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Notes on living and working in Russia

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Moscow winter clothing

It is October 31st and Moscow is hit by the first snowfall, although this weather is not usual for October - November. Normally we have such snow somewhere end of November or most likely in December. If we consider this snow as winter beginning, this means winter in Moscow is five months long (March is a full scale winter). This snow is going to melt anyway, because weather in November and December is quite unstable. Temperature fluctuates from slightly freezing at night to above zero during the day.

It's time to talk about practicalities of surviving Moscow winter.

If you are coming from northern hemisphere you are probably very familiar with how to cope with cold and snow. Canada, northern US states (Montana, North Dakota, New England, Wisconsin and neighboring states); Scandinavia have winter weather conditions close to those in Moscow. I would say for Moscow you chose same clothing style as you would in one of those areas. For those coming from places with milder climate , below are suggestions on clothing in late fall and beginning of Moscow winter.

Hat. It can be something simple, yet practical. "Classic" fur hats, so popular in soviet times no one wears anymore. Beanies are popular here. Russian men prefer conservative style and colors that is black and gray. Women on contrary normally pick fancy hat styles.

Waterproof, warm garment preferably with hood. You can use umbrella instead of hood, which however can be inconvenient. I emphasize waterproof because many locals wear wool coats and fur coats and they just look cool, but not very practical in the beginning of winter. In November in December it is very usual to have rain, sleet or snow, and type of precipitation can change during the day. In the past years we had a number of occasions of freezing rain.

Extra sweater or fleece jacket or warm piece of clothing beneath upper garment. This is optional, to add extra layer of insulation. Usually all offices, apartments and public places have really good heating inside, but some place may have draughts and better to have something warm on, even inside.

Gloves. Whatever you like. Most people wear leather gloves, but wool gloves would do just fine.

Shoes or boots on thick sole, waterproof and preferably with thick socks or some extra layer of insulation to keep your feet warm. This is especially important because in Moscow it snows all the time in winter. I mean it, there will be piles of snow by the end of January. Because of temperatures going up and down, and because of special chemicals used to melt snow, the snow turns into sludge. Thick layer of sludge on sidewalks, roads, everywhere. You are out of your place or office, put your feet onto the street and it fails into a mixture of snow and water up to your ankle. It is also very slippery, so choosing proper shoes is a safety measure. Speaking of those special chemicals to melt snow and ice on streets, generously applied by street workers on roads and sidewalks and everywhere. Those chemicals will ruin your shoes easily, if they are made of natural materials. Advice is not to wear expensive shoes (unless you are in a car and don't walk much). What many Russians do, they just have spare pair lighter shoes for the office and something heavier and more practical for the street.

Style. You will find variety of clothing styles on Moscow streets. Many people tend to dress conservatively in what they believe stylish in their own understanding. Younger generation is much more relaxed about outfits. Colors of choice are normally gray and black. Unless you have some specific reasons to dress in a certain way (like office policy), choose outfit that suits you best. I would say most common European and American outfits would look just fine in Moscow crowds.

Moscow winter clothing

tipping in Russia

Russia tipping culture is not strong, like for example in the US, where tips is absolute must everywhere.  In Russia people in service jobs also do expect tips. Seemingly simple subject, but look how many points and recommendations below on giving tips in Russia.

Tips are common in cafes, restaurants (where there is table service). Normal tip amount is 5-10% if you liked the service and believe they really made extra effort in serving you. Waiters are paid for their job some minimum salary, but it covers basic service of bringing your orders and removing dirty dishes and this is included in a price of food and drinks. Tips are extra, so they have to provide extra service on top of basic function to deserve the tip. 

Tips can be personal, meaning waiters put in their pockets whatever they make on tips, but most commonly waiters share tips with other personnel who don't get to work with guests directly. This does not affect your tip, but when you consider amount, take into account quality of drinks, food and overall service, because people who contributed to all these might get some of your tip too. 

Tipping is done only in CASH, you can not put tips on a credit card. Meaning for tipping you need to carry some cash anyway.

If you did not leave tips, I suggest to never return to the same place. Going back to the place you did not like would be pointless anyway. 

Ones you finish meals and want to pay and leave, you ask for a bill - счёт пожалуйста - schet pozhaluista. Usually your bill will arrive in a small folder. Some places get creative and bring your bill in some kind of a box or something else. Check that everything is in order and bill has what you actually ordered. Nowadays they often ask how you pay upon bringing the bill - cash or credit card - nalichnie ili kreditnaya karta? If card, they will bring card terminal and after payment leave your receipts in the same folder. (If they do not have wireless card terminal they might ask you to go to the terminal and enter your pin.) You take those receipts if you need them and leave tips in the same folder. 

