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Notes on living and working in Russia

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Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Most expats know centrally located parks like Gorky Park, Park Pobedy, Neskuchniy Sad and many others. All these are very popular, really nice places, providing lots of activities.

There are however secluded areas in Moscow where you can escape crowds, enjoy the quiet, be in the nature without leaving the city. One of those places is Bitzevsky park. If you look at Moscow map, you will find large green area in the South of Moscow, stretched from Chertanovo to MKAD. This is Bitzevsky park or Bitzevsky forest.

Bitzevsky park has status of a nature reserve. This status does not allow any construction or any activities in the park, that would disrupt the nature. For the most part Bitzevsky park is a dense wood with extensive grid of trails. Basic park amenities include some paved walking lanes and benches. The park has dedicated picnic area where you can officially use fire grills (setting fire in other parts of the park is prohibited). Picnicking is quite popular among people living nearby.

Other activities park is popular for include running, biking or just walking. There are numerous walking routs through the park. It is a quiet place and if you go off main paved lanes, you will be all alone in the wood.

The park can be accessed by car or by subway. Nearest subway stations are: Chertanovskaya, Belyaevo, Novoyasenevskaya. To access park entrance it will require walking on foot or taking bus from any subway station, except for Novoyasenevskaya, which is located right on the edge of the park. From Novoyasenevskaya one of the main alleys starts, which is paved and cuts through souther part of the park.

Northern part of the park has dedicated bike lane. The lane has special marking and bike traffic signage. The lane starts at Belyaevo subway, runs along Mikluho-Maklaya street and continues into the park. It cuts through the northern part of the park, goes around Chertanovo Severnoe and ends at Chertanovskaya subway station. Leisurely ride between two subway stations takes approximately an hour of time. There are rental bike stations available at both ends of the lane.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

You can however get off the bike lane and do biking in other parts of the park. The park is extremely popular among bikers as you can do all types of biking in the park. The park terrain is not flat, trails go up and down, there is lots of ravins in the park. Some people do extreme biking, some do just slow rides. I filmed short video to show what not so extreme biking in Bitzevsky park looks like.

Northern part of the park has large field (bike lane and main walking lane in the North go through it), popular for sunbathing in summer. In the middle of a field there are some wooden statues and structures made of log. Those used to warship pagan gods. Sometimes on weekends you can see a group of people singing songs and saying prayers to gods well forgotten after Russia accepted Christianity.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Wildlife in the park is represented by over 90 species of birds, squirrels, snakes (not venom) and smaller animals like frogs and mice. A number of springs and small rivers run through Bitzevsky park.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

It takes approximately two and a half to three hours to cross the park on foot from north to south. Exiting on the far south end of the park gets you to Lesoparkovaya subway station. Southern end of the park is less visited by people and feels more like a wilderness area. There are many other routs that will get you from subway station to subway station through the park.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

In winter, Bitzevsky park turns into a cross-country skiing paradise. If you are a skier, you do not have to leave Moscow to enjoy skiing. Skiing is popular in Russia and in winter the park is packed with people of all ages from young kids with their parents to elderly people — all skiing. On the western edge of the park there is mountain ski slope equipped with elevators.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Few precautions when visiting Bitzevsky park:

Although the park is patrolled by police and even on week days has many people, going alone is not a good idea. For safety sake, have company, especially if you walk in the southern part of the park, more secluded and less visited by people.

In some areas of the park there is no cell network coverage. It depends on your provider and location in the park, but there will be blind spots.

There is no streets light in the park. Walking in the dark requires good torch light.

The park has lots of trails, some of them are on maps, specifically Yandex maps has all major lanes. However it’s easy to get lost, so having compass and printed map can be quite useful.

There is no way of buying water or food in the park, take some snack and water if you go on a long stroll.

Most trails have no pavement, having proper footwear is important. Especially in summer and in between seasons it gets real dirty in the park. Some trails have gravel covering and this is a rough type of gravel, so have proper shoes on.

Be cautious about bikers, ride their bikes like crazy. Be careful not to step onto bike lane and be cautious about bikers riding off dedicated bike lane.

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

Bitzevsky park in Moscow

All the pictures in this publication are taken by me.

