Diversity in St. Petersburg

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CIEE wants all our students to feel welcomed, supported, and empowered to succeed while studying abroad. On this page, local CIEE staff have provided details about conditions and cultural attitudes that students with specific identities might encounter at their location. 

The information below is just a broad overview so if you have specific questions or concerns not covered here, please email inclusion@ciee.org. We would be glad to have local staff share their perspectives, talk with you about accommodations, connect you with resources, and/or put you in touch with a program alum who could speak about their experiences navigating a program in this location.

No matter where you choose to study abroad with CIEE, our staff—all of whom receive regular and comprehensive training in diversity, equity, and inclusion—will be on hand throughout your program to provide advice, resources, and support regarding these issues. 

Body Size/Image

In Russia, as in many Western countries and the US, there is a gap between the normative body image perpetuated by media and the everyday reality. Slim and fit bodies are at the heart of the Russian beauty ideal, and fat-phobia exists in advertising and the media. However, ordinary people rarely conform to this ideal: more than 50% of men and 60 % of women wear size L and larger. Recent years saw the rise of the body positivity movement, which pushes against restrictive mainstream beauty norms. According to the current (July 2021) report of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 61% of Russians either support or do not oppose body-positive images in advertising. In everyday communication, people avoid discussing physical appearance, at least directly. However, people might stare at each other in public transport and on the streets, and persons with distinct appearance traits might attract more stares than others.


The Russian constitution guarantees equality of opportunities for disabled people and other citizens in realizing civil, economic, political, and other rights. In 2011, the government launched a state program, “Accessible Environment,” aimed at making barrier-free infrastructures so that people in wheelchairs could get around streets and use social services. Since then, major Russian cities have become more friendly for people with disabilities: many sidewalks are smooth, and nearly all intersections have curb cuts. Despite the progress, cities in Russia are far from being entirely a barrier-free environment, and many buildings, including University buildings, businesses, museums, etc., are not wheelchair accessible. A student with motor impairment might find living in St. Petersburg much more challenging than their life in the United States.

The Russian university system only recently began to recognize learning disabilities and provide specific accommodations for disabled students. However, CIEE programs in Russia have sufficient experience in accommodating college students with documented disabilities and are ready to alter study policies and teaching practices, including but not limited to providing additional time or a distraction-free alternate setting for tests.

Students are encouraged to provide as much information as they can related to their specific disabilities (or related needs) prior to arrival so CIEE staff can assess potential challenges and arrange for appropriate accommodations.

Gender and Gender Identity

In Russia, the gender order is not monolithic and is more accurately described as a changeable mosaic of several different dispositions, strongly linked to generational and socioeconomic statuses. College-educated citizens of large cities recognize the importance of gender equality in both public and private spheres. In contrast, people of older generations and lower socioeconomic standing often express traditionalist views on the roles of men and women instead. In this view, women are referred to as “the prettier sex,” and men are “the stronger sex.” Both sexes are expected to live up to that ideal. Last year saw an intense public discussion about gender equality and the nature of feminism; the #MeToo campaign also resonated widely in Russian society.

CIEE students might find a substantial chasm between an open and tolerant attitude toward gender norms shared by their Russian peers and a pretty conservative stance on gender among their host family members. Some female participants in St. Petersburg programs in the past have reported harassment by men on the streets. During orientation and throughout your program, CIEE staff are on hand to provide advice and support regarding issues related to gender and gender identity.

Heritage Seekers

Going abroad presents students with a unique opportunity to reconnect with their culture and language. Oftentimes, heritage speakers have many outdated presumptions about Russia in general and Russian people – these misconceptions are often based on what they have heard about Russia in the 90s or earlier. It was a very challenging time, and today’s Russia is very different. It is thus crucial that you are ready for your views and ideas about your homeland to be challenged. Go with an open mind and get ready to learn more about yourself!  At the same time, please be aware that you might still be viewed as an outsider to some Russians. Do not take it personally and give people (and yourself) time to rediscover your cultural heritage.

Racial and Ethnic Identity

Although Russia is often perceived from the outside as a “white” country, it is populated by people of many ethnicities, the result of eastward and southward expansion by tsarist and Soviet empires. Currently, Russia accepts about four million labor migrants annually, most of them from Central Asian states. This diversity, however, is often ignored, and casual everyday racism is still ingrained in many Russians, especially of an older generation, who lack any substantial exposure to the outside world.

Members of African American and Asian ethnic groups may experience staring when on public transport or racial stereotyping. People on the streets sometimes mistake U.S. students of Asian descent for Central Asian labor migrants, who are often targets of xenophobic reactions. COVID-related xenophobia is uncommon and unlikely in Russia.

To address both overt and latent racism and discrimination – although rare – CIEE St. Petersburg staff are available to provide support and resources to help all CIEE students enjoy and learn from their study abroad experience, irrespective of – indeed, celebrating – our diverse racial and ethnic identities.


In Russia, freedom of religion is a guaranteed right under the constitution of the Russian Federation. The 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations declares all religions equal before the law, prohibits government interference in religion, and establishes simple registration procedures for religious groups. While the majority of the Russian population is Russian Orthodox, a branch of Christianity, there are numerous places of worship in St. Petersburg for those observing other faiths including Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestant, and Roman Catholic.

Although there is a recognized right to freedom of religion, there have recently been an increase in intolerance towards “extremist” religions. Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered an extremist organization in Russia and can be subject to significant harassment.  Other minority religious groups in Russia are also subject to similar discrimination, as are organizations like the Scientologists. During orientation and throughout your program, CIEE staff are on hand to provide advice and support regarding these issues.

Sexual Orientation

In 2020 Russia was ranked 46th out of 49 European countries for LGBT+ rights by ILGA-Europe.

While homosexuality is not illegal in Russia, negative political attitudes and restrictions on rights do exist. In June 2013, a law banning the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ towards under-18s (the “gay propaganda” law) entered into force. There have been reports that instances of harassment, threats, and acts of violence towards the LGBTQ+ community have increased following the introduction of this law. While no foreign nationals have been charged or convicted under it, penalties could include arrest and detention, fines and/or deportation. LGBTQ+ individuals in Russia have few legal protections and face censorship as a result of this law, which has marked a dramatic shift away from the relatively gay-friendly early 2000s.

In 2019, St. Petersburg came in first place among 20 Russian cities as most tolerant to LGBTQ+ community, according to the Zoom Market agency’s research. Still, it is unusual to see the public displays of affection by same-sex couples on the streets. Throughout your program, CIEE staff are on hand to provide advice and support regarding your LGBTQ+ identity, community gatherings, or cultural norms.

Socioeconomic Status

Living independently in a foreign country comes with financial challenges. Students who come to Russia to study must travel on a student visa and are not permitted to work for pay during their program. On average, the cost of living in St. Petersburg is lower than in most American cities due to a beneficial dollar to ruble ratio (currently 1 to 73; subject to change). The program website helps determine the estimated additional costs students incur, such as public transportation, weekend trips with new friends (outside of CIEE excursions), phone/data use, hygiene products, etc. Living on a budget is possible: the city offers many inexpensive dining options, budget supermarket chains, and most museums have free admission days. Never hesitate to reach out to on-site staff if you’re struggling: they live in Russia full time and will have helpful advice regarding budgeting life in Russia.

Programs in St. Petersburg

Live from St. Petersburg

From the maze-like downtown to the many exotic souks, minarets, mosques, and coffeehouses, you’ll get a complete Middle Eastern experience in this unforgettable city! Learn more about programs in St. Petersburg