Many people find traveling to Russia an extreme and exotic adventure. Some say snow covers its territory all year round. Some think there are different digits in Cyrillic script. Is it that way?
"To Russia with love" is a series of interviews with techies from Western Europe and the USA, who came here to share their experience at JUG Ru Group conferences. We'll talk about expectations and impressions, people and culture, cities and conferences, visas, and security. So stay tuned.
Jon Galloway is the executive director of the .NET Foundation. He works at Microsoft as a Technical Evangelist focused on ASP.NET and Windows Azure.
He's co-author of Professional ASP.NET MVC, writes samples and tutorials like the MVC Music Store, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and international Web Camps events.
Jon's been doing professional web development for 17 years, including high scale applications in financial, entertainment, and healthcare analytics. He's part of the Herding Code podcast, twitters as @jongalloway, and blogs at http://weblogs.asp.net/jongalloway.
Ruslan: Hi, everyone. My guest today is Jon Galloway and we are going to talk a little bit about his experience of traveling to Russia. The first question is easy. How many times have you been to Russia?
Jon: Hello! I think, four times.
Ruslan: What were the purposes of your trips?
Jon: I think the first time I came here was for a Build tour. I was with a group of people and that was a little easier because I went not alone. After that, I've been here for a few conferences. Then I came one time to the Microsoft office and we just helped people with some Azure things they were trying to set up.
Ruslan: Could you try to recall, what were your expectations before your first travel to Russia? Regarding the country, the culture, the people.
Jon: I really didn't know what to expect. I mean I met Russian people, but I didn't really know much about the country. And so I just came with an open mind. Having traveled to Europe before, I didn't expect that Moscow and Saint Petersburg would both feel not that different from a lot of other parts in Europe. I thought it would be more foreign, more different.
Ruslan: More Soviet.
Jon: Yeah! I guess so.
Ruslan: Well, it's been Soviet for decades. So, did Russia actually meet your expectations?
Jon: It actually exceeded my expectations.
Ruslan: Could you give an example of any mismatch of expectations and reality? I got the idea that you didn't expect it to be like this, but were there any details that blew your mind?
Jon: I love to travel, I love to see new things and so I really enjoy, for instance, the food or going to Red Square. Just seeing the place was exciting, different than I thought. It was in some ways a lot more modern than I thought than I had been let to believe. I thought it would be more of an old Soviet kind of thing. And if I was in the middle of Moscow and didn't closely read the signs, I wouldn't know that I wasn't, you know, in Germany or France or something.
Ruslan: What was the hardest part of your trip process? From the idea to come and right to the moment when you were on your way back home from Russia.
Jon: The hardest part by far was just applying for the visa. It's not that hard, but it was the hardest part. I needed to fill out forms, to list every international trip in the past 10 years, and as a conference speaker, I travel internationally several times a year. I used the TripIt app. And so I went on the TripIt and looked up every place I had gone to. I had to fill that out. And it takes a little time, you don't want to do it at the last minute. You need to start on that months in advance. I did that before, I didn't work with the DotNext conference for that and I understand that you can help with that.
Ruslan: We usually try to, right.
Jon: So, when I first traveled to Russia, I also needed a business invitation letter and it was a little confusing. So, that was really it. As the visa had been so hard to fill out, I was worried that when I got here they would say: "No! It's not okay!" or something. But when I got to Russia, it was like "check-check, okay — stamp", and, please, you can go.
Ruslan: You give a lot of talks. Do you feel any difference in the audience comparing the United States, Europe, Southern Europe, Russia, Northern Europe? And what would you say about the Russian audience?
Jon: Well, I would say that the DotNext conference is very technical. A lot of the talks here are about compilers, and you'll see assembly code on the screen, and it's just kind of standard here, so I do feel that level of technical intensity is higher here. I like that there is a translation, especially for the keynotes and things like that, but some of the talks are in Russian — that's to be expected, but that's something to just know.
Ruslan: But we usually try to put at least one English talk for each time slot, so you don't have to be wandering around, waiting for an English talk.
Jon: You're right. I appreciate that. And, for instance, I went to a talk at DotNext, and it was so good, just the slides, I was happy. [laughs]
Ruslan: Nice! Actually, the reason why we don't translate all the talks except for keynotes is that all these in-depth technical talks are almost impossible to translate simultaneously.
Jon: I understand.
Ruslan: The same reason we don't translate English talks to Russian for the Russian audience. Some attendees say things like: "Well, why should I know English coming here? Look at the schedule! I've got only half of the talks!" and we usually answer: "Just study English, please! Because nobody will be able to translate Federico Lois talk."
Ruslan: Because it's impossible if you're not Federico Lois or CLR developer. So that's just it.
Jon: That's the main kind of thing that I would say comparing different audiences. It's very deep technical content.
