It?s my first visit to Russia and frankly I am a little bit nervous about it. Over the past few months I have had several business trips in Eastern Europe. I have partied in Prague, boogied in Budapest and wowed the crowd in Warsaw. But still, something about my trip to Moscow has me a little anxious. They keep teasing me in the office about the women I will meet. Where I live, Russian women are stereotyped as peroxide prostitutes. Like all stereotypes this is grossly unfair and more than a little cruel and yet I have been warned by several reliable and serious friends that I will be approached as soon as I check in. ?It doesn?t matter how nice the hotel is,? I?m told, ?As soon as you get into your room someone will call and offer you a companion.? One of my colleagues asks me again and again whether I?ll get a blonde or a brunette. I laugh and tell him that I?m not settling for less than twins. But still, I am an incy bit concerned. The night of my flight I have to go first to a karaoke bar for my sister in law?s 30th. I don?t live in the UK but the majority of people at the party are Anglos. Unfortunately nobody rang ahead to check and the majority of songs on offer are not in English. I muddle my way through a local radio hit desperately trying to match the foreign subtitles to what I thought were the words. My younger sibling and I duet on Daniel. I am his brother. I am older than he. I am traveling tonight on a plane. It?s spooky. Then his brother-in-law offers a final piece of advice before my trip. ?Keep your money in your socks and don?t get raped.? My ride to the airport is a breeze. By sheer coincidence, someone I know is also on my flight and we hook up and cab it together. He?s been to Moscow severa
l times before and he tells me some of his stories. Before we get on the plane we are met at the airport and given three big boxes to bring with us. I ask him what?s in the boxes and he tells me vaguely about his connections to the community in Moscow and how he helps them out whenever he can. I sleep most of the way, mercifully missing the meal, and waking halfway through a Meg Ryan movie which I watch without putting on my headphones. Then we land. My travel agent has arranged my visa and I hurriedly fill in the customs forms. My friend tells me it can take up to an hour to get past immigration, but somehow we are done in minutes. Our luggage arrives almost immediately and we are briskly waved through the green channel. On the other side we head for the official Taxi rank. The woman shows us a laminated price list for trips into Moscow. The price is $85 plus another 10 because we are going to different hotels. My friend looks appalled. ?No, no, no,? he says emphatically and two minutes later we settle on a total charge of $50. I am staying at the Sheraton Palace Hotel on Tverskaya Yamskaya. When you travel a lot for business, one hotel seems very much like another, but I?m grateful for the big bed and BBC Prime. I have a colleague who will be joining me for the trade show and he is bringing the marketing collateral with him, but he isn?t arriving until late tonight so I am at a bit of a loose end. There is no wireless network in the hotel which is now a greater defect than no hot water. Unable to connect to work, I decide to get out and see a bit of the town. I put everything in the room safe except my passport which has my visa in it and a thousand rouble note and go consult the concierge. Despite the online prediction of rain I emerge map in hand into glorious
sunlight and kick off for the Kremlin. Tverskaya heading south towards Red Square is four lanes wide in each direction and it takes me ten minutes just to cross the road. The traffic is unreasonably heavy and made up of an unusual combination of Lada and Lexus. It?s the first of many disconcerting dialectics that will characterize the trip. Above ground, the street is lined with familiar names. I spot Hugo, Donna and Calvin and they wave cheerily from between the largest selection of banks I have ever seen. The shops are selling the best of what the world has to offer at prices that appear very normal for Western Europe, but that must seem extraordinary to the average working Muscovite. I?m told that the wage for a graduate in a suit and tie job may be $500 per month or thereabouts. Underground, people are serving all manner of goods, from hosiery to patisserie, through letterbox style hatches. The words