no one around, even in the city center.

Do not talk to strangers, asking for your attention on the street.

Do not eat shawarma. Exception can be made to shawarma in cafes and restaurants with table service.

In winter — do not walk close to buildings due to danger of snow and ice falling from roofs. Wear proper winter shoes, as it gets very slippery in Moscow in winter season. Especially be careful on underground passage stairs, as they are made of polished stone and get slippery even in rain. Some guidance on clothing in winter can be found here.

In summer — beware of ticks. Here is separate article on the subject.

Wash hands as often as you can. Have a pack of wet napkins or anti-bacterial fluid with you.

Do not do your own driving in Moscow, unless you are fully and mindfully confident about driving in Russia.

Do not pay in any currency other than Rubles. This is illegal and there is risk of a fraud.

Beware of scam and fraud of all types still high in Russian business and private dealings. Be extremely cautious buying products and services appearing to be very cheap. Russian wisdom says: “Stingy person pays twice.”

If you are in trouble and there is no one local to help you, look for police with sticker on their uniform saying — “Tourist police”. Their job is to assist foreigners and they (well, in theory) speak English.

shashlik

Modern Russian cuisine is a mixed cuisine. Cooking traditions and recipes popular before communist revolution are almost extinct now. They were replaced with soviet cooking traditions, which in many parts, has been borrowed from ussr republics Russia used to be one of.

One of those borrowed modern cuisine dishes is shashlik. Shashlik is kebab type of BBQ dish, brought to Russian cuisine and firmly holding its place in Russian culture. No one can say exactly which country shashlik came from, but it’s versions are popular in the Middle East and former ussr republics like Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Georgia and others.

Nowadays shashlik is almost a staple food in modern Russian cuisine. A good picnic or dacha weekend cannot go without making shashlik. In summer you can see people grilling shashlik everywhere.

Shashlik is normally cooked outside as it requires barbecue pit and burning charcoal, so it is known as summer BBQ.

Shashlik is more than just a popular summer BBQ.

Making and eating shashlik is an activity and event by itself. People go outdoors to spend time in the nature and have picnic, but this is all secondary. Everything people do like swimming, sunbathing, playing games happens around shashlik. People do not say: “Let’s go outdoors”, they say: “Let’s go to shashlik”. Thus, shashlik, making it and eating it, is an important summer outdoor activity, event and everything else evolves around it.

In Russian culture socializing for the most part happens over the food. Very often shashlik is a reason to get together with friends and have a good time. Shashlik is a summer leisure, a reason for going outdoors, inviting friends and family.

The importance of shashlik as a cultural artifact is not in the food itself, but as an activity or event that brings people together. This is why shashlik is best on dacha or somewhere in the nature with friends or family. Like any other food, shashlik goes well with a drink and “doing shashlik” can be acclaimed as a Russian summer outdoor way of partying.

How to make shashlik.

For shashlik you will need: portable bbq fire grill pit (mangal), metal skewers (shampuri), charcoal (ugol’), charcoal lighter fluid (rozzhig), meat (myaso) and marinade ingredients.

All the items can be purchased from most grocery stores. Late spring throughout summer retailers place shashlik items at the store entrance. Many grocery stores also sell marinated shashlik meat. It is better however if you prepare and marinate meat for shashlik yourself. Stores use mix of meats, not always producing good and tender shashlik.

Shashlyk can be made from any meat: beef, chicken, lamb or pork. Pork is more common because it is easier to find, it is cheaper and more tender (if properly prepared and cooked).

The meat for shashlik has to be cut in square pieces and marinaded. Marinading takes about an hour, some people prepare meat in advance and marinade it overnight. There are tons of different marinade recipes for shashlik and each family seems to have it’s own, so shashlik recipes vary. (Subscribers of this blog mailing list will receive shashlik marinade recipe)

Although women take care of all the cooking in a typical Russian homes, making shashlik is a pure men’s responsibility.

Cooking process is very simple. Marinated meat is stringed onto skewers and grilled over the hot charcoal. Along with meat you can grill onions, bell peppers and some other vegetables that make compliment or garnish to shashlik. The charcoal must be not flaming, just producing enough heat for cooking the meat. Skewers have to be turned for meat to cook thoroughly and evenly, and sprayed with water to avoid burning.

