From Russia, With Love
Yes, it’s cold. Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral
I always take a solo trip in the winter right around Thanksgiving, and for the last few years, the destination has been Paris. I take 10 days to reflect on the year, make a goal-setting spreadsheet for the new year , write, look at art, and eat cheese. A lot of cheese.
But this year, I couldn’t get excited about Paris in the same way I had before. So, when a friend asked me to come to Russia to be a mentor in the 500 Startups Moscow Accelerator program, I was super gung-ho.
During the accelerator, I talked about the art of storytelling, helped them refine the 30 second description of their business, and coached them on their Demo Day pitches. So yeah…plenty of fun, startup-y stuff, but I’m sure most of you just want to know: what’s Russia like?
What are the entrepreneurs like in Russia?
Just like the ones in San Francisco, or Lagos, or anywhere really. There was a company for creating and selling online courses, a virtual influencer startup, and lots of chatbot companies. Moscow has no shortage of founders building scalable companies for the European market or in some cases, a global market.
A universal truth is that people want the resources and opportunities to make their companies successful no matter where they’re from. Some will be easily coachable and listen to your advice. Others, will be really headstrong and want to do it their way until it either works or doesn’t.
Several of the founders didn’t speak a lot of English when they started the program, but they worked incredibly hard to communicate with the mentors, make progress on their companies, and be able to pitch in English at Demo Day. They also made time to have fun and show us the best underground bars that we would never have discovered on our own.
The founders were definitely the highlight of my trip.
Is it safe to travel to Russia as a woman solo?
While technically, I was solo, I also knew a lot of people. So, I was able to have dinner with a friend in Saint Petersburg who I previously hadn’t met in person, but have known ‘from the internet’ for years. And once I got to Moscow, I was hanging out with all of the fellow mentors, founders, and my colleagues from 500. But even when I was out on my own, I felt pretty safe and just followed the same protocols I would in any other large city (i.e. not walking down dark alleys and watching my surroundings).
The metro is very safe (and stations are beautiful), but to be honest, I took a lot of Yandex taxi’s because it’s super cheap and easy to use the mobile app to call a car.
I did take one new precaution for this trip and for the first time, registered through the US State Department’s STEP program so that the local US embassy in Moscow was aware that I was in Russia.
How do they feel about Black people in Russia?
The only other Black people I saw during my entire 10 day trip was the couple on my plane back to the US. Black people in Russia are pretty rare — even in large cities — and as a result, can draw a bit of attention.
I’m not going to lie: being a Black woman in Russia, you’re seen as a bit of a novelty. I got a lot of not rude, but very inquisitive stares from the moment I arrived in the airport. It wasn’t until the GUM department store and the Kremlin Armory Museum in Red Square that strangers started asking to take photos with me. And at Izmailovsky market, one of the shopkeepers said that I ‘look like a jazz singer’ and wanted to walk with me and talk about America.
Outside of needing to bake in a little extra commute time for photo taking with the locals, I had no significant issues.
How’s the food?
When I imagined Russian food, I could only think of potatoes, cabbage, and borscht. The borscht part was accurate — I ate a ton of it and it was wonderful. Both Moscow and Saint Petersburg turned out to have some of the best food I’ve ever had in Europe. Pelmini (dumplings), shashlyk, and the insanely affordable caviar on everything became my go-tos. In addition to traditional Russian food, there’s also all the Georgian food (as in from the Republic of Georgia) like khachapuri and khinkali.
If you can get into White Rabbit or any of the other restaurants owned by chef Vladimir Mukhin…do not hesitate, just go.
I’m not big on hard alcohol, so I drank very little vodka, but I had a lot of great Serbian, Armenian, and Georgian wines.
What’s the weather like in the winter?
Cold, but not as cold as I thought it would be. It was an unseasonably mild winter, so while I was there, it was no colder than 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Blame climate change. In my opinion, winter is the perfect time to visit because Russia’s architecture makes you feel like you’re living inside a snow globe.
Moscow and Saint Petersburg were not high on my list of ‘must visit’ places, but one trip has made me a fan of Russian culture. I can’t wait to go back.