A Moscow Herbal Steam Barrel and “Normal” Massage

I mean, I guess there are folks who specifically go for a massage because they want it to be “weird” (if you know what I mean).  And this concern can be doubly troubling when one is sojourning in foreign lands.  But it is because of fear of weirdness that I’ve only gone for a massage on personal recommendation.

But when a friend called and told me that she had just gotten a job at a new Moscow massage salon, I knew that it wouldn’t be that kind of weird.  She had done massage for my family in the past.  But it was when she told me about the Herbal Steam Barrel, I knew I was going.

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Herbal Steam Barrel Ready For Business

Actually, I was only told that it was something like a Herbal Barrel, and I only found out upon arrival that it was a Steam Barrel.  I had thought about how it would be filled with water… and cleaned between customers.  But no worries on that, much to my relief. 🙂

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Wondering what happens next, also glad you can’t see the disposable “pants” they gave me to wear

I love the Russian banya experience, and since this is Russia, I expected the heat to be extreme.  Would I be less of a man to admit that I was happy that it wasn’t overly hot? They told me that the Herbal Steam Barrel was first invented in ancient times, but only came into it’s modern form in Russia during the 1970’s.

They also told me about the mix of herbs in the steam, now removing the toxins from my body.  There was a whole list that I can’t remember, mostly from the Altai region of Russia.

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During the procedure, I did work up a sweat.  But Vitaliy was kind to offer me some bottled water.

There is a shower stall right there in the room, so I thought that I would jump in for a rinse before the massage, but they informed me that I was to immediately get on the massage table.  Because that’s how it works.

They turned down the lights and put on some relaxing music.  The lyrics of this particular song did cause me to chuckle a bit.

The massage was well, relaxing, and this affected my eloquence, but this is what I had to say.

I had lots more work to do that day, so I am happy to report that after some “reviving tea”, I felt great and ready to go.

I am thrilled to find a massage salon in my neighborhood in Moscow (it’s located between the Universitet and Profsoyuznaya metro stations) that is clean, professional, has some Russian uniqueness, but is also free of the “weird”.

What Russian spa treatments, other than the Herbal Steam barrel do I need to try?  Let me know in the comments.

Russia’s Authentic Pop-Star Babushkas (VIDEO)

“Party for Everybody, Dance! Come on and dance!”

It was 2012, and a ensemble of babushkas from an unknown Russian village were taking the Europe pop-music scene by storm.

Eurovision is an annual song competition, where each country in Europe can submit one song and then vote for the other countries.  In recent years, it has offered a mix of some quality music, but also some bizarre performances.

But no one saw the babushkas from the village of Buranovo coming.  Their smiles, glowing faces, and mix of English, Russian and native Udmurt language lyrics disarmed the audiences.

In the end, they won 2nd place in the Eurovision contest with their hit “Party For Everybody”

Fast-forward 7 years later.  A couple of weeks ago I was traveling through the Udmurtia Republic with our YouTube channel, and was told that the Buranovo Babushkas were only a 60-kilometer drive away.

To be honest, I thought it might just be a cute or entertaining story, but then I met the Babushkas of Buranovo.

Not only are they incredibly authentic, but their story and continued drive to serve those around them with what they have is a direct challenge to everyone they meet.

As it turns out, their dream was for a church for the village of Buranovo.  And with proceeds from Eurovision and other concerts, they built that church.

The babushkas are all now 80 years old or older, but they are not stopping with the church.  Their new project is building an assisted-living facility for the elderly in the area.

Be sure to watch this video until the end, and allow yourself to be challenged by the Buranovo Babushkas.

“It is only the love of the people that supports us and we continue to live…”

How US Sanctions Against Russia (Don’t) Work And Hurt Americans

“Russia will not change its course because of sanctions”.

It was nearly two years ago, and I agreed to go on a Russian political talk show.  Little did I know that this situation would become very personal for me.

At that time, Russia and the United States seemed to be caught in a game of who could do the most petty trick against the other.  Shutting down diplomatic presence, for example, really means nothing to anyone except for those who are simply trying to live their lives, and happen to have a connection between the two countries.

To put it simply on how sanctions don’t work: Regardless of your political views, I think it’s clear:  Russia has ZERO intention of giving up Crimea, or apologizing for any alleged interference in any election process, even if it did buy some Facebook ads.