of the prophets are not written on these subway walls unless the prophets were overly concerned with fake watches and Prada knock offs. Upstairs again, there is a stall offering Mel?s Passion on dodgy DVD for 150 roubles. Even factoring in the fluctuating exchange rate and a decent following wind this is still about 175 roubles more than I am willing to cough. I trudge back to the hotel with nothing to show for my travels except a Mars bar and some bottled water. Later that night I meet up with my friend. He has something he wants to show me and we can have dinner when we get there. I meet him in the lobby and we set off on foot heading away from the centre this time. The streets are more residential and the roads less wide as we walk for about twenty-five minutes. He tells me about the people he has met trying to find investors for his business. ?It?s all about the right
contacts,? he says. ?I had to get the approval of this guy at the bank just to meet some of the big players. I?m telling you, this city is buzzing. I?d move here tomorrow but my wife would divorce me before I made it to Departures.? We arrive at our destination and it is genuinely impressive. Several of Moscow?s newly minted billionaires have donated generously to re-establish the enormous building in front of us. Seven floors housing the Choral Synagogue, and a fully fitted gym and basketball court. Years ago, Jews were forced out of Russia because of the Cossack penchant for pillaging. Later, Jews were refused exit visas to leave Russia and persecuted for practicing their religion. Today the entrance to the Jewish Community centre is guarded by several burly blond security types. I wonder if their Cossack ancestors appreciate the gorgeous irony. Inside, we are just in time for the evening prayers. The synagogue is huge but sparsely populated on this weekday evening. The majority of those present are young and prodigiously bearded having been co-opted from their own communities in Israel and the US to make up the numbers and provide a solid foundation to Moscow?s reluctant returnees to religious life. As a teenager I marched through London demanding justice for Russian Refuseniks (?? 5, 6, 7, 8. Let our people emigrate?). Since then, I have walked the streets of Germany and ridden a train in Poland, but being part of the quorum for the memorial prayer for the dead in Moscow is a new kind of life-affirming experience. One floor below the synagogue there are two restaurants ? one meat and one dairy. If you find another religion with closer links to food then you can baptize me in gravy and sign me up. Given that dairy?s for fairies, we opt for a subsidized slap up of lamb ch
ops and chips with lashings of full-fat cola. Life, as Mike Leigh once pointed out, is sweet. Back at the hotel VH1 are running a Bands Reunited New Wave special. Nick Beggs in a skirt is preternaturally preserved while Limahl looks ravaged by years of pop insignificance. Then they play the video for ?Ooh To Be Ah? which inexplicably features Kenny Everett and Christopher Timothy. Moscow is turning out to be stranger than I could have imagined. During the night my colleague arrives and we meet for breakfast the following morning. The hotel generously provides a car service to take us to the show. A snip at 20 dollars. Later we find that if we had asked for a taxi instead it would have cost us less than half for the same journey. I feel greener than the fresh cut grass. The show is at Gostiny Dvor on Ilyinka street right next to Red Square. The hall is a magnificent, glass-roofed, white-tiled extravagance and we are optimistic as we set up our booth that we will meet hundreds of clients and do great business. Ten minutes before the doors open we are still waiting for the interpreter to arrive. Without saying much, it?s pretty clear that we are both hoping for someone special, easy on the eye with a sparkling personality. Then, ?Gentlemen, I am your interpreter.? The bad news is our interpreter has more facial hair than the two of us together. The less bad news is that Alexander is a charming chap in his early 40s with a healthy respect for idiom. Then the show starts. Anyone who has ever manned a booth at a trade show can vouch that it is simultaneously exhausting and dull. This one is extra dull with chocolate sauce and crushed nuts. There are simply not enough people coming in and certainly not enough from the sector we represent.
