Health, Safety, and Etiquette
in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan
In This Guide
I. SRAS Safety Policies and Infrastructure back to top
While we believe that all our study abroad locations are safe to travel and study in, we also believe that precautions should be taken when traveling in any foreign country. Note as well that many students will travelling from small and mid-sized cities to major metropolises, which naturally carry their own health and safety issues. SRAS has several Safety Policies in place to assure that our students stay safe and healthy while abroad.
- Insurance. Students are required to have health and accident insurance and to carry their insurance information at all times. Most program fees (see individual program pages) include full health and accident insurance for all students based on arrival/departure dates (and up to two days before and after). Students may additionally request optional property insurance (at extra cost) to cover laptops, cameras, or other valuables brought abroad. Contact SRAS for more details. Students are issued insurance cards with all relevant information and a 24-hour international contact number.
Administered by Cultural Insurance Services Internationals and underwritten by The Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, the plan (with no deductible per accident or illness) covers medical expenses up to $250,000 and several other services and instances. All of SRAS's standard study programs are automatically enrolled in the plan, unless otherwise stated on the program page. Download the full brochure in PDF here.
. Students receive extensive pre-departure materials and upon arrival have an orientation session focused on safety issues and getting a sense of their surroundings as quickly as possible. Pre-departure materials, include an extensive online general guide
as well as a separate guide, downloadable from the student's online account with us after program acceptance, for their particular university and program with all relevant contact information and specific orientation information.
Cell Phones. SRAS programs in all locations except Poland include free local cell phone rental. In Poland, the orientation program described above includes helping the student purchase and activate a local number and, if needed, an inexpensive cell phone.
Student Cards and Emergency Numbers
. SRAS provides a student card that all students must carry at all times. The card provides all necessary contact information (university, embassy, SRAS) needed by the student or anyone assisting the student in an emergency. Our local representatives, because they are physically closest to the student, handle the first stages of any emergencies, in consultation with us. University personnel also receives a copy of the card. Russia, Ukraine, and Poland share a standard emergency number, "112
," which is analogous to 911 in America (the operators, however, will not likely speak English). Kyrgyzstan's emergency numbers are listed below. For more information about communications abroad, see our phones, post, and Internet guide
Kyrgyz Emergency Numbers
101 - in case of fire
102 - if you need the police
103 - in a medical emergency
104 - if you smell a gas leak
SRAS Personnel. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to facilitate communications in case of emergencies. Our services vary slightly depending on the city; this can define which students go where. In larger cities and capitals (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bishkek, Kiev, Warsaw), our representation is more extensive than in smaller cities (Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Batumi), which are usually frequented by more independent students. We have permanent SRAS staff in Moscow and St. Petersburg and employees or partners in other SRAS locations who, along with our US personnel, provide the backbone of emergency support. In all locations, a representative of the educational institution where the student is studying is assigned to handle all logistical and emergency issues. Local questions regarding classes, housing, and other non-urgent questions are generally handled by the university/school representative – with an SRAS staff member just a phone call or email away to clear up any complications or misunderstandings. We do not provide resident dorm directors. When/if needed, a member of our staff in Moscow can fly to another city. Students (and their parents) are provided with phone numbers by which we can be contacted 24-7 in the event of an emergency.
II. Medicine, Doctors, and Immunizations back to top
- Pharmaceuticals: All students should read our packing and preparation list for important information on the effects of jet lag and how to treat them. Those students who require specific medications should see the medications section of that list. Not all medications readily available in the US are readily available elsewhere. Students must plan accordingly.
- Doctors and Medical Practice: Students with SRAS-provided insurance should, whenever possible, contact the insurance company (via the international toll-free number on the card) or SRAS before going to a doctor or clinic. Often there will be a specific clinic that is recommended for the specific illness and/or specific clinics that will accept international insurances directly.
In the event of emergencies, students can call 112 from their cell phones for an ambulance in all SRAS locations except Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, the number is 103. All receipts should be saved for submission to the insurance company for later reimbursement in this case. Our experience has been that reimbursements have generally been made quite efficiently by the company.
Clinics recommended by the SRAS-provided insurance or by SRAS will often be more "western-style." Russian medicine tends to be much more thorough and invasive than medicine in the US. Often, batteries of tests will be run, fluids drawn, and precautionary measures taken even when the illness may seem relatively minor. Treatments are usually multi-pronged efforts, often with multiple medicines and physical treatments working together.