When you receive bill (literally everywhere with table service), text at the very bottom of it says: “Tips for the waiter are welcomed, but we leave it for your consideration”. (This phrase is on the receipt picture above).

If you pay in cash - "nalichnie"; you will have to put money in that folder together with bill and leave it for waiter or give it to them or wait for the to pick it up from the table. Nothing fancy as you can see.

Important trick - when you do not have exact amount and put bigger bill that will require change. If you hand the folder with bill and your money and say "spasibo" - thanks (or say spasibo when they pick up the folder), this will be an indication that whatever change - it goes for tips. When you say “spasibo” they might not return your change, thinking you are so generous.  If you put the money in that bill folder but they can not understand if they can take it from your table they would ask. Sometimes they hesitate or forget, so you can proactively say "rasschitaite pozhaluista". You point at the bill folder or hand it to them. This is useful if waiter or waitress is slow and you are in a hurry. 

Normally they would bring your change in the same folder. You leave tips in it and either leave folder on the table or hand it to the waiter or waitress, saying - spasibo. This indicates the end of transaction and gratitude as well.  

Leaving small coins is a sign of disrespect. It depends on a waiter and a place however, but generally for tips you leave bills. 

In some self-service places they have kind of small bin or box nearby cash register with a note saying “tips”. This happens often in craft beer places for example.  It’s up to you whether you wanna tip them or not and in this case you can use coins, especially if your bill is small and tip consequently is small too. 

Tipping taxi drivers is not necessary, however you can do it if you like their service. Example. I was leaving for airport and called myself a taxi. They give 10 minutes to come to the car. After 10 minutes waiting fee starts ticking – by minute. I was 5 minutes late, but I noticed that driver did not clocked waiting time on the meter. I got into the car, it was very clean and smelled real good. In addition the driver did not talk as he was driving me. Cost of the trip was 1200 Rubles and I gave him extra 100, because of the wait he did not bill me and because the ride was smooth and overall pleasant. I also left positive feedback on the app I was using to order the taxi.

Hotel tips are not very common, however hotel staff might expect you to tip, knowing that in most western countries this is what you normally do. Personally I would leave some money for whoever does room cleaning if I like how the room is made up. It happens very often, especially outside of Moscow, that they do not understand that money left are for them and just carefully put it somewhere on the table. In this case I would just leave it there and maybe add some more if I stay more nights. 

Russia tipping culture - useful vocabulary:

Cчёт пожалуйста (Schet pozhaluista) - Check please.

Наличные [Nalichnie] - Cash.

Кредитная карта (Kreditnaya karta) - Credit card.

Рассчитайте пожалуйста (Rasschitaite pozhaluista) - Check-out please (this is used specifically when paying bill in a cafe or restaurant and you want waiter to take your money).

Спасибо (Spasibo) - Thanks (In Russian we really use just "thanks" rather than "thank you").

Все было хорошо (Vse bilo horosho) - Everything was good (this can be used in response to question like "how you liked everything?").

Нам всё понравилось (Nam vsyo ponravilos) - We liked everything (same as above, form of feedback).

beer Moscow craft

Beer is very popular in Russia. In the past twenty years beer industry in Russia has been developing steadily. Unlike countries where beer is a national kind of product and has been developing for centuries, in Russia beer is a product borrowed from other cultures. Many international and local beer manufacturers do business in Russia and vast variety of beer products are sold everywhere. However, large brewing factories are built to make profits, not to satisfy tastes. And tastes of general public are not very demanding, because again, beer has been known for last two-three decades only (soviet times do not really count). 

As a result of this profit-priority approach and simple tastes of end consumers quality of local beer suffers. In pursuit of profits large manufacturers use imitations and substitutes of wheat and hop, add chemicals to enhance taste and do other nasty things. This is why Heineken from Russian factory tastes differently from Heineken I would have at the hotel lobby in Amsterdam airport. Two visually identical bottles of Czech beer will have different taste because one is local and one is imported (much better by taste but priced four times more). Maybe I am just being picky and subjective, I don’t know. 

If you are going for a beer in a conventional beer place or just some cafe or restaurant, they will offer you only factory beer. Conventional meaning pub imitations where they only sell factory beer from big well-known brands and their stock never changes. They might have some imported beer as well, which can be good, but pricey and availability of imported beer is somewhat limited. 

About three-four years ago craft beer industry started to pick up in Russia. Small breweries popped up like mushrooms after a good rain and nowadays we have full-scale craft beer industry. If you do not know what “craft beer” means just search it on the web. Together with breweries, craft beer places started to open and now there are dozens of craft beer places all across Moscow.  

