21 Things to Know Before Moving to Russia
If you’re seriously considering a move to Russia, you’re set for a фантастика (fantastic) time.
You’ll find a fascinating nation with a difficult history that has an incredible variety of people, great cultural offerings, and a wonderfully low cost of living – not to mention a neverending collection of awe-inspiring sites to see.
4,583 Americans already live in Russia (United Nations, 2020), so you’ll have a ready-made community of expats in this extraordinary nation. But there are still some things you should be aware of before you arrive – and we’ve got you covered.
Fill in this quick form to receive up to six free shipping quotes, and find out how much it would cost to make the move of a lifetime.
In Moscow, you can find the beautiful St Basil's Cathedral and Spassky Tower
1. Russia is the biggest country in the world
If you think America is big, just wait until you arrive in Russia.
The behemoth is the largest nation in the world – nearly double the size of the US – and covers one-eighth of all inhabitable land on the planet.
It stretches from Norway to Japan, across the entirety of Asia, and sometimes connects Europe with the US – going the long way.
This only happens “sometimes” because despite Russia being at least 55 miles from Alaska, there are two islands in the Bering Strait between the countries – Big Diomede, owned by Russia, and Little Diomede, which belongs to the US.
They’re separated by 2.5 miles of water, but this sometimes freezes over, making it possible to walk from Russia to the US.
If you make the journey, be sure to watch the clock – the International Date Line is between the islands, resulting in a 23-hour time difference.
2. The time zones are bountiful
Speaking of which, look out for Russia’s 11 time zones, or they’ll trip you up while you’re exploring this mind-boggling country.
In the west, you have Kaliningrad, which is separate from the Russian mainland, located between Poland and Lithuania, and is seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST).
And in the further corner of Eastern Russia, 10 time zones later, you’ll find Kamchatka, which is 17 hours ahead of EST.
There’s good news, though: there is no daylight savings in Russia.
3. Religious freedom is a right – but only in theory
Russia enshrined religious freedom in its 1993 constitution, but that principle – though still present on paper – is being eroded by President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Russia’s four most common religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – are seen as legitimate, while followers of other faiths suffer persecution and imprisonment.
Russian law allows the government to ban religious activities that disturb public order or qualify as “extremist” – a subjective provision that is unfortunately open to abuse.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and various Muslim groups are routinely imprisoned, seemingly just for practising their faith.
228 people in Russia were imprisoned for their religion in 2020, according to the US State Department. The figure stood at 245 in 2019.
Human rights group Memorial, who said the number was likely three to four times higher, was ordered to shut down by the Russian Supreme Court in December 2021.
4. The healthcare system is worse
Russia’s healthcare system is universal, meaning you should pay less per year than you would in the US – but it’s worse in quality.
The country ranks 58th in the world for healthcare, according to a 2018 study published in The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
That places Russia below poorer nations like Albania, Belarus, and Cuba – and 29 spots behind the US, which came 29th.
The average life expectancy in Russia is 73.2, which means the 11th-richest country in the world ranks below the global average in 97th place, trailing nations like Bangladesh, Cape Verde, and Libya.
And though your payments will be lower overall, your out-of-pocket costs will make up a higher proportion, at 38.3% of your healthcare spending in Russia. That’s 3.5 times more than in the US, where 10.8% of expenditure is out of pocket.
Check out our guide to healthcare in Russia, and if you’re thinking of moving to this stunning country, remember to consider medical cover for when you’re out there.
We’ve partnered with Cigna for private medical insurance in Russia. With four levels of annual cover to choose from and extra modules for more flexibility, Cigna will sort you out with a plan that suits your needs.
Get a free quote and start building a customized plan to protect your most important assets – you and your family.
5. Learn some Russian
Around 30% of Russians speak English, with the EF English Proficiency Index 2021 ranking Russians as generally having “moderate proficiency” in the language.
This means that it’s in your best interest to learn some of the local language, so you’re not left floundering when someone doesn’t understand you.
Business dealings will likely take place in English – but if you want to make friends, be accepted by Russians, or just go to the cinema, you should learn enough of the local language to communicate basic ideas.
6. It’s not just cold and snowy
Russia’s size means that its climates and temperatures vary enormously from region to region.
The southwestern city of Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, has an average temperature of 58°F, hits the hot highs of 77°F and above from June to September, and experiences barely any snow.
In contrast, the more northern cities of St Petersburg and Moscow are bracingly cold, at 43°F on average, and typically experience around 100 days of snowfall throughout the year.
And Khabarovsk, which sits just by the Chinese border in the eastern reaches of Russia, has an average temperature of 37°F, though it regularly falls to -10°F during the long, cold winters.
