8 Things That Surprised Me About Russia

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To be perfectly honest, Russia was never high up on my travel bucket list. It's one of those countries that I assumed I would visit eventually, but that I wasn't actively dreaming about like some other places on my list.

But when I was presented with a chance to go to Russia with Viking River Cruises this past autumn, I decided I really couldn't pass it up. Russia is, after all, a fascinating country with iconic cities, a rich history, and cool UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I figured I would suck up the expensive visa fee and just go for it.

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia
The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg
Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega
A cool UNESCO site: Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega

A lot of Americans have certain preconceptions about Russia. We associate the country with communism and the Cold War, and have visions in our heads of ugly Soviet-era buildings and dour locals. Many even assume that Americans are not welcome in Russia.

I admit that I wasn't immune to these stereotypes. I was expecting fairly ugly cities and unfriendly locals. I was slightly worried that I would be given a hard time at immigration. And I wasn't entirely sure that I was even going to *like* Russia. I was definitely intimidated.

But what I found surprised me.

Smolny Convent in St. Petersburg

Yes, Russia still has plenty of issues (the gap between the rich and poor, for example, is really staggering at times). And no, I'm not really in love with the country's politics. But I liked the Russia I saw much more than I ever expected to.

Here are a few things that surprised me about visiting Russia for the first time:

It's not all Soviet-era apartment blocks

Even though the standard picture most Americans have in their heads when it comes to Russia is of drab, gray buildings from the Soviet days, the reality in many cities is actually quite different. I mean, sure, you WILL find those Soviet apartment blocks. But you'll also find some incredible architecture the far predates the Bolshevik Revolution.

State Historical Museum on Red Square in Moscow

Palace Square in St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, for example, the wide streets and Baroque buildings reminded me of Paris. And the canals there reminded me of Amsterdam (which isn't actually surprising, since Peter the Great studied ship building in the Netherlands as a young man).

St. Petersburg, Russia
In St. Petersburg

The churches – all the churches!

Churches are not the first thing I think of when I think of Russia. But let me tell you that they are everywhere in the country. I’m not sure why this was so surprising to me (maybe from the knowledge that religion was banned during the Soviet years?), but I was absolutely blown away by all the beautiful churches, cathedrals, and monasteries that I saw in Russia.

Troitse-Sergiev Monastery in Sergiev Posad, Russia
Troitse-Sergiev Monastery in Sergiev Posad
Moscow Kremlin architecture
Golden domes inside the Kremlin in Moscow

There are the famous ones like St. Basil's in Moscow and the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. There are churches that survived the Soviet years, and others that were destroyed and have only been rebuilt in the last two decades. There are even a handful of churches inside the walls of the Kremlin.

St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow
St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow
Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg

I'd never been inside a Russian Orthodox church before this trip, and didn't realize how ornate and beautiful they could be.

St. Isaac's Cathedral dome
Inside St. Isaac's Cathedral
Inside the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg
Inside the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The Metro is incredibly affordable

When I visit a new city on my own, I almost always rely on public transportation to get around. And while I didn't need to rely on it much on this trip since I was on a cruise, I still got a taste of the Metro on a couple walking tours.

The Metro in Moscow especially is almost a tourist attraction in and of itself – the stations dating back to the 1930s are breathtaking, resembling underground palaces more than they do your average metro station. With marble walls and floors, bas-reliefs, chandeliers, and even mosaics and stained glass windows, I would recommend taking the Metro even if you don't need to just to see some of these stations.

Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow, Russia
Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow

And the best news? The Metro is incredibly affordable. A single ride in Moscow and St. Petersburg costs between 30 and 35 rubles – which is right around 50 cents USD!

And this is a good thing because…

The traffic is insane

Just as I was blown away by all the churches in Russia, I was also baffled by the insane traffic in both Moscow and St. Petersburg (but especially in Moscow). I've never seen so many cars inching along on 6- or 8-lane highways. It's not just rush “hour” here – more like rush HOURS.

