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What About Terrorism?

This is a sadly pertinent question for travel almost anywhere in this post-9/11 world. Russia's experiences with terrorism date back to the 19th century, when revolutionary bombers assassinated Czar Alexander II. The source of more recent terrorist attacks has been the war in Chechnya, where a conflict between Russian troops and Chechen guerrillas has simmered for more than a decade. Two major terrorist attacks outside Chechnya in recent years -- the Moscow theater siege in 2002 and the Beslan school massacre in 2004 -- terrified the world and hardened Russian opposition to the Chechen cause. With no end to the conflict in sight, the Chechen problem will continue to cast a shadow over Russia's post-Soviet progress.

The provinces in the Northern Caucasus Mountains neighboring Chechnya are at the most risk of spillover violence that could affect tourists. Moscow, 1,000km (621 miles) to the north, is sheltered from everyday Chechnya-related violence, but as the seat of Russia's government, it is at risk of rare attacks like the theater siege. Like terrorist acts in other European cities, these are nearly impossible to predict and avoid. Most experts judge the terrorism risk in Moscow as no higher than in other major capitals, though if an attack occurs, Russian security services are likely to handle it more ruthlessly than their European counterparts would. St. Petersburg is considered at low risk for terrorism.

See the U.S. State Department's Advisory website (www.travel.state.gov) for recent warnings, though be aware that they tend to be more alarmist than the travel advisories posted by other governments. If you notice a suspicious abandoned bag on the metro or in a public place, report it to the nearest metro official or police officer.

Staying Safe

The notorious Russian "mafia" made for good movie villains in the 1990s, but its reputation is rather exaggerated and it is not a serious threat to foreign visitors. The victims of most organized crime are Russian millionaires and powerful tycoons who have much more to lose than the average American tourist. Pickpockets and over-friendly drunks are the main annoyances to today's traveler; you can avoid both by being alert, traveling in groups, and sticking to well-lit areas after dark. Prostitution and drug use are illegal but widespread, and not worth a run-in with the Russian police. Drunk-driving laws are strict, forbidding drivers from having even one drink, but traffic police (unfortunately) readily accept payoffs for overlooking minor infractions.

Dealing With Discrimination

The Soviet Union was one of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet, and Russia is still home to hundreds of nationalities. Few Russians can claim to be 100% Slavic, after centuries of mingling with people of Turkic, Nordic, and Mongol blood. However, the two recent wars in Chechnya have fueled a blanket suspicion of people from the Caucasus region, and there have been sporadic incidents of skinhead violence against ethnic minorities in recent years, especially immediately following a terrorist attack. St. Petersburg, despite its cultured reputation, has seen some of the worst attacks, largely targeting vendors and transient workers from Central Asia or the Caucasus. These workers are crucial to the local economy, yet with the Slavic population aging and shrinking, some fringe groups see the migrant workers as a threat to Russia's identity. Foreigners with "southern" features -- dark eyes and hair and olive skin -- very occasionally suffer reluctant service and suspicious looks, unless it's clear that you're a tourist and not a terrorist. Africans from fellow socialist states were welcomed in the Soviet era, but periodic waves of nationalist sentiment in the post-Soviet era have resulted in backlashes against anyone with black skin, usually in the bleak suburbs where jobless young white men target their even poorer African and Asian neighbors. The majority of Russians do not share this hostility and tourists only very rarely suffer from it, especially those traveling in groups.

Most Russians are eager to criticize the U.S. government for something, but the comments are purely political -- a way of making conversation and demonstrating their knowledge of world events, as opposed to a personal attack. Most interlocutors are happy to talk to a foreigner about current events, even if your views differ, and you'll find pro-Western sentiment as common as anti-Western sentiment.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.