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

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Concept of personal space in Russia

Plainly and simply: the concept of physical personal space does not exist in Russia. No extended hand rule. People around you, friends and total strangers alike will violate your personal space all the time.

On one hand in overpopulated cities like Moscow it is always crowded everywhere. In public places it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact with strangers. Public transportation is packed with people, crowds of pedestrians on streets, way too many customers in grocery shops, especially on weekends. On the other hand even in situations when there is plenty of space available, personal space is never minded and never respected. When you ask Russians about their personal space (личное пространство — lichnoe prostranstvo) they think about their apartment.

Here are some real (absolutely real, not exaggerated even a bit) situations to illustrate how it works in Russia.

You are in a grocery store. You are about to go to check out and every check-out has long lines. You wait for additional check-out to be open. Store clerk jumps between two cash registers as something is not working. You are not sure which check-out opens, so you wait. Another customer comes behind you and smashes your back with her shopping cart. You turn to complain. She angrily blames you for being too slow. Same might happen in the store isle, customers push you and hit you with their shopping carts and complain that you are talking too much space, or too slow or say nothing and just walk away.

You are standing on a street sidewalk. The street is empty, no one is around. You are talking on your cell phone. There is like two meters of empty sidewalk space between you and a curb. Another pedestrian, total stranger, walks towards you. She goes right at you, not making even a step to avoid hitting you. She approaches you, hits you with her bag as she passes you just a few inches away and continues walking. This happens all the time, people walking on streets would never take a step to part ways, they would smash you with their shoulder or bag. No one would ever apologies.

You are in subway. It is late and subway car is almost empty. You are standing in the corner, there is no one around and a bunch of seats available. Two passengers come in at a station. They do not pay attention to all the empty seats empty space available. They go right to where you stand, one of them stops like an inch away from you, almost touching you. They talk and pay no attention. Each time the train makes turn, or slows or shakes, that passenger leans on you. You complain and ask them to get away from you. They give you a strange look, and reluctantly move away.

You are in subway again. You are sitting on a corner seat, close to doors. There is just a handrail that separates you from the doorway. The handrail is close to your face, few inches away. Another passenger comes in and puts her butt onto that handrail. Her butt is real big. So when she stands this way, leaning her butt onto that handrail, her butt gets right into your face. You complain, but she complains back saying it is comfortable for her to stand there and she won’t move. You take out a ballpoint pen and poke her butt. She starts yelling at you.

There is a bunch of deep cultural reasons for this type of behavior, but suffice it to say — notion of physical personal space does not exists in Russian culture. In all the public places, offices, people will be getting real close to you — physically, touching you, pushing, often without any reason. What may seem as aggressive and disrespectful behavior, in reality is a norm, well tolerated in Russian culture.

The strangest Russian food — okroshka

Modern Russian cuisine for the most part comes from soviet or post-soviet cooking traditions. Revolution in 1917 destroyed all the Russian lifestyle including cooking, serving and eating traditions that have been developing in Russia for centuries.

What nowadays represents modern Russian cuisine, including “traditional” recipes, cooking and eating traditions is inherited from decades of soviet history. Recipes of food served now labeled “Russian traditional food” come from soviet times with its shortage of everything, various limitations, very specific and often doctrine driven ways of living.

Some dishes however, popular before communist revolution, survived soviet history and still hold their firm place in modern Russian cuisine. Okroshka is one of them.

Okroshka is a seasonal dish, popular in summer, although you can fix it any time of the year. Okroshka is sort of a cold soup, which does not require boiling in a process of cooking.

Okroshka recipes slightly vary from household to household, but all recipes consist of okroshka mix and liquid base. Liquid base for okroshka is usually kvas or buttermilk (kefir). Kvas you can make on your own kitchen or buy from a grocery store, kvas and kefir sold everywhere.

Ones you have okroshka base, you can prepare the mix. Okroshka mix ingredients are (makes four large bowls): radishes (6 pieces), cucumbers (6 small sized), hard boiled eggs (4-6 medium sized), boiled potatoes (6 medium sized), dill, parsley, scallions, sausage or meat (1/2 kilos).

Quantity of ingredients and proportions can be adjusted depending on number of eaters and your taste. Ingredients require some time to prepare: boiling eggs and meat (if you use meat instead of sausage), cutting. It makes practical sense to prepare larger volume of okroshka mix that can be kept in a fridge and split to make several meals.