The explosion of car ownership after the fall of the Soviet Union has led to Moscow's traffic being rated the worst in the world. (And it doesn't help that most locals choose not to use all those beautiful Metro stations…)

Kalyazin Bell Tower in the Volga River
Luckily there wasn't much traffic on the Volga River…

More English than I expected

I didn't expect to find wide-spread English in Russia, and it's true that people outside the cities speak very little of it. But for those worried about not being able to communicate in bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, I actually encountered much more English than I expected to – and especially within the tourism industry.

And, to be honest, the Cyrillic alphabet isn't as difficult to learn and decipher as it first seems, either. I would brush up on your Cyrillic and learn a few key Russian phrases before you go, but you don't need to be fluent to visit Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Russians do have a sense of humor

Russians are often depicted as being very severe and angry-looking. And this leads to them being characterized as unfriendly and lacking a sense of humor. But guess what? This is another one of those stereotypes.

Russian folk music in Moscow
This guy at a Russian folk music performance had me in stitches.

Sure, some Russians can be pretty dour. And they won't smile at you on the Metro or on the street. But I actually met quite a few Russians with awesome senses of humor! I even had two separate tour guides tell Putin jokes.

I felt safe the entire time

I wasn't sure what to expect as an American in Russian. Would I be questioned heavily at immigration? Would people be rude to me? Would I feel unsafe?

Well, the short answer is no. I had no trouble at immigration, encountered no anti-American sentiments, and felt very safe the entire time in Russia. There definitely was a security presence at major tourist sites (and I even had to walk through a metal detector to get into the GUM department store), but it actually wasn't much more than what you'd find in bigger cities in the U.S.

The Tsar Canon at the Kremlin in Moscow
The Tsar Canon is a good symbol for Russia: it LOOKS super intimidating, but it poses no threat to tourists.

The media paints a certain (intimidating) picture of Russia here in America, and I definitely don't think it's an accurate one.

It was easier to get a visa than I thought

Lastly, it was much easier to get a Russian visa than I expected it to be. I was expecting a tricky application, and possibly difficultly getting everything approved. But, in reality, it was pretty simple.

Viking suggests a visa company to all its passengers to make things even easier – but since I wasn't able to part with my passport 30+ days earlier this year because of my travel schedule, I decided to get the visa on my own in person. Viking still provided me with the invitation letter that I needed as an American to visit Russia, and I did the rest.

Peterhof Palace fountains in winter

If you want to apply for a Russian visa in-person, you don't do it through an embassy. In the U.S., you go to Invisa Logistic Services (ILS), which acts as the official Russian Visa Center in the U.S. They have a handful of locations around the country, and I decided to get mine in Washington, D.C.

I filled out the visa application (which is a couple pages long), got passport photos taken, and made an appointment at ILS. During my appointment, they looked over my application to make sure I didn't make any mistakes, took my passport and payment, and told me when I could come pick my visa up. That was it!

The application was much simpler than I feared, and the whole process was actually pretty painless. (Except for the price – since I got a 3-day expedited visa, I ended up paying nearly $300… yuck! Regular visa processing starts at $193.)

Inside the Refectory Church at Troitse-Sergiev Monastery
Definitely worth it, though, to see things like this!

So, overall, Russia really surprised me – but in a good way. Visiting on a river cruise was a great way to experience the country for the first time, and I'm already plotting when I might be able to go back to St. Petersburg during the summer for the White Nights and to see some of the palaces (like Peterhof) and gardens in their full glory.

I totally understand the people who won't visit Russia because they don't agree with Putin and his politics – but, just like almost every other country in the world, the government in Russia does not always reflect the sentiment of the people who live there.

If you've ever toyed with the idea of traveling to Russia, I would say go for it.

Is Russia on your travel bucket list? If you've been before, what did YOU find surprising?

 

Things that surprised me about visiting Russia for the first time

 

*Note: I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip to Russia, and received a complimentary cruise. As always, though, all opinions, photos, and observations are 100% my own.

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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85 Comments on “8 Things That Surprised Me About Russia

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  1. I love this! It is really helpful to hear about the abundance of English in the bigger cities. It certainly is good to know that you can still ask for help in English if you need it- though it is important to at least TRY to communicate in the national language. I think the cost of the visa for US citizens is the only thing detering me from visiting Russia…

      Yeah, getting a Russian visa isn’t cheap. Even if you live in a city with an ILS office and can do the normal 10-day processing, the cheapest you can get it is for $193.