If you’re American and reading this, you also know that the US government has ZERO intention of changing its opinion of Russia anytime in the near future.  And to give you an idea of how ineffective sanctions are, some of you are only right now learning that Russia has also created sanctions against the US.

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I’m no Trump supporter, but he does make for a great GIF. 🙂

With the background of flooding in Houston, I suggested a constructive approach on the talk show but was fairly quickly shouted down.  The man I argue with in this short clip is Greg Weiner.  He moved from Russia to the States, lived there for some time, and now represents the USA on Russian political talk shows.:

I didn’t last long as a political talk show personality.  It seems I didn’t have a strong enough position for or against America or Russia.  My stance of judging each situation separately, not taking sides, and offering constructive solutions apparently didn’t make for very good television.

If you want more in-depth political analysis on how sanctions don’t work, you can check out this Forbes article that I just stumbled upon.  Because this is now about how this became personal for me, an American in Russia.

Again, at the time of my talk show adventures, I didn’t take the sanctions very seriously.  I saw that the sanctions were pointed at a small group of people and businesses, none of which I have any relation to, and to repeat myself: why take anything seriously if it produces zero result?

As regular readers know, I don’t just blog:  I run a Moscow real estate agency, wrote a book in Russian, run a Russian language YouTube channel, and help Russian businesses grow their business in the West.

But my view on sanctions changed this year when I decided to also start a small trucking company in Russia.  Together with a Russian business partner, we created a business plan, and I quickly saw the clear upside.  I then showed it to my brother Tim back in Ohio, and he also saw the potential.  Tim’s LLC, that he had used for various side hustles in the past, became a partner in the Russian trucking company, and made a no-interest loan to the Russian company.  The amount wasn’t small or big, but we saw that leveraging the amount through Russian bank financing, we could start our small business off with three 18-wheel tractor-trailer trucks.  That’s when the problems began.

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Our first truck, but we currently have no way to make any payments back to our US partner… because of American regulations that have caused our American partner’s bank accounts to be shut down.

We were put under some fairly heavy scrutiny in Russia.  Although it was stressful at the time, in retrospect, the Russian tax authorities’ concerns were not baseless, and actually had our American partner’s interests in mind.  It seemed they were mainly concerned that we were really going to do business with the money that came in from the no loan contract and not planning some fraud like bankrupting the company and running away with cash.

After we had worked through all of this on the Russian side, problems began for Tim.  The bank that he used in Ohio, and asked him to close his accounts.  He asked why, and they refused to give an answer.

We realized that something strange was afoot, but weren’t sure how to proceed.  Tim then went to 3 or 4 more banks in Ohio, and they all refused to open an account for him.  Again, they refused to give an explanation.  This was maddening for me.  If nothing else, this is not the America that I know.  If a business is refusing to serve its customers, it should be able, or even required, to give a reason.

We found out about an organization called OFAC.  This is the Office of Foreign Assets Control.  Tim called OFAC.  In short, after that phone call we were relieved to understand that we were not somehow unwittingly involved in anything illegal, but concerned to hear that because of regulations, banks simply do not want to have anything to do with servicing any business account with any connection to Russia.

My conclusion:  Neither government has changed its views one iota because of the sanctions.  There are issues for businesses, but big business is mostly unfazed.  But here we are, small business, working to develop a life for ourselves and our families, and to create jobs, and we are the ones suffering the most because of the sanctions.

I do not even blame OFAC for this.  They are simply following the procedures created by legislators.

What I am suggesting is dialog.  And I strongly recommend and even beg US legislators to re-consider how your legislation is hurting small business ventures between our nations.  This serves no purpose for business, and I dare say serves no purpose even for your supposed agenda of spreading “American democratic values”.  You have failed, and you need to set it right.

Because when you have no qualms with buying Russian gas and oil, but Americans in both in the USA and in Russia become the main victims of your half-baked policy, your hypocritical absurdity becomes clear to all.  You are involved in a series of “petty tricks” that serve no purpose except to save face in front of your constituents, and in the end hurt small business and those folks who genuinely want to develop constructive ties between our nations.

P.S.  This situation has forced me to pay more attention to politics than I really care to.  But while the lawmakers do what they do, we have a business to run and obligations to fulfill, so this text is also a request for help.  If you have experienced a similar situation with US banks and know how to navigate the way out, I would really appreciate any tips or insight.  Thanks!

The Soviet Arcade Museum

My kids like video games, and I like history.

