Health, Safety and Etiquette
in Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan
In This Guide
I. "What about Insurance?" back to top
Most program fees (see individual program pages) include full health and accident insurance for students age 25 and under and based on arrival/departure dates up to 2 days prior and post. Older students and those staying additional dates may be billed additionally. Students may additionally request optional property insurance (at extra cost) to cover laptops, cameras, or other valuables brought abroad. Contact SRAS for more details.
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 $50,000 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.
II. SRAS Safety Policies back to top
While we believe that Russia is safe to travel and study in, we also believe that precautions should be taken when traveling in any foreign country. SRAS has several Safety Policies in place to assure that our students stay healthy while abroad.
. 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, which can be accessed by Internet after arrival by the students as well, can be found here
. Additionally, students receive a separate guide to their particular university and program with all relevant contact information and specific orientation information.
Cell Phones. SRAS programs in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Bishkek include free cell phone rental. We hope to extend this program to other cities soon. In locations where SRAS cell phones are not currently available, the orientation program described above includes helping the student purchase and activate a cell phone. Emergency numbers (university personnel, SRAS, Embassy) are programmed into every phone that SRAS helps purchase or gives as part of its free program.
Student Cards. 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.
SRAS Personnel. We are available virtually 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to facilitate communications in the case of emergencies. Our services vary slightly depending on the city and this can also define which students go where. In larger cities, our representation is of course greater than in smaller cities, which are usually frequented by more independent students. A representative of the university department where the student is studying is assigned to handle all logistical and emergency issues of our students. We do not provide resident dorm directors. Local questions regarding classes, housing, and other non-urgent questions are also handled by these offices – with an SRAS representative just a phone call or email away to clear up any complications or misunderstandings that might arise. We also have permanent SRAS staff in Moscow and St. Petersburg and employees or partners in most other cities who, along with our US personnel, provide the backbone of emergency support. When/if needed, a member of our staff in Moscow can fly to another city. Students (and their parents) have phone numbers by which we can be contacted 24-7 in the event of an emergency.
Insurance. Students are required to have health and accident insurance and to carry their insurance information at all times. For more information, see section one of this guide.
Contact SRAS with any further questions or concerns.
III. Prescription Medications back to top
Most pharmacies internationally are marked with large, green crosses. Those in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia are often marked with the Russian word "àïòåêà" as well, often written in green lettering. They are extensively available throughout all cities. However, the medications carried there are often under different names or entirely different brands. Finding drugs such as antidepressants and prescription pain killers, which are more rarely prescribed in Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, can be difficult. While many more drugs that are normally prescription-only in the West are over-the-counter in Russia, restricted drugs (such as most anti-depressants and pain killers) will require a local prescription. Shipping restricted prescription drugs is not legal and they will simply be returned to sender.
You should visit your doctor and request a prescription for enough medication to last your entire stay abroad and have that prescription filled while you are still in your home country. If you will be bringing large quantities of prescription medication, make sure you have documentation from your doctor to show that it is intended for your use. You should also contact the manufacturer of the prescription to find out if it is marketed in your destination and, if so, what the medication is called there. The manufacturer or your doctor may also be able to suggest an equivalent medication available abroad.
IV. Doctors, etc. back to top
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. We suggest that you know your eye prescription (if you wear glasses or contacts) before you leave home as there is no doctor visit needed. Contact lens solution can be found in most pharmacies (see above).
V. Allergies/Seasonal concerns back to top
Summer visitors with allergies should be aware that in some cities there is an extreme excess of pukh, a cotton-like substance from poplar trees (which were Stalin's favorites, apparently). Cities are now getting rid of many but nonetheless, it can still look like a snowstorm in July. Also, during winter, Russian days get very short and daylight very scarce. We have found that exercise and vitamins are very effective for fighting off the seasonal blues as well as colds.
Climate in Russia can reach unpredictable extremes. Winters can be mild or severe. Summer could be rainy and dreary, unbearably hot and/or humid, or absolutely perfect. In short, pack for every possibility. You will never regret having a good hat, gloves, and umbrella. Winter hiking boots combined with thermal and wool socks when necessary are more useful than very heavy winter boots.