      But yes, especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow, a lot more people spoke English than I was expecting, especially those working in the hospitality/tourism industry.

        Well, the visa price is more or less on par with the American visa for the Russians. In the June, 2017 I’ve paid ≈$160 (9600 RUR) for the B1/B2 (business/touristic) American visa.

        Certainly it would be better if it was cheaper, but unfortunately for all us, nowadays, with the current state of the official relations, it’s almost unbelievable :(.

        Anyway, I’m pleased to hear that you’ve enjoyed your stay and, well, welcome again 😉

          I think it was definitely worth the price of the visa! I really enjoyed my two weeks there.

    We traveled through Scandinavia several years ago; one of the stops was for a day in St Petersburg… LOVED IT! But, the Hermitage was absolutely overwhelming. SOOO much there, so much to see there (It’s impossible to do this all in 1 day) And we only visited two of the buildings of the Hermitage. The churches & cathedrals are also incredible and spectacular (loved the Church Of Our Savior On Spilled Blood and the canals beside it).. If I could, I’d go back in a heartbeat. A definite must see for a trip through Scandinavia.

      St. Petersburg is great to pair with a Scandinavia trip! And there’s also a way you can visit the city for 72 hours or less without having to pay for a whole visa, which is even better news!

    Amazing insight, Amanda! I’ve been meaning to go to Russia for a long time but was always put off by the stereotypes (unfriendliness, difficult to get visa, etc.). I clearly see that I was in the wrong!

      I mean, you can certainly tell where some of those stereotypes come from. But I found exceptions to every single one of them and enjoyed Russia a lot more than I expected to.

    This is great timing for me. I have my Russia visa and leave on my next long trip next week. I will get to Russia in June and plan about 4 weeks there. I am glad to hear there is some English speakers around. I look forward to exploring the metro in Moscow.

      Awesome! The cities will be more crowded in June, but you’ll have such long days – especially if you go to St. Petersburg! And yes, spending time underground in the Metro in Moscow is a must.

    Interesting post! Russia is a country that has never really appealed to me, despite the massive size it takes up – but I do LOVE the look of their churches and some of their other buildings, so I do think it is a place I should visit one day!

      If you like history and architecture (I’m obsessed with both), then I think Russia is definitely worth a visit at some point.

    It looks so beautiful! It’s never been high on my list either, but maybe… It should be! What an incredible architecture – and those churches!! Gorgeous! Thanks for this post!

      The churches blew my mind. I expected to be “churched-out” before the end of the trip, but I never got tired of them!

    I’m Scottish and have been travelling to Russia for over 30 years – since it was the USSR. I have always travelled independently. It has always been a welcoming country with friendly people. The trans siberia railway is a fantastic journey.
    I’ve never understood the suspicion Americans have for Russia.

      It’s almost entirely media-driven. The U.S. has never really had a great relationship with Russia (well, at least in the past century), and media coverage of the country definitely reflects that. I’m really glad I went, though! It was much different than the American media leads us to believe.

        I find it so odd that Americans never remember why Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. – because the two countries got along so well, so the Russians felt comfortable with us so close to their back door. And, here in RI, between 1895 and 1910, in Newport, society pages had at least four big socialite weddings with well-heeled American girls marrying Russians . . in fact, one of the concerns here in the U.S. at the time of the Revolution was the safety of the many Americans in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Sadly, it was the post-WWII era and the dying off of those who remembered the good relations (and the ridiculously bad history classes we make children go through) that has erased the past good relations while power politics insists on promoting stereotypes developed in the 1950s.

          Zee Piers – excellent points! One should always remember that the general public knows very little about the details of history. Like the author of this blog says, our opinions are sadly media-driven, rather than fact-based. And yes, as you point out, the history classes we attend at US schools does not provide enough facts to form rounded, informed opinions either.