Do some research on the local weather before deciding exactly where to live, as the cold will contribute to any culture shock you’ll feel.
Sochi is home to multiple idyllic beaches
7. The food is delicious and varied
Russian food is often unfairly stereotyped as heavy and bland, when in actual fact there’s a huge amount of diversity and flavor in the nation’s dishes.
Try some of the delicious, gigantic red king crab on the East Coast, then sample all the varieties of borscht, a sweet and sour soup made with meat stock and beetroot.
In Moscow, you can try it with beef, ham, and sausages; in Paskov near Estonia it’s served with dried smelt (a type of fish), and in Siberia, you can have it with meatballs.
All over the country, you can savour pelmeni, a foundational part of Russian cuisine which originated in the mineral-rich Ural Mountains.
These delicious dumplings comprise a thin layer of dough with a filling of minced meat, garlic, and onion.
If you’re ready for dessert, try small pancakes called blini, which come with jam and condensed milk – though they can also be served with caviar or sour cream.
Finish your meal with another kind of pancake called tvorozhniki – fried vanilla offerings with a creamy centre and toppings like apple sauce, honey, and jam.
And wash it all down with a wonderfully sweet Kalmyk tea – made with butter, milk, and salt – or sbiten, a hot, comforting drink composed of honey, water, jam, and spices such as cinnamon and cloves.
8. Living costs are much lower
Russian living costs sit well below what you’re probably used to at home, even without taking into account the money you’ll save from not paying exorbitant amounts for your healthcare.
You’ll find that basically every expense costs about half as much in Russia, from food and beer to clothes, public transport, and house purchases.
The one big exception to this rule is rent, which is three times cheaper in Russia. Outstanding.
If you’re able to secure yourself a salary that’s around the same amount you picked up in the US, you’ll be in a monetary utopia. And if not, you’ll probably still be in great shape.
9. Russia struggles with its history
You can view Russia’s history simply.
It was created as the Kievan Rus, was conquered by and then overthrew the Mongols, saw dictatorial tsars expand the borders, changed forever with the 1917 communist revolution, survived the Cold War, and finally emerged as a capitalist, supposedly democratic nation.
But this, of course, skips over all the trauma of a recent history that includes 32.5 million deaths during the two World Wars, and as many as 20 million deaths due to Joseph Stalin’s rule.
Because of this shared experience, it’s often hard to get Russians to accept you as one of their own – and that’s reasonable.
You don’t have the same intergenerational trauma – which many Russians haven’t processed properly, with Stalin still venerated in many people’s minds.
As long as you tread lightly and allow locals to express themselves without judging, you should be just fine.
10. Soccer is the main event…
The biggest sport in Russia is soccer, with over 1.5 million players – so jump right in and give the beautiful game a try.
The country, which hosted the World Cup in 2018, has a league full of passion, increasingly high standards, and fierce rivalries which occasionally spill over.
Go to games, by all means, but preferably with a local who knows how to keep you safe – and if you want to support a team, choose carefully.
11. …but ice hockey is a ton of fun
Depending on where you grew up, you may be able to bond with Russians over ice hockey, which is played in the same ferocious, frantic, fun way it is in the States.
Many incarnations of the Soviet team were legendary, and the current crop is also excellent, and remains in the Big Six with Canada and the US.
Russia has won four of the past 13 World Championships, and its domestic league, the Kontinental Hockey League, is second in quality only to the National Hockey League.
12. Making friends is hard work – but it’s worth it
While America is more individualistic, with most people embracing the capitalist, dog-eat-dog version of society, Russia is more collectivist.
This means that generosity is valued, trust is harder to win, and friendships are created over time, with Russians typically wanting to build a strong foundation before opening up.
On the flip side, personal space is not respected in the same way in Russia, so if you can, get used to people standing extremely close to you while having a conversation.
You can also encourage people you meet to trust you by being direct, honest, and not repetitive. Saying “sorry” or “thank you” over and over comes across as disingenuous, so don’t do it.
13. You should explore this captivating country
Russia is a beautiful nation, with a stunning number of natural and manmade landmarks worth visiting.
The country has 30 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Sites – even more than the US.
This includes wonders from the Red Square, Kremlin, and Kizhi Pogost in the west, to the volcanoes of Kamchatka and Wrangel Island Reserve in the east. The Reserve features polar bears, Pacific walruses, and dozens of endangered bird species.
Make sure you also visit the Virgin Komi Forests and Western Caucasus. These wildlife regions are unaffected by humanity, and as a result are breathtakingly gorgeous.
Go see the stunning Koryaksky volcano in Kamchatka
14. Vodka isn’t the only drink, but it is great
If you drink, you have to start with Russia’s world class vodka.