When you’re 42, have 4 kids, it’s raining, and your wife is gone for the week, you start to think about stuff, you know?

The main thing you think about is how to get the kids out of the house!  This can be one of the challenges of raising kids in Russia.  The weather isn’t always delightful in the Motherland, and you want to stay active.

After doing a quick internet search, I was happy to be reminded of the Soviet Arcade Museum.

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The Soviet Arcade Museum is currently located at VDNKH

The Soviet Arcade Museum is located at the VDNKH park complex.  From what I understand, it has moved from the city center, due to renovations, so not sure how permanent the location is.

VDNKH is one of my favorite places to takes guests when they come to Moscow, and it’s a bit strange to me that I don’t see more tourists there.  But I’m not complaining, because the crowds there can be overwhelming, particularly on the weekends.  The complex has some of the most fantastic architecture in Moscow, a fascinating history, a huge aquarium, a robotics museum, and much more.

Point is, the Soviet Arcade Museum can be a great part of a day spent at the VDNKH complex.

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The “Sea Battle” puts you in command through a submarine periscope

The entry cost is 450₽ per person, or if you’re like me and have 3 children or more, it is 350₽.  The admission cost also includes 15 tokens (in this case, 15 Soviet kopecks) for game play.

So, if you’re keeping score, my kids and I had a total of 75 game plays ahead of us.

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Success:  4 kids happily playing, in this case soccer and basketball

There are, of course, plenty of racing games, some ultra-simple “Pong” style games, sports, and war.  Our favorite though, was the simple basketball game in the above photo.

Here’s a “Prove Your Strength” attraction that just might leave your back aching.

It seemed that either a few of the games weren’t working, or we didn’t understand how to use them.  There was a kind and talkative gentleman, walking around and fixing the games.  I assume we could have asked for a refund for some of those games, but we didn’t as 75 total game plays was more than enough.

IMPORTANT:  Game instructions are provided in English, and the staff also speak great English.

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A Hunting Game

I was thrilled that the kids liked my idea for afternoon fun, as that is probably the exception more than the rule.  I think it was fun for them to play games where you can actually see how it works mechanically.

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TORPEDO ATTACK!  (Not sure how this is different from “Sea Battle”)

If you’re looking to get out of the house with kids.  I also did overhear my teenage offspring comment that “this would be a great place for a date”.  The Soviet Arcade is in Pavilion 57 at VDNKH, which is in the very back of the park complex, in a large building that is mainly devoted to Russian history.  Point is, you might not see the signs, so best to know which Pavilion.

And there is also a Soviet Arcade Museum in St. Petersburg.  Enjoy, and let me know what other ideas you have to get the kids out of the house.  With this one we all won, I enjoyed the history, and they enjoyed the games.

Can Foreigners Buy Real Estate Property In Russia?

 

And updated version of this post is available here.

The simple answer is “Absolutely!”.  It’s sometimes surprising to me how often I hear the question of whether foreigners can buy real estate in Russia.

But there are also many other questions that arise, such as whether it is possible for foreigners to secure mortgages towards their real estate purchase in Russia.  The quick answer on that is, yes it is also possible.

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Some real estate in Russia will surprise you as it breaks some of the stereotypes you might have, like this modern loft-style apartment in Moscow, in the Paveletskaya neighborhood.

Blogging is my hobby, both with this Planet Russia blog and also with The American blog and YouTube channel, both in Russian.  But one of my main sources of income is the real estate company I founded some years ago, called Expat Flat, which provides real estate service for foreigners in Russia.

I really enjoy both sharing about life in Russia with the blogs, but also making foreigners feel at home in Russia through the real estate service.

I recently made a quick and simple video about foreigners owning real estate in Russia for the Expat Flat Facebook page.  Check it out, and then let’s look at some of the details of buying real estate in Russia.

Now, let’s look through some of the details:

Mortgages

It is possible for foreigners to secure mortgages in Russia.  Generally speaking, you will need to prove a steady official income.  And in most cases, you will need a down payment of 15-20%.  The interest rate can be 10-12% annual.  It is best to find a reputable mortgage broker or real estate agency to help you in this process.  I also recommend only working with major banks, because as a rule of thumb they are less likely to nickel and dime you with the small print.

Commercial Property

If you are looking for real estate investment opportunity in Russia, I would strongly recommend that you consider looking at commercial property options.  The return can be higher than residential real estate.  And you can hire a property manager to take care of all of the details, so that you can live your life comfortably either in Russia or abroad.

