Travel to the FSU is difficult by western standards. The first rule is to allow much more time for everything than you would schedule in a comparable situation in the West. This includes the planning stage. A visa is needed for travel to Russia, Ukraine, and most countries of the FSU. To obtain a visa, you must first get an invitation to visit, which can be issued by the people you plan to visit. You do not need to get an invitation from each organization that you will be visiting; one will suffice. But a good rule is to ask at least two of your prospective hosts to issue invitations. The backup may save considerable time if difficulties arise. Your application for the visa will have to include the requisite photographs, fees, and sometimes your passport. For some countries, the visa must be obtained for each visit. Multiple entry visas tend to be difficult to arrange. Some countries will issue visas at the border; others, like Ukraine, require that your visa be issued at the Ukrainian embassy or consulate. For a reasonable fee, there are companies in Washington that will expedite and process your visa application. This service is highly recommended, especially if you must submit your passport in order to get the visa.
The ease of travel depends on where you will be visiting. Moscow, followed by Kyyiv, Minsk, and St. Petersburg, are the easiest to reach, with numerous flights directly from the West. Layovers because of nonmeshing connections can increase round- trip travel time to several days. Once the traveler has to go beyond the major cities, the difficulty rapidly increases. Internal flights tend to be unreliable and are often canceled. Tickets may be difficult to get. The fuel shortage in Ukraine has led to the cancellation of all scheduled internal flights. Charters are available; information on charters is available at the airports. When the value of the time necessary to take alternative methods of transportation is considered, and if several passengers need to travel to the same location, the charters become relatively inexpensive. A recent entry into the internal air transportation market has been Trans Aero Airlines. This is a highly recommended private alternative to Aeroflot that caters to western comfort levels of travel. The marginal difference in cost between first class and coach makes the first class well worth the money.
The vast majority of the population (and their belongings, produce, and merchandise) travel by train. The trains between major cities such as Moscow, Kyyiv, and St. Petersburg are fast and comfortable. Make sure you arrange for a place in the SV-Lux wagon. These train cars have first class, two-person compartments. For a nominal fee, the attendant will provide you with clean linens and hot tea. A small tip ensures continued attention to your needs. If, on the other hand, you must travel between any of the smaller towns or cities, your comfort level will decrease rapidly. The trains tend to be older, run slower, and do not have SV-Lux wagons. Four to six people share a compartment. A 1,000-km trip can easily take 24 hours.
For local travel within cities, the two best alternatives are taxis and subways. Busses tend to be extremely crowded, and it is more difficult to try to figure out their routes. The subway systems are excellent and strongly recommended. Subway trains come every one to two minutes, so frequently that people do not run to catch one at the platform. In Moscow, where traffic has rapidly outgrown the capacity of the streets, and gridlocks are increasingly common, a subway can be actually faster than taxis.
There are two types of taxis: official and private. The official taxis are clearly marked with a dome light and are supposed to follow a set tariff. In reality, the tariff is set by mutual agreement before the ride. Private taxis are simply any individual driving in your general direction who can be convinced by the fee to deviate from his planned route. Unless you speak the language or are in the company of someone who does, avoid the private taxis. In either case, it is very important to negotiate the fee before getting into the taxi. Be prepared to bargain or walk away if the quoted fee is ridiculously high.
Your host will often try to provide you with car transportation during your visit. Please be sensitive to the fact that gasoline is very expensive relative to their earnings, and sometimes can only be available for hard currency. This is particularly true in Ukraine. Although your host will refuse to accept payment for gasoline, this is mostly out of polite ritual; if you insist, he will probably appreciate your consideration.
Accommodations in the FSU span a broad spectrum from posh, western-style hotels in large cities to Spartan rooms in the outlying areas. The range in prices is equally wide. Western- style hotels in Moscow will cost hundreds of dollars per night, while in smaller towns a room can be rented for only a few dollars a night. Higher prices do not necessarily translate to higher quality. If the price seems too high, you may actually get a lower rate if you express concern about the cost and ask if there is a smaller room, or a special rate. Some hotels automatically offer westerners their largest, most expensive rooms or suites. You may be able to get a perfectly adequate room for less, or you may simply end up paying less for the same room.