Craft beer places vary in size and concept. In general craft beer places are simple yet stylish in design and very casual. Casual atmosphere is what all craft beer places seem to proactively establish and maintain. Public in craft beer places is not “traditional Russian”. Although varies in ages, regulars of craft beer places seem to be more relaxed, less formal, more simple and lacking that distinctive and very noticeable tension in their demeanor typically found in people with soviet background. People working in craft pubs are very keen about products they serve. If you don’t know what you want, they can recommend based on your preference or give a small sample to try. Basic information on each brew (ibu, alcohol) is normally written next to a brew name on a special board.

Some craft beer places stock fixed brews, some rotate their stock all the time. Some have good kitchen, for some food is not a priority and you may have something simple or not have any food at all. In most places you can have seating at the counter, have beer in the evening or quickly during the day between events. All craft beer places are self-service – you order at the counter, pay and bring your beer to your seating yourself. If you order food they might bring it to you when it’s ready or just loudly announce it and you have to pick it up yourself. 

beer Moscow craft

Below are three places worth visiting based on my own experience.

All three are located in the same nice downtown area within walking distance from each other. 

Parka. Cozy place next to Novokuznetskaya subway station (literally across the street). The place has very unique design, build of natural materials – wood and stone. When they just opened, the whole place smelled this distinctive smell of freshly cut wood. Now that smell is almost gone, but the place is still very nice and comfortable. There are three rooms in Parka - one upstairs, at the entrance, and two downstairs with separate bar. They serve some food, which I must admit is good and their menu items are carefully selected to match beer. People working in Parka are young and friendly. Parka serves craft beer domestic and imported from the tap, but they also have huge variety of bottled beers and ales.

Underdog. Very small place located next to Tretyakovskaya subway station. Underdog is a tiny place with bar counter and just a few tables. There are couple of benches on the street and in good weather people have their drinks outside. The place located close to a very busy pedestrian street. The entrance however is hidden in a secluded corner, so if you are drinking outside, no one will see (and this is the reason the place is hard to find). I understand the place is family owned, at least I spoke with the guy tending the bar, who seemed to be the owner. Whenever I stop by this place they always have totally new kinds of beers from their taps. They rotate beers regularly and what you are drinking today might not be available tomorrow. They serve no food  (chips do not count). Beer is primarily domestic craft and they have 40 taps.  

Pitcher pub. Located on the corner of Pyatnitskaya street and Garden ring. The place is very popular and on Friday and Saturday nights is packed with people. Pitcher pub has live music performances by local bands or solo singers. There are two rooms, one at the entrance and one downstairs. Sitting at the bar counter is also available. Aside from many varieties of domestic and imported craft beers Pitch pub serves food: sausages, burgers, potato wedges, sandwiches and some others. The grill is located behind the counter, so everything is fixed in front of your eyes. Staff is very young, friendly and eager to recommend a specific brew based on your taste and preferences. The pub serves tap beer and bottled beer - there is a huge array of beer bottles behind the counter.

beer Moscow craft

Notes on drinking craft beer in Moscow:

Legal age is 18. You might be asked for an ID.

Prices. Pint of local beer from the tap is roughly 180-300 Rubles. Imported beer is 250-400 Rubles. My own check usually comes to 1500 Rubles (US$25) per visit and that’s including some food. Credit cards taken everywhere. 

All craft beer places sell tap beer in plastic disposable bottles - on request, so you can take beer home to enjoy.

Some people tending bar are able to communicate in English with customers. (That does not happen often, because no one speaks English in this country).

All craft beer places are self-service and no tip necessary. However they usually have like a tip box at the counter, so you can express gratitude leaving 50-100 (or more) Rubles if you enjoyed the place.

The law prohibits drinking in public places (on streets, parks, etc) and police really enforces this, at least in Moscow.

Smoking is totally banned from all public places, and you can only smoke outside. 

beer Moscow craft

beer Moscow craft

Have a good drink.

DME Domodedovo airport

Domodedovo, DME, is one of three major Moscow airports. The airport was built in soviet times. After USSR collapsed, in 90’s DME was transferred to private hands and since than airport undergone a number of rebuilds. Nowdays DME is a modern airport providing level of services, comfort and safety comparable with major international airports in Europe and US. Construction of the airport is not finished yet, new concourses are being built together with third runway. Existing DME infrastructure is capable of handling any types of aircrafts including A380.