Quite often, commercial property that is for sale already has a long-term reliable tenant, so that you can be immediately guaranteed a continuing source of income.

Of course, there are many types of commercial property in Russia.  I highlighted some office space, located directly across the street from the Kremlin, in this video:

Land

As with all the points in this post, there are plenty of exceptions and nuance.  But as a foreigner you can also own land in Russia.  I own a few small plots of residential land.  And I think this can be one of the most intriguing options if you are in Moscow long-term on a budget or in a smaller city around Russia.

In the Moscow region, for example, it is possible to buy a piece of land and build a small, simple house, altogether for under $35,000 USD.  Of course, if you are new to Russia, you will most certainly want a reliable partner to help you through all of the building process and red tape.  Hiring someone reliable will save you money… and nerves!

Residential Property

In most cases, the simplest thing to do is buy an apartment.  The process is simple, but again, it is strongly recommended to hire someone to work with you, and to make sure that all of the documentation is correct and above board, and to help you analyze the best deals on the market, and perhaps offer a few options that you might not have thought of before.

Here’s another video of a flat in Moscow that again shows that there are many unexpected real estate options in Russia.

Taxes

This is where things get interesting.  The property tax is shockingly cheap, but most importantly, Russia changed the law on real estate sale for non-residents at the beginning of this year.  This is important because in the past, there was a heavy tax on the sale if you were not a resident of Russia at the time of the sale.  But now, with the changes in the law, if you have held the property for five years or more, there is ZERO tax in Russia on the sale.  This is important to understand if you are looking at being in Russia long-term and want to avoid paying rent, or if you are looking at investment opportunities.

Hope that information helps!  If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to comment below or to contact me at Expat Flat.  I look forward to continuing to open Russia to you a bit at a time through this blog, and if you are serious about living in Russia long-term, perhaps I can be of some assistance with real estate.

 

Business in Russia | How to have a successful ‘first date’ with your Russian partner

Russians will often want a very quick and frank discussion so that they can understand whether the business relationship is worth their time, shares Andy Frecka, an experienced business negotiator living in Russia.

As an American who has now called Russia home for 19 years, I love negotiating on behalf of Russian businesses with their Western counterparts.

 

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Lately, I’ve taken special notice of the question “Do they have money?” often within 15 minutes of the beginning of the meeting. This question can take different forms such as “Are they ready to sign?” or “Do they understand why we are meeting?” but the point is the same, the Russian businessperson will want to quickly understand whether their Western counterpart is worth their time.

I may not know much, but I am well aware that it’s not usually a good idea to ask a girl to marry you on the first date. With that, I often find myself encouraging my Russian friends to not rush things, but to simply enjoy the process.

Unfortunately, it is often a misunderstanding early on a first date that can spell the end of what could be a fantastic romantic relationship, and the same is true in business.

Based on the first date question “Do they have money?” here’s a pair of paradoxes I have learned while working for Russian businesses:

1. Russians aren’t famous for punctuality, but once the meeting starts, they will want to move forward quickly

Russians will often want a very quick and frank discussion so that they can understand whether the business relationship is worth their time. Americans, on the other hand, will usually show up to the meeting on time, but will want to create a trust building process that will seem bafflingly lengthy to the Russians. The problem is that the Russians will understand this process to be a signal of disinterest by the Western partners.

2. Russians are well known for bureaucracy, but are more spontaneous than their Western counterparts

Relating to the previous point, if they understood that the Westerner is not interested in partnership, they will often simply begin looking for other partners, without completing the process. With all that Russia has to offer the world, I think this is incredibly unfortunate. This is why I am spending more and more time working with Russians in better understanding how to relate to Westerners.

So, what can you do if the timing between you and your Russian counterpart is out of sync?  Before judging and walking away after just the first date, consider the following.

Both the Western and Russian points of view are incredibly pragmatic… in their own way

You want transparency, the Russian wants to get to work and make sure they will get paid. Fortunately, these two points do not conflict with each other.

Russians value authority over transparency

You will put them at ease if you start the meeting showing what you are capable of, rather than using “small talk” to get a feel of who they are. “Small talk” can always come later, but it is often confusing to Russians if it is used towards the beginning of the talks. (Alternatively, I teach Russians to relax and enjoy the small talk at the beginning of meetings, if that is the way the Westerner wants to start.)