People drift by all day. A lot of the men look sort of like John Alderton. That?s Thomas and Sarah Alderton with a moustache, not the Please Sir! version. As for the women, I?m not sure whether the average height is greater than I?m used to, but there is definitely a preponderance of extremely tall fillies in startlingly short skirts. There are plenty of peroxide ?dos and spiky boots, but between the clichés I spot some elegant and sophisticated-looking locals. The show closes at seven and the crowd spills out onto the street. We walk a little way and enter what seems like an American-style shopping mall. I buy a small set of matroishka dolls from a concession. Only 60 roubles. There are more brand names with a peculiar emphasis on lingerie. You can say what you like about modern Russia but they like their knickers posh. I wander past racks of lacy underthings imagining Vladimir Ilyich turning in his tomb. And then as I step out of the expensive underwear emporium I find myself in the middle of Red Square directly facing Lenin?s final home. The square is huge with white lines painted in to help the troops march straight. Lenin?s Tomb is on the West side directly facing La Perla and the host of other stores flanking the enormous GUM department store. Facing South I take in St. Basil?s Cathedral ? a garishly coloured and freakishly turreted monstrosity that looks like it came brick by brick from the Magic Kingdom. The story goes that Ivan the Terrible had the architect blinded so that he could never again design something so? unique. I have a feeling that if I stare at it much longer I?m likely to claw my own eyes from their sockets. Heading North out of the square I?m approached by a deaf man who wants to sell me an
army cap covered with badges for 10 Euro. On the other side of the gate there is a crowd of people around some brass markings set in the ground. One young person stands in the middle and mumbles a prayer before throwing her loose change over her shoulder. The sight of elderly women scrabbling on the floor for a few coins turns my stomach and I head back to the hotel. Later that night the hotel lobby is populated with great-looking hookers. They sit chatting to each other and smoking, or reading to themselves patiently. None of them look at me and nobody calls my room. I don?t know whether I have been slighted. The rest of the week passes quickly. We make some decent contacts and I learn how to order a city cab. On the way back to the airport, my taxi is beaten from the lights by a souped-up Lada with racing stripes and a foot high spoiler. It is a final reminder of what I have discovered during my stay. Despite warnings and preconceptions, Russia is firmly neither one thing nor the other. My ticket to Russia was not from the UK but was remarkably cheap because it included a Saturday night stay. My hotel, on the other hand, cost an arm and a leg. The exchange rate is 50 roubles to the pound.
The biggest fun you can get in Russia when your close is on is to discover the russian culture by drinking vodka, which includes: to enjoy the Russian food, to go somewhere to the nature to make some Shashlik (wild-grilled pork’s meat), to enjoy the russian hospitality at somebody’s kitchen and singing Russian songs (that’s in the evening when you can’t drink any more and decided that it’s better to sing and so they will think that you are so charmed by Russian folklore and that it’s better not to interrupt you with an offer to drink 100 grams more). The biggest fun you can get in Russia when your close is off is to go to BANYA (Russian sauna). This kind of ‘fun’ in Russia is very normal and even obvious. The cabin of banya (the wooden room) is very similar with what we know as a sauna but in russian banya means much more that that - it’s the whole complex of having fun (normally naked;) Normally the temperature in the wooden room of banya is about 30-35 C. You have to stay there as much as you can. Once you can’t stay there any more you have to jump into the ice-cold swimming pool. It’s very important to put the whole body (including head) into the incredible cold water and stay there the about one minute. After that … guess what?… right!!! it’s time to drink vodka. Although, there is a special technique to do it that allows you not to have as awful consequences as you could have without using this. The procedure is following: you have to breather out all the air you have in your lungs then to make a sip of vodka (30-50 grams, if you drink less there is a big possibility to be misunderstood) and then without breathing in to eat a little preservative cucumber. After repeating the whole procedure (sitting in the red-hot wooden sticks, jumping into the swimming pool, drinking vodka) you get such a high you can’t get with the best g
rass in the world: you feel yourself somewhere in stratosphere, you feel a harmony between your body and mind (but in this condition it is better not to stand up ‘cause there is a danger to fall down), you are stupidly laughing, there is no more language barriers in any languages at all (Drew, don’t take me wrong, but vodka I like more the beer;). In Russian banya there is normally a room to relax with sofas, armchairs, TV, CD-player, billiard table (also Russian one with big balls). In winter instead of swimming pool can be used an ice-hole and instead of just sitting in a hot room beating each other’s backs with a birch broom. That’s something I still haven’t tried (but probably should before my return plane with Iberia because after that anyway I have nothing to lose). The meaning of all the banya-procedure is that it refreshes the body by the contrasts of temperatures, improves blood circulation etc. It’s probably really so if you manage to survive there (but every time it’s easier and easier to adjust to banya). WARNING: if you want to try the procedures mentioned above do not mix vodka with any other alcohol.
