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I was chatting with a friend after I saw his photos in Russia (Petersburg). He is a white British dude who has been to many, many, many countries. In the other hand, I am a pure Arab who look like a typical Middle Easterner or a north African, who also been to many countries, but never to Russia or its neighbors.

Anyway, he seemed like he really liked Russia, so I told him it will be in my list. He told me "you do not belong".

At first, I wasn't sure what did he mean. He start explaining, he told me stuff like "you will be hassled for no reasons in some parts of the city" and "the police will stop you every few hundred meters asking for money". He made sure to make me believe that's all because I do not belong.

Can someone clarify this? Of course some of this is hyperbole to help convey the point, but to what extent?

Note: The friend is Gayot Fow. If you think the question is wrong, feel free to downvote him ;)

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Downvoters: please clarify what's wrong with my question to fix it. Thanks in advance. – Heidel Ber Gensis Jan 4 at 18:48
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What county is your passport from (the one you'll use to enter Russia)? This will matter in official/police interactions. But in general, yes, lots of racism in Russia, and it will only get worse as time goes by. – Eugene O Jan 4 at 19:02
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How can we answer the question if you don't tell us about your passport?! Your passport could be Syrian diplomatic passport which is very welcomed in Russia at the moment. – Ulkoma Jan 4 at 19:18
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@Joulupukki the question is clearly about the treatment one can expect onthe street, by people who have no idea what passport anyone else may hold. – phoog Jan 5 at 3:21
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Just Googling for 'racism Russia' in Google brings up a ton of pages on how bad Racism in Russia is and how common it is for non-Slavic looking individuals to be harassed (here's one example), beaten up and in rare cases - murdered. I'd personally not risk it, seeing as I'm in a similar category to you. And with the stand off between Russia and the West getting worse by the day, I very much doubt that xenophobic sentiments have gotten or will get better over time. – Nobilis Jan 5 at 8:42

Disclaimer: I'm a native Russian living in Russia, and I don't have much first-hand account on racial problems in Russia. What I'm writing below is based on what I see in Russia, not on any first-hand foreigner experience.

First of all, I believe that reports on racism in Russia are somewhat exaggerated. I live in Nizhny Novgorod, and I often see people of obviously different race on the streets (Indian, Afroamerican, etc.), and I have not heard of any real crime they face. I think that St. Petersburg, being a city full of tourists, must have even less problems, at least as long as you stay in touristic center.

Also, I don't think that Arabs will be hassled or endangered substantially more than average foreigners. Russia has a lot of different nations, and many Russians do look like Arabs/Middle Easterns. The following races/ethnic groups are at more danger:

  • (Not exaclty a racial point) People with a distinct and unusual clothing or unusual haircut or beardcut;
  • People with really dark skin (not the brownish color that may be attributed to sun tanning, but really brown/black typical for people with Africal descent);
  • People with facial features typical for Middle Asia (narrow eyes etc); this is because there are lots of legal and illegal migrants from former South Soviet republics (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etc.);
  • People from Caucasus mountains (both Russian North Caucasus and South Caucasus states such as Georgia or Azerbaijan), but these are usually identified not by physical characteristics, but by a very distinct accent of Russian language they speak.

I don't think you fall into any of these categories (maybe the first, but I guess you can easily fix that), so I don't think you will get more danger/hassle than an average European foreigner.

At the same time, you should understand that it is not as safe as it may be in European countries, but this extends to all foreigners (more to the aforementioned categories), and often to locals too.

Namely, first of all, as Gayot Fow mentions, you can get a lot of curious glances, remarks, and so on1; see Gayot Fow's answer. Some Russians do indeed often have little concern of privacy. Most of this are not really dangerous, but still you may find yourself uncomfortable. Obsiously in popular touristic areas there will be many foreigners and locals will be used to them, while a colored man in a non-touristic neighbourhood might attract attention of every passer-by.