Design-wise DME terminal is nothing fancy. It’s a practical piece of architecture, simple and very utilitarian. DME terminal performs basic airport functions such as check-in, security, customs and passport control, food, duty-free shopping, business lounges, baggage handling and so on. Also DME has small orthodox church and mosque.

DME terminal is new, clean, tidy and well organized, but not very spacious. Not sure about official figures, but it looks like that airport is running at the edge of its capacity and it seems to be always very crowded. It gets worse in peak travel seasons, for which please see special precautions below. 

How to get to DME airport. There are two ways of getting to Domodedovo airport:

By Aeroexpress train from Paveletskiy rail terminal. The train rides every 30 minutes and it takes 45 minutes of travel non-stop. In DME train platform is connected directly to the terminal. Ones you’re out of ticket gates (located at the exit from platform), the terminal door is in a few steps away. Unlike other airports, DME train platform is outside and if you have to wait for the train, be mindful about weather conditions. 

By car, if you are willing to take a risk of being stuck in Moscow traffic, especially on MKAD (Moscow ring road). There is no direct road from Moscow downtown to DME, you almost inevitably have to drive on MKAD to get to the road that goes to DME. The road to DME originates from MKAD (Moscow ring road) and has no thru traffic, meaning it ends at Domodedovo airport. Another issue with using car is that Domodedovo unlike most modern airports does not have elevated ramp for departures. In addition, area in front of the terminal used for car pick-ups and drop-offs is very small and inefficiently organized. Because departures and arrivals use the same area it’s always a total mess of cars and passengers. Airport administration had tried to organize traffic flow for a number of times with no success. 

Official website mentions bus and commuter train as transportation options, which I do not recommend for a number of reasons. 

All navigation in the airport is bilingual. Do not expect airport personnel to be able to have conversations with you in languages other than Russian. Most likely airline ground personnel will be able to address basic and common issues in English, but no more than this.

There are no transfer options between DME and other airports (VKO, SVO) other than taxi. It will take at least 2 (most likely 3) hours by car to get from DME to any other Moscow airport, unless you travel real early in the morning (like 3am, but no guarantees).  Alternatively you can go through Moscow downtown, but this will require changing different trains and subway or taxi between trains as they depart from different stations. 

Transfers between connecting flights within DME are relatively easy if you checked-in for your final destination. For international flights all transfers happen within one concourse and roughly one hour between flights should be enough (more for international – domestic transfers). Beware that even though you will not be leaving international flights area you will need to go through security checkpoint between flights. This means if you have liquids purchased in duty free before previous flight they will be confiscated.  There is plenty of personnel and information desks in the arrival areas to help you with transfers. 

DME Domodedovo airport

Special precautions on traveling through DME in peak travel seasons:

Peak seasons are: December 15th through January 1st, April 15th through May 10th, July and August in general. It is advised to add one extra hour for arriving and getting through all airport procedures.

If you are going to the airport by rail, board the train as early as it opens doors for passengers. Trains get overcrowded and you will have to stand for the whole 45 minutes of traveling. This is especially valid for December and April-May seasons.  As an alternative, book business class seats as they guarantee seating, but booking must be done in advance and it will cost extra.

Add extra time to get to the airport by car. City traffic gets worth in holiday seasons especially in December (because of weather).

If you are going by car, beware that you will stay in traffic just to get to the drop off area entrance gates. This might take 30-60 minutes easily as number of cars in peak seasons will be enormous and airport is not designed to handle increased traffic well.     It will take extra time (up to 30-40 minutes) even to get into the airport building. You have to do luggage screening at the terminal entrance and capacity of check points is not enough for peak seasons. 

Expect crowds and long lines everywhere from check-in to passport and security control. This is because passenger traffic increases drastically and airport is not that spacious.  

There might be flight delays because of weather, especially in December. Flight delays means more passengers in the airport, more chaos and more time lost at security and passport control.

If you are stuck in DME or have to make overnight stay, be informed  there is only one small, overpriced, run-down hotel in walking distance from the terminal. Nothing else is available and if you have time it is better to stay overnight in Moscow downtown nearby Paveletskaya rail station. 

Useful links:

Official website of Domodedovo airport (English) . Versions in Deutch, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese also available.

Aeroexpress train schedule and information for Domodedovo Airport.

Moscow grocery shopping

I wanted to buy a bottle of wine and went to a nearby grocery store. This was one of those big chain stores you find everywhere. In the store, I went straight to the alcohol section and stared at shelves for good fifteen minutes in hope to spot something decent, but not overpriced. Choice of wine in Russia typically is very little especially if you care what you drink.