The infusion of westerners has led to a shortage of hotel rooms. Many companies are unable to find quarters for their staff, and house them in hotels. Some companies cannot find office space with telephone lines, and work out of hotel suites. Be sure to give your host sufficient time to arrange for a hotel room for you. Also remember that previously closed cities were never set up to accommodate outsiders, and therefore have limited hotel facilities. If your host suggests that he can arrange an apartment, it may actually be the only space available at the time.
The communication systems have made vast improvements in recent years, but they may still present difficulties. International telephone lines to major cities are now direct dial, and AT&T and Sprint have begun to offer direct connections to English- speaking operators from Moscow. As with transportation, things deteriorate as we move away from major cities. Phone connections can be noisy and difficult to hear, with frequent fade-outs or even cut offs. Some outlying areas have phone systems that were not designed to have contacts with the outside, and telephone capacity is very limited. Phone lines must be reserved in advance, and it may take hours to complete a call.
Faxes have become quite widely available and are often the preferred mode of communication. They help relieve the problems of language barrier and create a more definite record of the transaction. Faxes will often have scrambled sections; retransmissions become a way of life. Be mindful that fax paper is quite expensive; avoid whole page cover sheets and retransmit only those pages you know did not arrive.
Some institutes now have electronic mail. This is rapidly becoming the most reliable form of communication. Usually electronic mail is very efficient, but sometimes messages may take some time to arrive. Be patient or use an acknowledgment request when sending.
Most scientists and technical people have at least some knowledge of English. Many, however, will choose to speak through interpreters regardless of their level of English. This is particularly true if business transactions are involved. In the event that a translator is necessary, there are many excellent translators available. It is important to select a translator who is familiar with the technology that is discussed, otherwise the technical terminology may be a stumbling block. For some reason, most errors in translation seem to involve numbers. Verify important numbers with a follow-up question or by writing them down.
An interesting aspect relative to the languages of the region is the evolution of business terms. Since the collapse of Communist rule, many new words, concepts, and expressions have been introduced into the languages. A number of business dictionaries have become available that are helpful to those who plan to do business there.
Given the novelty of many of these business concepts, make sure that the other side in a discussion ascribes the same meaning to words as you do. Be careful with terms like income and profit, or investment and expense. Do not assume that their usage of the term has the same meaning that you are used to.
If one thing can be said of the people you will come in contact with in Eastern Europe it is that hospitality is a national trait. When traveling there, forget about diets and cholesterol. Your hosts will lavish you with hospitality unmatched in the West. Be careful with the obligatory toasts. Westerners are not accustomed to consuming large quantities of vodka without suffering the ill effects.
On the other hand, for decades people of the FSU were taught to mistrust westerners, and you cannot erase this upbringing overnight. On some occasions you will experience the "you must be here to exploit us" syndrome. In part this reaction is justified. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many scientists welcomed their western colleagues with open arms. The FSU scientists showed their technology and shared their ideas. Most westerners behaved respectably, but some took what they saw and did not compensate the FSU scientists for it. If you behave honorably, trust and friendship will inevitably follow.
Much has been written in western papers about the rising crime rate in the FSU. Increased personal freedoms often carry with them the price of increased crime. It is absolutely true that the crime rate has risen rapidly, but it must be put in perspective. The per capita crime rate is still much lower than that in the United States. On the other hand, as a westerner with money, you represent a much more attractive target. Always remember that in your pockets you will probably have more money than most people there earn in five years.
There are some simple precautions you can take to minimize your risk. First, and most important, listen to your hosts. If they recommend against your going someplace, they are probably trying to protect you. Dress down -- you will stand out much less if you dress like a university faculty member than if you dress like a Wall Street banker. Do not leave your belongings unattended or visible in a car, and do not leave valuables in your hotel room. In other words, behave like you would in any large U.S. city, and you should be fine. In numerous trips over there, the author has never felt that his personal safety was threatened.