In the UK, Russia is best known as the nation that brought us vodka, crazy YouTube videos, and the war in Ukraine. It’s a country that boasts a significant presence in current events and popular culture — enough for its president to have become a household name — and yet in spite of that it’s also somewhere that’s very poorly understood by those at home. It certainly isn’t a popular tourist destination; plenty of people visit Europe, America, even South East Asia, but nobody really goes to Russia. For us, it was precisely that element of mystery that engaged our curiosity.
When you’re used to travelling within Europe, getting to Russia might seem a little complicated. Before you can apply for a tourist visa you need an invitation, which can be provided by your hotel or by an accredited tourist agency (for a fee). The visa application itself can be completed online and requires a fairly comprehensive account of the other countries that you’ve visited, your work and education history, and so on. Finally you need to visit the visa application centre in London — open only on weekdays during regular office hours — to provide a set of fingerprints. On top of the effort involved, you’ll also need to pay out something in the region of £100 per person for the visa itself, including processing fees.
Our itinerary was brief and simple: three nights in St Petersburg, a high speed train to Moscow, and then three more nights there.
On arriving in St Petersburg, we discovered a city that felt more European than Russian (based, at least, on my own idea of what ‘Russian’ would be like). This shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise; as the newly constructed capital of Imperial Russia during its most Europe-facing era, St Petersburg was built with every intention of being a grand European capital. The city is flush with parks and canals, baroque palaces and majestic theatres. A lack of investment in recent decades has left many areas of the city a little rough around the edges, however its tourist hubs and major roads feel as clean and modern as any in Western Europe.
While we didn’t encounter the same level of casual wealth that we’d later find in Moscow, St Petersburg provides plenty of insights into the opulence of the country’s imperial past. The city’s outskirts are littered with immense palaces built by the Tsars and their families, each more extravagant than the last. For a country that continued to enforce serfdom until well into the 19th century, these vast estates are a stark reminder of the wealth divide that was responsible for much of the turmoil that followed.
Unfortunately, many of these grand palaces were plundered during the Second World War when Nazi troops advanced deep into Russia’s heartland and laid siege to St Petersburg (known then as Leningrad). The Catherine Palace, above, was burned down to an empty shell during the German retreat. What we see now is the result of a herculean and still ongoing restoration effort.
Away from the glittering palaces, not everything is quite so golden. We never encountered outright poverty, but as we travelled further from the city centre signs of neglect became more apparent: a building in poor state of repair, or a car discarded with flat tires and a tide of rust flooding across its paintwork. On more than one occasion we caught sight of suspicious characters passing unmarked bags in the street. At no time did we ever feel threatened or in danger, but it was certainly clear that the city’s familiar Western façade belies quite a different experience for those who actually call this country home.
Despite the size of its population (the 4th largest in Europe apparently), St Petersburg never really seemed busy. This is a city that was built to service a grand vision, only to be later set aside without the resources needed to fulfil it. In effect, St Petersburg feels like a city that, 300 years later, still hasn’t grown into the vast shoes it was meant to fill.
Moscow, by contrast, feels like a city that is struggling to cope with the pace of its own development. The moment you arrive, it’s immediately clear that there’s a great deal of money being funnelled into the city. Moscow’s roads are clogged with large, expensive cars, and in every direction you look, cranes and scaffolds reveal construction and renovation on a massive scale. Where St Petersburg felt preserved like a monument to a past era, Moscow is practically falling over itself in its race to expand, tear down, and build anew. They say that since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has experienced 100 years of development in only 24 years. Having visited Moscow, I can certainly believe it.
What surprised me most about Moscow was how little it resembled the images of Soviet Russia that I’d constructed in my head. I’d expected St Petersburg to be relatively European but Moscow, I had told myself, would be quite different. In practice, this didn’t really hold true; modern Moscow is a vast metropolis on a fast track towards globalisation. It’s a city where you can walk for miles, and still feel like you’re right in the centre. However, it doesn’t really feel as foreign as I’d expected. Outside of iconic tourist areas such as Red Square, Moscow feels much like any other city of its size.
That’s not to say that the city’s Soviet history wasn’t evident; the iconic hammer and sickle can still be found on many a sculpture or government building, and Soviet architecture continues to dominate much of the city. Moscow makes no attempt to hide that era of its past, but nor does it seem to celebrate it in the same way that St Petersburg does its Imperial years. In characteristic Russian fashion, it’s simply there.
One attribute that the two cities certainly do share is their penchant for exhibitionism. Where St Petersburg sought to awe its European rivals with the scale and extravagance of its palaces, Moscow too is a city that’s out to impress. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the city’s extensive (and surprisingly efficient) metro system. An immense public work built as a showcase of the communist party’s vision, Moscow’s metro stations resemble underground palaces. They come complete with lavish frescoes and chandeliers alongside sculptures celebrating the party’s socialist ideals. After the plain white walls and relative sparseness of the London Underground, it’s difficult not to be impressed.
By far the biggest obstacle that we encountered on our journey was the language barrier. While some of the younger generation possess very good English, most adults we came across spoke little more English than we did Russian. This was further complicated by the fact that most signage was written only in Cyrillic, even in tourist areas. When you can’t read the signs and nobody speaks your language, simple tasks like catching a bus suddenly become surprisingly difficult! Thankfully, almost everyone who we met showed incredible patience and friendliness. Passers-by would happily stop you in the street and offer assistance, in their best sign language, if they thought you might be lost. Despite our cluelessness, not once did anyone show the slightest bit of irritation towards us. I can only hope that the same might be true over here.
One person we spoke to made a particular impression on us — a young man called Alex who we met in a St Petersburg café. Alex is young and intelligent, with a passion for the arts. He described his disillusionment with the government and what he saw as closed-mindedness among the Russian old guard. Military service remains compulsory for young Russians, and while the country is not officially involved in the conflict Alex fears that if called up he could be sent to fight in Ukraine, a cause that he does not support. Thankfully, Alex has a plan — he hopes to save enough money to buy a medical certificate exempting him from service.
“This is Russia,” he tells us. “Everything can be bought here.”
We discuss travel, and Alex is interested to hear about our experiences in Russia. He tells us that he would like to visit the UK one day, although he doesn’t think he will be able to afford it. Visiting Europe isn’t too difficult, but for a Russian citizen getting a tourist visa to the UK or the US can pose a significant challenge. Some of Alex’s friends have had their applications rejected despite multiple attempts. Successfully getting a visa, he tells us, requires “many money”. It strikes me just how much Alex has in common with us, and yet the difficulties that he faces simply to achieve things that we take for granted are staggering.
Perhaps the most enlightening story Alex told us was about the friends he has outside of the country. Many of them moved away when they were very young, their mothers marrying rich Americans or Europeans in the hopes of finding a better life for themselves or their families. As we listen, we realise that we’re hearing about the same Russian brides that tend to be thought of with a sort of mild amusement or cynicism from the other side of the fence. It’s clear however that to those involved, this is far from a laughing matter.
As much as we learned on our travels, I’m certain that life outside of Russia’s two largest cities must be very different again. Looking out onto the countryside from the new Sapsan bullet train (which is fantastic by the way), I couldn’t help but realise just how big Russia really is. This is the largest country in the world by a gargantuan margin, spanning 11 different time zones and stretching from Europe’s doorstep in the West all the way to the Pacific Ocean in the East. The tiny fraction that we saw barely even begins to scratch the surface. In many ways, it only reinforced how little we knew about this vast, fascinating country and the incredible people who live here.
As ever, there is simply so much more to see.