Just the Facts, To Russia, With Love

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May 11th 2014
Published: April 29th 2014
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Russia, or rather, the old Soviet Union was our mortal enemy through most of our youth, up until the fall of the Union in 1991. But what do we really know about this often misunderstood and huge country?

First, Russia is the largest country in the world, with 17 million square kilometers. With 142 million people, it is the ninth largest country by population. Most of us know that Moscow is the current capital, though it was moved to St. Petersburg during the reign of the Peter the Great.

Making communication more difficult, as if the Russian language is not difficult enough, are over fifty indigenous peoples and languages, both written and spoken). Talk about a failure to communicate, Luke! Also surprising are the two main religions, Christianity and Islam. Yet, rather surprisingly, the life expectancy for men is only 59, and for women, only 73.

The currency is the ruble. Did you know 1 ruble equals a 100 kopeks? I will get almost 34 roubles for my one U.S. dollar. And it is ruble or rouble? I need to find out. I can guarantee you that I will never live in the northern Russian city of Murmansk. It has only 22 minutes of daylight in mid-winter, and only a half hour of darkness in the summer.

Then came Perestroika: Under Mikhail Gorbachev – formerly a soviet-era agriculture minister – there was, at least, a recognition that soviet economic achievements were a sad and unfunny joke… the Cold War had been lost, due to funneling funds into military projects whilst failing to provide for the country’s people. “Rebuilding” (perestroika) was announced, and a policy of “openness” (glasnost’) was supposed to make it happen. Although a few banned books were unbanned, very little happened in practice – and you cannot eat banned books. A limited exercise in small-scale trade with the West began, with the terms usually set-up to benefit someone in the government privately, rather than the end-users.

Here is their suggested traveler's checklist:

Money belt that fits under your clothes to keep passport and money safe.

• Money USD dollars (New notes, low denominations. Euros for Moscow and St. Petersburg. Traveller's cheques are of very little use)
• First aid kit. Keep all drugs in original wrappers to avoid confusion at the border. Include sealed needles.
• Any prescription drugs you might need
• Student ID (ISIC) if you are entitled to one!
• Batteries if they are not standard AA or AAA
• Insect repellent and antihistamine cream (May -September)
• Sun cream and a hat (April- September)
• Heat proof mug and coffee, creamer, tea, sugar
• Swiss army knife (packed in main luggage for the flight)
• Photocopy of passport, airline ticket and insurance documents
• Flip flops, wet wipes, “magic towel”, toilet roll, a parking bath plug, paper towels
• Torch, squeezy window cleaner (Train windows get very dirty not making for a great view!)
• Small gift for your host if stay with a family IE: Soap, chocolates, good coffee and always a bottle of something is most welcome!
• Chilli sauce to perk up bland food and a bag of supermarket goodies to jolly you along: crackers, fruit, marmite (vegemite), nuts etc.

Realize now, that I am going to Russia, voluntarily. Many people ask why? I ask, why not?


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