Explain your company’s process by using stories

I was recently working for a Russian company which was in partnership talks with an American company. The American who had come for the talks did a fantastic job of explaining how his company had worked out a similar arrangement already with a company in China. This gave us an idea of how they viewed the process of partnership formation, showed us that it was already working, and also gave us a good understanding of the length of the process.

Stay engaged with your Russian counterpart as your company goes through its process

If you keep silent, the Russians might understand you are not interested, and look elsewhere for potential partners, and you might lose a fantastic deal.

Russia has much to offer the world, of course, in natural resources, manufacturing, and technology. I have also been intrigued as of late, in how much Russia has to offer in educational systems, the arts, and mind-blowing tourism destinations.

So, don’t miss out on what could be years of mutually beneficial relationship for your business, simply because of a small misunderstanding on your first date.

Andy Frecka was born and raised in the great state of Ohio in the USA, but for the past 19 years is proud to call Russia his home. He is the founder and marketing director of Expat Flat, a Moscow real estate agency, and in recent years has enjoyed working in negotiations between various Russian and Western businesses. Andy also runs the Russian language blog “Amerikanets,”speaks frequently on foreign business relations, and is the author of Matryoshka: Как вести бизнес с иностранцами (How to do business with foreigners).

 

This post originally appeared in Russia Beyond.  You can check it out here.

A Guy In Russia Is Carving 1000 Stone Rabbits

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Perhaps it was this ageless wisdom that inspired Sergei Gapanovich, Petrozavodsk, Russia businessman, to remove graffiti on a rock face next to the road… with multiple rabbit sculptures.

The “Rabbit Valley” project has now received attention by media from all over Russia, and when our YouTube channel team was visiting the capital city of Russia’s Republic of Karelia, I knew we needed to visit Sergey and try our hand at the art of stone-rabbit sculpting.

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This humble blogger’s first attempt at Russian stone-rabbit sculpting

Why rabbits?  “When I was six years old, I became lost in the forest,” recounts Sergei, “and as I lay shivering in the cold, some rabbits came and kept me warm throughout the night, and in the morning led me home.”

Never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, Sergey also doesn’t seem to let his successful business ventures in Petrozavodsk get in the way of his passion of stone-carving.

He is currently working on a giant rock bench on a Karelian island, and plans to take on even more difficult stone-sculpting projects.  At the moment of this publication, Sergey has sculpted 400 rabbits, which means there are only 600 rabbits to go.

Have you ever dreamed of having a certificate of your own personal rabbit sculpture from the Republic of Karelia.  It’s possible, by visiting the Rabbit Valley web-site.  You can choose the type of rabbit that you love the most and will get a certificate of ownership.  Dreams can come true.  And with just a flew clicks of a mouse, you can have your own stone rabbit.

Because “only in Russia” is only possible because of people just like Sergey.

Check out our video of the project and more from the city of Petrozavodsk:

 

Visas to Russia for Americans and Canadians

As an American who has made Russia my home for the past 20 years, I am often asked about how best to get a visa to Russia. Truth be told, I have been here so long that I have lost track of many of the visa requirement changes for newcomers to Russia.

With that, I have found myself frequently recommending the services of Marcus Hudson of Let’s Russia for Americans and Canadians who are looking to get visas to Russia.

I asked Marcus what some of the most frequently asked questions are for folks who are looking to apply for Russian visas and how he would answer. Here they are. Please keep in mind that the Russia visa application process can vary per country, so these questions and answers are at times specific to Americans and Canadians who wish to apply for visas to Russia.

Can I do business on a tourist visa? Can I travel around Russia on a business visa?
Yes and yes. But if you have a tourist visa and you’re doing some business, have intentions to do tourism as well. It’s best if can prove your intentions in the rare case you’re asked by passport control.

Will I be at risk of visa denial or getting arrested in Russia if I have served in the US military?
You will if you are a spy or if you are involved in spy activities. In all other cases, no. Having served in the military does not disqualify you from getting a visa to Russia. In circumstances when you have or had high security clearance to sensitive information or highly-qualified specialist in military technology, the Russian government most likely already knows about you.