Most of Ukraine has a moderate, continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers. The Crimean coast has a Mediterranean climate, with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Air masses from the steppes of Central Asia often make summers warmer and winters colder in eastern Ukraine.
The climate in Bishkek experiences extremes of heat in summer and cold in winter. However, the air is dry, so the cold does not feel as biting as in the northern U.S. The sun is strong and bright year-round. Consider bringing a good hat, sunscreen, gloves, umbrella, wool/thermal socks, and winter hiking boots.
VI. Immunizations back to top
Make sure you are up to date with 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.
VII. Emergency Numbers back to top
In Russia and Ukraine
Russia and Ukraine have no "911" - but you can dial:
01 - in case of fire
02 - if you need the police
03 - in a medical emergency
04 - if you smell a gas leak
101 - in case of fire
102 - if you need the police
103 - in a medical emergency
104 - if you smell a gas leak
VIII. General Safety back to top
Student safety is SRAS’ top priority. While we believe that our program locations in Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan are safe to travel and study in, we also believe that precautions should be taken when traveling in any foreign country. Russia in particular is not nearly as dangerous as it is portrayed in the media (it would not make a good story then). However, we also could not say that Russia is the safest place in the world to travel and study. It is easy to stay safe if you know your legal rights and responsibilities and how to avoid any potential unpleasant situations. We've included a small list of things we recommend you try to remain constantly aware of while in a foreign country:
- When going out at night or early morning hours, stay in a group. This is especially important for those studying in Bishkek, where petty crime has increased substantially in the last several years as socio-economic conditions have worsened. Because of energy deficits and broken street lamps, Bishkek is poorly lit after dark.
- 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 so as to not tempt anyone who may be walking by.
- Always know where you are going (general direction at least) and don't take the taxis that wait outside of expensive bars and clubs, especially if the driver offers a cheap fare.
- Never get in a taxi that already has other passengers.
- In cities with subways, never get in a Metro 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 heavily and loudly, walk around them quietly. They aren't usually dangerous, but they are 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 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 or directly next to your body.
- It should go without saying, but stay away from people associated with drug sale or use. If you even 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.
- Make sure you read the page on visas and registration and follow it carefully.
In general, Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan 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.
IX. Race- and Appearance-Related Safety Issues back to top
Racism has been a real problem for Russia, and to a lesser extent in Ukraine. So-called skinkheadi do exist and apparently have no meaning in their lives other than to target individuals they perceive as foreigners, most often those from former Soviet republics, Africa, and Asia and even those deemed to "look Jewish" and for other random reasons and for no reason. The problem also heightens around April 20th, which is Hitler's birthday. The police also stop ethnic looking foreigners much more often than anyone else. All foreigners in Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, 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 larger groups of rowdy locals, and always keeping alert of your surroundings. You might also see a debate featured on BBC about the issue.
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 and to never be afraid to just walk away from a situation that you feel is abnormal or dangerous.
X. Special Issues for Dual Citizens back to top
Click here for more information specific to those who hold dual passports.
XI. Dietary, Water and other Concerns 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.
Food tends to be quite high in fat. 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, and Kyrgyzstan.
Cigarettes and alcohol are alive and well and at times hard to escape. They also tend to be stronger and knock-offs are common. Try to purchase both in major supermarkets rather than from street-side kiosks and if it seems too cheap to buy – it is.
Fitness is also alive and well in Russia, and to a lesser extent in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Most universities have areas for jogging nearby and franchise gyms have opened in many major cities (thought they are not cheap). If you are in Moscow and like swimming, try the Chaika pool.
XII. Invitations to friends / Etiquette in Russia back to top
Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan are countries of hospitality, where feeding each other is a bit of a national pastime. It is extremely common for young females, for instance, to invite young male acquaintances to tour their town (if they are from the suburbs) 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. Here are some rules of etiquette that you should follow when in Russia, Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan:
- 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 Russian words that you may happen to know, unless you are sure you know what you are doing. Never assume that someone doesn't understand English.
- 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 of a problem these days).
- 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.
- Be considerate of gifts and favors, 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 indoors. It is a bad omen to most locals.
- According to Russian tradition, one provides birthday cake (or candy or fruit) for others on one's 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 as well).
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.