Some notes on the ingredients. I somewhat dislike radishes and boiled potatoes, so my okroshka has less of them. I put in more cucumbers and parsley though. You can adjust ingredients to your taste. If you are going to try okroshka in a cafe or restaurant, it might have different (and sometimes unusual) ingredients as chefs want to be creative and experiment.

Last ingredient of the mix usually is sausage. I do not eat sausage (all sausage sold in stores is imitation made of rubbish). For replacement I boiled 1/2 kilos (one pound) of beef fillet, cut in small chunks and added to the mixture. You can use chicken, turkey as substitute for sausage/beef or keep your okroshka completely vegetarian.

Mix all ingredients, for serving put mixture into soup bowls, add kvas or kefir — on top of mixture, covering it completely, season with salt and pepper to taste. If you use kvas, tablespoon of sour-cream will complete the dish.

The strangest Russian food — okroshka

Okroshka is easy to make and can be a fun kitchen activity during the summer. It is very low in calories, not heavy for the stomach and refreshing in hot summer days. If you prepare larger volume of okroshka mix and have enough liquid base, it will make you several meals, so less cooking, more fun in the summer. Have you tried okroshka?

Ecology in Moscow

By all means Moscow is a great place for a short visit or long term stay. In many respects Moscow ecology is no different compared to other big cities. In fact, there are world capitals much worse in ecology compared to Moscow. Ecology should not stop you from coming to Moscow. However, there are some points to be covered on the topic of Moscow ecology.

(Above picture is taken in Muzeon park in Moscow)

Air. Air pollution in Moscow is enormous (Beijing is much worse). Main source of air pollution is cars. Over a half of Moscow cars are old soviet rundown vehicles, from smaller sedans to large trucks, producing emissions not compliant with any modern day standards. Another air pollutant is industry. Although most of the large factories were moved outside Moscow, there are is bunch of power and heating plants, large oil refinery, sewage treatment plant and many smaller factories and industrial types of businesses. These are all within MKAD. On the picture below is what accumulates on a windowsill after several days of not cleaning. This is in winter, when windows are closed most of the time.

Ecology in Moscow

There are stories circulating about some areas in Moscow where winds blow in a certain direction, bringing fresh air from outside Moscow. All those stories are downright lies fabricated by real estate agents and developers. There are no areas with clean air in Moscow, only areas with dirtier air.

What you can do about this? Avoid living in areas of Moscow where there is industry. This mostly includes East and South-East of Moscow outside Garden Ring. Look for apartment options away from power plants, major streets and freeways. Avoid apartment buildings where car parking is in front of your windows. Greenery, reduces pollution, so look for housing options in areas with lots of large trees. Buy humidifier for your apartment and do wet cleaning regularly. Make sure apartment windows do not leak any outside air when shut. Air conditioner must be in the apartment.

Noise. “Moscow never sleeps” may be a romantic phrase people pass around, but in practical terms it means 24/7 horrendous noise pollution. If you come from a smaller, quieter place it might bother you. Moscow is crossed by a number of busy highways and freeways, large 8 to 10 lane streets and countless smaller streets. Millions of cars run all these streets and roads non stop for 24 hours a day.

In summer, situation with street noise worsens as bikers and sports car lovers roar loudly at night. Windows are open and all the noise gets into your apartment. Never ending building construction, street rebuilding, trains and all other types of city noises also make contribution to ever present background rumble.

What you can do about this? Never rent an apartment on any major street in Moscow. Look for secluded options. If you rent an apartment on busy street, bedroom windows must face backyard. Make sure windows in the apartment you are about to rent provide enough soundproofing. Consider locations off downtown. Air conditioner is a must have for any Moscow apartment.

Dirt and chemicals on streets. Lawn maintenance is something Russians are not really good at. It is difficult to spot a good, quality lawn in Russia, even in Moscow. Also, there are unpaved dirt areas, where people walk. Soil, dirt gets from parks, lawns, unpaved areas onto the paved sidewalks and streets and roads. This creates lots of dirt on streets. In the past years Moscow government undertaken a street rebuilding program, repaving streets, putting tiles on sidewalks, installing new water drains and street lights, making good quality lawns, planting lots of trees. This rebuilding affected downtown, so it now for the most part looks very nice. Street cleaning and maintenance is done regularly and streets are very clean, but not everywhere. In areas off downtown there is still old pavement and dirt on streets. When it rains or snows dirt mixes with water and makes a layer of thick sludge on Moscow streets. Not taking your shoes off in your apartment really is not an option here.

