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Notes on living and working in Russia

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Where to find organic, natural food in Moscow.

First off, what is organic food? Here is my definition — organic food is a type of food grown in a natural way, not using genetical modifications, fertilizers, chemicals, hormones or other methods to artificially speed up growth or to enhance taste and other qualities.

Almost all of the food produced in Russia or sold in stores and “farmer’s” markets is not organic.

Russia has no standards, no certification on organic food. Therefore when you see labels like “organic”, “farm produced” it’s just marketing (reads “lie”).

There is no one single place to buy all organic. Where you can spot “organic” or “natural” food in Moscow?

“Farmer’s” markets. Almost all of sellers on farmers markets are just re-sellers, merchants. They have nothing to do with producing of what they sell. They are not real farmers. They buy products from variety of sources: wholesale warehouses, small and large farms and retail them on those markets. You never know exactly where the product comes from, how it was produced and to what degree it is “natural” or “organic”. Very few products sold on “farmer’s” markets can be truly called “organic”.

To understand what to buy, you have to be a food expert yourself. Try everything, talk to sellers, question them on the origin of products and how the product was made or grown. Learn how to identify organic food. All the sellers speak only Russian and will lie to you, so be suspicious and picky. Look where other people line to buy specific products. Research, try, check, compare, ask recommendations from people you can trust.

As a side note, all the food sold in “farmer’s markets” is safe to consume. All the markets control safety very strictly. Thus if what you buy is not 100% organic, but at least it is in compliance with safety regulations, quite strict in Russia.

Street “farmer’s markets” on summer weekends. Again, there is no real farmers on those markets. In summer farmers have no time to stand under those tents in Moscow, they have to take care of the crop. People selling on those markets are re-sellers, buying products from wholesalers and retailing them. Origin of food can be import or local (meaning produced in Russia), can be organic, but most likely it is not. If you ask about where the food comes from, they will lie to you in most cases. The only way to find out is to request quality certificate on a specific product they sell. They must have those certificates, but reluctant to show them. Again, safety is strictly controlled and not an issue, even if those “farmer’s” tomatoes you buy is an imported product from, say, Morocco.

“Organic” and “natural food” shops (including internet shops). Some shops name themselves organic and they claim to have their own selection and certification processes. They take responsibility to ensure all of their products are of organic origin. Again, no one can really verify those statements. It is up to you whether you believe them. In my experience those natural food stores are double fold. On one hand I see they stock products (especially fruits and vegetables) of the same origin and quality sold by large retailers. Those organic shops definitely do stock lots of import from different parts of the world and I doubt they have checked all of the food suppliers for “organic” compliance. On the other hand, they sell food that is (at least according to labels) has more healthy and more natural ingredients compared to regular grocery store food. Examples are: sausages and burgers made of meat; no-yeast, no-sugar bread; real milk that actually spoils in a few days, real smoked fish, urbech, unusual types of vegetables like kale and so on. With internet shops you have to be even more cautious, because you only see pictures and some information. “What you see is what you get” is not necessarily the case.

Organic farms. There are few businesses in Moscow area and more in neighboring areas claiming their production to be organic. All of them are smaller types of businesses scattered everywhere. Their volume of produce is not enough to satisfy demands of large retail networks. Some of them have direct sales (website and delivery), some supply their produce to shops in Moscow. To find their organic produce you need to understand exactly which farm produces what, where and how you can get their products. To find such farms, ask recommendations, do internet research, look for events where real farmers come to sell and advertise their products. Those events are advertised in social networks — all in Russian.

Apply common sense in your pursuits of organic or just quality food in Moscow.

Consider prices. Real organic food takes much more time and effort to produce and that is always reflected in a price. If someone sells product labelled “organic” or “natural” at a price comparable with retail prices, it’s a fake.

Try products from different places. If you find a place that is good for you in terms of price and quality, keep buying from there. Seller will remember you, and if you can exchange some phrases with them in Russian, sort of relationships will start to build. Ones they recognize you as a regular customer, you will get real information on their products and they will give trustworthy recommendations. This is proven by experience. Every seller is interested in keeping regular customers, so being honest, not cheating on weights becomes a thing for them.