I?m writing this with a large shot of Russian Lemon Vodka and a dish of salted pretzels by my side as I relive my experience of our ten day trip to discover Russia by river. After two days spent on board in St Petersburg our river cruise of five days was to take to Moscow for two days. The distance between the two cities by water is 1400 kilometre (840 mile) made up of rivers, lakes, reservoirs and canals. We were to travel on a German boat carrying 260 passengers, hence the 231 fellow Germans on board and 29 passengers from the UK, including myself and Morty. The summers in Russia are hot and sometimes humid, the winters are famously cold, but we were travelling in the first week of September, the Russian autumn, before the snow falls begin, usually in October.
How would we view the Russia we were to see after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. How have the Russian people dealt with this freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of trade? How has a country ruled by the Tsars until the 1917 Revolution and then ruled by strong Communist regimes led by such as Lenin and Stalin managed these extreme changes? We were about to gain a little more knowledge and understanding about the Russia of the past and the present on our brief but illuminating journey through a relatively small area of this vast country.
I need a sip of vodka here when I recall the very old Aeroflot aircraft that was to fly us from Gatwick to St Petersburg. I promise you the tyres were bald! However the scheduled economy flight was comfortable arriving after less than four hours at St Petersburg, and once through immigration then transported by coach to St Petersburg?s River Port on the river Neva, where we were soon happily unpacking our gear and ready to explore. Now then, we?re not ?Group Tour? kinda people, but mainly because of my cowardice, we opted for the organised City tour of St Petersburg, once Petrograd, then Lening
rad and now
St Petersburg once more.
Peter the Great built the city of St Petersburg 300 years ago as a port for his navy and as a major trade route to Russia?s inland waterways. As with many of the beautiful buildings and colossal engineering achievements we were to see in Russia they were built using forced labour with a huge cost to human lives. This beautiful city was built on marshland so amazingly it consists of 42 separate islands connected by 70 canals and rivers all to be crossed by around 300 bridges. Does an image of Amsterdam and Venice enter your imaginations? We had just two days before we sailed so do I need to tell you how little we were able to see of the 200 palaces, the 50 museums, the 20 theatres, 60 stadiums and 4500 libraries. We benefited from the fact that the city smartened itself up for it?s 300th anniversary in May this year as royalty and world leaders flocked here to pay homage so all the buildings in the city centre and along the Neva were freshly painted and all the onion domes were freshly gold leafed.
The Hermitage museum was top of our list for our second day but having read that to spend a few moments looking at each item would take nine years we felt slightly fazed. We managed a few hours and with spinning heads saw more art by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Gaugin and Monet than I have seen in my life as well as the bejewelled state rooms that were once the ?Home? of Tsar Peter and Catherine the Great.
Later, we broke away from our group to wander about on our own. We strolled down Nevsky Prospekt, the main street where the rich Russians rub shoulders with the poor Russians as this wide street is full of fashionable shops, souvenir pedlars, artists and smart restaurants and the homeless. We sat in a pavement Bistro (Russian for ?fast-service?) by an ornate canal with a view of a church called ?Church of the Spilled Blood?? where Alexander 11 was assass
inated in 1881, and ate a late lunch of Chic
ken Kiev and dran
k Russian beer. Tired on this our first day, we took a half our taxi ride back to the River Port and our boat. The St Petersburg river port is in a very down at heel area, in stark contrast to the dripping wealth in the city centre. Grim high rise blocks of neglected flats, pot holes in the roads and pavements, broken windows, unkempt small parks, beggars, drunks, lots of broken down cars and yet there were lively street kiosks with entrepreneurs selling everything from root vegetables to tobacco and CDs. We know we have to return to St Petersburg for a city break as our appetite is whetted, staying in one of the many luxurious hotels being built and armed with a city dedicated guide book, to do this fairy tale city justice.
The young women of St Petersburg are extraordinarily beautiful, slender and dress in the height of fashion. It was no surprise when reading the English printed edition of the St Petersburg Times to see four full pages of personal adverts from Russian women looking for Western husbands, an equal amount of adverts from Russian Marriage Agencies plus personal adverts from Western men searching for Russian brides. Considering the average wage for a surgeon, a university lecturer or a cleaner is $30 a week then it begins to make economic sense for the Russian women and a different kind of sense for the Western male. Need I say more?