Vacations and holidays in Russia

Vacations in Russia

By the law, all full-time employees (expats included) in Russia get minimum of 28 (twenty eight) calendar days of paid vacation each year of employment. An employer cannot give less of vacation. Some employees get extra days of paid vacation, which has to be reflected in their job contract.

By the law, vacation days have to be split in two parts. One part has to be consecutive 14 days. Remaining portion of paid vacation can be used all at ones or split in any number of days and used up throughout the year.

For each calendar year HR people make internal document called “schedule of vacations”. Each employee has to plan and schedule their vacation for upcoming year. In most Russian companies schedule of vacations is just a formality and no one follows their vacation plan. It is possible to change days of vacation (from those indicated in the schedule of vacations), but for that an employee has to obtain their supervisors consent and write an application.

On top of minimum 28 days of vacation Russian employees get 17 (seventeen) days of public holidays (as of 2018), also paid for. Number of holiday days change slightly each year as government adjusts them. Adjustments are for making holiday days more “compact” and organized. All the national holidays, working and non-working days are fixed by the government before calendar year starts in an official document called “labour calendar”.

To see up to date calendar of public holidays, copy-paste following phrase into a search engine of your choice: производственный календарь 2018. You will get year’s calendar with working and non-working days indicated. This calendar has status of a law and a must to follow for businesses and government organizations of all kinds. This means everything will be closed on public holidays.

In addition to days off, working hours must be reduced by one hour when working day precedes a public holiday.

Public holidays in Russia

January 1st through January 10th — New Year. The most celebrated holiday in Russia. There is January 7th — Orthodox Christmas, a standalone public holiday. Christmas is not really celebrated (it’s a purely religious holiday in Russia) and it always hides somewhere in between New Year holidays. Exact days of this public holiday change every year, slightly.

February 23rd — Defender of the Fatherland Day. Former soviet army day is widely celebrated as men’s day in Russia.

March 8th — Women’s day. I wrote separate article about this holiday.

May 1st and May 2nd — Labour day. Soviet holiday, migrated into new Russian history. On a private level this holiday is a literal celebration of hard labour as many people start dacha season in these two days. They say these two days are used for planting potatoes on dachas. More about dacha here.

May 9th — Victory Day. This is the day when World War Two officially ended. One of THE most significant holidays in Russia.

June 12th — Day of Russia. Signifies end of ussr history and Russia becoming independent country.

November 4th — National Unity Day. Many people view this holiday as a substitute for the communist revolution day (in ussr observed on November 7th). This holiday however is a celebration of harmonious co-existence of people of different cultures, ethnical backgrounds, religions that never divide, but rather unite all people of Russia, making the country stronger.

Holidays have significant impact on business activity in Russia. Subscribers of Russia Simplified newsletter receive this and other extra materials on each publication of this blog.

What is dacha?

Фото: ТАСС/Н.Желудович

Dachas came to be long before communist revolution in 1917. In those times only wealthy families could afford to have a spare countryside house for summer stay outside of the city. This would be a piece of land with a big house. Families would move from their city apartment to dacha for the whole summer. Dachas were meant purely for leisure living in summer. In early communist times dacha tradition was continued. Having dacha was a privilege of communist party rulers and soviet elite of all kinds. Ordinary people were not allowed to have dacha and in most cases could not afford having one.

Dachas as we know them today started to evolve in the early 1950s. Back then soviet government realized that soviet agricultural system was not efficient enough to provide food for the whole population of the country. They started to give pieces of land for free, so people from cities could grow their own produce and feed their families in this way.

Each soviet organization or factory was given a piece of land for dachas. That piece of land would be split into smaller chunks and each worker would get their own piece. This is how dacha “villages” were formed. Dacha is never a standalone place, it’s always a part of dacha “village”. The only allowed use of dacha was to grow vegetables and fruits. There was no electricity, no water and toilet was (and still is in most cases) outside.

Now there is thousands of dacha villages around larger cities. All of them accessible by car, some can be accessed by public transportation. Very few people had cars back in soviet times, so to get to their dachas people had to take train, bus and do a lot of walking.

Typical standard size of dacha land is 600 square meters. In Russian this is called “6 sotok” (shest’ sotok). There are pieces of land larger in size, but not much larger, unless one family owns two or even three pieces of land next to each other.