Most universities have an on-site clinic (poliklinika) on campus. Those whose don't will have a partnership with a nearby hospital or clinic. Your city guide will have more information as well as, where available, a list of foreigner-friendly, western-managed clinics. However, again, contacting the insurance company first will often making billing much easier.
If you wear glasses or contacts, find out your eye prescription before you leave home. If you know your prescription, you may order new eye wear as you need it with no optometrist visit needed. Contact lens solution can be found in most pharmacies. See your city guide for more information on finding a pharmacy.
- Immunizations should be up to date for diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and tetanus. Immunizations against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid, as well as immuno-globulin injections, are also recommended. Anyone planning on spending a significant amount of time in rural areas hiking, bicycling, etc, should also consider an immunization against rabies. For travelers to Siberia, ask your doctor about precautions against tick-borne encephalitis and Lymes disease.
Information on vaccination and other health precautions may be obtained from the center of Disease Control and Prevention’s at 1-800-232-4636 or at CDC.gov.
III. Region-Specific Health Issues back to top
- Water should be boiled or at least filtered before drinking anywhere in Russia, Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan. In St. Petersburg, boil water before brushing your teeth. Bottled water is cheap, readily available everywhere, safe, and highly recommended. Don’t panic, these are just precautions; instances of people getting sick from the water are quite rare and usually result from not following these guidelines. The tap water in Poland is generally considered safe.
- Food tends to be quite high in fat in all SRAS locations. Bring stomach medications to help you acclimate the first few days. If you are concerned about your figure, eat less – that’s what locals do and you will be surprised how rare obesity is in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Kyrgyzstan.
- Disease rates for many illnesses are higher in most SRAS locations than in the US. HIV and hepatitis infection rates in Russia and the surrounding region have risen significantly in recent years. Students should be cautious if visiting tattoo parlors or engaging in sexual activity. Note that transmission awareness in many areas is low and some young people will still see use of a condom as an indication that you don't trust them. Medical care facilities follow the standard practice of using sterile and disposable needles for blood draws, IVs, etc. However, students should always be alert if utilizing less Western-style clinics and, if concerned about practices, ask a SRAS or University representative for assistance. Ticks are prevalent in forested areas in Russia from late spring to early fall and carry a range of diseases like lymes disease. If you plan to hike, camp or walk in these areas, keep your arms, legs and ankles covered by clothing and use insect repellent to avoid tick bites.
- Cigarettes tend to be stronger than what Americans are used to and knock-offs are common. Russia has recently instituted a ban on public smoking that has largely eliminated smoking in not only public buildings but also cafes and even bars. Poland and Ukraine also have bans in place, although it seems with lighter enforcement or more loopholes. Kyrgyzstan has no public smoking policy and smoke can be hard to escape in restaurants and bars. If you do smoke, stick to brands you know and purchase them in major supermarkets rather than from street-side kiosks. If it seems too cheap to buy – it is.
- Alcohol is considered part of the local culture in all locations and is drank in larger and more concentrated portions than many Americans are used to. Further, rules of hospitality mean that guests and friends should be invited to eat and drink and efforts to overcome any resistance shown to offers of hospitality should be made. If you do not wish to partake in alcoholic entertainments, simply state that you do not drink for health or religious/philosophical reasons. These arguments are increasingly accepted in all SRAS locations as valid. While you will likely meet resistance, in the end, many will congratulate you on your decision not to drink.
- Fitness is also alive and well in SRAS locations. Most universities have areas for jogging nearby and franchise gyms have opened in most major cities (though they tend not to be cheap). See our city guides for specific gyms and exercise opportunities.
- Allergies and colds can be of particular concern as many allergens and microorganisms will likely be of different concentrations and varieties than at home. For instances, poplar trees are very common in the former USSR, and create an extreme excess of "pukh" a cotton-like substance that triggers hay fever in most sufferers. Early May can be especially bad for allergies abroad. Bring your preferred medication if you suffer from allergies. While abroad, you will also be exposed to microorganisms different from those in your home country. This, added to stress applied to your body by jet lag, culture shock, and long, active hours exploring your new locations can mean that you may be more susceptible to colds abroad, especially in your first few weeks abroad. Again, bringing a supply of your preferred cold medication and stomach soother can be helpful.
