“You take holiday in Russia. You are crazy…but welcome.” The man who uttered this to me in a St. Petersburg café wasn’t the only one who thought I was crazy visiting St. Petersburg (aka Putin’s Parish). Indeed, all but one person in my social circle questioned my sanity.
It was a series of subliminal coincidences which prompted me to visit Russia. A local production of Chekov’s The Bear had me hooked and over the subsequent days the passion and musicality of the performers’ accents in my head were joined by an unusual amount of Russia-themed songs played on radio stations, most notably Boney M’s disco classic Rasputin. I took it all as a sign and began making travel arrangements.
As I had already planned a holiday to Estonia, St. Petersburg was the obvious destination of choice in Russia. Time-rich and cash poor, I could afford to take the six-hour €35 return LuxExpress bus journey from Tallinn, although the inward journey back to Estonia took nine hours when the Russians closed their border for no apparent reason. Lesson: Bring plenty of patience, sandwiches and accept the unexpected.
Given that Russia has eleven time zones, its climate will be equally varied. With the exception of the summer months, St. Petersburg’s weather can be anything from cold to frozen-over. Do your research when it comes to appropriate clothing although one item universally embraced by women regardless of weather is make-up. I discovered that there is no such thing as too much lipstick in Russia.
It appears the more connected your country is to the US the more expensive your Russian visa will cost, hence why mine cost twice as much as applicants from other EU countries. St. Petersburg was the first place I’ve visited where I didn’t meet a German tourist. I also noticed that the bulk of visitors were from countries with a communist past or present. Lesson: Geopolitics matters.
The visa process is laborious, firstly requiring an invitation letter from your host or accommodation provider. I found the Way to Russia website excellent in explaining the visa process and in providing an invite letter (waytorussia.net) although the instructions of the Russian Embassy of the country you are based in will ultimately dictate the process.
Safety is always my number one travel concern and boy, do the Russians take their security seriously, and rightly so. Crossing the border from Estonia took an hour and a half with everyone ordered to leave the bus with their entire belongings for visa, customs and security check whilst the bus was thoroughly examined by army-clad officials and a sniffer dog. My pathetic attempt at writing my name in the Cyrillic alphabet perplexed the border official whose acrylic nails and vivid red lipstick was my first introduction to administration inside Russia. Places with large gatherings such as the Mariinsky and the railway stations have airport-like scanners for both bags and people at entrances. Security personnel are widely visible with St. Petersburg standing as one of the safest places I’ve visited.
St. Petersburg is one of Europe’s largest cities and will not be easily walked. Thankfully, there’s a clean, efficient, architecturally stunning, safe metro system with tickets costing 35 rubles (approx. €0.50) at the time of visit. One could write a comedy sketch based on my first experience of purchasing a metro ticket but at once I figured out the token system post-hilarity/awkwardness I grew fond of it as a method of travel. Lesson: A sense of humour will come in handy. For non-metro travel knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet is essential.
It pays handsomely to follow currency fluctuations when it comes to the Ruble. Thanks to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia following the Crimea crisis the ruble fell to its weakest in years. I capitalised on this although finding rubles in Ireland was my difficulty as regular commercial banks don’t buy or sell the currency (why?). Killorglin Credit Union came to the rescue thanks to their currency arrangement with local finance company FEXCO.
Despite the weak ruble, imported goods were still relatively expensive. And whilst there is no such thing as too much lipstick in Russia, the popular brands are imports so it may pay to bring your own.
And now for the P issue. To my surprise, and to the disappointment of western leaders and policymakers who will read this, Vladimir Putin is well-received in his own constituency. Portrayed by most in the EU/NATO sphere as an international badass, Putin is perceived by those I spoke to as the strong, shrewd leader required to protect Russia’s vast resources, in other words, their badass. Post-communist Russia experienced economic and social chaos and Putin is praised for overseeing stability since coming to power in 2000. Bear in mind that Putin’s predecessors range from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin the Even Worse so to paraphrase Harold McMillan, Russians have never had it so good. Then again, was I ever going to find a Putin critic amongst the constituents of his home city?
And finally, to those constituents, the surprise part of my trip. As the Estonia bus edged towards St. Petersburg Rasputin began playing on the radio. When the driver turned up the volume and began tapping the steering wheel to the rhythm of the tune, I knew I was visiting a place where I’d get the sense of humour. Helpfulness and friendliness were the other personality traits I encountered. Throughout my visit, I was in a pleasant state of shock when men held doors open and helped me with my luggage. My surprise at such chivalry probably says more about the decline in courtesy in my own country than it does about Russian hospitality.
When I recounted my positive experiences to those who initially questioned my sanity not only did I regain psychological credibility but proved, once again, the positive force that travel can be. Books and media coverage can inform/misinform us about a destination’s history and political situation. But only through travel can the narrative focus on those that history and politics affect the most, those being the people who have to live through it, whilst helping us discover the common ground and values we have with others.
© Hazel Joy 2017