The pros and cons of expat life in Moscow

10 July 2018

As Russia prepared to host the 2018 World Cup, Moscow was suddenly in the spotlight. But it has been a popular destination for expats since the fall of Communism in the late 1980s.

It is, however, unlike any other expat city, with unusual politics, architecture, climate and attitudes: we take a look at how this might affect you as an expat.

Pro: historical & cultural wealth

Moscow is a remarkable city. It is home to the Bolshoi ballet, the Kremlin, the famous Metro, and is the political beating heart of both new and old Russia. It has survived famine, fire, plague and siege. It even ceded its status as capital to St. Petersburg for almost two centuries before winning it back as if by sheer force of personality.

Moscow has had its setbacks and has come out shining as brightly as the iconic onion-shaped domes of the Kremlin cathedral. Expats will revel in the heritage of this historic city.

Con: cold, dark winters

Throughout December 2017, the sun shone on Moscow for just six minutes. And expats living in the Russian capital have more than grey skies to worry about as temperatures plummet to a nightly average of -8ºC. If you come dressed for the weather – or stay indoors – you should be fine, but it can be a dark place during the winter months.

As generals throughout history have discovered to their detriment, you should never underestimate the Russian winter.

Pro: exchange rate

Prices in Moscow are much higher than elsewhere in Russia, as you would expect in the national capital. But as one Russian blogger points out, the current economic crisis facing Russia has made Moscow a much more affordable place to live, with a good one-bedroom apartment available for around $500/month (although probably not during the World Cup). According to Expatistan, the cost of living in Moscow is 55% cheaper than London.

Con: traffic

No capital city is without its traffic problems, but Moscow seems to suffer more than most: expats warn that it can take up to a day to drive from one side of the city to the other Expats also comment on the lack of parks, so perhaps the fact that Muscovites need to leave the city limits to see a decent bit of greenery contributes to the problem.

Pro: The Metro

It seems strange to say that a transportation system is a reason to like or dislike a city, but the Moscow Metro really is special. All trains run on time, and stations are not only clean but palatial, complete with frescoes, columns and chandeliers.

Navigating your way around the city is, however, difficult for many expats for one simple reason: the alphabet. Make an effort to familiarize yourself with Cyrillic characters (they equate roughly to our Roman alphabet) and you will find it easier. But even if you do stray, there can be no underground system in the world more splendid to get lost in.

Con: traditional views

As you might expect in a country that spent decades isolated from the rest of the world, Russian society displays some old-fashioned attitudes. The political correctness movement has found little traction here, and the fervent nationalism means that instances of general xenophobia, and race and gender insensitivity are not uncommon.

Moscow is, however, more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country and The Washington Post reported recently that xenophobia is actually decreasing. However, expats should brace themselves for some unreconstructed attitudes, along with the fact that Russians do not smile as readily as other cultures, which may make them seem unwelcoming. However, social scientists explain that this is not through unfriendliness, but simply because smiling is not considered polite in Russia.

Summary

A reasonable conclusion might be that Muscovites are as cold as a Russian winter on the outside, but as warm as a shot of vodka once you get to know them. But there is a lot of complexity to this fascinating city, and expats will enjoy the culture, the history, the gorgeous Metro – and the power of their expat currency.

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