Minorities Abroad Project
Destination: Moscow & St. Petersburg, Russia
Time Abroad: Periodically from 2006-2010
Ethnic Self-identification: Southeast Asian-American
I visited Russia periodically from 2006-2010 (mostly Moscow and once St. Petersburg). Before traveling to Moscow, I had heard about the dangers of the city. Like any large city, Moscow can occasionally be dangerous. There aren’t any particular areas that one should avoid, but I tried to be alert and aware, especially at night. This served me well, and I rarely felt the least bit endangered. The situation is likely different for women, but I can’t comment on this. It certainly helps to be in groups.
I was told that being a Southeast Asian who could be mistaken for a Central Asian, I could be a target of racism. I experienced this first hand. I was turned away by the infamous “face control” at several clubs. I was stopped by police officers far more than any of my friends. A few police officers were professional, but most tried to intimidate me with the intention of extracting bribes, which I (along with the friends I was with) paid on occasion.
There seems to be little one can do to protect oneself against police officers. I would certainly recommend carrying at least copies of one’s passport, visa, and registration at all times. One should also know one’s documents – where the expiration date is, for instance. There is a great forum post (written by a black man) about what to do when stopped by the police online. The School of Russian and Asian Studies also has lots of information online about the documentation you need as a student. However, the laws seemed to be fluid and few seemed to know them – including police officers who either didn’t know them or were making them up as they went along. Err on the side of caution.
And once, after I finished shopping at a grocery store, I re-entered to search for a friend. I was soon asked to leave upon suspicion of shoplifting. These situations were initially frustrating and hurtful. However, I eventually learned to move past them. In fact, they would later contribute to a learning experience, whereby I became a more patient person (oh those queues!) that learned to let go of things out of my control. My patience was rewarded with the wonderful mathematics, music, art, and literature that Moscow has to offer. Patience is certainly necessary to read some of those Russian novels!
I have heard a few stories of confrontations with aggressive, nationalistic Russians. I do not know if these confrontations were in any way physical, but I do not doubt that in the wrong circumstances, they could be. Such acts of violence do occur on occasion and are deplorable. Partly intentionally and partly as part of my personality, I laid low and attracted little attention. I believe it may have helped me avoid confrontation, and I would recommend a similar tack to others.
Of course, the action of a few should not reflect on the whole. The people in Russia that I met, most of them students, were exceedingly friendly and open-minded. The famous Russian hospitality that I experienced comprised a large part of my very positive experience in Russia. The Russia I experienced, was not the Russia portrayed in the media, but a place rich in character and culture–one that I would recommend to the adventurous sort, especially for a longer term visit.