Introduction to Russia

Russia is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. In 1939, Winston Churchill defined Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Anyone who has spent time in will know this saying and attest to it. There is much more to Russia than its Soviet past and the news coverage in Western countries. Russia is a country full of culture, art, history, great food, and most importantly, wonderful people. The language is hard, and every Russian will remind you of that fact, but for those who put the time into the language and culture, you will be rewarded with one of the richest experiences in the world. Moscow is the largest city in Europe and has more tourist attractions, great restaurants, cultural sites and things to do than you can imagine. Though to be honest, the best experiences in Russia come from destinations off the beaten path that few foreign tourists have ever seen. If you are an adventure seeker, Russia is a destination not to be missed. 

Russian Culture

On the one hand, Russian culture is very different from other European countries, but on the other hand, it is still quite similar. Russians are extremely proud of their culture, and it shows. If you have ever spent time talking with Russians, you will almost certainly have heard of the “Russian soul,” which is something that all Russians take very seriously. The Russian soul is essentially impossible to explain and even with a strong command of the Russian language and significant time spent in Russia, it is risky for any non-Russian to claim to be able to explain the Russian soul. Once you have spent a few months in Russia, you will begin to understand what people mean when they refer to the Russian soul. 

The most obvious aspect of Russian culture is the overwhelming hospitality of the people. Do not be surprised if you are approached on the street and invited into someones home to eat or drink. Of course, this is much more likely outside of a major city, but it still happens all around Russia. Many Russians are incredibly curious about other cultures and love to learn about other countries. Russians will be forward, but take this as a compliment. Thousands of pages could be written about Russian culture without even scratching the surface. Just know that Russian culture will be the highlight of your time in Russia and it is what makes so many people fall in love with Russia. 

Russian Language

The Russian language is one of the more difficult languages for native English speakers simply due to its complex grammatical system. It isn’t impossible to learn, but it will take considerable effort, but if you are determined, it is a wonderfully rewarding experience. Not to mention you will be able to converse with almost 300 million speakers and read some of the greatest literary works of all time. 

With its 6 grammatical cases, changing the endings of nouns depending on their use in a sentence, 3 genders, and a completely different alphabet, Russian is certainly a challenge. Before you are too discouraged, there is a wealth of information out there to learn the language, one of the best books to start with is the Penguin Course. You will be surprised to find out that the alphabet is nowhere near as difficult to read as you may think (it’s actually easier than English). Additionally, there are only 3 tenses past, present, and future (compare that to English’s 12). Once you have been able to wrap your head around cases, Russian will become much easier to speak and learn. The biggest difficulty with learning Russian has nothing to do with the language itself, but rather the fact that everyone you will likely meet wants to learn English. To practice Russian, you are going to need to speak better than the average Russian speaks English. 

If you are motivated to learn Russian, there are many language schools all over Russia and you should choose a school that is not in Moscow or St. Petersburg as the level of English knowledge around you will be considerably lower. That being said, it is entirely possible to learn Russian without any language courses. 

There are several Russian conversation clubs around Russia and in most large Western cities. Meetup.com is a great site to look for Russian conversation clubs. If there isn’t a group in your city, create one! If you are in Russia, here are some of the conversation clubs: 

Couchsurfing
Internations
Facebook
Meetup

Expat Hangouts/Resources

Once you arrive in Russia, you will more than likely want to make friends, both Russian and foreign. Several resources will be extremely helpful in getting acclimated to Russia. Of course, simply due to its size, many resources are focused exclusively on Moscow. Here are some active groups to help get you started.

Expat Groups 

Expat.ru
Expat Arrivals

Moscow

Internations
Facebook
Couchsurfing
The Moscow Times
Moscow Expat Life
In Your Pocket

St. Petersburg 

Internations
Facebook
Couchsurfing

The following sites are all in Russian, but they provide lots of information about great new restaurants and upcoming events that may not be featured in the expat publications. It will give you a much more local look at the city. 

Russian Language Resources 

The Village
Timeout

Where to Look for a Job

Finding a job in Russia can be challenging if you don’t know where to look and are afraid of networking. The best place to look for jobs in Russia is LinkedIn, especially if you are willing to do a bit of networking with professionals in your industry. There are several groups with a focus on Russia, which you can easily find on LinkedIn. Here is a great guide on how to find a job using LinkedIn. 

By far, Headhunter or hh.ru is the most popular job board in Russia, but if you are looking for a job other than as an English editor or teacher, you will find that the site isn’t of much value. One of the best ways to narrow down companies, which are likely open to considering foreign candidates is by searching for “native English.” Headhunter is not much value at all if you have more than five years of experience unless of course, you are looking for a local salary. 