While I was standing there, some store employee, (judging by her uniform) was browsing wine section, checking price tags, adding missing ones and removing those not in use. I could see a couple of places where she missed a tag, but before I turned to show her, she disappeared.  I found a bottle of Rjoha Gran Reserva, Spanish wine, 2010 for 479 Rubles, how the price tag said. Nice deal, I told myself. I took the bottle and went to the cashier to pay for it.

The cashier scanned the bar code and the amount of 759 Rubles popped up on the cash register screen. By the law, they are required to say purchase amount out loud. They rarely do. “What’s the price on this wine?”, I asked. “759”, she replied. I pointed out that price tag had mich smaller price. She rolled up her eyeballs and asked lady at the nearby cash register for the keys to cancel transaction. I do know what they think about in such situations, that I will just leave with nothing. To make things clear I reassured her: “I still want that bottle and I am paying what the price tag says”. Not many people know it, but this is the law. No matter what cash register bills, a customer pays what the price tag says.

We went to the wine section together and I pointed at that price tag that said 459. “Do you still want to buy this bottle?”, she asked on the way back, hoping to avoid upcoming hassles. “I do”. She grabs the phone and does not know what number to call. She asks security guy about phone number and he does not have a clue. She tries a couple of numbers but reaches no one. Security guy, says: “It’s lunchtime” and asks what is the matter. He is an older guy, speaking with accent that people from Gruziya or Azarbaidzhan very often have. The cashier explains the whole deal with the price discrepancy and he starts to defend her.

He has nothing to do with this, it’s just subconcious. In his mind I am the one bringing trouble for someone from his “circle”. Maybe he likes her, I don’t  know. He begins to mumble things like: “It was a promotion that ended today”. “It was a promotion and all prices changed today in the morning”, he says again. I feel a strong urge to tell him to shut up and do his job, but I don’t wanna raise tensions. 

In this particular store I witnessed quite a few scandals over price discrepancies . I remember one customer complaining about higher price on a box of a chocolate. I saw store employee pointing at the exit by that box of chocolate saying aggressively in a loud voice: “If you don’t want to buy it, the exit is there!”. Another scandal, over a kitchen knife that was supposed to be on sale by the price tag. Customer yelling at a store employee, and employee yelling back at her. They looked like two dogs barking at each other over the counter. And that was the end of a beautiful day, and the customer was grocery shopping for her family, I guess.

So, I am ready! I only regret not having my mobile phone with me to photograph that price tag to make official complain to the store headquarters. I have a couple of strong phrases in mind and I am ready to raise my voice if they give me even a little reason to. This is what you absolutely have to do in this country or they – store workers, managers, security people will just walk over you every time they screw up.

Finally they call the store manager thru the loudspeaker and she comes accompanied by the cashier manager. They ask what is the problem. The cashier says: “The cash register bills 700”. “759”, I correct her. Not paying attention to what I say, she goes on with: “And the tag is 409”. “459”, I correct her again. You see, for her these numbers, prices are unimportant details.

The cashier manager does not bother going to check the price tag. She checks the price on the spare cash register. “Do you still want this wine?”, she asks. “I do”. They have a short and very quiet discussion and store manager makes me a proposal. “What if you pay 759 and I will give you 280 difference in cash?” I agree, knowing this is not a right thing to do, but I just can not, absolutely can not make a scandal over a bottle of wine.

She leaves and comes back shortly with 280 rubles, gives it to me with some apologies. How she manages to write off or reimburse those 280? I just do not know. “Replace that price tag”, I say. “Oh sure, I will”, she replies, turns and goes back to her office. 

Couple of days later I stopped by that wine section to check that price tag. The tag was not replaced it was just gone. Bottles of the same wine were still there, waiting to surprise another customer.

Practical lessons 

In Russia nothing happens as (we believe) it should. Things can go wrong any time and any place. Dealing with mistakes of others is a normal part of everyday Russian life and Russians are good at this. If you see something that’s different from your culture - RELAX.

Accuracy is not a big deal in business in Russia.

Always check price tags and look what they are actually billing at the checkout. Price discrepancies always happen, especially with items on sale, so be extra cautious with those.

Use barcode scanners found on the store floor to check prices before checkout, especially on expensive items.

The law is this - you pay what the price tag says. But you might need to defend this right. Scandals and fights are almost normal part of everyday business. 

There are no solid business processes for placing store items on sale. Or if they are, they are not followed. There is no business process for handling mistakes.

”Black cash” can be everywhere and in stores they use it to cover up own mistakes.

Useful vocabulary

Сколько это стоит? (Skolko eto stoit?) - How much is it?
Ценник (Tzennik) - Price tag
Цена на ценнике [Tzena na tcennike] - Price on a price tag