Consider seasonality. Real fruits and vegetables are always seasonal. When it’s winter, produce does not grow organically. It has to be imported or grown in greenhouses. There is limited number of crops you can have in greenhouses unless you use modern agricultural technologies and those almost always involve fertilizers. You need to understand what comes when — naturally.

For example, in May, early June, tomatoes start to come from Azerbaijan. Not sure if they are fully organic, but they are real tasty and of a good quality. In June we get strawberries, grown in Moscow area, they are sold in limited season mostly from specialized tents on streets. Cherries grown in Russia are not that tasty, but those from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan (pricey) and Moldavia are excellent. Peaches are all imported and almost never good. July and August is a season for Russian grown tomatoes and cucumbers. End of August and September are for watermelons, grown in Russian South. The list is endless, examples here for you to have an idea of how it works.

Non-organic food is not necessarily bad. Although some fertilizers can be used in conventional agricultural businesses, they are not that harmful. Of course, this is questionable, but considering effort needed to locate, identify and buy real organic food, just quality but not 100% organic food can be an option to consider. Especially seasonal, local produce can be of a very good quality, albeit their non-organic origin.

Final thoughts. In absence of “organic” standards, limited availability, lack of honesty from sellers, the only real reliable source of food is — dacha. If you have time, willing to put effort in growing your own produce — rent or buy dacha. Along with fresh, guaranteed natural food it will bring you many more delights, spring through late fall.

If you subscribe to Russia Simplified mailing list, I will send you a list of all farmer’s markets in Moscow along with some recommendations on shops to buy organic food.

Gender roles in Russian business environment

Russian culture embraces gender inequality and expects all members of society to follow well defined, for the most part unwritten, gender roles. Those roles have profound effect on everyday life and business. In this article I will explain how gender roles affect women in business.

It all starts with hiring. Despite the law, there is a very strong belief that some jobs are more suitable for men than women and vise versa. It also can be a personal idea of company management to have employee of a specific gender in a certain position. As a result of these mindsets, almost all job ads specify prospective candidate’s gender. Resumes from candidates of a different gender would be rejected.

When hiring, women are not considered just professionals. This does not happen very often, but it’s a notable trend in many Russian businesses. Many businesses consider women as sort of a beautiful object, making office attractive for employees and visitors. This is why when hiring for public positions, female candidate looks is always in consideration. Not very often, but often enough, women in some business positions are expected to provide extra services of a sexual nature. Again, not very common, but this is a brutal truth that it happens. When company advertises job opening like a secretary or personal assistant, half of the resumes come with a photograph attached. Those photographs have female candidates, some just nice looking, some in sexually provocative poses, some semi-naked. Candidates know, their appearance will be in consideration, so they demonstrate their assets upfront as a competitive advantage.

In Russia, to be successful in a corporate career, being professional is not enough. There are many factors in play and gender is one of them. In a typical Russian company most managerial positions are taken by men. The belief is that men have qualities to rule, while women are much less capable of management and leadership. Culturally, there is strong connection to family concept in Russia, which translates into business. Women are supposed to be good housewives, mothers and raise children. Running business is a men’s job. Women officially called “weak gender” in Russia. (Real life often proves it quite contrary, but nonetheless this notion of “weak” is still there). Getting promotions can be very difficult for women in a typical Russian company. When a woman receives good position or some benefits, the question everyone quietly asks is — “Who she slept with?”.

To build career, especially in management, she has to exhibit male qualities, male attitudes, behaviors and abilities to rule men. Being on a par with men in terms of behavior, being strong and assertive (to a degree of being aggressive at times) is an essential prerequisite for a woman for getting any managerial position in Russian business. It’s a hard job, to remain feminine as culture demands, at the same time being butch.

