I haven’t watched a lot of the Football World Cup, currently in progress, but it’s been hard to avoid good news from travelling supporters and media that touring Russia has been an enjoyable experience and surprisingly almost, if not entirely, free of racist, far right, homophobic and state-legislated brutality (1). Obviously this is welcome, I’ve found the country to be enigmatic and intriguing with welcoming citizens generally happy to interact with few and far between foreigners. It’s almost enough to inspire another visit!
What I’ve encountered twice recently is a bureaucratic and painful visa process with high fees and fingerprints required. Obviously, I’m keen to reduce time and money spent, especially seeing as there doesn’t seem to be any reduction in the GBP 110 fee for children. A big loophole is the St Peter line ferry to enter St Petersburg from Helsinki. This gives 72 hours visa free, on the assumption you buy a bus tour from them – helpfully truncated in this case to a fifteen minute tour to the city centre from the port. This, intriguingly, leaves the rest of your time to your leisure.
Imperial orientation in St Petersburg
As the most European of Russia’s cities and with architecture more reminiscent of Vienna than a communist utopia, the Tsarist capital provides a decent starting point for 72 hours the country. It’s a guess, but a tourist bus would logically discharge passengers somewhere on Nevsky Prospect, an eight lane thoroughfare that connects all areas of interest including the Hermitage Gallery, an immense collection of mainly art, but also a good display of actually what happened in the revolution of 1917.
St Petersburg is largely accepted as the trigger point of the revolution, the immense Palace Square that the Hermitage sits on feels revolutionary and an emblem of the aristocratic Russia that persisted until the start of the 20th Century. Follow this up with a visit to the Aurora Cruiser, the battleship that fired the first shot of the revolution, via a walk around the canals with a stop at the onion domes of the Cathedral of Spilled Blood and that’s a full day to get to grips with the origins of societal change in Russia.
Moscow’s socialist theme park
A night in the Venice of the East then an early train to Moscow presents the opportunity to see how things ended up. A poetic start would be Red Square with the embalmed remains of VI Lenin, father of the revolution. That he is encased in a mausoleum in a massive square overlooked by an immense presidential palace, the Kremlin, replete with turrets, should be some indication that equality was never the grand outcome of the revolution. At best, it could be said the Russians landed at a state with strong rule to guarantee stability rather than any sort of plurality.
Sustenance is probably in order for a tour of this political magnitude. I betrayed any sort of egalitarian principles by tucking into Salmon, Caviar with sour cream on blinis at Bosco Cafe, housed in state department store-cum-exclusive mall GUM. Bosco has a view over the famous onion domes of St Basils and the expanse of Red Square. I have since discovered Cafe Dr Zhivago, outside Red Square and overlooking the Bolshoi Theatre. It does classic Russian dishes big on ostentation and decor, though any Western wine is over fifty GBP a bottle. Try Crimean wine for a flavour not subject to embargo.
The ferry from Helsinki to St Petersburg takes somewhere between 11 and 13 hours and, helpfully, goes overnight with a 1900 departure in either direction. It leaves each port every other day, so you actually won’t get a full 72 hours, but a good-as three full days. The schedule I describe includes a day, an evening and a night in each city.
Until fairly recently train between the two cities was overnight or a full day, though the purchase of German high speed train technology means Sapsan trains can do this in a fraction under four hours. My disclaimer is I haven’t actually been on one before, though I have been on Russian trains and the German ICE trains they replicate and it’s as comfortable as it gets.
The contentious point here is I don’t know how legitimate this is. The 72 hours visa free arrangement is targeted at cruise, rather than ferry, passengers who tend to be highly chaperoned for a limited period. I’m not sure that hot footing it to Moscow is part of the Russian police’s expected itinerary and it would cause surprise. Indeed, whilst trying to be a bit smart with a 72 hours visa free opportunity in China recently I was woken by four policeman at my door to check papers. It might be a loophole, rather than what Russian security actually wants, and an odd papers request in Moscow, for skipping across a road, could end up in a whole world of trouble.
(1) For the avoidance of any ambiguity, I’m confident in asserting the Russian state has full control over mass unsavoury illiberal behaviour in the country, whether this be fascism, fascism, homophobia, hooliganism or terrorism. The fact the World Cup has passed with perception of such tranquility is therefore unsurprising. This doesn’t mean that your typical Russian citizen doesn’t welcome foreign tourists genuinely, though, nor is the country inherently shut. Both parts to this apparent dichotomy are true in my experience. Why does the first exist in face of the second though? I’d say it’s a fairly well established pattern of divide and rule to retain absolute control of the country. Like I mentioned when I wrote about Iran, there is risk for tourists in minority cases and this rightly will see demand drop. Unlike Iran, a more common culture with the West, history of attempts at pluralism and this very event in progress might mean this regime is closer to change, in terms of travel at least.