The days of communism and depression are all but over in Russia, which now offers travelers an exciting place to experience unique culture, incredible architecture and rich traditions as old as the country itself.
Russia is no longer a dark, cold place feared by foreigners but is instead becoming one of the most popular travel destinations on earth. But while old attitudes of intolerance and prejudice are certainly changing for the better, discrimination and corruption do still exist. Travelers to Russia should be aware of what to look out for in order to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit.
The typical "Russian" appearance, with light skin, hair and eyes, has long been the way the people of Russia define who they are. As such, people who present a non-Slavic or Northern European appearance have been known to be targets of racially motivated crimes. Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and those of Middle Eastern descent are all vulnerable to persecution and discrimination in Russia. Racial profiling by the police is not an uncommon occurrence, with officers targeting people who appear to be of these ethnic groups to stop and request documentation. If you're visiting and happen to have dark hair or skin, you may find yourself being noticed a bit more than others.
The larger cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow tend to be a little more progressive so stick to these areas and always travel in groups. If you are stopped by the police, be polite and cooperative and always carry the proper identification (passport, visa). The less you draw attention to yourself, the better off you'll be.
People of Jewish and Muslim faiths are more likely to become the victims of hate crimes in Russia. Neo-nazis, also referred to as skinheads, follow the beliefs of Hitler and are an ever present threat to anyone who they deem as "different". The danger tends to heighten around April 20th, Adolf Hitler's birthday, so be extremely cautious if you are visiting on that day. If you happen to see a group of these thugs, do your best to steer clear of them. Never be afraid to walk away from any sort of confrontation.
Despite the development of more liberal attitudes over the past few decades, many Russians still have strong negative opinions toward certain sexual orientations. Homosexuals, transexuals and transgender people are often unfairly persecuted by both citizens and the police. And although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, very little is done to protect gays and lesbians from harassment and discrimination. Again, major cities tend to be much more open-minded and therefore safer for those of different sexual orientations.
While instances of discrimination against women are typically only found in the workplace and not as often against tourists, it's still important to point out that Russian attitudes toward women still have a ways to go. There is currently no law that prohibits sexual harassment, and women have no recourse when sexually harassed. Never travel alone, particularly at night, and try to stick to the larger cities.
It's important to also note that given the dangerous and volatile situation in the North Caucasus region, the threat of prejudice and discrimination against those from that area is very real in other parts of Russia. Not surprisingly, many Caucasians have fled their homes in areas like Chechnya, to avoid the dangers of terrorism. Unfortunately, many people who live in less volatile areas tend to view anyone of Caucasian descent to be terrorists. Northern and Southern Caucasians generally have dark hair, eyes and complexion. Police are also on high alert to prevent terrorist acts so they are much more likely to stop anyone who appears to be from the Caucasus region and demand proper documentation. Be aware that if you are traveling in Russia and your features happen to resemble those of this area, you may be more likely to be a target. Always carry proper documentation and identification on you just in case.
Most people are taught to view police officers as heroes; there to protect and serve the community. It wouldn't be unusual for a foreigner to approach an officer to ask for assistance when they are lost or need help while visiting another country. In Russia, however, this is not necessarily the case. Unfortunately, due in part to extremely low wages, it's not uncommon for police officers to demand fines from just about anyone they stop (and keep in mind that they have the right to stop you for no reason). What typically happens is that the police will stop you and ask for your papers and then claim there is a problem with your documentation. As a result, they will often tell you that you need to pay them a fine (a.k.a. bribe) in order for them to let you go. There are a few things to keep in mind if and when you are stopped by the Russian authorities:
If you do find yourself in this situation, you can either pay the fine and be on your way or get out your mobile phone and threaten to contact your embassy. This will often be enough to discourage corrupt officers and they will let you go. Sometimes just offering to go to the police station to clear things up will be enough to get them to back off. Remember, these are criminals. They are looking for a quick, easy way to get some extra money. If they have to work for it, it's probably not worth it to them.
Police presence is most prevalent in popular tourist areas and tends to be worse in Moscow than in Saint Petersburg. When in doubt, do as the Russians do - don't approach the police, don't make eye contact and avoid them if possible. And whatever you do, don't act like a tourist. Not all Russian authorities are corrupt, but why take the chance?
Russia is slowly but surely becoming a much more tolerant and progressive society; however there is still plenty of work to be done. Major cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow which offer larger, much more diverse populations tend to be more tolerant and accepting of different ethnicities and sexual orientations. Still, it's important to be aware of your surroundings at all times and avoid potentially volatile situations. Be polite, respectful and use common sense and your Russian adventure will be a safe and enjoyable one.
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