Parts of this article may explain why we skipped Russia on our Europe road trip, even though we got within a few kilometres of its border – A question many fine folks have asked us. Enjoy! 😉
We went to Russia in April 2016. Anyone in the know will tell you what a terrible idea that was. April is widely considered the worst time to visit Russia. The snow-capped beauty of winter has passed, leaving only slushy grey remains. The ethereal wonder of summer’s white nights are still months away. Rain is frequent. Easy jet offered cheap frequent flights from London to Moscow right up until the preceding March. Then they cut the route, leaving only non-direct, more expensive routes. We still went to Russia in April, and we even managed to convince three of our close friends to come with us.
Step 1) Getting a visa
Sometimes, you can have an authentic cultural experience just by starting a visa application.
When my brother first went to India, he was given an appointment at the Indian embassy in London weeks in advance. He travelled to London, only to find the embassy was closed for a national holiday. A crowd of irritated people stood around the closed doors, demanding to know why the embassy has purposefully booked appointments in for that day, knowing they would be closed!
My brother was infuriated. Our parents were delighted.
“You haven’t even been to India yet, and you’re already having an authentic Indian experience! Lucky!”
The process for obtaining a Russian visa appears to be carefully designed to remind The Applicant just how insignificant they are in the face of Big Bureaucracy.
First, the paperwork. A weighty form must be filled out online before you can even visit the embassy. It’s worth remembering that a Russian citizen produced War and Peace, the thousand page plus rendition of life during the Napoleonic Wars. Holding that thought in mind during the visa process might help you maintain some perspective during the endless, but only slightly differentiated questions, and you might last that little bit longer before flinging your hands in the air shouting “Why?! Why could you possibly need to know that!?”
Once the Russian Federation is privy to all your personal information you can drop by the embassy.
There is no appointment system; rather, you are given a ticket when you arrive and ushered into a bland waiting room, filled with plastic chairs. Once you’ve passed through security inspections, under the watchful eye of armed guards, that is.
It almost goes without saying the embassy is only open on a 9-5 basis, Monday to Friday. And that they close for 2 hours every lunch time, God forbid someone should try to fit in a visit around their full time job. If I was to write a new slogan for the Russian embassy it would be:
“Bureaucracy will not be silenced, subjugated or rendered convenient to the masses. Bureaucracy will always prevail.”
Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the embassy doesn’t have a slogan. I might suggest that to them.
So we go to London on a grey Monday morning, collect our tickets from the unsmiling armed guard and commence sitting quietly.
“It’s like dystopian Argos,” my friend Susannah whispered in my ear while we waited.
After half an hour or so in the embassy, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, to see the man behind me squirming in his seat.
“How long have you been here?”
His already worried expression fell even further when I admitted that I only arrived half an hour ago.
“I’ve been here for 3 hours”, he muttered, looking all around him as he spoke in a furtive whisper. “And they won’t tell me why!”
In the end, our group was in and out before this poor guy. For all we know, he’s still in Russian purgatory now.
I was called to the counter after about an hour, to have a stern Russian lady silently inspect my papers. Giving no indication as to whether I would actually be granted a visa, she broke the silence to request payment.
“Cost is £100”.
“Ohh umm…” I tried to assert myself. “Your website said £50?”
“£50 for visa. £50 processing fee. Cash or card?”
I handed over my passport and paid up, still unsure if my application would be approved or not, and slightly concerned I would never see my passport again.
Step 2) Arriving in Russia
We landed in Moscow on the last flight of the day, clutching our passports freshly stamped with overpriced visas. Sour-faced passport control staff slowly inspected our documents before closing the border for the night.
Fortunately enough, Morgan has friends who live in Moscow, and two of them had volunteered to pick us up at the airport at 2am. The five of us piled into their two cars, sleepy, confused and profoundly grateful. Skidding out of the airport at breakneck speed, our driver turned around and asked in true Russian fashion
“So, Comrades. Why you come to this shit-hole?”