Another surprise was the currency issue. Aware that roubles are unobtainable in the UK the bank advised us to take currency in the form of US Dollars- not travellers cheques or sterling. Imagine our surprise when we saw everything from the most expensive boutiques to remote villages on the inland river banks pricing their goods equally in US dollars and Euros with Roubles a very poor third. On the boat itself when we paid a bar bill with US Dollars we were given any change in Euros! Consequently, the $150 we innoce
ntly changed to Roubles at an expe
nsive percentage on ou
r arrival became even more expensive when we couldn?t spend them and had to change them back to US Dollars(They didn?t have any sterling) on our departure from Moscow airport at an even more exorbitant percentage. If we just taken Euros at least we could have returned to the UK with some convenient money to spend on our next European holiday!
The overland distance to Moscow from St Petersburg is 650 Kilometres. The river route is 1400 kilometres, so were to sail on ten separate waterways to include Europe?s largest lake, its longest river and the world?s longest man-made canal. This waterway journey was to take us five days and we had schedules stops along the way. What did we see of another kind of Russia?
It was a new experience for us as we left St Petersburg and sailed along the river Neva in the early evening only to wake in the early morning to discover were on Lake Lagoda, Europe?s largest lake. We knew it was large because we couldn?t see land to the front, to the rear or either side of us so it seemed like we were on an ocean! This confirmed for me that I never want to do an ocean cruise as I so missed the interest of the river banks, the woodlands, villages, forests and the comfort that land wasn?t very far away. Historically Lake Lagoda is known for its vital role during the 900 day Siege of Leningrad from the German blockade of 1941-1944 when vital supplies were carried across it, even when frozen solid, to the starving population as they held out against invasion. Sadly, we were warned not to drink any tap water in St Petersburg as Lake Lagoda is close to death with pollution from phosphate pollution due to lake side industry and this is where St Petersburg gets it main water supply.
Therefore it was enchanting to eat breakfast on the boat as we sailed into the beautiful River Svir, the river that links Lake Lagoda to Lake Onega
over a distance of 137 miles. The Svir is landscaped on both bank
s by beautiful pine and fir
forests with plenty of activity as we saw lumbering, log piles and men working on timber rafts. We were beginning to take to this cruising lark, sitting on the sun deck, sipping Lemon Vodka and espresso coffees. In no time at all we were sailing into Lake Onega, a lake complete with 1300 islands, surrounded by forests and we were to stop and visit one of these islands in the north of the lake ( which is linked to the Arctic by the White Sea canal built by Stalin using forced labour) to Kizhi Island renowned for its miraculous wooden churches and a reconstructed 18th Century village. Our local guide was a little too beatific as she fervently described the meanings of the many religious icons in the churches and her halo was hurting my eyes!
Yet more icons when we stopped south of the White Lake at Goritsy for a tour of a 15th Century monastery. Goritsy is isolated yet, in readiness for future tourism, is building luxury hotels and a tourism centre. Perhaps if we returned there in ten years time we may well find it completely unrecognisable as the West catches on to what could be a major resort with fishing, water sports, wildlife and a monastic retreat?
Since the fall of Communism, Russians are now free to worship again. Apparently the number of Russians returning to the Orthodox Church is extremely large. However, there is also a movement to bring back the Tsars and others who are discontented with the progress being made under the move to democracy who wants to see the return to Communism. Isn?t the Church a hard disciplined ruler? Weren?t the Tsars hard selfish rulers with no thought for their subjects? And as for Communism?
Our next waterway was the Volga Baltic canal which begins by linking Lake Onega and the River Kovya and runs for 229 miles. This was so exciting as we were lifted by amazing locks
by as much as 370 feet and dropped again sailing through yet more sp
lendid scenery then entered the
legendary White lake. known as the ?Tsars Fishing Ground? as government boats sailed around taxing the fisherman but not those from the monasteries as Tsars knew better than to tax God!