- Daylight in the winter can be scarce in many SRAS locations. Most locations in Russia, Ukraine, or Poland are likely to be further north than the home cities of many of our American students. Thus, during the summer, particularly in St. Petersburg for example, daylight never ends. In the winter, the sun barely scrapes the horizon before descending again. This can aggravate jet lag and, over the long term, cause depression and sleep disorders in those who are susceptible to them and not accustomed to the local daylight schedule. We have found that exercise and vitamins are very effective for fighting off these issues.
- Climate across the former USSR can reach unpredictable extremes. Winters can be mild or severe. Summer could be rainy and dreary, unbearably hot, or absolutely perfect. In short, pack for every possibility. You will never regret having a good hat, gloves, waterproof shoes, and an umbrella. Winter hiking boots combined with thermal and wool socks when necessary are more useful than very heavy winter boots.
IV. General Safety back to top
Student safety is SRAS’ top priority. While we believe that all our program locations are safe to travel and study in, we also believe that precautions should be taken when traveling in any foreign country and particularly in large cities. Know your rights and responsibilities under the law and how to avoid any potential unpleasant situations.
- When going out at night or early morning hours, stay in a group. If you go out at night in a group, come back as a group.
- Make sure you read the page on visas and registration and follow it carefully.
- Do not carry valuables (passports, wallets, cell phones) in jacket pockets. Jacket pockets are generally loose and away from the body; pickpockets couldn't ask for a better target and forgetting about your valuables when hanging up your coat in a restaurant can be an unpleasant event.
- Do not leave valuables in open areas - even in a locked dorm or homestay room. Put electronics and valuables in a concealed area. Turn off electronics before concealing them.
- When riding in taxis: always know where you are going (general direction at least). Also, taxis that wait outside of bars and clubs or which already contain other passengers should be considered high-risk for scams or robberies.
- In cities with subways, never get in a subway car alone or where there is only one other person or one group of people, especially when the group is all young men.
- If you see people drinking and being loud, walk around them quietly. They aren't usually dangerous, but they are likely drunk, which means they could do something stupid.
- Especially in bars, try to keep voices down. A foreign language spoken loudly can offend the locals of any country.
- In restaurants, do not hang purses or backpacks over the back of your chair. You will notice that Russians will often place the purse behind them on the seat or on a seat next to them, often with their jacket over the top. It's best to keep valuables within your field of vision and/or directly next to your body.
- It should go without saying, but stay away from people associated with drug sale or use. If you think there may be drugs in the area you are in, leave. If you happen to get caught in the same crowd there is little that can be done to disassociate you from the guilty parties and the penalties are very harsh.
- Never be afraid to walk away from a situation you think might be dangerous. Never be afraid to run.
In general, our study locations are safe places to travel and study in. Just use big-city common sense (no matter where you are) and keep your wits about you. The main issue is to stay aware of your surroundings and act responsibly. If you have any questions, contact an SRAS consultant.
V. Specific Safety Issues back to top
- Dual Citizens have special safety and visa issues. Click here to read more.
- Anti-Americanism is generally on the rise around the world. News broadcasts in Russia and Kyrgyzstan especially often focus on stories about American activities abroad that the presenters perceive as harming local populations. News stories about racism and inequality in America are also common. To a lesser extent, such reports and sentiments can also be found in Ukraine and Poland. Reports can also be found on how American media report on local events, which, of course, can significantly differ from local reporting and individual local perceptions. The issue has become very polarized on all sides and students may find that locals are curious, perhaps even passionately so, about the student's personal opinions about US government actions, local news, and international events. Students need not fear being American abroad; locals will generally separate their perceptions of the American state and government from those of American culture and people (with the latter two holding far greater respect). Students need not shy from respectful conversations but should also approach the situation without thinking that a local's perception about his/her homeland should be changed. Present your views as your own and listen to the views of those around you with interest. Learning what people think and why they think it can be one of the greatest lessons you learn while abroad. As in all cases, however, if a situation feels like it is getting out of hand or if a conversation partner is belligerent or drunk, do not be afraid to walk or run away from a potentially dangerous situation. (We will also admit to telling some people who ask for our nationality rudely that we are Canadian just to avoid a conversation).
