I visited Russia three times in 2018. I went to Russia for the first time to attend the 2018 World Cup in June in which case I stayed for 10 days. A month later, I returned. That time, I stayed for a week. Upon returning to the US, I decided I wanted to quit my job and travel full-time. Three weeks later, I ditched my job and moved to Russia for three weeks in September 2018.
Over the course of a 3 month period, I got to see a side of Russia that most Americans don’t see. I visited three different cities, travelled by boat, train and metro, got lost in trendy alleyways, met incredible strangers and everything in between. The best part of visiting Russia was my ability to see the Russian experience through a local lens. I wasn’t confined to tourist spaces. I was able to travel and live in Russia in a way that allowed me to experience the country in a real and honest way.
There are some common misconceptions and very real truths about Russia that not a lot of people know. But first let’s get some general facts and figures about Russia.
“[Russia] borders 18 countries, has 11 time zones and takes up about 1/7th of the world’s land.”
Russia is the biggest country in the world and spans about 6.6 million square miles. It borders 18 countries, has 11 time zones and takes up about 1/7th of the world’s land. It has 143 million people with only 8% of the population living in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Russian is the national language and about 75% of Russians identify as Othodox Christian. The Russian culture has existed for over 1,000 years. Russia is rich in it’s amazing architecture, resilient people and ever-evolving culture.
Misconception #1: Russia is full of bad people
Since the Cold War, American media and, in particular Hollywood, has disproportionately portrayed Russians as villains. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Russian people I’ve encountered on my trips have been incredibly kind and welcoming people.
Over the course of three months, I built several relationships with local Russians. One of my favorite experiences was when I stayed with a Russian family of four (a mother, father and two girls) for three weeks. They considered themselves middle-class in Russian society but to American standards, they were likely lower middle-class. The father worked in IT and the mother worked in real estate. They had a wonderful apartment on the top floor of a major apartment complex overlooking a bustling commercial center. I would often volunteer my mornings to take their daughters to school or play dolls with them at the end of the day. I formed incredible bonds with this family and considered them to be people I could trust and depend on while I was traveling in Russia.
It’s worth visiting Russia and getting to know the people on an individual basis; outside of the skewed representation that American media likes to show us. Without knowing individual Russians, it can be easy to dismiss them and their culture. I highly recommend visiting Russia and building authentic relationships with the locals.
Misconception #2: Russia is expensive
Russia is probably one of the top five cheapest countries I have visited. While staying in Moscow, I paid about $13 a day for a hostel room in a wealthy part of the city. I came across a lot of digital nomads who stayed in Russia for weeks at a time because the cost of living was so affordable.
On an average week in Russia, I would spend about $20 USD on groceries. I would get two large bags full of fruits, vegetables, breads, beans, rice, nuts, milks (vegan) and so forth. In America, I estimated the same amount of food would cost somewhere between $40-60 a week.
One of the cheapest ways to travel in cities like Moscow or Saint Petersburg is via the metro or public transportation system. I put $20 USD on a metro card so I could travel in the city for the duration of my stay. What a mistake! The average price to take the metro is $0.45. I took the train everywhere I went for three weeks and only spend about $7. The metro trains comes every 30 seconds on most major routes and are the most economic and efficient way to get around the city.
I found the cost of living in Russia to be extremely affordable for someone with an American salary. However, for the average Russian, city living is considered expensive. In a later section, I’ll talk more about what the average Russian makes per month and why city living can be somewhat inaccessible for the average citizen.
Outside of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
“As a black traveler, I found that Russia was not a problem.”
Misconception #3: Russia is racist
In my opinion, Russia is not racist, at least not to tourists.
As a black traveler, I found that Russia was not a problem. A lot of black travelers are reluctant to visit Russia because there’s a misconception that Russians are prejudiced against black people. It’s complicated. I don’t think Russians are racist, but I would say Russians don’t see enough dark-skinned people on an everyday basis. When a Russian does see someone with dark skin, there are a couple of responses. (1) Russians will stare very hard at the person or (2) they will ask to take a picture with the person.
During all three of my stays, I always got a lot of attention for what I assume was being a dark-skinned person in a very white country. I didn’t like being stared at but I found it to be extremely harmless as it felt more curious than it did aggressive. I was approached by several strangers to take pictures because I was black and for a brief moment, I indulged in the temporary celebrity status. However, after too many requests, I grew tiresome of the attention and rudely rejected any invitations for photographs.
Outside of the sheer shock of seeing a black person in real life, most Russians treated me with the utmost respect, curiosity and hospitality.
