To Russia With Love

Diogenes's picture

The Reluctant Traveler (TRT) returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia not so recently. It is time to file a report.

TRT has never dreamed of going to Russia, except maybe in those fitful dreams where one is frantically on the run from some kind of monster metaphor. It is the land of Putin dodgy dictators, the KGB cops who are more feared than the criminals, rigged elections, and mysterious billionaire oligarchs. It reminds me of Canada.

But this adventure all began some time ago when MLW watched a YouTube video of a famous Russian folk song by a 90's rock band...

She was so moved by what she could not understand that she decided it was time to resume learning Russian, an interest she had first taken up at the age of 12. Now she is off to St. Petersburg for three weeks of immersion in the Russian language and culture.  Veerd, eh?.

MLW is an intrepid traveler. Packaged tours are out of the

question. You make your own map, learn the language and live with the locals. TRT, on the other hand, is quite content watching these kinds of things on the Discovery Channel.  Compromises are inevitable. So TRT agreed to join up for a week at the tail end for some good old fashioned reluctant tourism.

More compromises -- we used a travel visa service provider to get our Russian tourist visas.  You can attempt this yourself, but there are side effects: high blood pressure, frustration, and a feeling of total helplessness.

We discovered there are two kinds of Russian tourist visa applications. The first is reasonably simple and may be used by about 95% of all countries in the world.

The second is for certain select countries which, in this context, is an official Russian word for asshole. Select countries include:

  1. Britain - where there are laws about preparing afternoon tea with Polonium 210 that some Russians do not understand.
  2. United States of America - which is a world beater in this league.
  3. Canada - where Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister.

A select country visa application requires more information than is relevant, and has impossible instructions on how to complete a form that doesn't have the room for the information requested.  There are Yes/No checkboxes that you must be careful with. "Have you stopped beating your wife" was not one of them, but it could be.

It was also required to obtain a written invitation to stay as a guest in the city you are planning to visit, and to register with the authorities once you get there. If another city is on the itinerary, the whole process is repeated.

One might get the impression that Russia hates tourists but that would be wrong.  The hotels and tour operators will do this service for you for a reasonable price. Actually Russia loves the tourism industry. The government has provided many rules, regulations and other inconveniences so that the locals and the expats around the world, who are used to dealing with this kind of nonsense, can offer their many excellent services.

The St. Petersburg airport is, uh, rather retro looking. A new one is scheduled for 2014.  There were about 8 lines to choose from at Border Control, a pleasant change from Chicago, where they shout at you if you try to choose the best queue.  The total wait was about 45 minutes, which was also faster than in Chicago O'Hare.

What was rather curious was there was no special queue for those holding Russian passports; everybody was treated with the same level of suspicion. The Americans in front of me were chatting with a youthful Russian who spoke good english and was returning from a fashion event in Italy. The old guy asked why they didn't have separate queues for Russian citizens and remarked how strange it was.

The Russian just smiled and shrugged. Then the old guy and his wife had their turn with the border guard. After a longish conversation, he came back and announced to the rest of their travel companions that they all needed to fill out the form that was handed out in the plane prior to landing.

Woo-hoo, a break, the path had been cleared!

The border guard (BG) said nothing to me  I remained silent in return. The only Russian that I had really mastered (with much help from MLW) was "Ide k chortu", which means go to hell. I figured that was the best way to fit in with the locals. When I told MLW that, she made me promise that i wouldn't use that phrase until i had at least cleared customs.

BG busied himself doing things that i could not see.  i noticed later that he had copied, from page 1 to page 2, some of the information that i had missed. i is not great with forms that require duplicate groups of block letters.

Page 1 on this particular form is the same as page 2 but you have to manually complete both pages. The border guards tears it apart, keeps page 1 and hands you page 2 (with a stamp).

"You, the tourist, are to carry this with you at all times. It is especially important to have this document when you leave Russia. Oh, by the way, welcome to Russia!"

Ha-ha -- actually, the BG didn't say anything at all, but TRT knew exactly what he was thinking. TRT smiled. Damn it all, it was worth the risk too --cleared customs without an issue.

A good thing about the 45 minute lineup was that the luggage was ready for pickup, lying on the floor exactly where they yanked it off the carousel before they shut the carousel off. 

MLW was in the lobby waiting, and Alexander, an engineer who moonlights as a cabbie, was waiting in the parking lot with his car.

On Google Earth, St. Petersburg is just 6° south of the arctic circle. My expectations were smaller than my pecker would be should I ever decide to go wading into the North Sea on New Years Day -- which is a big event in The Hague. Last year some 10,000 registered (sold out). It is sponsored by a sausage company. I am not making this up. I digress.

Since I had refused to look at the tourist guidebook that was purchased for this trip, it was much to my surprise to discover that St. Petersburg rivals Paris for beauty and splendor.

St. Petersburg is BIG -- 5 million people. From the view of the window seat on the plane, TRT was in awe of the green countryside outside of St. Petersburg and the numerous large apartment blocks as we circled to land. The drive from the airport to the center was a good 45 minutes; Russians pride themselves in being aggressive drivers and Alexander is a proud Russian.

The drive to our hotel, where the view from the car window is much more revealing, offered a landscape of a large metropolis.

There are many vehicles of many kinds on freeways that are fast. You whiz by old and new, yuck and wow, with all kinds of combinations and variations.

Our first hotel, a one night stand, was about a 4 km from the heart of the city, which is a large square in front of the Hermitage, formerly known as the Winter Palace.

St. Petersberg has many palaces and some impressive churches.

The history is fascinating. Peter the Great, the patriarch of the city, as a child witnessed the brutal murder of his parents as they were being "deposed".  Peter's life was spared - what can a child do?


Since the X-Box game console had not been invented yet, Pete-the-boy, as he was known at that stage of his career, had to content himself constructing an army with play soldiers. They eventually became the elite palace guard. 

After high school, Peter had on a gap year, (or two) which is still the fashion with kids these days. He traveled Europe and apprenticed as a student, a shoe maker, and a ship builder amongst other capricious pursuits.

Impressed by the canals and ships in Amsterdam, the architecture of Rome and Paris, and the schools of Oxford, he returned to Russia, deposed his half sister and offered many of the master craftsmen of Europe  a commission that was hard to refuse.

"Huge tracts of land to build a palace or two, serfs to build it, and open invitations to all the parties in the palaces I want YOU to build for me. Whadda ya say?" Thus the great city of St. Petersburg was born.

It was a pretty good gig until the serfs caught on, circa 1917.

Next dispatch:  The Palaces of St. Petersburg