“Because… we really enjoyed the Russian history we studied for our A Levels? And we like vodka?”
True as those statements were, I don’t think it cleared up his question. The poor fellow continued to look slightly perplexed as we sped past Soviet grey apartment blocks towards the city centre.
When we checked into our hostel, the reaction was eerily similar. As we handed over our passports, the sleepy receptionist just couldn’t get over our nationality.
“You’re… British? You live in England? Wow. Wow, England huh?”
He looked at our British passports with something strangely close to respect, mixed with a healthy dose of incredulity at the seemingly massive fail we’d made by picking Russia as our holiday destination, compared to anywhere else in the world.
I could almost hear his mind whirring as he tried to understand why anyone who lived in England would come to Russia, for fun. I’d been to plenty of places where the locals were curious about my motives for visiting. But I’d never seen this level of confused disbelief before, never talked to people who thought we were downright idiots for visiting their country. This would be a theme throughout our trip, locals overhearing us speaking English, asking where we were from then acting really disproportionately impressed. A group of teenage girls on the escalator in the metro looked as if they couldn’t believe their luck, giggling and muttering to each other. Our Russian comrade immediately snorted and translated to us: “cute English man!” Some definite eyelash fluttering went on during that uncomfortably long metro ride.
Step 3) Blending in with the locals
We were warned about the differences between Russian social norms and British socials norms right at the start.
“You’re smiling at people. Stop that.” Morgan’s friend Vlad was trying desperately to help us blend in. Another friend explained
“Russians only smile in three situations: If you’re drunk, crazy, or in love. Best if you just don’t smile.”
We made our attempts to stop smiling at strangers, and also gave up making eye contact for safe measure. This worked well until we needed to interact with people. Wanting a snack lead to my biggest social faux par in St Petersburg, away from the safety of our Muscovite comrades. I still don’t entirely understand how it went so wrong.
Spying a small snack booth, I walked over, smiling and making eye contact with the proprietor.*
“Can I have some crisps please?”
I was greeted with a blank stare and a slight grunt from the large, bear-like woman.
“Umm, crisps Please?” I say again, pointing at the large & varied crisp display guarded by the formidable shop keeper.
“Chips?” she growled.
“Yes! Chips please” was my overly enthusiastic response, now both nodding and smiling, having forgotten all my lessons from earlier in the week.**
Still scowling, she grabbed a red packet of crisps and chucked it down on the counter.
“Err actually, could I have the blue one please?” I point at the sour cream flavour crisps with renewed vigour.
Sighing and scowling, she turned around again, picked up a different red packet of crisps, and dumped them in front of me.
“Umm, no, I actually meant the blue one… please?” I plead, deliberately pointing at Morgan’s blue jacket so theatrically that I’m in danger of taking his eye out.***
The shop keeper dumps a third packet of red crisps on the counter, her brutal facial expression now slightly alarming.
I’m fairly confused now, but not confused enough to buy the only Soviet-approved red crisps (ie plain salted, the worst flavour in the world). One last bout of pointing, with me now standing on my toes and practically leaning into her booth, and finally she reaches for the blue packet. I suddenly sport a big un-Russian grin, dig out exact change to give her, offer my thanks, and walk away.
“Hmm, they look good… And I’m pretty hungry now too…” considered my friend Robin, a few minutes later.
He walked back to the booth and very politely asked for some chips.****
The shop-keeper barely let him finish his sentence before booming “NO” and slamming shut the booth hatch. I felt that was 90% my fault.
* On reflection, I may have figured out where I went wrong.
** This was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back, also known as “one smile too many.”
*** I also hadn’t considered the symbolism of declining the clearly communist red crisps in favour of the decidedly capitalist blue crisps. (even blue jeans were banned under Soviet law!)
**** Poor guy never stood a chance. He wasn’t even smiling, and he would have accepted any flavour she threw at him.
Step 4) Surviving a minor security incident at the Kremlin
One cool, unusual thing about the Kremlin; it’s both the seat of government in Russia and a tourist hot spot containing museums and churches. You pay an entry fee, walk over a bridge and through some metal detectors and you’re free to explore inside the Kremlin.