This gets personal now so another sip of Lemon Vodka. My grandfather was born in Russia and I have the name of his village but no amount of web research could locate it. Rybinsk Reservoir was formed by Stalin damming the Volga in 1941. In order to do this Stalin failed to inform the 700 villages and their occupants of his plans and they were given days to collect their belongings and find alternative accommodation. Wouldn?t you possibly have wondered if this was where your Granddads village may have been? Drowned in true Stalinist style? Even worse for me was that Stalin used educated political Gulag prisoners as construction workers who died at the average of one hundred a day. Suddenly I felt like a spoilt Westerner and could feel the sadness and death all around me as I viewed this feat of engineering.
The complicated network of man-made canals and rivers link the River Volga to all five of Russia?s major seas and flows about eighty miles from Moscow itself so its linked by the Moscow Canal. Again, beautiful to sail along and experiencing another series of lifting by several locks but once more built during the 1930s by Stalinist methods using Gulag prisoners who dug the canal out shovel by shovel. But I mustn?t dwell on this. We had one more stop, until we arrived at Moscow?s Northern River Passenger dock, at the town of Uglich. This industrial town has a small Kremlin, or fortress, preparing us for Moscow, and another church complete with icons where we heard the ethereal singing of a Russian choir. Morty succumbed to a famous Chaika watch made in the factory in Uglich. These are mechanical watches and our guide book adv
ised us to buy one from a market stall as this was more likely to have been made from stolen p
arts and more reliable than those mad
e in the factory itself. For six pounds it?s still ticking! Animal lovers don?t read this as I bought a divine sable hat and I can?t wait for our winter ice and snow and for people to sing ?Lara?s Theme? to me. My sable hat, when worn with my Russian Baltic amber pendant, makes me feel like A Russian Princess.
The Moscow River Port is about a half an hour?s drive into the city centre and smarter than St Petersburg dock, so once we?d moored up and knowing we only had two days to see the city we chose the group ?City Tour? At least this tour took us around the main attractions and trust me, you wouldn?t want to drive yourself. There are six lanes in and out of the city and it is chaos. The other benefit of group tours is avoiding the queues as group tickets makes admission to museums and major sites hassle free. A serious warning about pick pockets as this applies in any major city. Once again, how could this visit give us a chance to contemplate the 2500 historical and architectural monuments, 70 museums, 125 cinemas, 50 theatres, 4500 libraries, universities as well as the obvious such as the Kremlin and Red Square? The Kremlin was a stunning array of palaces, minarets, domes, battlements and towers in every shape and colour. I preferred standing outside the Kremlin rather than enter the Cathedrals and churches as by this time we were both iconned-out but were more than happy to visit the State Armoury Chamber which was full of the wealth of the Tsars in the form of chalices, Faberge eggs, jewellery and thrones dripping with diamonds-no wonder there was a revolution!
The cobbled Red Square was as impressive as we expected, so impressive that we paid a second visit by night to see it illuminated, though Morty wanted to visit Lenin?s Tomb but sadl
y it was closed, and we saw the multi-coloured onion domed St Basil?s Cathedral which symbolises Russia -better than the postcards! We did stroll round GUM,
Russia?s largest shopping centre. GUM is
like a palace in itself with fountains, waterways, and glass roof, selling the most expensive International designer labels I?ve ever seen under one roof, in contrast to the empty shelves in Soviet times.
I wonder who are buying the luxurious million dollar apartments springing up throughout the city considering the average wage? I have never seen so many casinos in one street as I did driving through Moscow. Who are the people driving the Ferraris and the Lamborghinis? Are the UK football club owners?
Limited time meant we had to make a choice between using the famous Metro at night or the Bolshoy ballet. In fact, we have vowed to return to Moscow as well for a City Break, stay in the centre and take in more. After all, we didn?t even manage a visit to Gorky Park! The Metro, by night to avoid the commuters, was an eye opener. One token buys unlimited distance within the network. The trains travel at over 80mph and there is one arriving every 55 seconds. The doors remain open for exactly one minute for boarding and getting off with an automatic announcement saying they are closing-and then they do. I was scared stiff in case I didn?t get off in time! Of course it is the beauty of the stations that enthral. They are like palaces and museums with chandeliers, mosaics, original art, stained glass, statues and sculptures and they are all different as we discovered as we got on and off at different stations.