In winter street cleaners use special chemicals to melt the snow. Chemicals that look like white gravel generously (and manually) applied onto Moscow streets. These chemicals officially proclaimed harmless, in reality destroy your shoes. In spring those chemicals dry and create solid white layer on streets. If no rain, this white stuff lifts up in the air by wind and makes sort of a chemical dust storm. This white chemical dust gets into your eyes and nose, causing irritation and allergies. Streets are getting cleaning in spring to remove all residual chemicals, but in some areas cleaning can be delayed.

What you can do about this? If you do a lot of walking in winter time, have proper footwear on. Your shoes must be water proof, on a thick sole, made of material to withstand both ice and chemicals. If you have a dog, wash don’g paws after walking.

Trash. The thing about Russians is that few people accept their personal responsibility of keeping a place where they live clean. People litter mindlessly and expect someone else to clean after them. It is “normal” to see piles of garbage in parks left after picnics, street trash, overflown garbage bins and other evidence of garbage everywhere. Government takes a huge effort to clean city streets and parks from garbage. However having good citizens littering everywhere they go makes all the cleaning efforts quite inefficient. More cleaning effort is applied in Moscow downtown, so streets and parks close to Moscow center are cleaned regularly and get a lot of maintenance throughout the year. However outside of downtown or some secluded areas within Garden Ring it’s easy to spot garbage here and there. Garbage management and removal also have to be improved in many residential areas of Moscow.

What you can do about this? Not much. Perhaps try not to act like locals and do not contribute more garbage to city streets. Also, when renting an apartment make sure garbage bins are far away from your windows, so you won’t see it or smell it.

Water. Moscow River is a main water artery running through Moscow. There are smaller rivers, lakes and ponds found across Moscow. Each summer city officials publish a list of lakes and Moscow River areas safe for swimming. Despite official safety checks I would strongly advise anyone from bathing in any lakes or ponds inside Moscow.

What you can do about this? To swim or bathe in clean water you have to drive outside Moscow upstream Moscow River. There are areas for sunbathing and swimming, with infrastructure, nice and well maintained. There will be a small fee for using those areas. There are public areas with no fees, that’s further drive from Moscow and you need to know specific place to go. Ask Russians for recommendation and be aware that good places will be very crowded in summer.

Tap water subject is covered here.

Dog waste. Dogs are very popular in Russia, and there are no restrictions to have a dog (no registration, no tax). Official statistics is not available, but as I understand every second or third family in Moscow has a dog. Dogs Russian families have, vary in size, from little chihuahua to shepherds, huskies and bigger breeds. All these dogs are walked regularly and all of them poop and pee on streets and lawns and in parks and everywhere. In Russia no one removes dog waste after their pets.

What you can do about this? Watch your step and never lay on a grass in Moscow.

Must haves of Moscow apartment

When you rent an apartment in Moscow you will have your own checklist of items and conditions to suite your family needs. Make sure to have below items on your checklist, as they will make your stay in Moscow more comfortable and free of hassles you perhaps have never dealt with in a place you relocate from.

Air conditioner. Summer in Moscow is hot with temperatures getting to +30 and higher. Apartment buildings made of concrete and bricks accumulate heat easily and you boil inside. Keeping windows open might not be an option because of street noise and air pollution. Outside air may be just too uncomfortably hot and opening window simply does not help. Especially if your apartment windows facing West, and sunset goes directly into your windows, your apartment will feel like burning furnace in summer. Air conditioner does the job of making you feel comfortable in your apartment. Another use of air conditioner is between seasons. This is a time when it is cold outside, but central heating is not on. Heating function on your air conditioner becomes real handy to make you feel warm.

Water boiler. Unlike many other countries, in Russia hot water and heating supplied centrally. Large electric/heat plants produce and pump hot water to all apartments in town. This requires complex infrastructure like heating plant equipment, pumps, many kilometers of pipes with valves and so on. All this infrastructure requires regular maintenance and renewal and it happens in summer. Every year in summer hot water is shut off for 1-2 weeks for maintenance. This means no hot shower, washing hands and doing dishes in the cold water. Boiler eliminates the problem.

