Myths about Traveling to Russia
I was surprised about some of the myths I had come across from various sources
1) Dollars or other "Hard Currency" are preferred to rubles
In Moscow, we used nothing except rubles for all transactions. I did not see many stores or vendors offering to accept dollars. In St Petersburg, we did come across a number of vendors who would accept dollars, euros, pounds sterling, or rubles. We never had a problem purchasing something with rubles.
2) Cyrillic cannot be deciphered
I admit it took some getting used to. I have never taken any Russian language classes, but with the help of my guidebook, I was able to adjust to the letters (Russian P's are R's, and so on). After figuring out some letters, translating some signs was actually quite informative. As an example, a Russian PECTOPAH becomes RESTORAN when converted, and the root word restaurant can be seen. With some practice, many words will look familiar to those who read English.
3) The water is not safe
In Moscow, we drank tap water and had no problem. In St. Petersburg, many sources said to not drink the water (our hotel, our guide, our Lonely Planet book, multiple web sites), so we didn't challenge that. We used bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth.
4) Customs and immigration/passport control is a challenge
We may have had an unusual experience, but we had no problems. In the air, we were given an immigration form, which fortunately had an English translation available. The hard part of this form was writing the name and address of our sponsor in cyrillic. Upon arrival in Moscow, we made it through immigration about 20-30 minutes after our plane landed. Each person took about 3-4 minutes, but the entire process did not delay us. When leaving St. Petersburg airport, we went through the "nothing to declare" line, and that was it for customs. Going through passport control on the way out took all of 5 minutes.
5) General Harassment, pickpockets, scams, etc.
Again, we may have had an unusual experience. I am sure there are pickpockets and scammers around, but we had no issues. We carried copies of our passports with us at all times, but never had to show it. Also, no police or military said or did anything to us. All in all, we did not experience any of the bad/criminal stories that seem to be so prevalent.
6) The Moscow-St Petersburg overnight train is unsafe.
The Rick Steves website actually cites an incident where the mob gassed an entire train and robbed everyone inside. I have no idea whether this is true, but I can say that we had no problems at all. We did have a first class berth, which was comfortable. We had sleeping masks which helped block out ambient light (the window shade was good, but ours was broken). Our door had 3 lock mechanisms - a metal latch to keep the door from sliding (upper left of door), a dead blot, and a 'lock block' that fit over the locked deadbolt to prevent it from being unlocked.