Initially dacha land was just a piece of raw undeveloped field or wood. To make it usable, trees and bushes had to be removed and soil had to be cultivated for agricultural use. The house or some basic shelter had to be built on dacha. Developing dachas required lots of physical hard-work and sweat. In soviet times when everything was in shortage, people had no cars, no equipment and construction materials, developing dacha was tough. Almost everything had to be done with bare hands.

People worked hard on their dachas and developed it, planting fruit trees, growing vegetables and everything else that can be grown on land. In soviet times some dacha owners harvested a real good crop on their dachas, too much of produce for a single family to consume. That extra crop was sold on farmers markers in cities. Those were real farmers markets, with real organic produce. Nowadays “farmers markets” are just fancy looking imitations with no real farmers.

In decades of soviet and post-soviet history dachas have been continuously developing. Although no new dachas are given after ussr collapse, existing ones have been used, maintained and developed. Many people say, food grown on dacha, helped them survive tough 1980s and 1990s. For many dacha is still a substantial source of food, as not every family can afford buying produce from retailers.

Most dachas now have electricity. Dacha houses vary in size and amenities. Some dachas still have simple shelters or small summer cabin type houses with no running water (or seasonal water supply). Some evolved into full, sometimes very large houses, insulated for a winter stay, with heating, running water and sewage, gas and many other amenities. Those dachas, well equipped, are suitable for a full time living and very often used as primary homes. With new legislature dacha owners can get registration on their dachas, so it becomes fully official place of residence.

For majority of dacha owners dacha still (although large and well equipped) serves as summer house visited only on weekends. On Friday evenings, late April through late October habitants of larger cities flee to their dachas to spend weekends there.

What people do on dacha? Many people are just relaxing and doing whatever they would do at home. Some people do landscaping on their dachas. Majority of dacha owners still grow fresh produce on their land. That includes seasonal vegetables, berries and fruits. Some have green houses to grow produce off-season. Dacha probably is the only way to get truly organic produce. Growing produce requires good deal of physical labor and time. Some people do just simple gardening, some feed their families off their dachas. If crop is plenty, people might do canning and making jam on dachas. Some dachas have lakes and rivers nearby, so swimming can be a fun dacha activity. Some dacha owners install swimming pools. The list of activities can go on forever as there is no limits to what you can do on your own piece of land in your own house.

Family and friend gatherings are quite popular on dachas. This involves cooking food, grilling shashlik, drinking, having good time. If dacha has banya on its premise, which is not uncommon, banya activity becomes a part of dacha time.

Largely, dacha is an escape from concrete apartment block buildings people live in big cities. Being in the nature, gardening, cooking food, relaxing — are all good ways to unwind stress and restore psyche.

Many people do not have their own dachas and simply rent them for the summer. The market is large, good number of offers is always there. Buying dacha is also an option and dacha can be relatively inexpensive depending on proximity to the city, type of dacha housing and other amenities.

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Concept of personal space in Russia

Plainly and simply: the concept of physical personal space does not exist in Russia. No extended hand rule. People around you, friends and total strangers alike will violate your personal space all the time.

On one hand in overpopulated cities like Moscow it is always crowded everywhere. In public places it is almost impossible to avoid physical contact with strangers. Public transportation is packed with people, crowds of pedestrians on streets, way too many customers in grocery shops, especially on weekends. On the other hand even in situations when there is plenty of space available, personal space is never minded and never respected. When you ask Russians about their personal space (личное пространство — lichnoe prostranstvo) they think about their apartment.

Here are some real (absolutely real, not exaggerated even a bit) situations to illustrate how it works in Russia.

You are in a grocery store. You are about to go to check out and every check-out has long lines. You wait for additional check-out to be open. Store clerk jumps between two cash registers as something is not working. You are not sure which check-out opens, so you wait. Another customer comes behind you and smashes your back with her shopping cart. You turn to complain. She angrily blames you for being too slow. Same might happen in the store isle, customers push you and hit you with their shopping carts and complain that you are talking too much space, or too slow or say nothing and just walk away.

