Revolution in free tourism

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Post-Soviet Russia is less of a culture shock than the USSR and much more accessible for foreign tourists, writes Robin Buss.

Everyone agrees that the boom time for school visits to Russia was in the late-1980s. The policy of glasnost (openness) meant that the country was opening up to foreign visitors. Tourists were still controlled closely but the USSR retained a peculiar allure: it was an alternative version of how society might be organised, with a very distinctive face.

Since the collapse of communism, David Scott, of Scott's Tours, feels that people see Russia as "just another country in chaos". That view is clearly far from the whole story.

The new Russia, though it is less of a culture shock than the old, has a great deal to offer and many things are more accessible than before. Not surprisingly, there are signs that interest in visits is reviving.

Mark Sanders, of ETS Travel, agrees that the country has lost a little of its mystique, but he is optimistic about the future; he has arranged for about 60 school groups to go to Russia this year.

Steve Penney, of ASLA, which arranges itineraries within the country for travel operators, says that almost all those prepared to risk the chaos enjoy the experience. The main problem is political uncertainty. "The past two or three years have not been easy," Mr Penney says. "But things are looking up."

The classic itinerary is still the one-week Moscow and St Petersburg combination in the February half-term or at Easter; spending three nights in each city, with one night on the train travelling between them.

Even here, there have been significant changes. The old full-board formula is now usually replaced by half-board because of the proliferation of Western-style fast-food outlets. The local cuisine, which once was endured as part of the mystique, is still not going to win any Michelin stars but at least you can avoid having to eat cabbage twice a day in the hotel restaurant.

Though excursions to the Kremlin, the Novodevichy Convent, the Lenin Hills and the Hermitage remain top of the list, local companies have started to put on coach trips to a wider range of places. The golden ring of cathedral cities up to about 100 miles from Moscow is a popular tour.

It is also much easier to cater for special interests - ice hockey matches, visits to factories, concert parties, choirs and so on. In place of the old Intourist package, parties now have the chance to plan their own tours.

Increasingly popular is the three-city tour, adding Kiev to Moscow and St Petersburg, and there are trips that go on from Peter the Great's northern capital to the Baltic states. Mark Sanders is very keen to develop Crimea, It is now possible to visit Sevastopol, which, for so long, was a city closed to western visitors.

Tour operators and teachers are starting to devise ways of organising their visits around curriculum areas apart from the obvious one of Russian language studies. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is attractive because it has retained more of its communist character than Moscow or St Petersburg. For others, the goal may be the city museum in St Petersburg, which vividly evokes the Second World War blockade of Leningrad.

All over Russia there are wonderful, occasionally unexpected, art treasures. Moscow, in particular, is full of architectural pleasures, which one comes across unexpectedly walking around the older districts in the centre: 18th-century merchants' houses, newly-restored churches, elaborate art nouveau facades.

You have the sense of somewhere that has not been over-exploited, where visitors can still make discoveries without the help of guidebooks, as well as a place which is in the midst of a profound transformation, where evidence of old ways of life survives beside the new.

Some problems remain. Obtaining visas can be a nuisance, especially if the party includes pupils with non-United Kingdom passports. The price has gone up to pound;20 for students, pound;30 for adults, and you need to apply about eight weeks in advance. Under new regulations, foreign currency must be declared on entry if you wish to take any of it home (although this is not always enforced).

Russia is altogether more expensive than it used to be: prices, particularly for hotels and restaurants, have risen to nearly Western equivalents. On the other hand, what might broadly be called "cultural products" are exceptionally good value. Books, theatres and cinemas cost much less than in Western countries. Concerts, CDs and tapes are also cheap, and there is always opera and ballet to enjoy.

In the old days, Intourist would book tickets for the Bolshoi, regardless of the programme. Now at least you can choose what you want to see.

Art galleries usually have a two-tier pricing system, with a higher charge for foreigners than for Russians, but the high charge is not extortionate and there are rates for school parties.

In reality, there is much more to be had from a creatively-planned visit to the new Russia than there was from a package tour to the old Soviet Union.

Russian National Tourist Office, Orchard House, 167-9 Kensington High Street, London W8 6SH. Tel: 020 7937 7217. Specialists in travel to the former Soviet bloc: Scott's Tours, 141 Whitfield Street, London W1P 5RY. Tel: 020 7383 5353.

ETS Travel, 65 London Road, Cambridge CB2 5DG. Tel: 01223 723456.


1 Travel by metro. Trains are regular and fast, and the stations in the centre of Moscow are famously decorative. The best of the original stations is Mayakovskaya, with its 1930s mosaics set into the ceiling. Among the more recent is Chekhovskaya, with marble panels evoking the writer's work.

2 Go on a boat trip down the Moskva River. There is just enough to keep the visitor intersted on both banks and the experience is pleasantly relaxing.

3 Visit Maxim Gorky's House on Ulitsa Malaya Nikitskaya in Moscow (metro: Barrikadnaya). Even if you are not interested in Gorky, this is a splendid art nouveau building, with a staircase like a river of marble and an interesting display on the writer's life. Tolstoy, Pushkin and Mayakovsky also have museums in Moscow worth visiting for non-Russian specialists.

4 Go to the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow to see Cranach's The Fall of Man and other paintings "displaced" (some would say "looted") to the Soviet Union from Germany as a result of the Second World War. These paintings were, until recently, hidden away in Russian vaults.

5 Visit Tsentralni Dom Khudozhnikov (Central House of Artists), across the road from the entrance to Gorky Park. This large concrete block contains the part of the Tretyakov Gallery devoted to 20th-century art and also several floors of galleries showing temporary exhibitions of modern art, well worth wandering around.

6 Go to a market such as the one at Ismailovo or outside the metro station Dynamo, where you can pick up some good bargains. But why not also find the time to walk through a covered food market, even if you don't buy anything? You'll see the range of produce from the countryside and can taste samples of pickled garlic and cabbage that will be pressed on you as you pass.

7 Eat bread. The variety and tastes of Russian bread are something you would never guess from the uniform slices of greyish rye which are likely to be served up in your hotel. In the many street markets, you can discover crusty Georgian lavash, rich starorusskii, brown muromets, malty khutorskoi, herb-flavoured aromatnii and many more.

8 Visit a country estate, such as the ones at Kuskovo or Arkhangelskoe, where there are extensive parks to enjoy as well as houses, which are now becoming more organised to receive visitors from outside Russia.

9 Eat in the Russkoe Bistro, one of the Russian fast-food outlets designed designed to compete with the American chains. It serves chiefly pirozhki (pasties with meat, fish or vegetable filling) and salads, as well as tea, coffee, vodka and kvass.

10 Attend a service at a Russian Orthodox church on Saturday evening, Sunday morning or feast days. Listen to the singing and test your powers of endurance: services are long and the congregation stands.

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