          Amanda – thank you for your excellent writing, photography and observations! I don’t know why we Americans are so prejudiced against the “Soviet Era Block Apts” though! You note the massive disparity between the poor and the rich in Russia now; in the Soviet Era, most were treated as equals and most had their basic needs met. To me, this is a much fairer, juster world. So what if the architecture is drab – it’s what provided massive quantities of people previously living in poverty, a clean, simple home! Churches, on the other hand, cannot feed or house people. The money spent on restoring/maintaining all those churches could go a long way in helping that massive gap between the poor and the rich!

    Thanks for breaking a few common sterotypes about Russia. Very important read, for people who would want to visit.

      I can only write about what I personally experienced, but if it helps people, that’s great!

    I commented on your FB post the other day saying that Russia is a country I wouldn’t go to… but the problem is, it looks pretty nice there and its history is pretty fascinating! Really interesting post, I can’t believe your visa cost that much though! :O

      The Russia conundrum! I love history and architecture a lot (two of my favorite things when traveling), and those definitely nudged me to give Russia a go. But yes, the visa is the most expensive one I’ve ever had to get!

    This was a great review, Amanda. I always wanted to go to Russia as a young kid, but had been leery of it in the past few years. I think you were able to curb some of those fears. Love your photography, too — those photos alone are enough to make me book a river cruise.

      Thanks, Leah! I’m glad I went. It’s definitely one of those places where you can’t believe everything you hear (or let the media scare you away). Russia still has plenty of issues and I certainly am not a fan of a lot of the things that go on there – but then again I can say that about my own country, too!

    Russia does have a long history of kings before the soviet era so it’s natural that you’ll find many palaces and other beautiful historical buildings:)

      Yup! I guess I never realized that so many of them survived the Bolsheviks, though – or that so many have been restored since then.

    Russia is one of those countries that I have always wanted to visit – I think it’s because it takes up so much space on maps, yet is so very much unknown to me and many others! I do am a bit intimated about the logistics of visiting Russia, though, so your post has soothed some of my concerns (especially regarding the whole visa process!) while your pictures have now bumped up this country on my list of places to visit even more! If you could only visit either St. Petersburg or Moscow, which city would you recommend more for first-time visitors?

    xx
    Melanie

      I actually feel kind of guilty filling in Russia on my “where I’ve been” map. Even after spending 2 weeks there and visiting a handful of cities, I’ve still seen such a small part of it!

      As for your question, I think St. Petersburg would be the best place for first-time visitors. I really enjoyed Moscow, too, but St. Petersburg is even more “European” and tourism is the easiest there. (Also, you can get a free 72-hour visa if you arrive in SP by cruise ship/ferry!)

    While it’s not at the “very” top of my bucket list, Russia has always been a country I’ve wanted to see. I’ve always been fascinated by the look of Eastern Orthodox churches, they’re so striking and exotic looking compared to Protestant/Roman Catholic ones.

    I had previously read that Moscow’s underground stations are beautiful but I had no idea about how cheap it is to ride on it! I think that price even beats Mexico City’s which is also quite cheap (but not as cheap 🙂 ).

      Yes I was so surprised by how cheap the metro was in Russia – and even more surprised to learn that so few people use it! (I wonder if they make it so cheap to try to entice more locals to use it?)

        >> so few people use it!

        Wath?!?!?
        9,5 millons peopes per day!

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moscow_Metro

          Yes, but the ridiculous traffic would definitely be made better if even more people used public transport!

            It’s bad idea, because in rush hour you don’t enter in mertotrain.
            I recommended take some trip from Pyshkinskaya station to Vykhino station at 7 p.m. in workday. Its very interesting experience.

    I’m with you — Russia has pretty much never been on my travel wish list. Your pictures are tremendous, though … I may have to rethink that!

      I’m definitely re-thinking some of my thoughts about Russia after this trip!

    I would love to go to Russia some time, mostly to see Moscow and St. Petersburg even though the nature there seems pretty interesting too (thinking of Lake Baikal). It’s just not on the top of the list for me either, especially not with that visa price tag..

      The good news (well, for any non-Russians) is that the ruble has dropped in value recently, making the rest of the country much more affordable to travel than it was a few years ago!

    Wow! The buildings in your photos are stunning! Russia wasn’t on my bucket list at all, but I was recently in Amsterdam and went to the Hermitage Museum. I found their Catherine the Great exhibit fascinating! Even learning just a little bit about Russian history was enough to make me want to go see the original Hermitage!

