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

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

Moscow

Fog is an unusual weather condition for Moscow, but in happens in-between seasons. 

Drinking tap water Moscow

Can I use Moscow tap water for drinking and cooking? Is tap water safe in Moscow?

Tap water in Moscow is perfectly safe to drink and use for other everyday purposes.

Stories telling that tap water is contaminated, not clean enough or for whatever reason is no good to drink, are just marketing lies. Locals readily pick up such stories, fabricated by bottled water manufactures, and pass them around. Many choose to believe those stories and buy water in bottles. What a hassle to buy and carry those bulky and heavy 5-liter bottles from the store to your home!

Recent studies (by official government agency) indicate that 60% of bottled water is worse in quality than the tap water. Most of what they sell as “natural” or “mineral” water actually comes from the tap, somehow filtered and chemicals added to what they believe – improve water taste. This is why many samples of bottled water have some strange taste, some bitter, some sweet.

Tap water in Moscow is very clean and safe, but there are two practical things to consider:

First consideration is that tap water in Moscow is “hard”. Lookup on the internet “hard”; and “soft”; water to understand the difference. “Hardness” of water occurs naturally. In practice, having “hard” water means following.

You might need to use conditioner when washing you hair. It might take some time for your hair and skin to get used to this type of water of you are coming from the area with “soft”; water.

Any home appliance that boils or heats water will require special maintenance and extra care. For laundry you will have to buy detergents that has water softening chemicals in it or buy and add such chemicals separately. You will have to use more of laundry detergent; recommended volume for hard water is usually indicated on the package. You will have to use special chemicals for your dishwasher to soften water. And you will have to clean your kettle or coffee maker regularly, otherwise you will get white deposits on the heating elements and walls and nasty white flakes in your tea of coffee. Those flakes – harmless for you, harmful for your appliance and do not look good in your drink. Even if you use bottled water you will get deposits and flakes because it is not softened and has additives.

Second consideration is chemicals, added during purification process. This is not unique for Moscow, like in most places in the world, all tap water has chemicals added during purification process. They are no hazards to health from those chemicals, but if you are super conscious about what you drink this can be a consideration. Again, bottled water also has chemicals (usually unknown ones), and it is also “hard”, so it is not an adequate replacement for tap water.

Practicalities of using Moscow tap water:

Rethink your hygiene routines, play with different shampoos to find suitable one, let your skin and hair adjust.

For laundry and dishwasher buy proper detergents and use in manufacturer recommended volumes. All these detergents are easy to find in any grocery store.

For drinking, making tea, coffee and cooking use stationary filter with reverse osmosis technology. This is an inexpensive piece of equipment that typically hides under the kitchen sink. It will require professional installation and you will have separate tap for drinking water. I’ve been using this type of filter for years and can positively confirm it filters out all additives and makes very clean water, great for drinking, cooking and making tea or coffee. I have never cleaned my electric kettle or coffee machine, they are both clean as new and no white deposits on them because filter softens water. It is affordable (roughly 200-300 USD with installation depending on a brand) and very useful piece of home equipment. Maintenance includes changing filters regularly (change frequency depends on how much water you use from the filter).

Below picture shows how reverse osmosis system looks (this picture is from my own apartment).

Moscow drinking water

Useful vocabulary:

Вода (Voda) - Water Питьевая вода - (Pityevaya voda) - Drinking water Водопроводная вода (Vodoprovodnaya voda) or Вода из крана (Voda iz krana) - Tap water
Бутилированная вода (Butilirovannaya voda) or Вода в бутылках (Voda v butilkah) - Bottled water
Фильтр (Filtr) - Filter

Keep well, or as we say in Russia - Будьте здоровы! (Bud'te zdorovy!)

Moscow subway

Subway is a key mean of public transportation in Moscow. If you have to commute, subway probably is the only way of getting to work and back, unless you do not mind spending hours in traffic. Many foreigners living in Moscow omit using subway – for a number of different reasons. Some expats and short term visitors are just afraid to use Moscow subway. Below are few things about Moscow subway to encourage you to give it a try. Millions of Russians use it daily, why can’t you?

Moscow subway is very efficient. It covers most parts of the city and you can get almost anywhere by subway. There are few areas not served by subway, but the system develops rapidly and new stations open every year. In addition, in September 2016 railroad ring line was opened, which technically is not part of the subway system, but it connects many subway stations, making convenient transfers and shortening travel time.

Moscow subway is fast. Trains ride every 40 seconds to 2 minutes depending on the line in peak hours. In non-peak hours waiting time is somewhere between 2 to 5 minutes. Distances between most stations are quite long, especially outside ring line, but trains ride at a high speed, so Moscow subway gets you to your destination really fast.