Shashlik goes great with seasonal vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions and so on. Good shashlik is tender, but it can be complimented with some sauce. For sauce you can use adjika (purchased or homemade), ketchup or almost any other type of sauce that goes with meat. It is good to wrap shashlik in lavash — very thin non-yeast bread, sold everywhere.

Be mindful that in Moscow setting open fire (bbq included) is strictly prohibited, except for specially designated places. Many locals are not familiar with the rules and brake the law unknowingly.

If you wan just to try shashlik not cooking it yourself, it is served in many cafes and restaurants. Not a rule, but usually places specializing on Azerbaidjanian and Georgian cuisine make best shashlik.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Most expats know centrally located parks like Gorky Park, Park Pobedy, Neskuchniy Sad and many others. All these are very popular, really nice places, providing lots of activities.

There are however secluded areas in Moscow where you can escape crowds, enjoy the quiet, be in the nature without leaving the city. One of those places is Bitzevsky park. If you look at Moscow map, you will find large green area in the South of Moscow, stretched from Chertanovo to MKAD. This is Bitzevsky park or Bitzevsky forest.

Bitzevsky park has status of a nature reserve. This status does not allow any construction or any activities in the park, that would disrupt the nature. For the most part Bitzevsky park is a dense wood with extensive grid of trails. Basic park amenities include some paved walking lanes and benches. The park has dedicated picnic area where you can officially use fire grills (setting fire in other parts of the park is prohibited). Picnicking is quite popular among people living nearby.

Other activities park is popular for include running, biking or just walking. There are numerous walking routs through the park. It is a quiet place and if you go off main paved lanes, you will be all alone in the wood.

The park can be accessed by car or by subway. Nearest subway stations are: Chertanovskaya, Belyaevo, Novoyasenevskaya. To access park entrance it will require walking on foot or taking bus from any subway station, except for Novoyasenevskaya, which is located right on the edge of the park. From Novoyasenevskaya one of the main alleys starts, which is paved and cuts through souther part of the park.

Northern part of the park has dedicated bike lane. The lane has special marking and bike traffic signage. The lane starts at Belyaevo subway, runs along Mikluho-Maklaya street and continues into the park. It cuts through the northern part of the park, goes around Chertanovo Severnoe and ends at Chertanovskaya subway station. Leisurely ride between two subway stations takes approximately an hour of time. There are rental bike stations available at both ends of the lane.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

You can however get off the bike lane and do biking in other parts of the park. The park is extremely popular among bikers as you can do all types of biking in the park. The park terrain is not flat, trails go up and down, there is lots of ravins in the park. Some people do extreme biking, some do just slow rides. I filmed short video to show what not so extreme biking in Bitzevsky park looks like.

Northern part of the park has large field (bike lane and main walking lane in the North go through it), popular for sunbathing in summer. In the middle of a field there are some wooden statues and structures made of log. Those used to warship pagan gods. Sometimes on weekends you can see a group of people singing songs and saying prayers to gods well forgotten after Russia accepted Christianity.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Wildlife in the park is represented by over 90 species of birds, squirrels, snakes (not venom) and smaller animals like frogs and mice. A number of springs and small rivers run through Bitzevsky park.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

It takes approximately two and a half to three hours to cross the park on foot from north to south. Exiting on the far south end of the park gets you to Lesoparkovaya subway station. Southern end of the park is less visited by people and feels more like a wilderness area. There are many other routs that will get you from subway station to subway station through the park.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

In winter, Bitzevsky park turns into a cross-country skiing paradise. If you are a skier, you do not have to leave Moscow to enjoy skiing. Skiing is popular in Russia and in winter the park is packed with people of all ages from young kids with their parents to elderly people — all skiing. On the western edge of the park there is mountain ski slope equipped with elevators.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Few precautions when visiting Bitzevsky park:

Although the park is patrolled by police and even on week days has many people, going alone is not a good idea. For safety sake, have company, especially if you walk in the southern part of the park, more secluded and less visited by people.