    I really liked this post and the angle you took with it. I think we need more media like this that dispels the myths and fears we have about other countries and their peoples.

      Oh wow, I didn’t even know that museum in Amsterdam existed! I like dispelling myths about travel when I can – there’s a lot of misinformation and fearmongering out there!

        Apparently the Russian Hermitage has SO many artifacts that aren’t on display that they built two satellite Hermitages. One is in Amsterdam, and I don’t remember where the other one is.

          Cool! And yeah, they have a TON of stuff that isn’t on display. Some people from my cruise went on an extended Hermitage tour, where they got to go to the warehouse in St. Petersburg and see a bunch of the stuff not on display.

            Oh wow! That’s so cool!! I wish more museums did that!

    I had no idea there was so much cool architecture in Russia! I’ve wanted to go for a while, but now I definitely want to sooner than later!

      The churches are basically works of art with all those onion domes! Even in the smaller cities you’ll find lots of pretty buildings (and especially churches).

    Like you, it’s not high on my bucket list, but I’m open to getting there at some point. I think the cruise option is a good one since it provides you with more of an introduction to the country. Definitely on the list!

      I definitely liked the cruise option, and think it helped lessen the intimidation value a lot since I didn’t have to worry about any of the details. It was also a good way to see many different parts of the country in one go.

    The church ceiling photos are definitely working to convince me that Russia should be on my bucket list.

      I kept vacillating between taking way too many photos and just standing there with my jaw dropped, staring. Some seriously amazing work in those churches!

    Russia was not on my bucket list until your first last post, about the cruise! Now it definitely is. That metro station really puts Chicago’s train stations to shame!

      I’ve never seen metro stations quite like the ones in Moscow! Glad to hear I’m changing some minds about Russia with my posts!

    I’ve wanted to visit Russia forever, but I never really thought about doing it via river cruise. I’ve always wanted to do the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Moscow. But maybe doing both is in order, because as you said it’s a big country!

      It’s such a huge country. Exploring by train would be amazing, but I’m not sure I’d be confident enough to tackle it on my own since I don’t speak any Russian!

    wow very nice blog.I will go Russia on February with my husband.I don’t know that much deatils about russia.but your articles give me so much information that i can now easily expore russia without any hussale.And one thing your picturs are very nice.It’s described all things

    Hi Amanda! Thanks for your article, it was really interesting to discover how you guys see Russians from the outside:) I didn’t know those stereotypes of being unsafe or about the ugly buildings were so strong! Being grown up in Moscow I always admired our amazing architecture and kinda got used to the idea everyone knows about it:) Now I live in New Zealand and stereotypes are different, but still there ARE some. Good, that travelers like you share their experience and make the world look a bit more close tot he truth:)

    Kseniia,
    thestylejungle.ru

      We get a lot of biased information (or sometimes MISinformation here in the US). Thankfully traveling to see places for myself helps separate the myths from reality!

    Fantastic share—I love all the highlights of gold you captured!

    Really interesting (and positive!) to read about your experience in Russia. I’m hoping to go next year for the World Cup, albeit some hesitance, but your post has helped calm some of that!

      It surprised me – but in a good way! I think going for the World Cup could be really fun.

      You probably wouldn’t believe the hesitance Russians feel about going abroad to, say, Europe or USA. Like, shops that don’t work 24/7? Ambulance that doesn’t have a real doctor aboard? Dangerous districts that aren’t often visited by police? Political correctness that may have legal consequences if you say something wrong? American gun control?

      I’ve seen people coming to Russia with a safe belt containing their documents and money under their clothes, as if it’s still 1990s. I’ve seen Russians departing with similar precautions. If you ask me, in the latter case it’s far more justified.

    Hi, Amanda!

    It was a great fun to read your post as a Russian 🙂 It gave me an idea of how it feels on the other side. I had a similar feeling when I went to Bosnia, probably my preconceptions were even stronger. I expected to see a dangerous country where I may step on a mine or be robbed at any minute but in fact it is totally safe and welcoming.

      Funny how our preconceived notions about places are often totally wrong!

    Hi Amanda, I’m from Russia!!! Thanks for the sketch, very nice. All that you have written is true. We are nothing you are no different. Live , work, raise children. Thank you, it was interesting to read. With love from Russia. Come again!!!

      I certainly do hope to return to Russia! I would especially love to visit St. Petersburg again in the summer.

        Hello!
        Come to Kazan! It`s a very beautiful city! ))

    Amanda, thank you for such an amazing story about my country.

    Thanx Amanda.
    Well, what you see in Russia in many ways depends on what you want to see and where you go. Yes, there are many churches, theaters, museums in good condition, good roads, beautiful architecture and nature, golden autumn, etc. But if you want, then you can find also mouse grayness of industrial house-building, fallen plaster, collapsing wooden houses, a rural toilet, puddles instead of roads, few chaos and a ruthless bureaucracy etc . And the second is not an excuse to give up the first.
    And yes in the Moscow metro there can be human traffic jams.
    http://ru-open.livejournal.com/ publised your post in russian

      Of course! You can find sad and ugly parts of every country in the world – but you’re correct that those parts don’t mean you shouldn’t see the more positive aspects of a place.

    Hi Amanda!
    It’s nice to read you had good trip to Russia.
    As St-Peterburg’s local inhabitant I could give some advice’s for you (if you will visit StP again) and other travelers, who read your blog and plan to visit StP.
    At first, StP is quite a big sity 🙂 StP’s agglomeration consists of not StP and Petergof only, but some small towns – Lomonosov, Strelna, Kronshtadt, Pushkin, Pavlovsk, etc.
    There are a lot of impressive artefacts too – palaces, gardens, forts of the Kronshtadt Fortress e.t.c.
    There are a lot of interesting and nice-looking places in the StP too, but part of them are far from typical tourists routs 🙂
    But it seems to me, you hardly able to visit all this due 2-3 days if you have voyage like you described – you just have not enough time for this.
    To be more familiar with StP needs 1-2 weeks at seems to me.
    So, if someone is a traveler like I am – lazy a bit, who don’t like travel on the run and cross the checkpoints off the checklist, then fly to next city, place, country and the next checklist – it seems to me, StP is the good place for such traveler 🙂

      I definitely only saw the highlights on my first trip to St. Petersburg – so I would certainly love to visit again sometime!

    Amanda, thank you for an honest article about our country. I live in the South, on the don river. Here live the don Cossacks. Russia is not only Moscow and St. Petersburg. Come to the world Cup in 2018 and you will see many good and kind people and beautiful architecture of the cities. We may not like smiling people like you, but I assure you that when you call you will always help and answer your questions. Too bad that the press divides our peoples. Come again to visit us)

    Amanda, thank you for a reasonable post about Russia.

    HA HA HA…I love it !!! I’m so glad that you learned something true about Russia as an American…It’s good to hear from someone who has discovered truths about Russia in these modern times. Your pre-Russian perceptions are a part of something in Russian-America diplomatic politics that is termed “Russian Demonization” and at times in history it has gone both ways; with certain influential Russians demonizing America(ns). Russian humor is nothing new either it’s just suppressed under demonization. Nakita Kruschev was one of the most hilarious individuals in Russian political history…it is told through historical accounts that even Stalin had a sense of humor…but V.Lenin less so because he was so intent on leading Russia through the tumults of the collapse of the Tsarist Empire and then through a pretty violent series of revolutions. Lenin’s resolve and dedication to Russia are where that “contemporary” ominous portrait of Russians comes from; before that, the image came from Ivan the first…Russian humor is actually very intimate and comes from comradery and observing absurdity in nature and then emphasizing that absurdity by cracking jokes. We are relocating to Moscow within the next five years or so, and we are not going as Americans but as Russian-Americans and we are intent on becoming Russian citizens (once again)…Moscow is termed “the city of billionaires” and that is the reason for your experience with security at Gum Marketplace;you are basically talking about a city that has a population that is the same as New York; Moscow today is global city center for Europe and Asia…the traffic is almost identical to NYC, I’m glad that you enjoyed your trip and found an experience unexpected…thank you for this article.