Another thing is that many (if not majority) of woman willingly accept and follow this stereotyped role of women as mother and household keeper, and rarely put any effort in career development. Many woman see their jobs as temporary before “successful” marriage and maternity leave. For many, their job is just for having salary for family budget, if their spouse is not making enough money for a family to have a good living. Some woman take jobs for the sake of just spending time in a workplace. This group of employees usually have spouses financially supporting them and family, and she works just to socialize and make some pocket money.

One of the roles, imposed by society on women and again, voluntarily accepted by majority of female population is to be beautiful. Whatever your definition of beauty is, for women in Russia it has to do with dressing up, stylish, jewelry, high heels, makeup. This is unspoken, unwritten rule every woman has to follow to a certain extent. In most Russian offices, female employees look like they just came from the podium. Speaking of the unwritten, some Russian companies have dress codes where requirements for outfits, accessories, haircuts, makeup described in detail. Women not following this rule might be labelled as not being a “real woman”. As a result she will never be accepted in a workplace, in spite of her professional knowledge and expertise. Interestingly, this mindset is so strong, that Russian women moved to other countries where looks are totally unimportant, continue to follow this “beautiful Russian woman” role, putting on lots of makeup, wearing fashionable outfits and accessories.

Another society expectation is about behavior patterns toward women. It also affects daily interactions in business — big time. Women expect certain behavior and male population supposed to act up to that expectation. This type of behavior manifests in various forms. Being gallant and gentle with women, opening a door for them, letting them first in an elevator, making flirtatious compliments on her looks. Helping them with things that require physical power, like carrying heavy items for her, hanging that picture on the wall. And don’t you forget that March 8th — woman’s day or her birthday.

And since in Russian business environment gender differences emphasized and articulated in any way possible, relationships between employees often get intimate. In Russian offices romances are not uncommon. Those romances either go nowhere or end up as sexual relationships or marriages.

Above picture of how gender differences work for women is somewhat exaggerated, but with all the niceness and politeness stripped off this is the way it is.

Many of you, especially those coming from “western” countries, reading this article, may think something like: “This is disgusting, sexism, discrimination, harassment” and so on. Think again. What is not working in your culture, works quite nicely in Russia and other cultures, where gender differences are in its core.

Moscow Vnukovo airport

Vnukovo, VKO is the oldest, smallest (Zhukovsky does not count as airport yet) and closest to Moscow airport. Vnukovo has three terminals: one for commercial airlines, one for private and business jets and one for official delegations. Vnukovo handles government flights, so that official delegations terminal serves that purpose and it is closed for general public. Terminal for private and business jets(called Vnukovo-3) is located on the far end of Vnukovo airfield. It’s a small terminal designed for handling relatively small number of flights and passengers. All further information is about main Vnukovo terminal — Terminal A, that takes all commercial airline flights. There is old terminal D that is adjacent to terminal A, it serves only few domestic flights.

Vnukovo is one of the first Moscow airports, built in soviet times. In the past ten years or so, the airport went through a major rebuild, including airfield infrastructure extension and renewal, building of the new passenger terminal.

Design of Vnukovo terminal is nothing very special. It’s a practical piece of airport architecture, new, spacious, convenient, very clean. Vnukovo terminal A offers all usual airport amenities: food, shops, toilets, business lounges and other passenger services.

Vnukovo has capsule hotel inside terminal A (third floor, nearby VIP lounge), opened in 2018. Across the street from terminal A, there is DoubleTree hotel, also opened in 2018.

In my experience flying through Vnukovo airport, it has less passenger traffic compared to Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo. This means less crowded terminal and quicker security checks.

Transportation to Vnukovo airport:

Vnukovo is connected with Moscow by rail; aeroexpress train runs from Kievskaya station. Unlike trains to other airports, that run twice an hour, trains to Vnukovo run ones every hour. Train station in Vnukovo is underground and connected with terminal by a short walkway.

If you travel to Vnukovo by car you have a choice of two freeways: Kievskoe or Borovskoe. The airport is located in between these freeways. For drop-offs Vnukovo has elevated ramp and a separate drive for arrival pick-ups. It is very convenient and since passenger traffic through Vnukovo is less compared to other Moscow airports, ramps and driveways in Vnukovo never seem to be congested. Vnukovo also has parking, located next to the terminal.