I’m going to Russia to start doing business. I understand I need an invitation letter from a Russian organization. How can I get a business invitation letter to Russia if I haven’t establish business contacts in Russia yet?
This is a common question from small businesses, entrepreneurs, self-employed and digital nomads. In order to make business contacts you need to travel to Russia. In order to travel to Russia, you need an invitation from a business contact. And around it goes….
The best option is order a business invitation letter from an intermediary like Let’s Russia because we have contacts in Russia that will legitimately invite you as a potential business partner of theirs. We also assist in drafting the accompanying business letter to reflect actual intentions and plans for your trip. Some Russian consulates have been requiring an explanatory letter from the Russian organization inviting guests.

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Marcus Hudson of Let’s Russia

How can I get a visa transferred to a new passport if my old one has been damaged or I’ve run out of pages?
You can have a visa transferred in Houston for $69 if the original visa was issued in Houston. Otherwise, you would need to apply for a new visa.

I was adopted from Russia and never had a Russian passport. How can I get a Russian visa?
Typically, you don’t. You have to apply for your Russian passport. This takes awhile because you’ll need to gather proof of your citizenship first. Russian children who are adopted from Russia do not lose their citizenship.

In which situations should an American apply for a 3 year multiple entry visa?
There’s no reason not to apply for the multiple entry visa! Starting March 2019, the consulate fees are all the same price, regardless of visa type or number of entries. With this change, we recommend applying for the multi-entry visa up to 3 years. If you’re passport is expiring before then, you can still apply for a multi-entry visa up to 6 months before your passport expires.

Can members of the same family travel to Russia on different visa types?
Yes. But minors accompanying parents usually need to have the same visa type as their parents.

How do I decide which visa to apply for?
Many people want to travel to Russia for a specific period of time. That’s their priority. They don’t care so much about the purpose of travel. We’ve created a specific tool to help people through this process. Check it out here. This is useful for most passport holders, not just Americans.
This way, you can decide on the type of visa based on the time they want to spend in Russia rather than the other way around, and you are not limited by time based on your purpose of visit.
However, we recommend all our customers that the rule of thumb is that when going through passport control, you need to be prepared to answer, “What’s the purpose of your visit?” You should not get a business visa if you do not intend to do business.

These questions are perhaps just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to applying for a visa to Russia. That is why I always recommend using a visa service to take away any stress related to the red tape. I am happy to recommend Marcus and the Let’s Russia team as I have personally seen both their professionalism and patience in answering the many questions that can arise before and during the Russia visa application process. You can begin the visa application process with Let’s Russia by filling out this quick form here.

Russia is open for tourism and business. To simplify the visa process, I recommend a service like Let’s Russia.  Your situation might be unique and it is helpful to have someone working with you and answering your questions as you apply. We look forward to seeing you in the Motherland! 🙂

Cherepovets: Russian City of Steel and Hockey

You know Moscow and St. Petersburg, of course.  And you probably have at least heard of cities such as Novosibirsk, Sochi, and Vladivostok.  But what do you know about Cherepovets?

In my traveling with my Russian language YouTube channel, I have particularly enjoyed going to cities where I knew almost nothing about the city.  And the visit to Cherepovets was no exception.

A quick diletant-level history of Cherepovets will quickly take us from ancient times and a pagan tribe that lived on the shores of the Sheksna river to a Soviet “Mono-City” to a modern city working to develop and diversify.  During Soviet times, there were quite a few cities created around one major enterprise, and in the case of Cherepovets, that would be the Severstal steel factory.

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The Severstal steel factory dominates much of the horizon in Cherepovets

The Severstal factory is the largest steel factory in Russia, so it would be hard to miss, particularly since it’s located right next to the city.  I reckon this harkens back to a time when ecology wasn’t the first thing on anyone’s mind anywhere in the world.

I will leave the subject of ecology to others as it is not a topic that I pretend to know much about.  I can only say that when I arrived in Cherepovets, the smell from the factory in the city center was quite strong, but in talking to locals, it seemed to not be a major concern.  Most folks pointed to the fact that the factory has been working hard to filter much of the emissions in recent years.  And it seems that new apartment buildings in the city are being built in areas farther away from the factory.

Cherepovets is located almost the exact same distance from both St. Petersburg and Moscow.  It is working hard to attract investment and also diversify, and has created tax incentives for new business in the city.

But what I learned the most when I was in Cherepovets is that the local people are incredibly proud of their city and also are crazy about ice hockey.  Their team, also called “Severstal”, is in the professional Continental Hockey League.  We were able to go to a match that Severstal played against the visiting team from Chelyabinsk and also talk with a couple of Severstal’s Canadian players.

