Is it safe to go to Russia for the 2018 World Cup?

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World Cup Central Zabivaka FIFA 2018 World Cup

Update from 04/09 - A number of news agencies and media outlets reported today that there were warnings by government officials advising against traveling to Russia for the 2018 World Cup. I checked official government websites of several countries - nothing has fundamentally changed. Read more here.

Is the political tension and decreased presence of Western diplomates in Russia a legitimate risk for the World Cup 2018 travelers? Yes it is. I am adding it to my list of risks below in this article - read up!  

 

From the perspective of a Russian-American.

Generally speaking, anything that has “Russia” in it automatically becomes a controversial topic, but then - when wasn’t this the case in the last couple of centuries?

The World Cup 2018 is no different - the recent political events keep making it more and more interesting, starting with the general worldwide disapproval that Russia is hosting the tournament in the first place.  It continues with the Kremlin’s involvement in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the violent clashes of Russian and English hooligans in France during the 2016 Euros, the whole story with Trump’s election, and especially the recent events in the UK where a Russian ex-spy was poisoned by a chemical-weapon grade substance.  

All that makes Russia hosting the World Cup (one of the most prestigious and beloved sporting events in the world) a very hot and politically charged subject.

After seeing a number of “survival guides to the World Cup”, “all you need to know about traveling to Russia” compilations, and official Travel Advice papers from governments of different countries (sources - Australia, Ireland, UK, USA, also the CIA's World Fact Book), I decided to create my own version.

I was born and raised in Moscow, have been living in the US for the last 20 years, and travel back and forth extensively.  So here we go, a voice from the best of the two worlds - my first pass on the risk analysis report for this project. (Sorry...I’m a Project Manager and Software Engineer/Architect, too. I always fall back to the familiar terminology.)

The content of this page (and this site) is provided for information only. The decision to travel is your choice and your personal safety is your responsibility.  I hope that my opinion expressed below helps to separate what’s relevant from what’s not and will make your travel safer and more enjoyable.

Russia is a fascinating country with people who are friendly by nature and the World Cup should provide a unique opportunity to visit Russia while it is making big efforts to open itself up to visitors and to prove it can successfully complete such gigantic project as the World Cup which is hosted in 11 cities spanning a vast geographic region.

Nonetheless, things are often different over there and it would behoove a traveller to come prepared with some cultural and social awareness.

 

General travel safety notes

We live in a difficult time with a lot of political turbulence across all continents. Any international travel requires preparation, vigilance, and a higher degree of self-awareness - so does Russia.

Do you have to be more vigilant than when traveling to other non-Western country?

My opinion - no, it’s pretty much the same.

Given the importance that Russian government is placing on the World Cup, it will probably be safer to travel to Moscow or Yekaterinburg for the tournament than in many other parts of the world.

The visa restrictions will be lifted for the period of the tournament for those with tickets (and with a FAN ID). The transportation situation will be dramatically adapted to make it easier for travelers.   Thousands of volunteers who are supposed to speak English to a conversational degree will be available across all the World Cup cities - and thousands additional police officers and military police personnel will be deployed to keep everything as safe as possible.  

Is the current political/diplomatic crisis a legitimate risk for the World Cup 2018 travelers?  Yes it is.

What is the probability of this risk? Low, in my opinion - and here’s why:

Not much has changed that can affect the World Cup travelers. While the US has closed their Consulate in St. Petersburg, all other diplomatic facilities of all the countries remain open and operational. In some of the World Cup cities there were none of those facilities to start with.

Absolute majority of the foreigners visiting Russia don't require any assistance from their countries' diplomats. Here is what British government says: "According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, British nationals made around 150,000 visits to Russia in 2015. Most visits are trouble-free."

Nothing is really changed. Stay vigilant, be mindful, know what you're doing and where you're going - and get a travel insurance, I can't stress that enough! 

 

Football hooliganism, a.k.a. Fan Violence

Certainly the most discussed recent event was the violent clashes between Russian and English fans at the Euros in 2016 in Marseilles. That was bad, no question about it. And judging by the media coverage and eyewitnesses accounts, the circumstances surrounding the attacks were quite suspicious. The Russian hooligans seemed to be well organized, well equipped (masks, gloves and such), conditioned for street fighting, and coordinating their taktical moves via communication devices (phones, I presume).