Our ten day visit was over and in contrast to the rickety old Aeroflot plane we arrived in our return flight to Heathrow was in a very modern Aeroflot airbus with halfway decent in-flight food and not a bald tyre in sight.
Did we enjoy Russia? Do we recommend you to visit? Yes,
whatever way you choose, be it a City Break to St Petersburg or Moscow or a leisurely cruise with a city break at each end you won?t be disappointed -I promise.
note: As usual, when a street you've walked down, sat and had a beer in a pavement cafe and wandered into the shops to buy a souvenir is bombed then the political conotations as to why they did this hit harder don't they?
I had the privilege of visiting Novgorod, Russia in June 2002. I went with a charity organisation and therefore I had a chance to see some of what life in western Russia is really like. Veliky Novgorod is Russia’s most ancient city and is fully of beautiful buildings and other things of historical interests including its Kremlin with the marvellous St Sophia church. This is a stark contrast with the numerous blocks of incredibly run down flats that you see everywhere you turn. Although the Russian people do seem harsh at first it is only the hardiness that has had to develop for them to face life. I stayed with a very average Russian family and the thing that I shall never forget is their overwhelming hospitality. These people lived a very humble existence in a small, average Russian flat. They have few possessions and although both husband and wife are trained, professional people the lack of money is obvious. Yet they gave me everything they could. They were loving and welcoming beyond anything I have ever experienced. I was not the only one who felt this. Every member of my group has similar stories of the warmth of the Russian people. I also had the opportunity to visit two children’s hospitals, an orphanage, an old people’s home and a prison. None of these places were as I expected them to be. Again the people we met were lovely and the respect shown to visitors was far more than you would find in England (where I come from). Every Russian I have met has been kind beyond belief giving everything when they have close to nothing. (Especially for a European country) I feel that this is a sure sign that the Russian people in general are a nice bunch. A visit to Russia is an amazing experience and I have left my heart there with the country and my friends. If you get involved I anything official you will find that plans change continuously and long waits are inevitable. However despite this set back I
recommend it to all who are prepared to rough it a bit and experience something wonderful you will find no where else.
Last year I was lucky enough to go to Russia with my school for a week and although we were probably fairly sheltered to real goings on in Russia, I think we got our fair share of what it's really like. We spent half the week in Moscow and half the week in St Petersburg and my views on these places are divided. Moscow has quite a lot to see and we found plenty to do but the people there are incredibly abrupt. They were very hostile towards us and they never seemed to want to help (I'm not saying all people from Moscow are like this, just those that we came across.) We went to see Lenin's body which certainly was an experience and it was one of the most eerie sights that I have ever come across. St Petersburg however was a much friendlier place but there's very little in ways of attractions apart from the Hermitage which is an absolute must, it is gorgeous! Other than that, nothing else really stood out there. As for hotels, we stayed at the Hotel Rossiya in Moscow which is a mini country in itself! It was absolutely huge and literally took us half an hour to walk from out hotel room down to breakfast. It was, however, the scariest hotel I have ever stayed in as there were often very random people walking about and there was nothing to stop anyone from coming in at any time. In St Petersburg we stayed at the Hotel Pulkovskaya which was a much nicer and safer place. The rooms were nice, the food was fab and they even had a disco downstairs that was the perfect venue for our final evening! I found Russia to be one of the most confusing countries I have ever visited because some parts are absolutely exquisite, such as the Kremlin but then you look and can see complete and utter poverty. You are guaranteed to be harassed by beggars at some point in your trip to be prepared. Children will often grab you but they generally seem to understand that when you pull away that you want them to leave you alone. It's a sad sight to see. H
owever, I would recommend that people go there, especially if you are interested in history because Russia is a country absolutely swamped in it, and I personally find it very fascinating. I, however, wouldn't recommend going alone as there are many strict rules (such as the fact you can't take roubles out of the country) that you probably wouldn't know if you travelled alone there. If you do go though, it is an experience that you will never forget and you will come away not only with masses of cheap vodka but lots of memories.
Russia is still coming out of the cold. The thawing of attitude has seen the people of St. Petersburg and Moscow take to the streets; Lenin statues have fallen and individual traders have sprouted. While some are a little unsure where the collapse of Communism leaves them, others have put their skates on to join the rush towards a market economy. Unfortunately, their naive interpretation of a market economy could result in a slide towards an African system of corruption in high places, streets full of people hawking anything and everything, and very little in the ordinary shops. St. Petersburg's famous Nevsky Prospekt is a buzz of curious activity at the moment. True, the shelves in the shops that cater to the average Russian are still bland, if not bare, but much of what is for sale is along the main street. There's bottled beer and vodka of dubious origin (bootleg liquor is literally a killer, claiming thousands of lives a year), and Russian champagne for the slightly more extravagant (little more than a dollar or two a bottle); ice-cream, even when it's snowing; and occasional bite-sized slices of bread, with a piece of cheese or salami placed on it like a gem from the Hermitage Museum. A parked car attracts a crowd eager to purchase lottery-tickets and put a chance on Capitalism's Lady Luck. Outside a foreign cosmetic shop, free-marketeers tout beauty products to women who want to have the French or Italian look, without paying for it in hard currency. Some of the traders are not entrepeneurs, but desperate. Every day, they try to sell books, badges, jeans, shoes, shirts, soap and even puppies the size of kittens (who will need feeding too). These people stand shoulder to shoulder in long lines at every underpass -- holding out whatever it is that they want a little bread money for -- without so much as a sales pitch or a glance into the potential customer's eye. In
Moscow, selling stuff on the streets is more exaggerated. The block near the KGB headquarters throbs constantly with people looking at what's on offer. A large bag is opened to reveal a variety of clothing: pullovers are spread out on cardboard boxes; shirts are clutched in someone's arms like the newly-born puppies in need of a home. In the famous GUM store, opposite the Kremlin, there are shops for hard-currency only, and even a sort of showroom with the latest Volga car on display. For many Muscovites, these products are out of their reach, and are for viewing only. Of course, the new rich are dancing in nightclubs until the early hours and being driven around in imported cars with armed bodyguards beside them. Some comrades still gather near St. Basil's Cathedral with their hammer and sickle when the Congress of People's Deputies is in session. The smart young Russian heads for Arbatskaya. Here the Red Flag is a tourist commodity worthy of currency, along with other Lenin memorabilia and former soviet uniforms, Russian dolls, tin-badges and revolution-era cameras. These people are resigned to sell at present, but if vodka is in short supply in the near future, discontent and riots could still arise. Many of them have seen the pictures from Los Angeles and Britain on a summer's evening, and are questioning the merits of the American Dream. Outside the Metropole Hotel, an enterprising photographer offered passers-by a polaroid of them shaking hands with an authentic-looking cardboard cut-out of the politician of their choice: Gorby or Yeltsin? The majority who paid for the privilege chose the former. If you're going to stay in Russia for more than three months, then you'll need a certificate of HIV infection test. St. Petersburg Youth Hostel: www.ryh.ru/ More Youth Hostels are appearing as budget travel takes off -- when we first went to Russia, yo
u had to pre-book your itinerary through Intourist to receive vouchers for dollar hungry hotels. If you can't make it to Russia, take a look at the Kremlin Cam: www.kremlinkam.com/ St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin from the river end. A stunning view but remember the time difference. If you hit the site at the wrong time, there are always the archive shots. New Russia: www.russia-travel.com/ Official Site of the Russian National Tourist Office.
"Russia (Russian: Россия, Rossiya, also the Russian Federation (Росси́йская Федерация, Rossiyskaya Federatsiya)), is a country that stretches over a vast expanse of Asia and Europe. With an area of 17,075,400 km², Russia is the largest country in the world, covering almost twice the territory of the next-largest country, Canada, and has significant mineral and energy resources. Russia has the world's eighth-largest population. Russia shares land borders with the following countries (counter-clockwise from northwest to southeast): Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and North Korea. It is also close to the United States, Sweden, and Japan across relatively small stretches of water (the Bering Strait, the Baltic Sea, and La Pérouse Strait, respectively)."