There are three very truthful conceptions about Russia that I think are worth discussing.
Truth #1: Russia is not a rich country
Despite the country’s large size, there is no doubt that a large portion of Russia’s citizes are poor or low-income. The average salary of a Russian citizen is $437/month, the average salary in places like Moscow are about $1,900/month. When compared to Americans, the average Moscow citizen makes about 2.5 times less than the average American who makes nearly $5,000/month.
I would argue that the income level of the average 21st century Russian is in direct correlation with the country’s history of communism. The fall of the Soviet Union and Communist reign had an economic impact on its citizens. During the Soviet Union, many people were forced into poverty because the state had complete control over goods, services, trade and wages. However, since the Russian republic emerged, the adoption of western-style development in cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow have been pervasive.
I often describe Moscow as the New York of Russia. It is an extremely metropolitan city with over 11 million people living there. It is the business city of Russia as it engages in a lot of trade and economic relations with countries like the US, China, Hungry, Ukraine, Turkey and India. There are thousands of wealthy Russians living in the major cities. However, 92% of Russians don’t live in Moscow or Saint Petersburg and still experience the devastating economic impacts of living in a former communist republic.
In Russia, the traditional woman’s role is to cook, clean, and look good. If she can cook Borsch, maintain her appearance and provide comfort to her husband after a hard day of work, then she is a keeper.”
Truth #2: Russia has traditional family and relationship values
I learned the hard way about Russian family and relationship values when I dated two Russians within the span of a year. I was presented with traditional relationship expectations that I felt undeniably clashed with my values as a liberal, American woman from the west.
Russian society has very strict and patriarchal values that govern the relationship between men and women. After dating a couple of Russians, I found that many Russian men have a low tolerance for strong and powerful women. I come from a long line of powerful, lady bosses who work on their own terms and set their own rules. However, a powerful woman in the American context can be considered aggressive and emasculating to Russian men. In Russia, the traditional woman’s role is to cook, clean, and look good. If she can cook Borsch, maintain her appearance and provide comfort to her husband after a hard day of work, then she is a keeper.
The first Russian man I dated told me he felt emasculated when I opened the door for myself and ordered for both of us at restaurants. The second Russian man I dated told me that he once went on a date with a women he met at a bar. The woman seemed normal at first but when they went back to his place, she had unshaven legs. He said he was so disgusted, he told her she looked like a bear and kicked her out of his apartment. In Russia, women are expected to be very clean shaven and well-maintained for their men. No exceptions.
Many women in Russia accept this norm and incorporate it into their daily lives. When I was in Russia, I would see several women a day pushing baby strollers with six-inch high heals and a full face of makeup. This may sound normal to some but to me, I saw an extremely high standard for the appearance and behavior of Russian women. Something I felt clashed with my liberal, American female values.
Truth #3: Russia is unsafe for LGBTQ people
The whole world has heard about the internment camps that LGBTQ individuals in Russia have had to endure. I haven’t seen these camps with my own eyes but I’ve heard from may Russians that the country is not very safe for LGBTQ people.
In June 2018, I couchsurfed with a lesbian woman. She was a writer based out of St. Petersburg who enjoyed the safety and inherent acceptance that living alone in an apartment had provided her. Over many cups of tea, she and I talked extensively about the rights and privileges of LGBTQ people in Russia. Basically, there were none. There are a ton of homosexual people in Russia that have had to leave the country or hide their sexual orientation out of fear of punishment.
I know several gay Russian expats in the United States who decided to leave Russia so they could truly be “out” in the ways they wanted to be. On the ground in Russia, I would see people in the subway who would wear small rainbow flags or buttons carefully hidden and positioned on their backpacks or clothing. Being gay in Russia felt like a secret society. Only those in the LGBTQ community knew how to find each other. To the average heterosexual Russian, gay people were somewhat invisible.
Many Russians do not seem to sympathize with LGBTQ people struggling with sexual discrimination in their country. A Russian ex-boyfriend of mine once told me he saw someone in a neighboring apartment complex commit suicide. It later turned out to be a trans person. I asked him how he felt about the incident and he said he was shaken up but he also wasn’t very sympathetic. He said it’s wrong to be a trans person and that he wouldn’t want his children to be LGTBQ. I was deeply disturbed by this comment. Later, I realized that many Russians felt the same. This person who took their life was struggling and the larger society may have felt sympathy for the person because it was a loss of life, but were deeply intolerant because of the person’s identity.