Were they really “Kremlin foot soldiers” sent directly by Putin himself, as some of them claimed? I don’t know.

Are they a Russian-only phenomenon? Certainly not.

I hate to say this, but as many other things in Russia this one was copycated from the West. Russia street-fighting football ‘ultras’ are modeled on English football ‘firms’ from 1970s and 1980s. Just like Russian aspiring mobsters of 1990s were modeling themselves on the Godfather (the movie) - true story! I’ve met some wannabe Dons who were quoting almost the entire book.

Is It A Legit Risk for the World Cup 2018 travelers? - Yes, it is.

What is the probability of this risk? Low, in my opinion - and here’s why:

The police presence will be ridiculous. The Russian government wants this tournament to be successful. They will crack down on anything and everything that can be a threat to their success. Furthermore, there are many things you can expect them to screw up or not understand.  Graceful handling of the finer things is not their forte, but “violence” they understand well. Both how to handle violence and how to disperse violence is their cup of tea.

May be they din’t care what happened outside Russia - that’s one thing. Showing the entire world that the Kremlin can’t control unruly thugs on the streets of their own country - that is a completely different story and this will not happen.

A year ago, in April 2017, I had a conversation with a Russian girl who told me about her friend, a member of a football ‘firm’ in Moscow with a significant street-fighting record. That guy was already being “curated” by the police - they picked him up on some made-up pretense (according to her), kept him locked up for several days then put him under house arrest for a few weeks - “just to make a point”, as they explained. She said - he called her almost crying, and repeated a police officer’s parting words - “Give us one little excuse - even if we just hear your name as a possibility of trouble - and you’ll be shoveling snow in Siberia for the next 15 years. There is a lot of snow to hovel over there.” She said he was scared.

There are plenty of other stories like that one.

Both Russia and FIFA know that violence doesn’t make the host of the largest international football event look good.

To prepare for the event, Russia has passed legislations that criminalize the activities of these organized street gangs and promises to prosecute fans that display violence.

Let the Sochi Winter Olympics be an evidence that they are capable of running a smooth security operation and everything points to authorities to be highly prepared to handle crowds at the World Cup.

So - no, I mark this risk as “low”.

That’s not to say that random fights are not possible when large crowds of drunk and overly excited people congregate at a sporting event - but that can happen in any country and at any event - given the expected amount of police presence I deem this unlikely.

 

Terrorism

Russia has battled with terrorism and violent extremism over several decades. The past few years were relatively quiet, although there was a recent terrorist attack in the St. Petersburg Metro in 2017 that claimed the lives of 15 people, including the attacker himself.

Is this a legit risk for the World Cup travelers? Yes, it is.

What is the probability of this risk? Not higher than in other countries, perhaps even lower due to the heightened police alert and the tendency of the Russian authorities in cases like this to “forget” certain procedural requirements such as “search warrant” - if they need to lock down the entire city block and search every house and apartment quickly - they will.

In the wake of attacks in Germany, France, the U.K. and recent school shootings in the US I would mark this risk as “medium” to “low”.
 

Discrimination, human rights, racism, LGBT

Does Russia have problems in this department? Yes, it does. But so do most countries in the world, one way or another, unfortunately.

There are hundreds if not thousands of very hard and difficult life stories (both written and not) one can find in Russia, unfortunately.

Is it a legit risk for the World Cup visitors? Yes and No.

Workplace discrimination, latent racism and a long history of anti-semitism, sexual discrimination and difficult issues that LGBT community has to deal with - those are the unfortunate reality for people actually living in Russia. Guests of the tournament who are clearly identifiable as tourists, especially surrounded by their fellow foreigners are very unlikely to be targeted in a hate-crime attack - in my opinion.

Homosexuality is legal in Russia.

There is still intolerance among some sections of the population. After passing a controversial law banning the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” in 2013, there are reports of the increased number of violent episodes against LGTB community.