Jobs | Expatriant
Headhunter

Recruitment Firms

If you have marketable skills and are not having much luck with job boards, local recruitment firms may be able to help you. Here are some of the more popular recruitment firms in Moscow:

Antal Russia
Hays Russia
Staffwell
Ancor
Manpower
Awara Search
Work Service
Morgan Hunt

Executive Search Agencies

If you have considerable experience and highly in-demand skills, there are executive recruiting services that you can use. Here are some of the best:

Egon Zehnder
Heidrick & Struggles
Zoom Executive Search
RosExpert
Spencer Stuart
Amrop
Odgers Berndtson
Pedersen & Partners
Stanton Chase
CT Executive Search
Kienbaum
Morgan Hunt
Ward Howell
The Xecutives

Co-working Spaces

If you are looking for co-working space in Moscow. Coworker.com is the best resource to search all of the available options. 

Visas

Russian visas can be a complicated topic, especially if your goal is to stay long term. If you are a US citizen, the visa regime is surprisingly much easier to manage. That being said, the three most common types of visas are tourist, business, or work. Each of these types of visa has its limitations, so we will look at each. 

Tourist

Tourist visas are the best visa to go with if you don’t plan on staying long in Russia. For most nationalities, they are granted for 30 days or less, depending on what you request in your visa application. If you are a US citizen, tourist visas are granted for 3 years. Therefore, if you apply for a tourist visa as a US citizen and do not plan to work in Russia, you can effectively stay for 3 years, but you must leave the country every 6 months.

Business

Business visas are the visa that most people choose to apply for if they are non-US citizens and looking to stay in Russia for more than 30 days. Multiple entry business visas are issued for a period of up to one year, but with a stipulation that you can only stay in Russia for 90 days every 180. Therefore, you can’t stay in Russia all year. There are reports of people having two passports and visas in both who enter Russia with the second passport after 90 days. This is illegal and we do not recommend doing this under any circumstances. If you have a real need to stay in Russia, we have relationships with local law firms who can help you stay legally in Russia permanently. Please reach out to us at contact@expatriant.com for more information on options and see our section below on how to stay long term.

Work 

Work visas are provided to anyone who has been sponsored by an employer to work in Russia. If you are working as an English teacher, any reputable school will provide this for you. Depending on what type of work you are looking for, a work visa will either be very difficult or very easy to obtain. If you are a native English speaker, there are many opportunities for you to find work in Russia and have the employer sponsor your visa. Here is an article about typical jobs for expats, which is relevant to Russia. 

If you are interested in applying for a tourist or business visa, we always personally use and recommend VisaHQ. They have very competitive prices and great customer service. If you live in a city with a Russian embassy or consulate, it is very easy to apply for the visa yourself.  

You can save a bit of money by purchasing a tourist invitation on another site, or you may book a hotel in advance and they will provide you with an invitation.

How to Stay Long Term

It is relatively difficult to stay long-term in Russia without having a work visa or a residence permit. The easiest way to stay long term in Russia is to find a job there. If you have a job, you can stay as long as you have a job. You have the flexibility to switch jobs while in Russia as well. Depending on your salary, you may also be eligible to apply for a residence permit that is valid as long as you are employed. This would allow you to work a second job legally and grant access to certain federal benefits. You would be able to apply for Russian citizenship after 3 years as well. 

Another option to stay in Russia is a bit more complicated and costs a bit more money than a typical visa. If you are determined to stay in Russia and have income from outside Russia, you can open a limited liability company where you would become the general director and grant yourself a work visa. We have relationships with several law firms in Russia that can provide you with all of the legal and accounting services needed to help you set up your business and obtain a work visa. There are ongoing costs associated with this method and it is only really feasible if you have an income. If you have any questions, feel free to send an email to contact@expatriant.com and we will help you determine if this is the right option for you to pursue. 

Getting married to a Russian citizen is also an easy way to obtain a residence permit, although it does take quite some time and realistically requires the help of a lawyer, especially if you plan to live in Moscow. There are extremely long lines due to demand for residence permits, and even though you will be able to apply for a residence permit outside of the quota system, it is practically impossible to get an appointment to provide all of the documents required. Many services can assist you in applying for a residence permit if you are married to a Russian. Please reach out to us at contact@expatriant.com and we would be happy to point you in the right direction. 

Cost of Living

The cost of living in Russia is quite low compared to Western Europe or North America. That being said, many things are still expensive in Moscow, especially if you are looking for quality. 

As far as costs go, Numbeo provides excellent data on the local prices in Moscow. Aside from prices on services and housing, which are much lower outside of Moscow, the prices of goods are quite similar across the country. Electronics and consumer goods are cheapest in Moscow ironically. In Moscow, $2500 is probably enough for a couple to live comfortably. Outside of Moscow, $1500-2000 is likely sufficient.