Vnukovo is the only airport that is easily accessible by city bus, due to its proximity to Moscow. Sheremetyevo (SVO) also has city bus routs, but because of distance and traffic they are not that convenient. For Vnukovo you have two city bus options — from Yugo-Zapadnaya or Salaryevo subways stations. Salaryevo is closer to the airport and also it avoids traffic bottleneck on Kievskoe shosse. This option is good if you are on budget, have enough time and no bulky luggage. Same bus will take you from the airport, back to subway.

Bus number 911 gets you to Vnukovo from Salaryevo subway, running every 15-25 minutes and 611 runs from Yugo-Zapadnaya every 25-40 minutes. The bus 611 from Yugo-Zapadnaya takes about 30-40 minutes if traffic is good. The bus takes you to Vnukovo in 20 minutes almost for sure as it avoids most traffic bottlenecks. From Yugo-Zapadnaya you also have an option of marshrutka, paid in cash only.

As usual, taxi is also a good option traveling to/from Vnukovo airport. Beware of traffic congestions on the intersection of Kievskoe shosse and MKAD. It’s a good idea to check traffic situation when traveling to airport, especially in the late afternoon and evening.

Official website of Vnukovo airport

Check out Russia Simplified article on Domodedovo DME airport in Moscow.

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Safety in Moscow: essentials

Moscow is a safe place. Like any big city however, basic precautions have to be taken whether you are visiting short-term or staying in Moscow for a while. Below precautions are valid not only for Moscow but most large cities in Russia.

Never exchange money in the airport. Not exactly a safety threat, but exchange rates in airports especially before customs is a rip-off. You will get almost double Rubles for your currency exchanging it in the city center. Use ATM to withdraw money or pay by card, cards are taken almost everywhere.

Do not use taxi drivers offering their service at the airport arrival area. When you arrive to any Moscow airport, upon exiting from customs area you will be met by a crowd of taxi drivers offering rides to Moscow. Never use any of those drivers, no matter how official their badges look. Use express trains. If express trains do not work for you, you can order taxi from official taxi counter (available in all airports) or through apps like Yandex taxi.

Do not take taxi on streets. Use apps like Yandex taxi or Gett (acquired by Yandex). If your business contracts taxi company use their service even if there is wait to get the car.

Do not buy sim cards from street sellers. Go to an official retailer. You will need passport to buy a card.

Beware of pickpocketing, especially in public transport. Keep your passport, wallet and other valuables secure. In subway don’t stand near the doorway playing or texting on your smartphone.

Do not leave your luggage, bags, valuables out of sight even for a split second — everywhere.

Be extremely cautious crossing streets. Even if you are on pedestrian crossing, going on green light, be absolutely positively sure that cars actually stopped before the crossing.

Never give money to any beggars, especially in subway.

Always check bill, when eating out, before paying, to make sure you pay for what you ordered. Information on related subject — tips, can be found here.

Avoid walking in remote areas of Moscow or have company (preferably a local).

Do not walk alone in the dark, in areas where there is no one around, even in the city center.

Do not talk to strangers, asking for your attention on the street.

Do not eat shawarma. Exception can be made to shawarma in cafes and restaurants with table service.

In winter — do not walk close to buildings due to danger of snow and ice falling from roofs. Wear proper winter shoes, as it gets very slippery in Moscow in winter season. Especially be careful on underground passage stairs, as they are made of polished stone and get slippery even in rain. Some guidance on clothing in winter can be found here.

In summer — beware of ticks. Here is separate article on the subject.

Wash hands as often as you can. Have a pack of wet napkins or anti-bacterial fluid with you.

Do not do your own driving in Moscow, unless you are fully and mindfully confident about driving in Russia.

Do not pay in any currency other than Rubles. This is illegal and there is risk of a fraud.

Beware of scam and fraud of all types still high in Russian business and private dealings. Be extremely cautious buying products and services appearing to be very cheap. Russian wisdom says: “Stingy person pays twice.”