Also note that in Russian language some words are not considered really rude, even if their English counterpart is not acceptable in modern speech at all. Such words as "негр" (negr) or for that matter "инвалид" (invalid) are not generally considered rude. Well-educated people know that these words are very rude in English and try to avoid them in Russian too, but many people do not care.

A bigger danger might be police, but I don't think they will be targeting arbitrary foreigners. They give special attention to the aforementioned Middle Asia people due to illegal migration problem, but apart from this I don't think they will target some foreigners more than others. (With the current political situation, the war in Sirya, etc. they may start paying special attention to Arabs, but I think it's too early to say this for certain.)

The biggest problem is street gangs, and you may have heard numerous reports on neo-fascists in Russia, but I think that if you take care, you are really unlikely to encounter them. First of all, avoid places where there are very little other people (deserted night streets, late public transport, etc.) Moreover, in most cities there are dangerous neighbourhoods which even locals will try to avoid at nights. If you are heading at night anywhere outside of touristic center, it's a good idea to do some research to find whether it is considered dangerous. If there are few peoples on the street, watch for teenager groups and avoid them.

Finally, different cities have different safety. Moscow and St. Petersburg recieve lots of tourists and thus are rather safe, at least around popular sights. Other big cities (roughly above 1 million population) are also quite safe (except for aforementioned neighbourhoods), as they have a lot of well-educated well-paid open-minded people. An exception is Voronezh, which was notorious for racial crime some 10-20 years ago, though I have not heard of any recent reports. In contrast, small towns (say, 100-200 thousands population) often face declining economy problems and thus best young people leave for bigger cities, and those who are left are on average more narrow-minded and xenophobic. Unless you know the town, I would be cautious even in the town center.

Finally, rural areas will on average be less dangerous, but you may face a groups of drunken people who will be hostile to any person who is not local.

1. I did not though about it in my first version of answer, because I thought more about physical danger. I had to look up "hassle" in a dictionary to see that these disturbing glances etc. might fit too.

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Petr, could you elaborate just a bit on what you mean by "colored" and "Mongoloid"? These are both real English words, but they're generally considered rude and ambiguous. (And if you have a particular Russian word in mind, feel free to use it alongside, and we'll do our best to translate.) – Joe Jan 5 at 3:59
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I figured as much (that you didn't intend any rudeness). In this case, you might be better off with "dark-skinned" and "East Asian". – Joe Jan 5 at 8:20
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@Joe What is rude about "colored"? Even in the most far-left liberal circles they use "Person of Colour". "Dark-skinned" is not a good synonym as you can have a non-white skin colour that is not dark. "Mongoloid" is a scientific term that encompasses not only the people of East Asia, but many other geographical regions, so "East Asian" is not a synonym. Your suggestions for replacement words actually add ambiguity, contrary to your goal. It's best to stick to the facts rather than be over-sensitive like this. – SpaghettiCat Jan 5 at 9:05
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@GayotFow, I think that St. Petersburg should be safer than any of Volga cities, mainly because it has a lot of tourists. Nizhny and Samara, I think, being big cities with many high-skilled high-paid open-minded people, are roughly the same. Syzran, on the other hand, being a rather small city, might be more dangerous (I've never been there, but I can guess). That's a general problem of small cities in Russia (and maybe not Russia alone): best young open-minded people leave for bigger cities, and those who are left are in general more narrow-minded and xenophobic. – Petr Jan 5 at 9:54
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@GayotFow, at the same time, Voronezh has been notorious for racial crime some 10-20 years ago, so I would consider it to be more dangerous than other cities mentioned (though I have not heard of any recent problems there). And North Caucasius is as usual the most dangerous region in Russia. – Petr Jan 5 at 9:59

Define 'danger'!

For a question like this, you need to give a fairly precise definition of 'dangerous'. If your definition of 'dangerous' means a high likelihood of being robbed or enduring a physical attack, then you would be relatively free of danger if you remained on Nevsky Prospect or within 200 - 300 meters of the Prospect (north or south). You would also be free of immediate physical danger at several other locales in the city such as the area around the naval academy or along the eastern bank of the Neva River. To generalize, you can say the Petrogradsky District is ok most of the time.