The atmosphere at the match was incredible.  Imagine a city, anywhere in the world, where their local team, regardless of the sport, is THE main event in town.  The arena held about 5000 fans, and everyone seemed to know each other and really enjoyed supporting their hometown team.

The word on the street is that there is some fear that the Continental Hockey League will exclude Severstal from its ranks in the future.  I think that would be a criminal move.  You take a city like Moscow- there are at least 5 major league hockey teams in the city.  Each of those teams, of course, has die-hard fans.  But none of those teams are as vital to the city life as the Severstal team is to Cherepovets.  For in this steel-town north of Moscow, I found real Russian hockey.

We thought it would be fun to also video me trying to train with some hockey players.  The Severstal press service, ever so diplomatically suggested I start out with their ten year old team.  This is how that training event went:

In Russia, whether it be art, music, or sport, the children often have to choose one discipline to focus on and become excellent at.  The guys in the Severstal boys team were a lot of fun, and also not only happy to share their opinion on my budding hockey skills, but also give me some quick pointers on working as a goalie.  I found it interesting that they pay nothing to be a part of the team; from what I understood costs are covered also by the steel factory.

We enjoyed walking the streets and talking with the locals.  We had done a video last year in the city of Vologda, and were later inundated with comments that Cherepovets is better than Vologda.  We decided to ask folks why they think that Cherepovets is better than Vologda, and I was sort of surprised to find that Cherepovets has some of the most positive citizens from any city I’ve ever visited in Russia.

Of course, coming in from the outside, this city rivalry was mostly amusing.  I think Vologda is a fantastic city with tremendous tourism potential, and Cherepovets is an industrial city with investment opportunity.  But in both cases, I really enjoyed getting to know a couple cities that are a bit off the beaten path in Russia.

Now, I’m thinking where to travel next.  Any ideas?

Just Some Zhigulis Winter Drifting In Russia

I always knew that driving a Zhiguli during the winter was a sport.  But I didn’t know that the Russians had taken it to this level.

Wikipedia statesDrifting is a driving technique where the driver intentionally oversteers, with loss of traction in the rear wheels or all tires, while maintaining control and driving the car through the entirety of a corner.”

And winter drifting in Russia is mainly a sport for Zhigulis.  While visiting a drifting event in St. Petersburg, I found out why.

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They (fortunately) didn’t allow me behind the wheel, but the view from the passenger seat is fantastic.

The track was a figure eight.  And I learned that drifting has everything to do with technique, not speed.  And for winter drifting in Russia, the track is prepared to be icy and the Zhigulis sport studded tires.

My Zhiguli driver Aleksey is a professional driver, and while during the summer he drifts with a much more modern car, his team still puts together a Zhiguli for participating in the winter drifting events.

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A shot from inside Aleksey’s car while summer drifting.

My first impression was something like “you mean we all get together in a field on a freezing winter day to see who can spin out the best?”  But as I observed, it seemed that although the drifting itself was the highlight, the hidden treasure here is in the process.

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Not everyone made the turn on the first try.

The drivers love to fix and prepare their cars, paint them in vibrant colors, and cover them with stickers.  And as I also learned, they love to blog, particularly on Instagram.

It seemed to be a point of pride among several of the drivers how they build the cars from various car parts, and the number I heard more than once was that they had kept the total cost under 45,000₽ (roughly $670 USD).  There is a joy in the process leading up to the events.

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Anton showed me his rear-wheel drive VW Golf, with (you guessed it) a Zhiguli engine.

Anton showed me his rear-wheel drive VW Golf with a Zhiguli engine and car parts from a list of cars of the world.  The only items on the instrument panel in the car were the oil pressure light and temperature gauge.

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Dmitry took me for a ride in his BMW (with a Toyota engine)

As far as I saw, there was only one non-Russian engine at the event.  This was Dmitry’s car:  a BMW with a Toyota engine.  Dmitry told me that he is “trying to break the stereotype that you can only drift during the winter in a Zhiguli.”

The ride on the BMW felt smoother than in the Zhiguli, but as I learned, the Zhiguli in winter drifting has the advantage because it is lighter than most foreign cars.

Whether it be traveling to Kamchatka, visiting a harvest combine factory, or winter drifting, I’m loving not only observing, but joining the Russian people.  Because we might be having more fun over here than you are over there.

Here is the video (with English subtitles) that I made of the winter drifting event: