Required by virtually every country in the world. Time consuming, bureaucratic and costly. For most is valid for a maximum of 30 days, non extendable from the date of entry. Travel to St Petersburg, Kaliningrad Vyborg is possible without a visa for 72 hours only.
Invitation. Required to obtain a visa. Issued by hotels and hostels for a fee. If not staying in a hotel or hostel, this can be done through travel agencies, specialist visa agencies, or by the individual you are staying with a form obtained from the Post Office and a small fee. This is sent to you in an email and printed in color (to show the stamp).
Application. It is really only practical to apply for a Russian Visa in your home country. I used a visa service centre (the only way to do it by post in Canada) which charges a separate fee in addition to normal visa fees. Fill out the online application form using the provided manual to clarify the questions (some of the questions are worded in a stilted manner), print it out, and affix the correctly sized passport photo. The application requires a list of all your accommodation with name, address, and dates. Transportation arrangements are not required. It gets tedious to fill out as it requires past jobs, parents, countries traveled with dates……….
Letter. This must accompany the application. It needs a date, address, To Whom It May Concern, dates in Russia, purpose of travel, list of accommodation, Yours truly, signature, name.
Registration. Every visitor to Russia must have their visa registered within 3 days of arrival. Your hotel can register it for you for free or a fee providing you with a slip of paper confirming the dates staying at this particular hostel. Retain this as it can be requested by the police. It can also be done at the post offices or the local office of Federal Migration Service. Every time you change location, it is necessary to register again. Keep all transport tickets especially if sleeping on trains.
Cost. Mine cost, with all the fees, $228 and took 4 weeks.
IMMIGRATION FORMS. Filled out on your flight, or produced electronically by passport control. Half is kept by immigration, the other half must be kept as it is needed for registration, occasionally required by the police and must be produced on leaving.
Russian Ancestors: Slavs and Vikings. Eastern Slavs from present-day N Ukraine and S Belarus arrived in the 9th century. They converted to Christianity in the 9th to 10th centuries. The forerunner of the Cyrillic alphabet, based on the Greek alphabet with 12 additional characters, arrived with it. The first Russian state developed on river routes between the Black Sea and the Baltic and to a lesser extent, the Volga.
Vikings had been moving east from the Baltic since the 6th century eventually settling in Novgorod, Smolensk and Kiev. They founded the Kylvan Rus state in Kiev that lasted till the 16th century. Rus was the name of the dominant Kylvan Viking clan but Russian was used for the first time in the 18th century for the Eastern Slavs in the north. The population shifted northward starting in 1050 founding Moscow in 1147. Moslem Bulgars settled in the Volga-Ural region.
Mongols: Starting in 1223 and again in 1236, Ghenghis Khan’s grandson, Batu annihilated most Russian principalities including Kiev ruling from Saray (Volvograd) on the Volga. They eventually ruled from the Dneiper in Eastern Europe to deep into Siberia to the Caucasus. They used collaborative local princes to rule. Alexander Nevsky, the prince of Novgorod was made Grand Prince and Moscow grew in power. The Mongols were eventually defeated at the end of the 14th century by the Turkic empire of Tamerland based in Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan.
Moscow: Ivan III (1462-1505) consolidated power in Moscow, becomes the first ‘tsar’ and adopts a feudal society with increased central control. Mongol power ended in 1480. Ivan IV (the Terrible) warred with Crimean Tartars, Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes and Teutonic Knights to the west. Russia expanded to control the entire Volga region to the Caspian Sea coast. The Time of Troubles followed his death with a period of anarchy, dynastic chaos and foreign invaders. Expansion into Siberia began in 1580. Peace was restored in 1613 when 16 year-old Mikhail Romanov became tsar, the first of the Romanov dynasty to rule until 1917.
Serfs were basically slaves tied to their masters, a system banned in 1862 that did not effectively end until the beginning to the 20th century. In 1857, 46 million of the total population of 62.5 million were serfs. The Soviet collective farm system that followed was actually state-sponsored serfdom. Expansion into Siberia continues in the 1600s.
Peter I (1672-1725, ’the Great’, 2.24 m tall) began modernization of Russia. He was the first ruler to visit Europe. War with Sweden gained control of Estonia and the eastern Baltic founding St Petersburg in 1703 and adding ethnic variety with a new upper class of Germans. Taxes were heavy with serfs bearing the most burden. Aristocrats had to serve in the army or civil service or lose their titles. Performance based promotion enabled state employees and many foreigners to become Russian nobles. Russian control extended to the Pacific at Kamchatka in 1697.
Female Rulers: Catherine (Peters wife), Elizabeth and Catherine the Great ruled for 70 years. Catherine the Great developed a new legal code, limited torture, increased religious tolerance, improved education, publishing and collected the core of the Hermitage collection. By 1793, Russia had expanded to include the north coast of the Black Sea, control of the Dardanelles, Crimea, Eastern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and western Ukraine.
Alexander I, Catherine’s grandson, expanded education to the lower middle classes. Napolean invaded in 1812. The Russian army retreated with a scorched earth policy and Napolean entered a deserted Moscow which burned down. Forced to retreat, only in 20 starving troops made it back to France. Georgia was added in 1801, Finland in 1807, Moldova, and parts of Ukraine and Romania in 1812, and N Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1828.
Nicholas I (1825- 55). After a failed attempt to overthrow Nicholas by the Decembrists, was a time of stagnation and repression. Half the serfs on state lands were freed. The Crimean War in 1854-56 against the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France ended in a stalemate.
Alexander II. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, capitalism, railways, factories, movement into cities and foreign investment occurred. But nothing was done to modernize farming so that by 1914, 85% were still rural and basically serfs still. Alaska was sold in 1867 for $7.2 million. Alexander was assassinated in 1881 and succeeded by Alexander III (1881-1894). Pogroms against Jews in the 1880s diverted social tension against a scapegoat.
Marxism. Many revolutionaries fled abroad under marked repression. In 1903, Lenin emerged as the leader of the Bolsheviks and Plenkhanov as leader of the Mensheviks. Nicholas II (1894-1917) was weak and remained opposed to representative government. Russia lost the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. The Trans Siberian Railway was built opening up Siberia to settlement.
1905 Revolution. After Bloody Sunday when hundreds were massacred, soviets (worker’s councils) started forming. Trotsky declared a general strike in October, the tsar gave in and elections were held but power remained with the tsar. Land reform improved both farming and provided labor for industry.
WW I and Revolution. Nicolas became a puppet of his wife Alexandra who fell under the spell of Rasputin. He was able to control the uncontrollable bleeding of her haemophiliac son. WW I went badly from the start so that by 1918, 2 million Russian troops had died and Germany controlled Poland, most of the Baltic coast, Belarus and Ukraine. Riots from food shortages led to the February Revolution of 1917 and Nicholas abdicated on March 1. The Bolsheviks under Lenin disbanded the elected government in the October Revolution.
Soviet Russia. Land was redistributed, armistice with the Germans was signed in December, 1917, the Cheka or secret police were established, the Red Army was founded in 1918 by Trotsky, the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party and the capital was moved to Moscow. Civil War (1917-1922) broke out between the Bolsheviks and the White Russians from the SE of the country. 1.5 million Russians were exiled. All economic sectors were nationalized, the Politburo made all decisions and the secretariat appointed only loyal members. In order to create a classless society, many were eliminated with disastrous economic results. 4-5 million people died in the 1920-21 famine. Private enterprise was allowed and farm output improved. Lenin outlawed debate, purged dissenters and established a stronger secret police (GPU). Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin rose to power in 1927. Collective farms were imposed and resistors were killed or exiled in the millions, half the livestock was destroyed, and drought in 1932-33 resulted in millions more dying. Five year plans for industrialization were instituted. Gulags supplied the labor to develop Siberia and the Russian Far East with 30,000 inmates in 1928 and 8 million in 1938. With an average life expectancy of 2 years, 90% died. 18 million passed through the system. Initially farmers were the target, but in the 1930s purges resulted in 8.5 million dying from all sectors and levels of society.
WW II. Russia signed a nonaggression pact with Germany in August, 1939. Germany invaded Poland on Sept 1, the UK and France declared war on Sept 3, and Russia invaded eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Bessarabia 3 weeks later. Germany invaded in June, 1941, rapidly reaching Moscow in 4 months but winter intervened. Leningrad remained in German hands for 2 1/4 years and half a million died mainly from hunger. The Battle of Stalingrad lasted 199 days claiming 1.5 million lives in the fall of 1942. 300,000 German troops surrendered or died. The Soviet Union is thought to have lost 25-27 million in the war (Germany 5-7million, Britain 400,000, USA 300,000).
The Cold War. Control over Eastern Europe and postwar modernization of industry with the aid of German factories and engineers made the USSR a world power. 2 million Soviet citizens repatriated back to the USSR were all sent to the Gulag. Party and government purges continued. The first nuclear weapon test occurred in 1949. Stalin’s policies, purges and paranoia were responsible for the death of 20 million Russians. With Stalins death in 1953, Khrushchev came to power. The Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955 in response to NATO. Millions were released from Gulags, and the Hungarian rebellion was put down in 1956. Russia was first to launch a satellite (Sputnik in 1957), first man in space (Yury Gagarin in 1961), first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963), and first spacewalk (Alexey Leonov in 1965). In 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected and the Cuban missile crisis occurred. Soviet apartment blocks were built all over. Khrushchev was relieved in 1964. Under Brezhnev, the economy stagnated, repression increased, and corruption amongst the top-heavy government and party elite created general malaise throughout society.
Gorbachev and the end of the USSR. He reformed the politburo, bureaucracy and military and instituted glasnost (openness) with press freedom. Management initiative was encouraged, efficiency rewarded and bad practices allowed to be criticized. isolationism with the USA ended and in 1987, all medium range missiles were removed from Europe, they left Afghanistan and relations improved with China. Limited private property and private enterprise was allowed, dissidents like Andrei Sakharov were released, religions were allowed to operate, and in 1989, the first democratic election of 2/3s of Congress. Gorbachev continued purges of difficult opponents.
Eastern Europe started its rush to freedom in 1989: the Berlin Wall fell in November and the formal reunification of Germany in Oct, 1990 marked the end of the Cold War. In 1990, they left Afghanistan and the eastern Baltic states all left, followed by most of the rest. The economy broke down and organized crime boomed. After an attempted coup by Communists, Yeltsin came to power. The USSR ended on Dec 8th, 1991 and Gorbachev resigned as president. Later, Gorbachev thought that the explosion of the nuclear facility at Chernobyl was the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yeltsin, destruction of Communism and the free market economy. State subsidies were phased out, prices freed, government spending cut and state businesses, housing, land and agriculture privatized. By 1994, some benefits of market reform were seen along with spiralling crime and corruption. A new constitution was adopted in 1993 with a new two-house parliament. Rights enshrined are free trade and competition, private ownership of land and property, freedom of conscience and free movement in and to of Russia, and bans censorship and torture. A flaw is that both the President and parliament can both make laws and effectively block each other. Conflict with the old guard communists was frequent. The Muslim republic of Chechnya declared independence in 1991 and refused Russian troops and influence, so Yeltsin invaded with poor results and withdrawal in 1996. In 1997, several oligarchs made a series of financial shenanigans and deals that were power grabs. After economic collapse in 1998, the middle class, mostly paid in untaxed dollars, found that, with the rouble devalued by 2/3s, their income had effectively tripled. Consumer spending boomed and imported goods were replaced by high-quality local ones. After a series of bombs in Moscow in 1999, Russia bombed Chechnya in the second Chechyan war.
Putin. Yeltsin’s appointed successor, Putin was elected president in 2000 and boosted military spending, reestablished Dremlin control over the regions, and cracked down on critical media. Russians liked the strong state power. Reelected in 2004, the economy was strong on the bock of oil revenue. Several oligarchs fled or were jailed. War in Georgia and Ukrainian threats to join NATO produced threats to cut gas supplies. Medvedev was elected President, and Putin Prime Minister in 2008. Putin has created a Soviet style personality cult, democracy has been castrated, homophobia rains, dissent is punished by jail terms or death, and the economy is almost totally dependent on oil revenue. Moscow has more billionaires than any other city, but the average Russian makes only $630/month. Corruption is rife with bribes and kickbacks controlling the economy. Russia has 7-10 million immigrants, most from the Caucasus or former Soviet republics in Central Asia prompting Russian nationalism. Putin was reelected president (and Medvedev Prime Minister) in 2012. By 2014, the Russian economy has slowed considerably. With Ukraine threatening to join the European Union, Russia invaded and took control of Crimea and through the summer supported Russian sympathetic dissidents in Eastern Ukraine. The West has imposed progressive sanctions.
Books on Russia
Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak. A rich novel spanning events from tsarist Russia to the birth of the Soviet Union.
Peter the Great, His Life and World – Robert Massie
Prince of the Princes – Simon Sebag Montefirore. The life of Grigory Potemkin, lover of Catherine the Great
Catherine, Empress of all the Russias – Vincent Cronin. A sympathetic portrait rather than as a scheming, power crazed sexpot.
A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790) – Aleksandr Radishchev. A passionate attack on serfdom.
1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow – Adam Zamoyski.
War and Peace – Tolstoi. About the recovery after the Napoleonic wars.
East of the Sun – Benson Bobrick. The conquest of Siberia.
To Kill Rasputin – Andrew Cook.
A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 – Orlando Figes. Vivid picture.
Gulag: A History – Anne Applebaum. Won the Pulitizer Prize.
Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar, Young Stalin – Simon Sebaf
Finland Station (1940) – Edmund Wilson. Recounts the development of socialism and communism in Russia.
Red Plenty – Francis Spufford. Part novel, part social history focuses on real people in the 50s and 60s.
The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad – Harrison Salisbury. Harrowing account.
Stalingrad – Antony Beevor
Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia – Catherine Merridale. Enthralling read oolong at its bleak recent history through psychology and philosophy.
Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan. 1979-1989 – Rodric Braithwaite.
Robert Service has written celebrated biographies of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky plus the Penguin History of Russia, from Nicholas II to Putin.
Yeltsin: A Life – Timothy J Cotton. A sympathetic look.
Putin’s Russia – Anna Politkovskaya. A searing indictment of the country and its leaders from a fearless journalist who was murdered in 2006.
The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia – David Hoffman. The rise and fall of the robber barons.
Russia History – Masha Holl.
Russia and the Russians – Geoffrey Hosking. Definitive one volume of 1000 years of Russian history.
A History of Russia – Nicholas Riasanovky. One of the best through to the end of the Soviet Union.
Russia: A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East – Martin Sixsmith. A very readable sweep of Russia’s history and a 50-part radio series for BBC.
Inside Putin’s Russia: Can There Be Reform without Democracy? – Andrew Jack, the Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times.
A Taste of Russia – Darra Goldstein. 200 recipes and essays on local food culture.
Running with Reindeer – Roger Took. Vivid account of travel in Kola Peninsula and wildlife there.
The Russian Far East: A Reference Guide for Conservation and Development. Presents work by 90 specialists from Russia, UK and US.
www.soviethistory.org – covers in fascinating detail.
www.fusskdlymir.ru – created by the Russian government in 2007 to preserve and promote Russian language and culture through out the world.
http://atethepaint.blogspot.ca Mission to Moscow – the blog of a Canadian teacher in Moscow, a funny list of 50 facts about Russians.
www.undp.ru A UN Development Programme on issues such as poverty, AIDS and democratic governance.
http://country-studies.com/russia A series of essays on many aspects of Russian life.
forest.ru Background and current info on Russian forests.
THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE
Despite dozens of nationalities, some characteristics are common across Russia. Initially uncooperative and guarded, once friends, Russians are very generous, especially outside the cities. Unsmiling gloom is used as a foil to a deadpan, sarcastic humour. Deeply patriotic, they still point out its failures, perplex foreigners and tend to be racist.
Modern life features Soviet-era flats (most built in the 50s and 60s; dilapidated on the outside, but cosy though cramped on the inside), the dacha (country home owned by one-third), and weekly visits to the banya. Lifestyle has improved but the Soviet social safety net is gone causing hardship on the elderly and poor.
Education. Literacy rate 98%. Teachers are the worst bribe-takers, higher education is the most corrupt sphere with bribes taken for admission to universities, exams and degrees, even corruption in kindergartens and preschools is common.
Multiethnic Russia. Awareness of ethnic ‘national’ identities is theoretical but the drawing of ethnic boundaries was designed to make each of the groups dependent on the Soviet state for their very identity. Most native peoples have adopted Russian dress and diet. Increased nationalism, xenophobia and racism are creating ethnic tensions. Under communism people were rarely allowed ti venture abroad, now they are doing it in droves, improving and broadening attitudes. Where ever I travel certain places have become Russian enclaves with menus and tours in Russian – Goa, Phuket, and Phang Na, Vietnam.
Tartars. Descended from the Mongol armies of Ghenghis Khan, they are the biggest minority. Mostly Muslim, most reside in the Tatarstan Republic (Kazan). Chuvash and Bashkirs. Turkic pre-Mongol settlers in the middle Volga region and the Muslim Bashkirs live in the Bashkortostan Republic. Others include the Finno-Ugric peoples in north/central Russia, 19 nationalities in the Caucasus, and 30 indigenous Siberian and Far East peoples.
Religion. Russia adopted Christianity in Kiev in 988. Atheism was promoted by the state in Soviet decades. Since 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church has been legally recognized as the leading faith and has resumed its profile role in public life, just as in tsarist days. There are also sizeable communities of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews and a constitution enshrining religious freedom.
Performing Arts and Music. Ballet started in 1738 in St Petersburg and in the 20th century produced a wealth of superstars. In the Soviet era, ballet enjoyed a privileged status with lavish productions and high performance standards. Many of the biggest stars defected. As the Soviet Union collapsed, feuds, loss of state subsidies, loss of dancers to the west and scandals have plagued theatres. Theater companies like the Bolshoi and Marlinsky have renovated. I tried to buy tickets in mid-July for mid-September and all tickets to Swan Lake were sold out. Tickets to operas were available. Tickets can be booked online and are expensive.
Classical Music. 1860-1900 was the defining period of Russian classical music with Glinka, the Group of Five – Mussorgskym, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Kui and Balakirev, and Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Stravinsky.
Opera. Classical opera was performed regularly in the Soviet period and continues to be popular.
Theater. In the Soviet period, it was popular as one of the few places where some freedom of expression was allowed. Today Moscow’s and St Petersburg’s theater scene is as lively as NewYork’s or London’s.
Circus. Still a highly popular form of entertainment, many cities have their own groups. Treatment of animals is less than humane.
LANDSCAPE AND ENVIRONMENT
13% of the world’s land mass, relatively flat, mountains relatively rare (highest in the Caucasas with 5642m Mt Elbrus, the highest in Europe, volcanoes in Kamchatka, 3 small ranges in South Siberia. Population is concentrated in central European Russia and along the Trans Siberian Railway. Beyond the Urals, only the western section is actually called Siberia. East of Amur is the Russian Far East.
Six of the world’s 20 longest rivers is in Russia – east-flowiing Amur (4416km), the north flowing Lena (4400), Yenisy (4090), Urttsg (4245), and Ob (3680). Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest and largest with one fifth of the world’s fresh water. Europe’s longest river, the Volga (3690km), rises NW of Moscow and flows into the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake.
The barren, flat tundra is most northerly extending from 60-420km south from the coast almost completely within the Arctic Circle. Permafrost as deep as 1450m prevents trees from growing and creates a spongy wetland in the summer. Animals: reindeer, lemmings, Arctic fox, wolf, seals, walrus, polar bears and whales. The taiga has vast, dense forest covering most of Siberia with 25% of the world’s wood reserves. The steppe (plain) is the flat or gently rolling band of low grassland, mostly treeless except along riverbanks. Much is humus-rich and good for grain cultivation. Poorer soil is good for sheep. The Volga delta is rich in flora and fauna especially birds. The alpine zone Caucasas has 600 plant species. Kamchatka’s volcanic activity produces rich soils, giant plants, isolated areas of year around high temperatures, increased salmon spawn, the biggest brown bears and 200 species of birds. Ussuriland, next to N Korea and Chiina has a unique monsoon forest, 1000km long spine of mountains next to the coast, forest with lush undergrowth, wolves, sables, Asian black bears, Amur leopard, and the Siberian or Amur tiger, the largest of all cats, up to 3.5m long. The 101 State Nature Reserves accounting for 6% of Russia, are short of funds but one is free to walk anywhere.
Oil and gas roads, railways and installations melt the permafrost and damage the delicate Arctic ecosystem. With fields in the Sea of Japan, Caspian and Baltic Seas, Russia has no sea oil-spill response programs in the country.
It is usually necessary to book a few days in advance in big cities. booking.com has some big discounts. Make bookings by email rather than phone to get a written reservation. Hotels will take your passport for 24 to register it.
B&B, Homestays, Serviced Apartments. Room in a private home give an authentic experience, clean but rarely large. Organized camp sites are rare and usually have small wooden cabins with no other space and poor facilities.
Hostels are common and of good quality in the big cities. Cost in Moscow is similar to other big world cities ($25-35). I booked mine through hostelworld.com and found excellent quality hostels.
Hotels usually don’t require reservations. Not all have genuine single rooms and charge for double occupancy. Hot water is fairly reliable. They run the gamut of quality and cost.
Resting Rooms. Found at all major train stations and a few bus stations, they provide basic, clean, single or double rooms rentable by the hour or day. Some require a train ticket.
Turbazy are outdoorsy holiday camps without indoor plumbing. Rest Houses are similar but usually more luxurious and demand is high. Sanatoriums have professional medical staff, design your diet and function like spas.
Electricity. 220 with European plug with two round pins.
MONEY. Exchange rates in July 2014 were for roubles were US$>35.09, Euro>47.44, British pound>59.93, Canadian$>32.68, Australian$>32.95. ATMs are very common and accept foreign cards. $US get the best exchange rates, as will Euros. Bring bills with no defects and US bills must be post-2006 with the large portraits. Carrying large amounts of cash is not the problem you might imagine with all the rich people. Exchanging money requires a long form and your passport. Travelers cheques may be difficult to exchange outside big cities.
PHOTOGRAPHY. Be careful photographing metro stations, official-looking buildings and any military structure.
POST OFFICES. Open from 8-8 with shorter hours on weekends. Outward post is reliable but slow – 3-4 weeks to NA. It may help to write the country name in Cyrillic. Incoming mail is very unreliable and must be written correctly in Cyrillic.
Scams. Be wary of police asking to see your papers or tickets at stations. Be polite but stand your ground. ATMs may have card readers so use ones in safe locations.
Street Crime is like any big city with pickpockets and street crime. Try not to look like a tourist. Don’t leave anything valuable in a car and hide things in your room.
Dangerous Regions. Avoid Chechnya, Dagestan.
Racism is a problem with Neo-Nazi and skinhead groups attacking Asians, Africans and Middle Eastern people. Beware Hitlers birthday (April 20).
To make a long distance call, dial 8, wait for a second dial tone, then dial the area code and number. To make an international call, dial 8 and wait for a second dial tone then dial 10, then the country code and number. Russian phone numbers change frequently so may be incorrect. Call centres may be a better deal for international calls than phone cards. Pay phones are common and take prepaid phone cards.
TOILETS. Men’s have an M, women’s, a Cyrilic letter.
TOURIST INFO. Offices are rare so one usually relies on hotel staff and travel agencies for information.
DISABLED TRAVELLERS are not well catered for but things are changing.
Getting around in Russia is easy thanks to a splendid train network and a full schedule of flights between all major and man minor towns and cities. In the summer many rivers and lakes have cruises and ferries. Buses and marshrutky (fixed-route minibuses) round out the menu. Distances can be huge though.