Ruslan: The next question is also about people and culture. Russia is well known for being extremely direct, especially comparing to the United Kingdom or the United States. Did you experience this? I mean, some people even see it as rudeness, that Russians are being rude, while they're just direct. For example, they can say "your code is shit" or something.
Ruslan: And they mean it, but they don't want to insult you or offend you.
Jon: Yeah, I haven't felt that here. People are direct, but not much more direct than in the United States. So, in terms of places… You know, people in the US are very direct, people here are direct, people in the UK actually are relatively direct, they'll say: "With respect, your code sucks." You know, things like that. In some places in Europe where I've been people won't talk, won't ask questions, but then they'll tell you privately that your code sucks. [Laughs]
Ruslan: There are two types of security I would like to discuss with you. The first one is your personal security, if you feel safe outside, walking all around the city, and so on. You've touched this topic, saying that it's almost like in Europe. The second is about the security of facing governmental bureaucracy and so on — when you cross the border, inside and outside, how do you feel? And how does it match the reality?
Jon: I would say the security feels very much like the rest of Europe. I felt safe. This afternoon I was just walking around Red Square by myself and was just wandering the sidestreets. There are metal detectors on the entrance to the Red Square, and there are definitely metal detectors going anywhere in Europe lately. There are armed guards, and I'm happy that they're there. So that's kinda standard. You go through metal detectors, the guards normally don't even talk, you just put your stuff, you walk through, and they nod at you, and that's all. So I feel as safe here as anywhere I travel.
Ruslan: What about coming into the country, what was your experience? I mean, usually, it's okay. Did you face any problems, or time-consuming stuff, or questions?
Jon: No. Honestly, I've had much worse times going through customs in London than here. [Laughs]
Ruslan: There are not so many countries with a terrible visa process. For example, the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom. China is okay for Russians. As for my personal experience, this year I traveled to the United States, and it's the same as for Americans getting a Russian visa. I also had to list all the countries you've been to during the last 5 years, and for me, it makes no difference, 5 or 10 years, cause it's hundreds of places.
Jon: Right. I've had the same. For me, I think, going to India was a lot to fill out, and also Brazil for some reason was a lot to fill out. One funny thing: I'm always scared anywhere I fly a long way with a visa, I don't want to get there and hear them say: "You did it wrong, you have to fly back home." That's the only scary part for me.
Ruslan: Yes, I totally get it, I had the same thoughts during my flight to the US.
Jon: Exactly! So when I flew here the first few times, I would print out my business invitation letter, I print out my visa, I print out the copy of my passport and everything, just because I wanted to be sure. But this time when I flew here, they didn't even talk to me, they took my passport, they looked at it, they flip it through, they stamped it, and I walked in. One recommendation for anyone, who wants to go to Russia. I do recommend getting a 3-year visa, if you can, rather than just getting the shorter visa. It costs a little bit more money, but if you are planning to be here more than one time, by having a 3-year visa I didn't have to do any work this time.
Ruslan: That's a great hint.
Ruslan: What were the biggest surprises for you during your first travel or any other? One positive and one negative case, if there is any.
Jon: Okay, one interesting positive case is if you learn the Cyrillic alphabet, you can read a lot of signs. I can't listen to Russian and understand anything, but if I look at a sign, there is a good chance I can read some of the words.
Ruslan: Like the word "transport".
Jon: Well, yeah. Just like "стоп", it's "s-t-o-p", but with a different spelling. Your letter "C" is our "S" and so on. So if you learn those letters, you can read a lot of signs, and that was just a happy surprise for me, that I spent a lot of time going around: "Oh! That says "pizza"! That says this! That's…" That was nice. As for something negative… Traffic and waiting in traffic.
Ruslan: We do our best for you to feel the atmosphere of San Francisco.
Jon: Yeah, exactly! It's not really any worse than in any other big city. But, for instance, I just went to Red Square and I waited half an hour ride each way. And it's few miles, you know. But it's no real difference from any other big city.
Ruslan: It is just bothering.
Jon: Yeah. One more positive thing to mention — the metro system is amazing! It's very well organized, it's the circles and the lines. It's very nice, and it's also beautiful, all the metro stations. People visiting another city are scared of the metro and they just want to get an Uber or taxi or whatever. I recommend: if you have the time, take the metro. It's worth it.
Ruslan: And sometimes it's even faster.
Ruslan: This time when I traveled to Moscow from Saint Petersburg, I decided to take a taxi to the railway station. And there was a moment when I realized that if I don't get out of the car and go to a metro station, I won't make it, I'm gonna be late for my train. So I went to the metro and as a result, I made it 10 minutes before the train left. If I had stayed in the taxi, I would have been late.
So, thank you, Jon!