If you are in trouble and there is no one local to help you, look for police with sticker on their uniform saying — “Tourist police”. Their job is to assist foreigners and they (well, in theory) speak English.

shashlik

Modern Russian cuisine is a mixed cuisine. Cooking traditions and recipes popular before communist revolution are almost extinct now. They were replaced with soviet cooking traditions, which in many parts, has been borrowed from ussr republics Russia used to be one of.

One of those borrowed modern cuisine dishes is shashlik. Shashlik is kebab type of BBQ dish, brought to Russian cuisine and firmly holding its place in Russian culture. No one can say exactly which country shashlik came from, but it’s versions are popular in the Middle East and former ussr republics like Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Georgia and others.

Nowadays shashlik is almost a staple food in modern Russian cuisine. A good picnic or dacha weekend cannot go without making shashlik. In summer you can see people grilling shashlik everywhere.

Shashlik is normally cooked outside as it requires barbecue pit and burning charcoal, so it is known as summer BBQ.

Shashlik is more than just a popular summer BBQ.

Making and eating shashlik is an activity and event by itself. People go outdoors to spend time in the nature and have picnic, but this is all secondary. Everything people do like swimming, sunbathing, playing games happens around shashlik. People do not say: “Let’s go outdoors”, they say: “Let’s go to shashlik”. Thus, shashlik, making it and eating it, is an important summer outdoor activity, event and everything else evolves around it.

In Russian culture socializing for the most part happens over the food. Very often shashlik is a reason to get together with friends and have a good time. Shashlik is a summer leisure, a reason for going outdoors, inviting friends and family.

The importance of shashlik as a cultural artifact is not in the food itself, but as an activity or event that brings people together. This is why shashlik is best on dacha or somewhere in the nature with friends or family. Like any other food, shashlik goes well with a drink and “doing shashlik” can be acclaimed as a Russian summer outdoor way of partying.

How to make shashlik.

For shashlik you will need: portable bbq fire grill pit (mangal), metal skewers (shampuri), charcoal (ugol’), charcoal lighter fluid (rozzhig), meat (myaso) and marinade ingredients.

All the items can be purchased from most grocery stores. Late spring throughout summer retailers place shashlik items at the store entrance. Many grocery stores also sell marinated shashlik meat. It is better however if you prepare and marinate meat for shashlik yourself. Stores use mix of meats, not always producing good and tender shashlik.

Shashlyk can be made from any meat: beef, chicken, lamb or pork. Pork is more common because it is easier to find, it is cheaper and more tender (if properly prepared and cooked).

The meat for shashlik has to be cut in square pieces and marinaded. Marinading takes about an hour, some people prepare meat in advance and marinade it overnight. There are tons of different marinade recipes for shashlik and each family seems to have it’s own, so shashlik recipes vary. (Subscribers of this blog mailing list will receive shashlik marinade recipe)

Although women take care of all the cooking in a typical Russian homes, making shashlik is a pure men’s responsibility.

Cooking process is very simple. Marinated meat is stringed onto skewers and grilled over the hot charcoal. Along with meat you can grill onions, bell peppers and some other vegetables that make compliment or garnish to shashlik. The charcoal must be not flaming, just producing enough heat for cooking the meat. Skewers have to be turned for meat to cook thoroughly and evenly, and sprayed with water to avoid burning.

Shashlik goes great with seasonal vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions and so on. Good shashlik is tender, but it can be complimented with some sauce. For sauce you can use adjika (purchased or homemade), ketchup or almost any other type of sauce that goes with meat. It is good to wrap shashlik in lavash — very thin non-yeast bread, sold everywhere.

Be mindful that in Moscow setting open fire (bbq included) is strictly prohibited, except for specially designated places. Many locals are not familiar with the rules and brake the law unknowingly.

If you wan just to try shashlik not cooking it yourself, it is served in many cafes and restaurants. Not a rule, but usually places specializing on Azerbaidjanian and Georgian cuisine make best shashlik.