AIR. Flights can be delayed, often for hours, and with no or little explanation. Tickets can be bought online for the major airlines or at ubiquitous aviakassa (ticket offices). It is easier to book internal fights once inside Russia and prices may be lower. Tickets can also be purchased right up to flight time at the airport.
Most internal flights in Moscow use either Domadedovo or Vnukovo airports. If connecting to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo-2 international airport, allow a few hours to cross town.
WATER. From late May through mid-October, river cruises go on several routes: Moscow to St Petersburg and south along the Volga. Around St Petersburg are trips along the Neva River, in the Gulf of Finland to Petrodvorets, to Valaam on Lakes Ladoga, Onega, Petrozavodsk and Kizhi. Hydrofoils connect the Black Sea ports of Novorossiysk and Sochi. There is a short season in Siberia and the Russian Far East on the Ob, Irtysh, Lena and Yenisey Rivers, across Lake Baikal. Ferries and cargo ships sail from Vladivostok.
BUSES. Long distance buses complement rather than replace trains to serve areas with no or poor railway service. Usually tickets have a seat assignment. Storing luggage in the bus baggage compartment costs an extra 10%.
MARSHRUTKY (fixed-route minivans). Sometimes faster than buses and rarely cost more. Where roads are good and villages frequent, they can be twice as fast as buses and are well worth paying extra for.
CARS AND MOTORCYCLE. Erratic road quality, lack of adequate signposting, fine-seeking highway police and, in remote areas, the difficulty of obtaining petrol make driving in Russia a challenge and requires a sense of adventure. Spare parts for motorcycles may be difficult. To bring your own vehicle, you need your licence, vehicles registration papers, third-party insurance valid in Russia, and a customs declaration that you will take the vehicle with you when you leave. All documents should be translated into Russian.
To legally drive, you need to be over 18, have full driving licence, and an International Driving Permit with a Russian translation. If renting, consider hiring a driver. This can be a great deal with a group to share costs. You may find drivers outside bus stations who offer this service. You will have to pay return mileage.
Russian drivers often don’t signal, pass aggressively, often on the inside. Headlights are used at the last moment and headlights are not dipped. Driving is on the right, traffic coming from the right generally has right of way, children under 12 cannot ride in the front, and seat belts are mandatory. Motorcyclists must wear helmets.
The maximum legal blood alcohol content is 0.03%, a rule that is strictly enforced. Don’t drive through yellow lights. Russia’s traffic police (GEBDD or GAI) can issue on the spot fines and are notorious for speed traps. Permanent police checkpoints are at the boundary of many Russian regions, cities and towns. For serious infractions, police confiscate your licence. Get the shield number of the officer. They are not allowed to take money and fines are paid via Sberbank. In practice people bribe with half the fine to avoid Russian bureaucracy.
HITCHING. Is never entirely safe and not recommended though with small risk. However it may be the only way to get around in the countryside and remote areas and is commonly done. Signal by flagging with a low, up-and-down wave, not an extended thumb.
LOCAL TRANSPORT is cheap and easy to use, but you will need to decipher some Cyrillic.
Boat. In St Petersburg and Moscow and other cities on water, ferries and excursions give a different perspective.
Bus, Marshrutky, Trolleybus and Tram. A stop is usually marked by a roadside ‘A’ sign for buses, ’T’ for trolleybuses or a ’T’ hanging ove the road for trams. You will be charged extra if you have a large bag.
Metro. Excellent in St Petersburg and Moscow. Several other cities have smaller systems.
Taxi. Some Russian is required especially to get a lower fare. Official taxis (obtained by phone) are 25% more expensive than private taxis (hailed on the street, expect to negotiate the price). Avoid taxis outside foreign-run establishments due to cost, know the route, never get in with other people, keep fare in separate pocket, and trust your instincts.
www.seat61.com is a worldwide guide to train travel with a large general information section and a guide on how to navigate the Russian only RZD website.