As I said earlier, this will not likely affect the foreigners during this big event, but do stay vigilant and - be careful about public displays of affection, just in case.
 

Crossing the Borders, Visa, passport and such

Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of six months after the expiration date of your visa or your FAN-ID - a normal requirement for international travel, I believe.

If your passport is new - make sure it is signed! This happened to me (more than once, I believe). I presented my passport and the immigration officer handed it back to me and said - "Let's pretend I didn't see this. You signature is required for this document to be valid. Sign it!" - so I did on the spot. While it was embarrassing, I was lucky that that was the end of it. I heard accounts that people were actually denied entry into Russia and other countries with unsigned passports.

Sign your passport!

At the moment of entry into Russia you will also deal with a migration card, which is produced electronically at passport control - that means printed, as I understand. The card is in two identical parts. One part will be retained by the immigration officer on arrival. The other part is yours, do not lose it! While in Russia you won't need it, but you should hand it to the immigration authorities when leaving the country - similar to what the form  I-94 in the US used to be, I believe.

Registration upon arrival to your place of stay:

According to Russian law a tourist must register upon arrival to Russia. Here are the details:

If you are staying in a hotel - the hotel will register you within 24 hours, as it is their responsibility as well as yours. Usually this will happen at the front desk while you're checking in. make sure it does happen though - and get a receipt/paper slip confirming that. Hostels I believe are subject to the same regulation.

If you're not staying in a hotel (AirBnB or friend's house), you only have to register if you're staying longer than 7 days.  Your hosts will need to submit the registration to their local police precinct/immigration office.

There are plenty of warnings online not to cross the land border between Russia and Belarus, as well as not to venture into certain territories near Ukrainian border and some areas deemed dangerous for one reason or the other - refer to your country's Travel Advisory site or use these links:

Are those warnings relevant to World Cup 2018 visitors? My opinion - no they are not.

If you're going to Russia for the tournament - stay the course, stick to your plan, and enjoy the games. If you are a thrill seeker and your goals include those beyond watching football/soccer - that lies outside of the limits of this conversation
 

Customs check - Anything to declare?

There are no restrictions on bringing laptop computers for personal use into Russia.

However, Russian border officials can demand to inspect any electronic device (including installed software) on departure.

I have been asked to turn on my cell phone and laptops to show that the devices were in fact operational - that was the extent of the inspection. The moment the officers saw the devices actually were what they looked like, they were done checking. This happened to me not only in Russia, but during TSA checks in the US also, at least once (Kansas City airport, I believe).

Medicine - remember how Sylvester Stallone was busted in Australia for not having prescription documentation for his medication on him while crossing their border - I believe the drugs were banned in AU also, while being totally legit in the US.

Don't be like Stallone, check if your prescription drugs are legal in Russia and prepare the required translation.

"If your medicines contain barbiturate, codeine, sibutramine, anabolic steroids, androgens and other sex hormones, analgesic (tramadol), psychostimulants or other restricted substances, you must present a doctor’s letter confirming the need for each medication to authorities when you arrive in Russia. A notarised translation into Russian is also required. (Australia)"
 

Leaving the country with treasures/antiques.

a warning from the Internet -

"You can be arrested for attempting to leave the country with antiques, even if they were legally purchased from licensed vendors. Items like artwork, icons, samovars, rugs, military medals and antiques must have certificates indicating they do not have historical or cultural value. You may obtain certificates from the Russian Ministry of Culture."

First of all - good luck obtaining anything from the Russian Ministry of Culture during those 3 days you're in the country for a match.

Is this a legit risk for a WC 2018 visitor? Yes, it is.

What is the probability of this risk? Low to Very Low.

Whatever you buy at a regular touristy souvenir stall/kiosk/whatever for $50-$200 will not have enough of historical or cultural value for the Russian Ministry of Culture to start worrying. Keep the receipts, for sure - never hurts.

If you find yourself in a situation when somebody is trying to sell you something on the street claiming it is antiques or something... C'mon. I mean - really? (the advice here is - don't buy it).

 

Staying safe while in Russia
 

Street crime, driving in Russia and stuff like that.

I would not recommend coming to the tournament by car. Plain and simple. If you must go by car - do more research.

Warnings from the Internet:

"Do not pick up hitchhikers. You may be assaulted or arrested for unwittingly transporting narcotics."

Is the risk legit? Yes it is. For any country.

"Traffic police may stop motorists to collect fraudulent cash fines on the spot."

Is the risk legit? Yes it is.

What's the probability? Low.

The nature of corruption is - it tends to operate outside of the spotlight. During this huge international event anything that involves foreigners will get immediate attention up to the highest levels of authorities. If a corrupt officer extorts bribes from a tourist and that tourist reports him or starts talking about it openly - that would likely cause an immediate reaction on all levels. I don't think that would be a widespread problem.

Another warning from the internet:

"Carry your passport with you at all times. Russian police have the authority to stop people and request identity and travel documents at any time.

Police do not need to show probable cause in order to stop, question, or detain individuals.(US)"

Are those warnings relevant to World Cup 2018 visitors? Yes they are.

Carry the passport with you all the time - I do that too when I'm in Russia. I never got stopped on a street for the document check though, not yet anyway. Even though after living for 20 years in the US I don't really pass for a local anymore, according to my friends.

What is the probability of the risk? Low, in my opinion.

With hundreds of thousands of tourist coming to the country for the tournament the police is not likely to stop a clearly identifiable foreign tourist just for the hell of it. They are even forming a special police task force that is supposed to help the foreigners - staffing it with English speaking officers that will wear special shoulder patches with words "Tourist Police" (not the best choice of words in the English translation, in Russian it sounds more tourist-friendly).
 

Keep your passport in a safe place on your person, and not in jacket pockets or in handbags and/or backpacks in case of theft.

I do that all the time when I'm traveling - not only to Russia, other countries too - I'm wearing this around-the-neck thingy under my sweater where I keep my passport and cash.

You should also leave a copy of your passport, visa, and travel and insurance documents with family or friends at home.

Scan them and email them to yourself on Gmail, put them in Google Drive, Dropbox and such. I have my most important documents saved in the cloud just in case.

Once more - don't lose your passport, you'll be in trouble - and won't be able to attend matches. I believe you have to present your passport along with the FanID and the tickets to enter the stadium.

"Keep your vehicle doors locked and your bags out of sight to prevent opportunistic bag-snatching if you’re stopped at traffic lights." (warning from the Ireland government).

Good idea, do it. Also do it in other countries, too.

"Avoid carrying large sums of cash. High-profile armed robberies are an almost daily occurrence. The attacks usually take place while the victims are either entering or exiting banks. These attacks occur throughout Moscow, including in the city centre and near the US embassy. Travelers have also had cash stolen from hotel safes. (US government)"

Is this a legit risk? Yes, absolutely. In any big city around the world (small towns, too). My friend got his wallet stolen on Times Square in New York City, and it was not even that late in the evening.

Stay alert, be aware of what's going on around you, don't wander off to areas that don't look good. Trust your gut.

Chances are you'll be moving around along with large group of your fellow tourists - good, safety in numbers.

 

"Preferred targets for criminals include underground walkways, public transportation and transportation hubs, tourist sites, restaurants and markets, hotel rooms and residences (even when occupied and locked). (Canada)"

Well... this kinda covered the entire country. Many countries. As I said above - normal travel precautions should always apply.

 

"Photographing any military establishment or site of strategic importance (including airports) is banned. You are likely to be detained for questioning or arrested if you are caught. (UK)"

Good point. Follow this advice - I'm not kidding. If it looks military - don't go around openly taking pictures of it.

The US has similar restrictions - some parts of the airports and TSA checkpoints are not the best place to take pictures. I can tell you a story how my nephew from Moscow ended up in the police station when he was visiting us in the Philadelphia suburbs (Pennsylvania) for walking around the local middle school and taking pictures (he is a photographer). Or another story - about a friend, an American, who was picked up by the FBI as a suspected terrorist during his Geocaching activities (in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania).

So - be mindful of what you're doing, as a general rule (I try to follow that advice myself).

 

Avoiding scams

“Turkey Drop” Scam: An individual “accidentally” drops money on the ground in front of an intended victim, while an accomplice either waits for the money to be picked up, or picks up the money him/herself and offers to split it with the pedestrian. Then the victim is accused of stealing the money. Do not pick up the money. Walk quickly away from the scene.

Airport Scam: A con artist asks you to watch his bag, then extorts money or other valuables to avoid hassle with the police. Never agree to watch a bag that belongs to a stranger. (US government)

Exercise extreme caution in crowds and open markets. Criminals use various techniques to distract the victims, including by distracting their victims with requests for help. In such situations, walk away quickly. (UK government)"

Good advice, all of them. Are those legit risks for a WC 2018 traveler? Yes, they are. And for any other traveler going to any other country.

Be vigilant and self-aware.

 

Drink smart!

"Alcohol won’t be available at stadium during matches. The sale and consumption of alcohol in glass containers will be banned on the evening and day of matches in certain locations in host cities. The sale of alcohol from shops is restricted, typically from 11pm to 8am. (UK)"

"You can be jailed immediately for driving under the influence of alcohol. (US)"

Legit? Yes. All are good points.

Over last several years the Russian authorities cracked down on drunk driving real hard. All my friends agree that now it is almost impossible to buy your way out if you caught driving under influence. So - forget about it, don't even try.

 

Money

"It is illegal to pay directly for general transactions with dollars or euros. (UK)"

"Only change money at banks, hotels and recognised exchange kiosks. You will need to show your passport and visa to change money. It is an offence to change money from street traders. (Ireland)"

Good points, legit risks. Remember these tips and follow them.

 

Health

"The European Health Insurance card (EHIC) isn’t valid in Russia, so travel insurance is essential. (UK)

In the summer months, there is a risk of forest fires that could affect the Moscow region. The air quality in areas near active fires may deteriorate due to heavy smoke and affect travellers with respiratory ailments. (Canada)

Do not visit tattoo parlours or piercing services due to the risk of HIV and hepatitis infection. (US)”

All good points. Smok in Moscow were really bad in 2010, and it was very hot, too. It was really hard on the local population, lots of people with poor health suffered greatly. Mortality rate also jumped significantly - especially amongst at-risk demographics such as homeless, heavy drinkers and tobacco smokers. I hope this won't happen this summer.

I would highly recommend getting a travel insurance, always a good idea when travel abroad. In case of medical emergency most of the services obtained from government or municipal healthcare providers will be free. If it is not an emergency - you better have the travel insurance. 

Tattoo and piercing - don’t know anything about it. Sounds legit, though. I would have similar concerns here in the US also.

"Tap water is not drinkable throughout the Russian Federation but bottled mineral water is widely available. (Ireland)"

I disagree - the water might be not tasty, but is drinkable most of the time. My personal knowledge is limited to the big cities, though - so yes, pay attention. And yes, the bottled water is everywhere, easy to buy in any store, big and small.

 

Accessibility advice

"Getting around in Russia is often difficult for persons with mobility issues. Many sidewalks are narrow and uneven. Crossing streets in large cities can be difficult, since it usually requires the use of a pedestrian underpass which includes stairs, steep ramps, and no elevators. Mobility is usually easier in major cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg [but the] Metro is generally not accessible to persons with disabilities. Public transportation is not accommodating to people with disabilities. (US)"

True. It's getting better comparing to the past, but still is a problem.

Legit risk? Yes. If you are a person with mobility issues - need to do more planning. Leave a comment below if you have any questions, I will do more research and ask my Moscow friends for help if needed.


Game day

"In addition to items which would normally be prohibited in the UK, the following restrictions may apply at stadium: large amounts of loose change and lighters may be confiscated and are unlikely to be returned; no bottles or cans are allowed in the ground.

In order to access any of the stadiums during the Fifa World Cup, you’ll need to have a valid match ticket, Fan-ID, and your passport. You should take steps to keep all of these documents safe.

If your Fan-ID is lost or stolen, you can get a duplicate from one of the Fan-ID distribution centres. (UK)"

 

All good points. Follow them.

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