      Yes, I heard that statistic about billionaires in Moscow and was surprised! Yet another thing I learned there.

        I speak Russian and I have a lot of specific Russian History coursework in both my undergraduate and graduate degree because as I am learning in life that Russian diplomacy is becoming my life’s work…I am academically trained in the sciences and engineering but I’ve always felt strongly about Russia, Russian Life, Russian Politics, Economics and Russian culture…the Departmental relations between e.g., Dept of State and the Russian Consulate are horrible and a general political nightmare…The US state department constantly terrifies prospective travelers and travelers with aspirations of an extended stay in Russia, or others who want to become Russian citizens with accusations that the Russian Government will fine, convict and imprison us for even for the slightest infraction of visa laws and will hold anyone for ransom who are even remotely associated with the US…be glad that you were on your visa-free cruise travel permit and that Russia is creating a cultural and economic renaissance for its citizens, and that V.Putin is a really great person and global leader…we are applying for an Entry Visa that is suppossed to shelter us from the US State Department and allows us to apply for citizenship without becoming their example of stateless victims…

    I was a frequent visitor to main cities in Russia several years ago (and planning a trip now). Living outside major cities is affordable but you have to know the language well. Living in Moscow can be expensive as hell but there are always options to downgrade. Most Russians don’t care about foreigners (and Americans too) since they just making ends meet (especially outside Moscow).

    Great photos of Kizhi and Kalyazin. Totally off-the-beaten-track destinations even in Russia!

      My trip to Russia was on a cruise/tour, and I loved that we visited a few of those off-the-beaten-path locations – really gave a more complete view of what Russia is like. (Though there’s still SO MUCH left to see!)

    Hi! I read your post with curiousity as I’m a native Russian,it’s always interesting to look at yourselves through somebody’s mind. If you return to the Golden Ring, I do recommend you to visit Pereslavl Zalessky,this is the most amazing town among the others included into this route. I’ve visited most if them – Vladmir, Sergiev Posad, Rostov etc.,but Pereslavl is my favourite point of the Golden Ring. First if all,there are not only ancient churches and cathedrals (by the way,one of the oldest stone churches of Russia still exists there,it was biult in 1152 if i’m not mistaken) famous for its architecture and interior, but also a number of funny and fascinating museums (like the Tea Pot Museum,the Money Museum,the Flatiron museum, and the Museum of Wit where fantastic and unforgettable things like bottles with dancing ballerinas and a thing for cracking nuts made as a naked woman are collected,there are also other creative objects). Along with this, Pereslavl hosts the ballooning festival almost every summer that lasts till night when all these huge balloons seem burning… In Pereslavl you can see one of the firts ships built by the order of Peter the Great as it was the place where our navy originated from. And I can tell you more and more about what to do there. If you got interested,write me a letter, I’ll help you with logistics etc. and maybe I’ll be able to accompany you there.

      Thanks for that excellent tip, Anastasia! Sounds awesome!

    Great to see russia as tourist. But reality starts when you are living in a country as Russia is. When you are tourist you see just a very small part of who russians really are. And of course you are bringing money to the country and they are very aware of that fact.

    Hi, Amanda! Russia is my native country, I was born in Saratov, and now I live in Moscow. I read your post, and it is very interesting and I almost agree with everything! I recommend you to visit the cities of the so-called Golden Ring, and other small cities of Russia, because they still retained a real Russian flavor. If we talk about people in our country, I think, they are different, as in any other country. I treat Americans well. I have always respected Americans, and I like your culture) Really, Russia and America have a lot in common-Russia is an international country too, and we are accustomed to different people and cultures. Tolerance is a very important human quality. Sorry for my English-it is very poor, because at school we were taught only German.

    I just returned from a Norwegian cruise that stopped in St. Petersburg, and I was surprised that a) no visa was even required as long as you book a cruise excursion through the cruise line and the ship is stationed less than 72 hours, and, b) the Russian security checkpoint (customs, passport check) was actually far more efficient, faster, and easier than U.S. and other European security checkpoints!!! As an American trying to return to my own home country I have to go through more hassle!

      Next time I visit St. Petersburg, I think I’ll try it that way!

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