Are generally comfortable and, depending on the class of travel, relatively inexpensive for the distance traveled. It is also a good way to connect with Russians. Every train in Russia has two numbers – even-numbered for eastbound and odd-numbered for westbound. Most are rarely speedy but are remarkably punctual – don’t be a minute late.
Bookings open 45 days before the date of departure. Buy well in advance over the busy summer months and holiday periods such as New Year and early May. Even if a particular service is sold out, speak to the chief provodnitsa. At the station, there are several lines generally with non-English-speaking staff. Especially if long queues, use the service centre to book your ticket for a small fee. In big cities, special offices away from the station sell tickets.
Classes of tickets:
1. SV/1st Class/soft class – the best, a two berth sleeping carriage, TVs, and plug-ins.
2. Kupe/2nd Class/hard class – four berth carriage, the standard and best class to buy, half the cost of SV, 60% more than Platskartny.
3. Platskartny/3rd Class – dorm carriage sleeping 54 with uncompartmentaliseed bunks. Despite the lack of privacy, it is deal for one-night journeys. In the summer are not as stuffy as a kupe. Many travellers (especially owmen, find platskart better if cooped up with three Russian men. It is a heat way to meet ordinary Russians. On multi day trips, the carriages resemble a refugee camp. Avoid seats 1-4, 33-38 and 53-54 found at each end and close to the toilets and samovar. 39-54 are bunks that convert to chairs and tables during the day.
4. Obshchiy – general or seating class. Cannot lay down.
Buying tickets online: rzd.ru – the Russian Train service. In Russian Cyrillic.
English services: www.bilet.ru, realrussia.co.uk, www.russianrails.com, trainsrussia.com/en/travels (tickets issued in Moscow office), and visitrussia.com.
The entire train service runs on Moscow time but suburban trains run on local time. Lonely planet has a good guide to decipher the timetable and ticket code and Cyrllic.
Long-distance Trains. These are skory poezd or fast trains. The best skory trains are named, e.g.. the Rossiya (the Moscow to Vladivostok service) and the Baikal (Moscow to Irkutsk). Called firmeny poezda, these trains have cleaner cars, politer attendants, more convenient arrival and departure hours, and fewer stops.
Trans-Siberian Railway. 9289km from Moscow to Vladivostok, over vast swaths of taiga, steppe and desert. By itself, it is not on a timetable but consists of 3 lines and multiple trains on each. For the first four days from Yaroslavky Station in Moscow, all follow the same route. Many travelers break the journey at Irkutsk to visit Lake Baikal, but otherwise continue around the bottom of the lake to Ulan-Ude. Here all the trains go their separate ways – the trans-Siberian to Vladivostok, the trans-Manchurian to Chita then SE to the Chinese border and the trans-Mongolian south for Ulaanbaatar and Beijing.
225/226 Murmansk-Adler. A north-south train that connects the Arctic Circle with the Black Sea over three days.
On the Journey. Small black-and white kilometre posts on the south side of the track mark the distance from Moscow. Russians have a knack for making themselves totally at home on trains and travel with plenty of luggage. Sleeping compartments are mixed, so short absences for clothing changes may be necessary. It is good manners to offer any food or drinks you bring to your fellow passengers in your compartment. Russians will always offer to share with you. Generally, Russians love speaking to foreigners and drinking with them as well.
There are no shower facilities. Every carriage has a samovar filled with boiling water. The quality of food in the dining cars varies widely. Rather than for eating, they become the place to hang out, drink beer and play cards. As borders are crossed, the dining cars change to those of that country. Trolleys with drinks and snacks troll the carriages. Shop for supplies at the stations. The choice is excellent.
A prigorodny poezd or suburban train links a city with its suburbs or groups of adjacent towns. Useful for day trips, they can be crowded, but do not need to be booked ahead of time.
LEFT LUGGAGE (Kamera khranenia). Present in most stations, but have opening and closing hours. The combination on the locker is set with one Russian letter and three numbers (write it down) on the inside of the locker door. Pay the attendant the fee.
Written in the Cyrillic alphabet, it is worth familiarizing yourself with it to be able to read maps, timetables, menus and street signs.