Having said that, if your definition of 'dangerous' includes feeling unsafe, or being physically intimidated, or any other source of discomfort brought on by the natives, then these things could lead to a feeling of being threatened. At the very least the discomfort brought on by a perceived threat will spoil your mood, and possibly lead to the conclusion that it's dangerous. This can happen without any crime being committed, such as a direct physical assault. Physical intimidation is also not a crime, but leads to the same feeling of threat and being unsafe.

You can expect to be glared at, especially in the tube or on the bus. This happens from a totally random mixture of curiosity, hostility (you can be easily mistaken for a Chechnyan), fear of arab terrorists, or even that you are unusual and hence interesting. Russians generally have a different notion of privacy than say western europeans and you can interpret stares and glares in any number of different ways including discomfort and threat.

Entering a restaurant, you will be spotted as a foreigner straight-away and they will ask you if you want an English menu. This happens all the time for everybody, and it may cause the other patrons to check you out from curiosity. Again, some staring behaviour that you may find unsettling.

When you enter a museum or take a cruise on the Neva out to the summer palace (recommended by the way), the cashier will spot you as a foreigner and make you pay the foreigner's surcharge. This can be disturbing because you have been subject to a type of open-faced discrimination in public. How much fun is that? This can lead to a sense of embarrassment which can lead to feeling generally unsafe. To be fair, natives do not pay the surcharge because those venues are sponsored by the state, but it does not alter the situation.

If you go out of the Petrogradsky District to find a reasonably priced restaurant, then you might find yourself waiting for a train or tube at say Lagoda Station for example. Being of a middle eastern complexion combined with night time, you can expect some yobos to come up to you on the platform and stand very close to you checking you out. They may ask you for a cigarette or a light or even some rubles... These things are not crimes, but the experience will absolutely make you nervous and upset, that's what yobos enjoy. Those emotions can be very easily transmitted to a sense of danger.

These things can happen anywhere, but I suggest that the sense of 'danger' is exacerbated by the overwhelming amount of lore on the net that it's a 'dangerous' place.

In another answer, user Petr (to whom +1 and props) points out that St Petersburg is more urbane and hence compares favourably with cities along the Volga, and I agree with that; also we agree that the Caucus region of Russia is wildly unsafe. And finally, my rumour sources inform me that Putin is planning to make the entire region between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk closed to foreigners except for transit on the railway, so it becomes irrelevant. That's about two or three time zones! You could fit the whole UK into that region maybe five or six times! So I am down-scoping this answer to Peter and Moscow only.

Adding...

I forgot to add... On Sundays, when the navy cadets are posted all around the city to sweep the streets and parks and clean up rubbish, it's safe everywhere. They are massively respectful and dutiful during that time. Plus it is a wonderful spectacle to behold and you won't see it anywhere else (that I'm aware of anyway).

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The things you mention would apply to anyone who's visibly not from there, whether Arab or not, no ? – blackbird57 Jan 5 at 15:01
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@blackbird57 partially. There is increased sensitivity towards Arabs with a darker complexion and especially towards Chechens for which the OP can be easily mistaken. Standard westerners get it much less. – Gayot Fow Jan 5 at 15:22
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+1, completely agree with everything. Still didn't find time to expand my answer today, will try tomorrow. – Petr Jan 5 at 18:53
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(Except for closing Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk, that sounds absolutely too much even by modern Russian standards. Can you quote the source?) – Petr Jan 5 at 18:55
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@Petr, friend in Krasnoyarsk, friend in Kemerovo, friend in Surgut and an on-going thread in a forum similar to rutalk.co.uk which I won't identify directly. There is a huge infrastructure buildup in Krasnoyarsk and And remember that you can fit all of western europe into Krasnoyarsk Krai by itself. Tomsk Oblast needs to be closed because of the weapons plant in Seversk, etc etc. Tomsk + Krasnoyarsk and you're basically there – Gayot Fow Jan 5 at 19:50

Where are you going and what do you plan to do?