Stations are large and spacious. Stairs are wide, passages and hallways on most stations are capable of carrying heavy passenger traffic. There are bottlenecks however, mostly escalators on some stations.

Moscow subway is very clean. Train cars are clean both inside and outside, stations are very clean and premises outside stations are clean too. In the past years many station entrance areas were rebuilt or renovated, so they look brand new.

Some stations have unique and distinctive historical design. Many people call Moscow subway “the world’s most beautiful subway”. This is subjective though, but it is true that many stations look like palaces with stunning decoration. Most of the design and decoration comes from soviet era, so subway decor resembles communist themes and ideas of art. New stations boast contemporary design, which by all means is good. There are guided tours available to experience art of Moscow subway.

Moscow subway is safe, especially if you follow very basic safety rules. All stations are patrolled by the police. Every corner is under video surveillance. There are x-ray machines and metal detectors on every entrance. There are patrol dogs on duty to search for dangerous things. 

Moscow subway is very affordable. Single ride does not depend on distance and costs bargain compared to subways cost in other world capitals. If  you buy a monthly ticket or a butch of trips, it will cost you even cheaper than a single trip. Different types of tickets available to suite different travel needs and reduce costs if you need to get to your destination using subway and ground transportation. 

Station names announced loudly and clearly - in Russian and English. In newer cars special screens available above entrance doors where you can read station names in English.

There is internet in all trains.

Subway maps are bilingual - in Russian and English.

Useful links to get more practical information on Moscow subway in English:

Official subway website is all in Russian, but here is interactive Subway map in English from Yandex. You can plan trips by selecting stations of origin and destination. The system will calculate optimal rout and give you travel time estimate (very accurate). Beware that estimate time is between stations (in other words – platforms). Getting into the station and out of the station may require extra 10-15 minutes. This extra time is due to long escalators and passage ways. Also entrances and exits can be crowded in peak hours and that will slow you down. You can download phone app with the same functionality and use it on the go. The app can also locate you in the subway.

Full information on tickets and fares – very easy to understand and thorough guide – all in English officially from Moscow department of transportation. Includes other useful information on using subway.

Plenty of information on Moscow subway is available on the internet in English, just use search engine of your choice. 

Useful vocabulary:

Метро (Metro) - Subway, metro

Билет (Bilet) - Ticket

Поездка (Poezdka) - One subway trip (when buying tickets)

Станция (Stanciya) - Station

Поезд (Poezd) - Train

Переход (Perekhod) - Transfer (they use the word “interchange” when announcing transfer stations in English)

Линия (Liniya) - Line

The word “manager” came to Russia from western business and settled in Russian language pretty well. Nowadays it is used everywhere in business and this is a common title for various positions. However in Russian business environment term “manager” means something different. 

Manager in Russia typically refers to entry office positions or front line employees dealing with customers. For example, sales manager is someone who makes cold calls and takes orders. Anyone who works in car sales on the dealership floor would be a car sales manager. Normal dealership would have a dozen of sales managers and sales director they report to. Office manager is a person who makes coffee, loads paper into copy machines and printers and cleans office cafeteria. You meet managers everywhere, but such positions most often found in internet stores, companies that sell something, not in retail shops, but through the office. All these managers – people doing front line jobs, clerks dealing with customers. I called internet store the other day and they had a bunch of managers to answer my technical questions and take my order. 

Now if you are coming to work in Russia for an international company, this may become a bit of a problem. Let’s say you have a managerial position and inside your company “manager” means real manager. Outside of your company perception of manager is bottom of corporate hierarchy. In other words your partners might not take you seriously.

How to deal with the difference

Demonstrate power and authority by your looks and behavior, so regardless of title they would see you as important. This means being bold, direct, serious, demanding, giving strict orders, talking short and ignoring those lower in hierarchy. Typical Russian boss type of behavior. May be not a compelling image, so you can just consider the idea and make up your own image. This works - proven by experience. 

Change title on business cards. You can keep your position name for internal use, but have title on business cards, which your Russian partners would understand and appreciate. It is not unusual for upper level managers from international companies to have something like “director” or “vice-president” on their business cards. 

Have someone explain to your Russian counterparts differences in corporate hierarchy. Most people in Russian business have no idea how international companies operate on the inside. Having proper understanding of who is who on a corporate ladder, regardless of position names, helps to establish credibility and avoid confusion. 

Useful vocabulary

Начальник (Nachalnik) or Руководитель (Rukovoditel’) - Both words above in Russian mean “manager” in its original meaning.