Taxes

Living as an expat in Russia is quite favorable from a tax perspective. The federal income tax is a 13% flat tax, meaning regardless of how much you make, you only pay 13%. Value-added tax or VAT is considerably high at 20%, but the costs of many goods are significantly lower than in Western countries.  Property tax in Russia is a bit more complicated, but likely 99% of expats will not be interested in purchasing real estate. Therefore, if you come to Russia, you are likely to be taking home much more of your income than in almost any other country in the world. The government has been looking to increase the flat income tax rate for a few years now, so pay attention.

Housing

There are many ways to find an apartment in Russia, and we will focus on Moscow, but these options work in many cities around Russia. When you start looking for apartments in Moscow, they will seem either very cheap or very expensive, it all depends on where you are looking. The adage, “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” definitely rings true in Russia with regards to apartment rental listings. Many people will recommend you use Avito to search for apartments, but you will quickly realize that prices seem very low for great-looking apartments. This is because many agents post fake advertisements so that you call and they tell you it just sold and they will show you another apartment. Do not fall for this, if you are a foreigner, you will get taken advantage of when looking for an apartment. If you do not speak Russian confidently, it is best to have a Russian friend with you when searching for an apartment. 

The definitive site for apartment searching in Russia right now is Cian.ru.

The Locals is also a great option, but there are not as many options.

One thing to note about apartments in Russia, and the former Soviet Union, is the run-down look of the entryway/common areas or podyezd of a building. Typically, the buildings are managed by the city and that essentially means no one is looking after the common space. Even fantastic apartments can have common areas that are run down. You will just have to get used to this unfortunate fact of living in Russia. 

Best places to look for apartments:

Cian.ru
The Locals
Facebook Moscow Expats Group
Expat.ru Real Estate Listings
VKontakte Groups

Banking

Banking in Russia can be hit or miss if you do not have a work permit. If you are working legally in Russia, obviously you will have no issues opening a bank account. If you are on a tourist visa, it should be possible to open a bank account at Sberbank with only your passport.

At most banks in Russia, you will only need your passport and registration to open a bank account. At some banks, you will need a few additional documents. Typically a bank will request a copy of your work permit, visa, and registration. Many banks require a notarized translation of your passport as well.

There have been many banks, which have had their licenses revoked over the past few years. To avoid any issues that may arise by using banks, which may go bankrupt, we recommend using the bigger banks, which also have deposit insurance.

We recommend the following banks based on their history in Russia and creditworthiness:
Citibank
Raiffeisenbank
Alfabank
VTB Bank
Sberbank

Healthcare

The healthcare system in Russia is very inconsistent. Yes, you can get western quality care, but you will pay the same as you would in the US or Western Europe in a private clinic. Under Russian law, the country has universal healthcare for everyone at no charge, unfortunately, the reality is different. Many people have reported being denied free care if they are not citizens or permanent residents of Russia. Additionally, even Russian citizens have been told that seemingly routine treatments or services are no longer covered under the state medical system, which results in having to pay. 

Fortunately, for any expats who are working legally in Russia, your employer must provide you with private health insurance. Even with some of the more basic health insurance options, the level of care for routine checkups or non-serious health issues is quite good. Typically, insurance provided by an employer allows you to visit private health clinics, which are clean and have modern equipment. Doctors, even in private clinics, will likely only speak Russian, therefore, you must be prepared for this. Overall, if you do not have any chronic health issues, you should be fine using private health clinics in Russia. If you are interested in obtaining health insurance coverage while you are in Russia, one of the best options is Alfa Strakhovaniye (only in Russian). It is owned by the largest private bank in Russia and offers affordable coverage for around $1000 per year. 

If you end up at a state-run clinic, your results will vary drastically from one clinic to another even in the same city. In Moscow, the level of care is significantly higher than in smaller cities and towns in Russia. The equipment and level of service at some of the best state clinics in Moscow can be of very high quality, but only a few kilometers away, it can be as if you have gone back in time 50 years. 

If you are planning to stay in Russia for any period and you are worried about not having health insurance, we highly recommend Alfa Strakhovaniye. You can also look at some of the following insurance providers, which are market leaders. 

Ingostrakh
Reso
Rosgostrakh

Education System

Russia historically has had a great education system, although in recent years it has fallen short of international standards. That isn’t to say that education in Russia when compared to the world is poor, but standards vary drastically across universities in large cities and rural areas. Several universities offer programs in English and the cost is quite low compared to other countries. If you are interested and speak Russian well, there are many programs at one of the top universities – The Higher School of Economics, which has full scholarships available to foreign students. Often these scholarships are rarely used. Other universities may have similar options for foreign students. 

National Research University Higher School of Economics

If you are going to study the Russian language, you can do so at many universities. We recommend that you look outside of the largest cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This will provide you with the most opportunities to learn Russian as fewer people will have a solid command of English.

I lived in Russia for 5 years. Over those 5 years, I started a few companies, worked as an English teacher, worked at a large Russian tech company, and worked at an international law firm. I want to share my experience living and working abroad so you can do the same!

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