In some areas of the park there is no cell network coverage. It depends on your provider and location in the park, but there will be blind spots.

There is no streets light in the park. Walking in the dark requires good torch light.

The park has lots of trails, some of them are on maps, specifically Yandex maps has all major lanes. However it’s easy to get lost, so having compass and printed map can be quite useful.

There is no way of buying water or food in the park, take some snack and water if you go on a long stroll.

Most trails have no pavement, having proper footwear is important. Especially in summer and in between seasons it gets real dirty in the park. Some trails have gravel covering and this is a rough type of gravel, so have proper shoes on.

Be cautious about bikers, ride their bikes like crazy. Be careful not to step onto bike lane and be cautious about bikers riding off dedicated bike lane.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

All the pictures in this publication are taken by me.

Vacations and holidays in Russia

Vacations in Russia

By the law, all full-time employees (expats included) in Russia get minimum of 28 (twenty eight) calendar days of paid vacation each year of employment. An employer cannot give less of vacation. Some employees get extra days of paid vacation, which has to be reflected in their job contract.

By the law, vacation days have to be split in two parts. One part has to be consecutive 14 days. Remaining portion of paid vacation can be used all at ones or split in any number of days and used up throughout the year.

For each calendar year HR people make internal document called “schedule of vacations”. Each employee has to plan and schedule their vacation for upcoming year. In most Russian companies schedule of vacations is just a formality and no one follows their vacation plan. It is possible to change days of vacation (from those indicated in the schedule of vacations), but for that an employee has to obtain their supervisors consent and write an application.

On top of minimum 28 days of vacation Russian employees get 17 (seventeen) days of public holidays (as of 2018), also paid for. Number of holiday days change slightly each year as government adjusts them. Adjustments are for making holiday days more “compact” and organized. All the national holidays, working and non-working days are fixed by the government before calendar year starts in an official document called “labour calendar”.

To see up to date calendar of public holidays, copy-paste following phrase into a search engine of your choice: производственный календарь 2018. You will get year’s calendar with working and non-working days indicated. This calendar has status of a law and a must to follow for businesses and government organizations of all kinds. This means everything will be closed on public holidays.

In addition to days off, working hours must be reduced by one hour when working day precedes a public holiday.

Public holidays in Russia

January 1st through January 10th — New Year. The most celebrated holiday in Russia. There is January 7th — Orthodox Christmas, a standalone public holiday. Christmas is not really celebrated (it’s a purely religious holiday in Russia) and it always hides somewhere in between New Year holidays. Exact days of this public holiday change every year, slightly.

February 23rd — Defender of the Fatherland Day. Former soviet army day is widely celebrated as men’s day in Russia.

March 8th — Women’s day. I wrote separate article about this holiday.

May 1st and May 2nd — Labour day. Soviet holiday, migrated into new Russian history. On a private level this holiday is a literal celebration of hard labour as many people start dacha season in these two days. They say these two days are used for planting potatoes on dachas. More about dacha here.

May 9th — Victory Day. This is the day when World War Two officially ended. One of THE most significant holidays in Russia.

June 12th — Day of Russia. Signifies end of ussr history and Russia becoming independent country.

November 4th — National Unity Day. Many people view this holiday as a substitute for the communist revolution day (in ussr observed on November 7th). This holiday however is a celebration of harmonious co-existence of people of different cultures, ethnical backgrounds, religions that never divide, but rather unite all people of Russia, making the country stronger.

Holidays have significant impact on business activity in Russia. Subscribers of Russia Simplified newsletter receive this and other extra materials on each publication of this blog.

What is dacha?

Фото: ТАСС/Н.Желудович

Dachas came to be long before communist revolution in 1917. In those times only wealthy families could afford to have a spare countryside house for summer stay outside of the city. This would be a piece of land with a big house. Families would move from their city apartment to dacha for the whole summer. Dachas were meant purely for leisure living in summer. In early communist times dacha tradition was continued. Having dacha was a privilege of communist party rulers and soviet elite of all kinds. Ordinary people were not allowed to have dacha and in most cases could not afford having one.