You are standing on a street sidewalk. The street is empty, no one is around. You are talking on your cell phone. There is like two meters of empty sidewalk space between you and a curb. Another pedestrian, total stranger, walks towards you. She goes right at you, not making even a step to avoid hitting you. She approaches you, hits you with her bag as she passes you just a few inches away and continues walking. This happens all the time, people walking on streets would never take a step to part ways, they would smash you with their shoulder or bag. No one would ever apologies.

You are in subway. It is late and subway car is almost empty. You are standing in the corner, there is no one around and a bunch of seats available. Two passengers come in at a station. They do not pay attention to all the empty seats empty space available. They go right to where you stand, one of them stops like an inch away from you, almost touching you. They talk and pay no attention. Each time the train makes turn, or slows or shakes, that passenger leans on you. You complain and ask them to get away from you. They give you a strange look, and reluctantly move away.

You are in subway again. You are sitting on a corner seat, close to doors. There is just a handrail that separates you from the doorway. The handrail is close to your face, few inches away. Another passenger comes in and puts her butt onto that handrail. Her butt is real big. So when she stands this way, leaning her butt onto that handrail, her butt gets right into your face. You complain, but she complains back saying it is comfortable for her to stand there and she won’t move. You take out a ballpoint pen and poke her butt. She starts yelling at you.

There is a bunch of deep cultural reasons for this type of behavior, but suffice it to say — notion of physical personal space does not exists in Russian culture. In all the public places, offices, people will be getting real close to you — physically, touching you, pushing, often without any reason. What may seem as aggressive and disrespectful behavior, in reality is a norm, well tolerated in Russian culture.

The strangest Russian food — okroshka

Modern Russian cuisine for the most part comes from soviet or post-soviet cooking traditions. Revolution in 1917 destroyed all the Russian lifestyle including cooking, serving and eating traditions that have been developing in Russia for centuries.

What nowadays represents modern Russian cuisine, including “traditional” recipes, cooking and eating traditions is inherited from decades of soviet history. Recipes of food served now labeled “Russian traditional food” come from soviet times with its shortage of everything, various limitations, very specific and often doctrine driven ways of living.

Some dishes however, popular before communist revolution, survived soviet history and still hold their firm place in modern Russian cuisine. Okroshka is one of them.

Okroshka is a seasonal dish, popular in summer, although you can fix it any time of the year. Okroshka is sort of a cold soup, which does not require boiling in a process of cooking.

Okroshka recipes slightly vary from household to household, but all recipes consist of okroshka mix and liquid base. Liquid base for okroshka is usually kvas or buttermilk (kefir). Kvas you can make on your own kitchen or buy from a grocery store, kvas and kefir sold everywhere.

Ones you have okroshka base, you can prepare the mix. Okroshka mix ingredients are (makes four large bowls): radishes (6 pieces), cucumbers (6 small sized), hard boiled eggs (4-6 medium sized), boiled potatoes (6 medium sized), dill, parsley, scallions, sausage or meat (1/2 kilos).

Quantity of ingredients and proportions can be adjusted depending on number of eaters and your taste. Ingredients require some time to prepare: boiling eggs and meat (if you use meat instead of sausage), cutting. It makes practical sense to prepare larger volume of okroshka mix that can be kept in a fridge and split to make several meals.

Some notes on the ingredients. I somewhat dislike radishes and boiled potatoes, so my okroshka has less of them. I put in more cucumbers and parsley though. You can adjust ingredients to your taste. If you are going to try okroshka in a cafe or restaurant, it might have different (and sometimes unusual) ingredients as chefs want to be creative and experiment.

Last ingredient of the mix usually is sausage. I do not eat sausage (all sausage sold in stores is imitation made of rubbish). For replacement I boiled 1/2 kilos (one pound) of beef fillet, cut in small chunks and added to the mixture. You can use chicken, turkey as substitute for sausage/beef or keep your okroshka completely vegetarian.

Mix all ingredients, for serving put mixture into soup bowls, add kvas or kefir — on top of mixture, covering it completely, season with salt and pepper to taste. If you use kvas, tablespoon of sour-cream will complete the dish.

The strangest Russian food — okroshka

Okroshka is easy to make and can be a fun kitchen activity during the summer. It is very low in calories, not heavy for the stomach and refreshing in hot summer days. If you prepare larger volume of okroshka mix and have enough liquid base, it will make you several meals, so less cooking, more fun in the summer. Have you tried okroshka?