The film “To Russia With Love” played on the cruise ship’s big screen by the pool the night before we sailed into St. Petersburg. Passengers lounged on the deck chairs, side tables littered with drink glasses, munching popcorn and wearing Bose headphones to maximize the sound experience. Never mind that the movie took place in Turkey, where Bond was sent to assist in the defection of a Soviet consulate clerk, and where SPECTRE planned to avenge Bond’s killing of Dr. No. We were headed to Russia.
At around 11:00 p.m., I closed the blackout shades on the sunset. At 7:00 a.m., I took pictures of the view entering the harbor at St. Petersburg.
The one thing we discovered as we planned our trip is that you cannot venture into Russia unless you’re on a cruise tour or have a personal visa.
The personal visa is expensive. You must have a valid reason for visiting, and you need a Russian sponsoring organization or individual. If you’re going as a tourist, you also need to have a “contract for provision of tourist services” with a tourist organization registered with the Russian Federal Tourism Agency. Be prepared to give fingerprints, proof of medical insurance, documents of ownership of property in the US, certificates verifying family membership, a salary certification from your employer, and bank statements. You must list all areas of Russia you intend to visit (there are restricted areas), and if you violate your visa hours of arrival and departure there will be penalties. THEN, there’s the cost—anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to as much as eight hundred to one thousand dollars—and when you go through border control, expect to be questioned.
If you’re going ashore with a cruise tour, it’s simple. The cruise ship arranges visas for their passengers. You are given documentation showing the tour you’re taking, when it departs, when it returns, and you simply pass through border control and go ashore—unless Russia decides you aren’t welcome at the time you arrive and you simply cannot disembark. According to the cruise director, it’s happened.
Fortunately, we were allowed to take the tours we’d signed up for. Every tour we had to pass through border control, pass back through border control, and then pass through border control again for each consecutive tour—even if
they were scheduled back to back. The fact the Russians are serious became clear when, just before departure, we were not allowed to reenter Russia through border control to mail postcards in a postbox visible from the guard station. Reason? We didn’t have a visa to do that.
The tours we took were phenomenal.
The first day we visited Peterhof Palace and Gardens, then took a Panoramic tour of the city by coach. The guide was knowledgeable and forthcoming, but the crowds of tourist groups were brutal. Stern-faced museum guards marched us through the palace rooms, not allowing anyone to stop and pause over an exhibit, just to keep things moving. And, getting a picture of the fountain without a sea of people was impossible. I was even body-slammed out of the way by an Asian woman with a selfie stick who clearly wanted the photo more than I.
The second day was more our style. We had signed up for a canal tour of St. Petersburg, a visit to Peter and Paul Fortress (where the Romanoffs are all buried)—and yes, Anastasia is there. We encountered sunbathers à la Putin (men tanned to a deep brown, wearing speedos and flexing their muscles at the edge of the Neva River) and a scout jamboree. We ate lunch at the Restaurant Metropol, Gregoriy Rasputin’s favorite hangout, and a spot popular with St. Petersburg’s intellectuals such as poets, artists, journalists and students. In later years, the VIP Hall was reserved for local Party Elite and visiting dignitary. Today, it’s open to everyone and serves strictly Russian cuisine.
We had a little extra time before lunch, and as our luck would have it, there was an Ice Cream Festival taking place on the square adjacent. I asked if we could go, and our guide, Maria, looked surprised. She asked how many would like to walk around the festival for the twenty minutes we had to wait. Only about half of us were game. Interesting. The rest stayed in the lobby of the Metropol under the management watchful eye, while the rest of us were led down an alley to a back entrance to the festival. In route Maria revealed that she had never, in her nine years of leading trips, ever been able to take a group to a local event.
The pièce de résistance was a visit to the Hermitage, where they were preparing the square for a ballet and musical performance.We visited the French Impressionists building—my favorite type of art. I was in heaven.
Things I learned from our guide that stuck with me:
1. When the Soviets decided everyone should own land, each citizen was given their share—4 sq. meters, or approximately 36 sq. feet.
3. There are still people who choose to live in kommunalkas (communal living apartments). Each family gets one room that belongs to them and then they share a kitchen and bathroom with six or seven other families. Each family is allowed to keep one bar of soap in a special soap dish and one towel hanging in the bathroom. The kitchens usually have multiple stoves. Cleaning is shared.
4. Much of the repairs to the city were actually facades. If you look behind the facade, you discover crumbling buildings. According to Maria, “The people also put on a happy face because they are taught to be happy with what they have. There’s not much else we can do.”
Would I go back to Russia? In a heartbeat. But, I think I would want to try and arrange for a personal visa. Do you think they’d issue a work visa for an espionage writer?