Dachas as we know them today started to evolve in the early 1950s. Back then soviet government realized that soviet agricultural system was not efficient enough to provide food for the whole population of the country. They started to give pieces of land for free, so people from cities could grow their own produce and feed their families in this way.

Each soviet organization or factory was given a piece of land for dachas. That piece of land would be split into smaller chunks and each worker would get their own piece. This is how dacha “villages” were formed. Dacha is never a standalone place, it’s always a part of dacha “village”. The only allowed use of dacha was to grow vegetables and fruits. There was no electricity, no water and toilet was (and still is in most cases) outside.

Now there is thousands of dacha villages around larger cities. All of them accessible by car, some can be accessed by public transportation. Very few people had cars back in soviet times, so to get to their dachas people had to take train, bus and do a lot of walking.

Typical standard size of dacha land is 600 square meters. In Russian this is called “6 sotok” (shest’ sotok). There are pieces of land larger in size, but not much larger, unless one family owns two or even three pieces of land next to each other.

Initially dacha land was just a piece of raw undeveloped field or wood. To make it usable, trees and bushes had to be removed and soil had to be cultivated for agricultural use. The house or some basic shelter had to be built on dacha. Developing dachas required lots of physical hard-work and sweat. In soviet times when everything was in shortage, people had no cars, no equipment and construction materials, developing dacha was tough. Almost everything had to be done with bare hands.

People worked hard on their dachas and developed it, planting fruit trees, growing vegetables and everything else that can be grown on land. In soviet times some dacha owners harvested a real good crop on their dachas, too much of produce for a single family to consume. That extra crop was sold on farmers markers in cities. Those were real farmers markets, with real organic produce. Nowadays “farmers markets” are just fancy looking imitations with no real farmers.

In decades of soviet and post-soviet history dachas have been continuously developing. Although no new dachas are given after ussr collapse, existing ones have been used, maintained and developed. Many people say, food grown on dacha, helped them survive tough 1980s and 1990s. For many dacha is still a substantial source of food, as not every family can afford buying produce from retailers.

Most dachas now have electricity. Dacha houses vary in size and amenities. Some dachas still have simple shelters or small summer cabin type houses with no running water (or seasonal water supply). Some evolved into full, sometimes very large houses, insulated for a winter stay, with heating, running water and sewage, gas and many other amenities. Those dachas, well equipped, are suitable for a full time living and very often used as primary homes. With new legislature dacha owners can get registration on their dachas, so it becomes fully official place of residence.

For majority of dacha owners dacha still (although large and well equipped) serves as summer house visited only on weekends. On Friday evenings, late April through late October habitants of larger cities flee to their dachas to spend weekends there.

What people do on dacha? Many people are just relaxing and doing whatever they would do at home. Some people do landscaping on their dachas. Majority of dacha owners still grow fresh produce on their land. That includes seasonal vegetables, berries and fruits. Some have green houses to grow produce off-season. Dacha probably is the only way to get truly organic produce. Growing produce requires good deal of physical labor and time. Some people do just simple gardening, some feed their families off their dachas. If crop is plenty, people might do canning and making jam on dachas. Some dachas have lakes and rivers nearby, so swimming can be a fun dacha activity. Some dacha owners install swimming pools. The list of activities can go on forever as there is no limits to what you can do on your own piece of land in your own house.

Family and friend gatherings are quite popular on dachas. This involves cooking food, grilling shashlik, drinking, having good time. If dacha has banya on its premise, which is not uncommon, banya activity becomes a part of dacha time.

Largely, dacha is an escape from concrete apartment block buildings people live in big cities. Being in the nature, gardening, cooking food, relaxing — are all good ways to unwind stress and restore psyche.

Many people do not have their own dachas and simply rent them for the summer. The market is large, good number of offers is always there. Buying dacha is also an option and dacha can be relatively inexpensive depending on proximity to the city, type of dacha housing and other amenities.

See that mailing list subscription fields on top of this page? If you subscribe to Russia Simplified mailing list, I will e-mail you extra materials on article topics in this blog. You will receive deeper cultural background information, practical advises and personal recommendations. Promise, I will not e-mail too often.