Two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russia remains an exotic destination, even for the international travel-happy. I know many more people who have been to Thailand or Cambodia … And this was before Snowden decided to hole up at Sheremetyevo airport.
A typical reaction when hearing we just got back from Moscow and St. Petersburg: Really. [long pause] How was that? Also quite a few questions about how the people were. But my favorite reaction may have been this one: Of exotic destinations like Russia or China, China’s high on my list …. Russia isn’t really.
How sad, because Russia is a fascinating country with rich history and culture, magnificent art, amazing natural resources … Maybe all the spy novels I read, while rarely set in Russia, piqued my curiosity. Then there’s Tolstoy and the lure of white nights in St. Petersburg. So I’m not sure why Russia isn’t a more popular travel destination.
But they don’t make it easy to visit. There are definitely barriers:
The visa application is cumbersome and complicated to say the least. You have to list every country you’ve visited in the last 10 years, along with the dates. And – very holdover from Cold War – you need an invitation from a Russian organization. These days, it just means one more person to pay off.
It’s expensive, even for a major international city. Wine is prohibitively expensive, as are gin drinks. On the other hand, they have terrific vodka …
It’s very difficult to get around on your own, especially is you don’t speak Russian. I personally hate the guided tour. I want to get out and explore, bum around and find my own way. In Russia, that wasn’t really possible. For a museum like the Hermitage, we would have been completely lost and overwhelmed on our own. And Kremlin tickets would be well-nigh impossible, since there’s a limited number allotted per day. Then again, there’s the system and getting around the system. With a tour guide, we were able to cut the line almost anywhere, including the crown jewels. It was very Russian of us.
And sadly, that’s the underlying theme. Where some places vibrate with entrepreneurialism or capitalism (think: China where everyone is hustling to get ahead and “make it”), Russia seemed to be in a malaise, somehow stuck in a rut. It seemed still post-Soviet, in a weird economic holding pattern and funk. Probably any drive or initiative has been beaten out of them, quite literally, observed a friend.