If you come to Moscow from a large city such as New York, Chicago, or LA, then you should be right at home here in Moscow. If you come from a small- to mid-sized city, then the size of Moscow is something that will take some getting used to. However, you can find anything and everything you could ever need or want here. The crowds, traffic, congestion, and overall size of Moscow can be somewhat overwhelming. During rush hour, the crowds coming and going can be a headache at times, with people pushing and shoving, trying and get a seat on the train. Everybody always seems to be in a rush here. I must admit that from time to time I have had to play the role of the Ugly American when I was pushed a little too far.
One word of warning, you have to watch yourself when crossing highways and tram tracks, if you do not, you will get run over. Drivers here speed just like they do in the US. Do not take for granted that a driver will stop at pedestrian crosswalks or red lights. Some do not, and if you're crossing the road, they will not stop or slow down for you. I have come close to being hit a few times by drivers who came out of nowhere. You must be especially careful in winter when ice covers the roads and sidewalks. If you pay attention, you can make it across Moscow's streets without any trouble.
How does a person from more temperate climes deal with the Russian winter? Wear plenty of warm clothing and a warm hat. But honestly, I really did not find the Russian winter that harsh. There were times when I had meetings early in the morning or at night, and if I wasn't wearing long underwear the wind would cut through my pants. Since I brought to Russia a very warm coat, a fur hat and long johns, I only had to buy a good warm dress hat, some more long johns, gloves and boots. If you wear a thick coat, long johns, thick pants, and a good hat that covers your ears and gloves, the cold won't really bother you.
While the cold itself is manageable, the dampness and wetness that can make a Moscow winter miserable. There is mud everywhere. If a person has a history of broken bones or injuries to the nerves or joints, the combination of the dampness and the cold can be a problem.
More than likely you will have to buy yourself a small space heater for your apartment. Most apartments have communal steam heating, and the building superintendent decides when to turn it on. Some years the heat has been turned on as early as September, other years as late as November. You won't have a thermostat in your apartment. Instead, you will control your heating and cooling by opening or closing a window. I bought a small space heater that has heated my apartment very well.
Prescriptions and Over-the-Counter Medicines
Drug stores in Russia, known as "aptekas," are not very different from drug stores in the US. Moscow's aptekas are well stocked, however some foreign-made medicines can be hard to find at times. While medicines like Advil, Tylenol or Excedrin PM are sold "over the counter" in the US at many different types of stores, in Russia only <em>aptekas</em> can sell them. The Russian ibuprofen tablets are just as strong as Advil, for example, and most common OTC brands sold in the US have a Russian counterpart. Simlar to the British system, Russian citizens have free health care. Only Russian-made medicines are included in the free health care plan, which limits the demand for foreign-made medicines to foreigners and a few very particular Russian citizens.
If you take a prescription drug regularly, bring enough of a supply with you to last until you can arrange for a personal doctor here. You should bring a copy of your medical records from your US doctor, and a prescription that can be (re)filled. Be aware that most Russian pharmacists can not read a prescription written in English. Also, never wait until the last minute before attempting to refill or purchase a foreign-made medication. For example, Russian insulin can be bought at any drug store with no trouble, but if you want a common US brand like Eli Lilly, you generally have to run around from drug store to drug store to find it. What little they have is usually sold out.
Dealing With Government Autocrats
Dealing with government officials is as frustrating in Russia as it is in the US. That is why it is best to come here at the invitation of a company or school, so they can handle all of the the government hassles for you. That is what their attorneys are paid to do. If for some reason you have to deal with the various governmental departments, be prepared for one big, long aggravation: Waiting in long lines with so many others waiting to do the same thing at so many different government offices; running from office to office all over Moscow trying to get what the other department wants you to have; hurrying from department to department because of some rule change or new procedure. Do not count on getting any help from the US Embassy's Citizen’s Service Section. They only give excuses as to why they can not help with problems, so you can forget about help from those clowns. (As you can tell, I’m not too friendly with those people there. When I needed a letter stating that I had a clean criminal record, I thought the US embassy could run an FBI check for me, but they would not do it--even though the US embassy demands that all people applying for US visas provide the same letter from their country's embassies. I ended up working with my local hometown sheriff to get the letter myself, and he checked my criminal record using the same FBI system that US embassy uses to check people applying for US visas. Go figure.)
The giving of gifts is something of a tradition here in Russia. If someone does a favor for you, you offer them a gift. In the US, giving a gift to a public official could be considered bribery. In Russia, it is common to present a small gift to the Russia public official who has done you a favor. The gift is usually inexpensive, such as a box of English tea or a box of chocolates. A high official's favor may merit a bottle of wine. Whiell the practice is common, gifts are given in private so as not to cause any embarrassment to the recipient. Remember, it pays to stay on the good side of officials who have done you a small favor. You never can tell when they might be able to help you again. Gift giving is a Russian tradition, not bribery.
Excerpted and updated from "The Good And Bad Sides Of Living And Working In Russia: Survival In Russia" in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 64.