Ask a Russian friend which brands you should try, or just visit a ryumochnaya, where you can have a shot of the best local vodka and a delicious appetizer before quickly going on your way.
There’s more to Russian drinks than vodka, though. There’s also a roaring beer industry, wine made in the warmer south, and medovukha, a honey drink that’s very similar to mead, but is fermented over just a month.
Try a nastoika or five, too. These flavored drinks, which usually use vodka as a base, come in an amazing variety of flavours, including honey and pepper, cranberry, blackcurrant, and horseradish.
Watch out for Yorsh though. This cocktail of vodka and beer is deceptively dangerous, especially as you usually can’t taste the vodka.
15. There are plenty of national celebrations…
Embrace Russia’s numerous festivals, but be careful – celebrations here are either religious or patriotic in nature, so when you feel like an outsider, take a step back. Follow your friends’ leads.
At the New Year, celebrations will either involve family-centric activities where parents dress up as Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter Snow Maiden, or a great deal of partying, as the festivities of New Year’s Eve is followed by a week off from work.
Orthodox Christmas comes next, on 7 January. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a family celebration, you can look forward to a feast involving dumplings, salmon pie, Russian salad, and gingerbread cookies.
At the end of February and the start of March, Russians celebrate Defender of the Fatherland Day – Men’s Day, basically – and International Women’s Day, respectively.
Be sure to give the woman in your life an odd number of flowers, as even numbers are reserved for gravesites.
Easter is celebrated even more widely than Christmas, with big Easter Sunday meals up and down the country.
Also watch out for National Unity Day, Russia Day, and Victory Day, which are all patriotic celebrations that will take over the country for a short while.
16. …and loads of days off work
These national holidays mean that you and everyone else in Russia get around 19 days off work per year – but that’s not where it ends.
You’ll also automatically get another 28 days off to use every year, because the government has created a legal minimum amount of leave – like every industrialized nation apart from the US.
You can use this time to go back to the States for a visit, to explore the mind-blowing sites that Russia has to offer, or simply to relax. In any case, it’ll feel like a glorious upgrade.
17. Russian humor can take you by surprise
The classic image of the gruff, humorless Russian is false and unfair – people here are just as funny as they are anywhere.
Be prepared, though. Russian humour is sometimes deadpan or sarcastic, sometimes extremely direct, and sometimes unfortunately relies on negative cultural stereotypes – all of which can knock you off balance.
The key is to stay on your toes, and develop your awareness over time. If in doubt, make a self-deprecating joke, as this will go down well.
18. Punctuality is less important
Russians have a casual relationship with time, which can take some getting used to.
You may be tempted to lock down your plans with someone two or three weeks in advance, but don’t bother – Russians will cancel the day before if a friend or family member asks them for a favor.
Instead, try to make peace with arranging gatherings, friendly hangs, and dates the day before.
If you’re invited to a party for 8pm, don’t get there until 8:30pm at the earliest – though 9pm will be considered late.
It’s also worth noting that Russians tend not to use am or pm. So instead of saying “7pm,” either say “7 in the evening” or “19:00.” Russians understand military time.
If you’re attending a business meeting, it’s still worth being on time – but if your boss is late, no one will comment on it. Don’t say anything yourself!
19. You may face anti-American attitudes
Some may react negatively to you because of the Cold War, but it’s much more likely you’ll encounter hostility because of the current state of relations between the two nations, with Putin having locked horns with successive US administrations.
In a 2020 poll by the independent Levada Center, 82% of Russians said that their country had enemies – and 70% of those people named the US as one of the enemies they had in mind.
A separate Levada poll from 2020 found that 46% of Russians had a negative perception of the US, compared to 42% who held a positive view.
Just try not to bring up politics, or any wars the US and Russia may be engaged in when you go.
20. Communication is direct and honest
In general, you’ll find Russians are direct and matter-of-fact while talking to you.
This can be disconcerting, particularly when you’re facing criticism, as Russians will usually be straightforward and honest, with none of the sugarcoating you may be used to.
This can come across as rude – and often, it is – but at least you’ll know where you stand.
Russians are also more comfortable with swearing in casual situations, so depending on where you stand on that concept, either ready yourself or your best Russian swears.
21. There are so many different peoples
Though the majority of people you’ll meet here are ethnically Russian, this country is home to more than 120 ethnic groups, speaking around 100 languages.
Depending on where you live, you may find yourself living among people who, like many Americans, primarily define themselves by their ethnic group or locality, not their nation.
If you’ve spoken to enough Texans, Californians, or New Yorkers, you’ll have heard some of them say they feel more attached to their state than to the US – and many peoples here feel the same way, like the Tatars.
You’ll find that this is more common the further east you travel – though there’s also plenty of diversity in western cities like Moscow and St Petersburg.