- Racism and other minority-related problems have been real issues for all SRAS locations. While most people in most countries have a "live and let live" attitude, apparently some people have no meaning in their lives other than to target individuals they perceive as foreigners. Usually the targets are those from former Soviet republics, Africa, and Asia and even those deemed to "look Jewish," "look gay," and for other random reasons and for no reason. The problem heightens around April 20th, which is Hitler's birthday. You should also avoid groups of young men who all have shaved heads or close-cropped hair. The police stop ethnic-looking foreigners much more often than anyone else. All foreigners in all SRAS locations, no matter what their appearance, need to be able to confidently point out their necessary documentation.
Most tourists from Western countries, however, never experience such intolerance. If you are concerned about this issue, please contact an SRAS consultant to find out how to reduce the chances you will be affected by it. These methods include staying in larger groups, avoiding rowdy locals, and always keeping alert of your surroundings. SRAS currently maintains a "Minorities Abroad" project on its student site to better inform people of the issues involved.
- Sexual minorities are also of particular concern, particularly since Russia and Kyrgyzstan have passed "homosexual propaganda" laws. Students who believe that this may be of concern to them should familiarize themselves with the law (the link is to the Russian law; the Kyrgyz law is modeled on the Russian law and is very similar). In Poland and Ukraine there are groups who are fanatically opposed to the idea of non-hetrosexual orientations; discrimination and even violence against sexual minorities can and does occur. That said, the people who commit violence are vastly outnumbered by those of the local population that believe that everyone should live in peace. We do not recommend that students broadcast their sexuality (whatever orientation it may have) but should feel generally safe in being themselves while remaining carefully aware of their surroundings and following the general safety guidelines as presented in this guide.
- Tattoos are now common in Russia - but students should be aware that tattoos on the neck, face, or hands are primarily associated with those who have served in the army or those who have served prison sentences. Both of these groups can be rowdy and have a certain "brotherhood" about them, meaning they may approach you if they see tattoos in these places. We suggest trying to keep tattoos covered when in public. Never be afraid to just walk away from a situation that you feel is abnormal or dangerous. SRAS does not generally recommend getting tattoos while abroad. Students seeking to get tattoos while abroad should ask questions from locals and professionals as to the hygiene practices of various tattoo parlors and make a careful choice based on careful thought.
VI. Etiquette Abroad back to top
Here are some rules of etiquette that you should follow when abroad:
- Locals do not wear shoes/boots in the house. When you enter residences, leave your shoes/boots by the door. You will probably be offered a pair of tapochki (slippers).
- Do not use obscene or slang words in the local language that you may happen to know, unless you are sure you know what you are doing.
- Never assume that someone doesn't understand English.
- Many locals will freely discuss their salaries and how much things cost. If you're uncomfortable with this, tell them. If you admire something in their home, they may try to give it to you (although this seems to be less common now).
- All SRAS destinations are countries of hospitality, where feeding each other is a bit of a national pastime. It is common for young females, for instance, to invite young male acquaintances to tour their town (if they are from the suburbs or nearby region) or to their parents' for dinner. We recommend you go. There are generally no strings attached and it's a good opportunity to practice your Russian.
- Chivalry is not dead in these countries. Men offer to carry heavy bags for women. Men offer women that they're traveling with their hand when getting off a bus, tram, or trolleybus. Women do not generally shake hands with men but may kiss friends (men and women) on the cheek as a greeting. If you go on a date and you are male, you are expected to pay for 100% of the date.
- Be considerate of gifts, favors, and hospitality, but know that locals will offer you food and drink until you turn it down.
- When giving flowers, give an odd number of stems. An even number is given only if someone has died.
- Don't whistle. It is a bad omen and/or considered rude to most locals.
- According to Russian tradition, one provides birthday cake (or candy or fruit) for others on one's OWN birthday. Many Russians will even invite groups of friends out and treat them to dinner (although the friends will usually bring presents for the birthday boy/girl).
- Don't shake hands through a doorway. It is bad luck and bad form; wait until you have entered the room, then offer your hand. When leaving, shake hands before opening the door.
- It's considered rude to show the bottoms of one's feet/shoes, or have one's feet on public benches/seating areas (and in the case of Kyrgyzstan, it's illegal!).
Find Out More!
History of Russian Holidays
Internships in Russia
Health and Safety in Russia
The SRAS Newsletter
The SRAS Library on Russia
Journal for Students
More Free Resources!
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