Moscow and Peter are absolutely fine (unless you stray into the slum areas that even Russians avoid - at that point, you're obviously looking for trouble which I guess you're not).

In general, people don't really care - Russians have an intense and rather serious standard expression and way of looking that's off-putting if you're not from the former USSR/Warsaw Pact countries but it's merely a way of looking. Nobody will harass you or otherwise bother you as a normal tourist doing normal things.

On the other hand, if you try to do atypical things (get overly engaged in the local nightlife in certain ways, try to take pictures of the Lubyanka or submarines moored at the dock, wear a large backpack in the metro, etc.), then the police are likely to stop you. Bear in mind these are things that Russians would also get stopped for.

The blunt truth is that the Russians are not PC about race in the way that the British are, especially with security-related issues due to the Caucasus region, but this doesn't mean that people will actively harass or intimidate you on the basis of race exclusively. Having lived in Russia and Paris, I would actually be inclined to say that Paris is probably more racist in practice.

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I've been travelling to Russia several times and have some different experience, despite what native Russians are saying here.

First of all, yes, this is true that racism, although not open, is there and this is true you will be stopped by police for passport check. It is not like they need your money every time, though.

Second, as long as you are in the central part of Moscow or Sankt-Petersbourg you will be fine. Don't go to the sleeping towns, don't go to fishy areas and you will be fine.

That said, I've been hassled in different parts of Russia, even being in the center of the city. And I am "white", although looking very different from an average Russian. Most of the time it was nothing serious and, quite funnily, I've been rescued by random Dagestanis for some unknown to me reason several times.

Don't speak to suspicious guys, don't go to strange areas, use taxi for transportation and you will be all fine. This is not the best time to visit Russia, but probably worth it anyway.

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I am pure Arab who look like Middle Eastern or North African because I am from Egypt. I traveled to Moscow, Russia for about 5 months for business. I didn't face any racism, threat or danger although I am kind of person who walk from work to hotel and use the buses and metro all the time to explore the city. But I can say I was in the city center and main roads all the time. I didn't met any police officer, nobody stop me during the period I spent there. But, you have to carry your passport all the time. It is obvious that police will be tough with you if they suspect you, because they will not understand a single word :) If you have Russian friends of course that will help a lot.

Before traveling to Russia I did a Russian crash course to be able to read and pronounce the Russian Alphabet and it was very useful. In Moscow, no body speaks English and they start laughing once you start talking in English, like typical Egyptian from Upper Egypt.

I met Egyptian guy living in Moscow and he warned me about the racism but he said it is not against Arabs, it is against anyone who doesn't look Russian.

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Thanks, but the last part kills everything before it.. if you didn't face anything for 5 months, how come your friend did? it's a bit confusing perhaps you can clear that up a little bit :) Shokran ya za3eem – Heidel Ber Gensis Mar 7 at 20:04
    
@HeidelBerGensis perhaps Ahmed Hashim faced no racism in his 5 months because he "was in the city center and main roads all the time." Certainly in the US, where I live, racism manifests itself very differently in different places. I would be surprised if the same weren't true of Russia. – phoog Mar 8 at 0:03
    
@HeidelBerGensis the guy I met said that, but I didn't face any issue. – Ahmed Hashim Mar 10 at 9:34

Not true. I don't know exactly how you look like, but as soon as you tell the cops you are from Egypt, Jordan or any other country (not Central Asia) they won't bother you.

Police check documents of people who seems suspicious or potentially illegal there. They ask for registration and other proof of residence. They do pretty much the same in France. Explain you are a tourist and will be in Russia for 1-2 weeks and show that you have visa, etc. They won't ask you for money, etc.

Most tourists don't visit suburbs and villages in Russia so do you. Don't worry about being harassed or something crazy you friend told you. Everything will be alright, just act normal and don't look as 100% innocent tourist. There are many pickpockets and people who can rob you at any time. Depends where you are and who you are with.

Good luck.

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