Mosquito nets. Spring through autumn Moscow is full of flies and mosquitos. Not having nets on your apartment windows means you will have mosquito bites every night and insect guests throughout the day. Location of the apartment building does not matter, so if apartment owner tells you there are no mosquitos in the area it’s a lie. Mosquito nets prevent unwanted insects from visiting your apartment.

Another function of the mosquito net is preventing cigarette butts and small trash from accidentally flying into your windows. Neighbors living upstairs from you can be not very mindful about this and throwing things out their window. Sometimes it’s not just small pieces of garbage, but larger cans and bottles thrown out the window. Yes, this happens.

Blackout drapes. In spring and summer Moscow day starts at 4 o’clock in the morning. The sun goes down around 10 in the evening. This makes night time, when it’s dark, real short in Moscow, you get like 5-6 hours of dark in June, at best. Many locals feel just fine sleeping when it’s not dark outside. If you are from the area where there is more balance between day light and night darkness you might have sleep issues. Sleep issue is something you absolutely do not want to have as good sleep is a primary mechanism for coping with stresses of living in a new place. Blackout drapes become handy to solve this problem. Blackout drapes are made of special multi-layered cloth that blocks out sunlight completely. If you close blackout draped in the middle of a sunny day, your room will become completely dark. Having blackout drapes closed at night stops early morning daylight from waking you up at 4 in the morning. As a positive side effect, blackout drapes provide extra soundproofing and this benefits good night sleep as well. Blackout drapes can be made by order (pricey), or purchased in household stores, for example, Ikea stocks them.

Humidifier. In winter intense central heating and not so humid outside air produce very dry air in Moscow apartments. Windows are closed in winter because of cold, no enough of humid outside air gets inside. If no humidifier is used, humidity inside an ordinary Moscow apartment in winter is somewhere around 15%. This is not Sahara, but it has detrimental effect on skin and hair, increases dust in the air and creates certain difficulties breathing. If you rent an apartment and it does not come with a humidifier, buy one, it’s a very inexpensive piece of equipment, sold in most electronic stores.

Safety in Russia: beware of ticks

Years ago ticks were widespread only in Ural, Siberia and Far East regions of Russia. In recent years ticks also found in Moscow area and Moscow.

Ticks pose serious threat to people and pets. They carry multiple nasty infections that can put you in hospital for weeks, disable for life or kill you.

Although government issues many warnings on tick issue, level of awareness of locals (those who live in Moscow, Moscow region and central Russia) is still low. Locals, people born in Moscow are not always fully aware about ticks situation, dangers of being bitten and prevention measures. I was born in the area of the country where ticks are widespread and every kid knows what it is and how to protect themselves.

Ticks have maximum activity in spring and throughout the summer. Found in greenery — parks, forests and fields. You can find detailed information on ticks on the internet. Moscow parks also have ticks, latest reports also say, ticks carrying encephalitis found in Moscow.

If you plan to spend leisure time in parks or go for a hiking trip, go to dacha or just do “shashlik” somewhere in the nature, please learn how to protect you, your family and pets from being bitten by ticks. In short, essential protection measures include certain clothing style, using special repellent spray (in Moscow can be found in most grocery stores), regularly checking specific body parts. For pets special protective leashes available, repellent sprays and other methods of protection. I can not give specific recommendations as I am not professional in this area, but plenty of official resources available on the internet (see some below).

There are specific emergency (extremely urgent) actions to take if you find a tick stuck to your body. Special government medical centers available to go to if you find a tick on your body. They will treat you against possible infections. I also suggest to check with your local health care provider (recommended by insurance company) if they can provide assistance in such cases.

Moscow is a safe place, but some threats do exist, please be mindful of them and protect your family. Use internet to find specific information on ticks from professionals in your native language. You need to familiarize yourself with following topics:

Learn what ticks are, where they are found, how to identify a tick and how to avoid being bitten by ticks.

Understand and apply comprehensive preventive measures for your family and pets, especially dogs.

Learn emergency steps in case you find a tick stuck to your body or your pet. Have address of a local emergency center that handles tick bites. Consult with your local health care provider on how they can assist you in a situation with ticks.

Stay safe. I offer orientation sessions for expats and their families, where we discuss all important topics of living safe, hassle-free life in Moscow. Contact me if you would like to book as session.

Some external resources:

Official Moscow resource on ticks, its dangers, prevention measures and emergency actions.

Comprehensive resource in English on ticks, preventive measures (US CDC)