Well, kinda free. In the sense that armed guards are constantly watching you, and if you put a foot wrong they’ll be all over you like a ton of bricks.
Morgan likes taking photos. There’s a pretty nice view of Moscow over the edge of the Kremlin. In his efforts to frame the photo, Morgan stepped over a very puny chain link fence separating the pavement from an exceptionally wide road. This was not a public road, as we later deduced; it was the path of visiting dignitaries being driven to top-secret meetings. Ominous back cars, complete with tinted windows and miniature flags on the bonnets periodically glided past us, watched over by stony-faced security guards.
Of course, a particularly important car was on its way as Morgan tried to take his photo.
Those of us posing for the photo were suddenly aware of a dark rushing figure, hurtling towards us.
The group barely had time to offer a vague warning of “err…. Morgan…” before he was being tackled. The guard had grabbed him, and was shoving him bodily over the low chain link fence, whilst yelling something in Russian. Morgan was trying his best to step back over the fence, which is actually quite tricky when you’re being pushed over head first. As soon as he’d stumbled onto the other side, the guard let go of him, and spun around to attention. Giving his best “I have dealt with the rogue element sir” salute, the young guard walked back to his post as a sleek limousine eventually drove very slowly past, a good 10 metres from where Morgan had been standing.
And business resumed in the Kremlin that day.
Step 5) Avoid drinking vodka with Russians
There are no winners in the land of 80 pence double vodka shots. Especially if you are just casually killing time before a pre-booked 1am sleeper train to St Petersburg. Instead of going to a bar, consider just… going to the train station early and sitting quietly. Sure, drinking vodka in Russia could be considered a cultural experience, but probably not the good kind!
Waking up on a moving train, with no idea what time it is or how you got there, and seeing this view out the window:
…is mildly alarming.
And once you’ve confirmed that you’ve not been shipped off to the middle of Siberia, suddenly rumours sprout out that a train station security guard was accidentally bribed, and that someone sat on you in the middle of the night. Great!
So, after all this, should you plan a holiday to Russia?
Definitely! Exploring Moscow and St Petersburg was incredible, and reading War and Peace on a sleeper train was a massive tick on my bucket list. Here are some other cool things we actually recommend you do in Russia:
- You can visit Lenin’s embalmed corpse, displayed in his mausoleum in Red Square. On a rainy day in April there was no queue to see the venerated leader of the revolution, so we went round twice like it was a gloomy fair-ground ride. Also at some point since 1924 Russia has built a massive fuck-off shopping mall right opposite Lenin’s tomb! You can imagine him spinning in his grave as you wonder past the rows of perfectly pink designer shops.
- St Basils Cathedral in Red Square. You know – the colourful onion domes right out of a cartoon? Catching my first glimpse of these iconic baubles was breathtaking, and seeing the inside was downright fascinating, making us hungry to explore more central Asian cultures. The beautifully named “Church on Spilled Blood” in St Petersburg also has very similar styling, but with a less gaudy colour scheme.
- Syrniki, Cottage cheese & jam pancakes. Forget everything you think you know about cottage cheese. These sweet gooey pancakes will shatter your world.
- Burger king stays open late and will happily serve you a beer AND syrniki.
- Segways. It is scientifically impossible to be sad on a segway. Even if you manage to walk around the entire perimeter of the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums) trying to find the entrance in the cold drizzle before you realise it’s closed for the entire day. No matter how despondent this makes you, just rent a segway and ride joyful circles around palace square to lift your mood and your hangover. Just like the Romanovs used to do.
- Russians are generally amazing hosts.
- We didn’t get to step foot in Siberia on our trip, but if you fancy a peaceful break in the middle of nowhere, we’ve been told it’s really lovely. And there are endless amounts of nice country-houses out there.
- The Rouble is weak at the minute, making Russia a very cheap holiday. Go now!
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