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Russia's great cities have historical appeal, old world charm and few tourists
Julie Norwell

When my husband told me that his company would be sending him to Moscow for a week-long business trip late last fall, I quickly invited myself along. I’ve been to some of the most exotic places in the world, but Russia’s rich history and cultural contrasts put it in a class of its own. Winston Churchill famously described this country as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Today, the few tourists who take the pains to visit (and you do go to some pains) might say the same thing.

Next year Moscow will celebrate its 860th anniversary, and St. Petersburg, the jewel of Russia, is about 300 years old. Both cities have been the seat of government of this world power nation, but what comes to mind when you imagine walking around them? The extravagances of tsarist Russia? Vestiges of the oppressive Soviet era? Or possibly modern efforts to revitalize the country? In reality, the combination of all these things makes a visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg a fascinating adventure and well worth a visit.

However, it’s not an easy visit. Russian authorities are eager to open the country to tourist dollars, but they seem somewhat less comfortable with letting the tourists themselves in (see Planning the Trip).

Following is a quick peak at what you can expect from a trip to Russia’s most famous cities. By the way, be prepared to spend wads of money because Moscow and St. Petersburg are very expensive to visit. Entry to major museums and cathedrals costs about $10-20 a pop, and even the simplest meals will set you back about $30-40. If you feel like you’re getting taken for a ride, you probably are. Many places, from hotels to museums, use a dual-pricing scheme where Russians pay substantially less than non-Russians. There is nothing you can do about it, unless you can convince people you’re Russian. So set a budget comparable to visiting Tokyo or New York City, and just enjoy yourself.

Planning the trip
Remnants of the heavy-handed Soviet era are still evident as you prepare for your trip. The Russian government requires American tourists to apply for a visa (www.russianembassy.org), but this was like no visa I have ever gotten. On the two-page application, in addition to general information, you will need to list every country you’ve ever visited, prior places of employment (including your former supervisor’s name and contact information), all post-high school educational institutions (including course of study, dates of graduation, school addresses and telephone numbers), and all organizations to which you either belong or have contributed money.

You also will need to identify where you will stay and when, and prove it with letters of confirmation from your hotels. And just to make sure they have it all straight, the Russian Embassy wants you to provide a separate cover letter duplicating your itinerary, complete with dates of arrival and departure and confirmation numbers of your hotel reservations. These dates will all be verified by the hotels, which must register your passports with the local police when you check in.

Moscow highlights
Overall, Moscow is a very attractive city—at least the touristy sections that we saw. We anticipated a city of architectural Stalinist monstrosities, of which we did find plenty. But we were pleased to find that so many old buildings—churches, residential and government buildings—had survived Communism, most of which were painted in cheery pastels. Interestingly, some historical structures, like the twin towered Resurrection Gate, first built in 1680 as a lovely entry into Red Square, turned out to be replicas of an original that had been ripped down during the Soviet era—only to be rebuilt later when authorities recognized the massive mistake it was to gut the city’s heritage.

Sightseeing in Moscow naturally begins at Red Square, a red bricked expanse over 11 acres in size. This plaza has been the congregation point for markets, public celebrations and executions since the 15th Century. Still, most Americans likely associate it with Cold War Soviet military parades where intercontinental ballistic missiles were put on display to fill Russians with pride and Westerners with anxiety.

Red Square is bordered by beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral on the southern end, the walls of the Kremlin along the western side, the State History Museum at the north, and the ritzy GUM department store on the west.

Also on the square, just in front of the Kremlin walls, is the tomb of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Russians and foreign tourists alike line up for hours to see the waxy visage of the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution who has been mummified (despite his wishes) since 1924. The embalming techniques used to preserve Lenin were a closely guarded national secret until the fall of Communism. If you ever had an interest in seeing Lenin’s Tomb, go as soon as possible because there is a budding movement, albeit controversial, to finally bury the man.

Standing in the middle of Red Square, the lollipop bulbs atop the brightly colored St. Basil’s Cathedral immediately draw you to it. Built in 1552, the cathedral itself is colored rose, white and green, with each onion dome a unique pattern of swirls, polka-dots or gilt. The building is quite large, so it’s a surprise to find inside that instead of a large area for the faithful to gather, there are a series of small chambers like a rabbit warren, each with pretty frescos decorating the walls. In fact, each dome represents one of eight individual churches grouped together with a central belfry to create the cathedral.

The next must-see is the Kremlin where political power in Russia has been wielded since the 13th Century. Far from the forbidding fortress I expected, inside the high-walled compound are beautiful buildings and exquisite cathedrals, each dating from different time periods. In addition to being the seat of both government and church for much of its history, the Kremlin housed the royal family until Peter the Great built St. Petersburg and moved his throne there. After the Bolshevik Revolution, however, Lenin ran the country from Moscow and the Kremlin hummed with business once more. Today, the president of Russia still has offices in one of the 18th-century Kremlin buildings. Because of this, tourists are strictly confined within white lines painted on the grounds, and errant tourists are kept in check by the whistles of vigilant policemen standing watch.

Despite so many old-world structures, Moscow is not devoid of modern high-rises. In fact, the most notable skyscrapers in the city are Stalin’s “Seven Sisters,apostrophe which were built to compete with the skyscraper building boom in the US in the early 20th Century. A Russian architect who worked on some New York skyscrapers was enlisted to help erect these seven buildings all around Moscow. They are easy to pick out because they all bear a striking resemblance to each other, as well as to landmark skyscrapers in New York City.

As for the people, Muscovites are surprisingly very stylish. Instead of the grim, grey clothes and faces common during the Soviet era, men and women, alike, sported fur coats, designer clothes and fashionable coiffures. Walking around in an L.L. Bean jacket and Timberland boots, this American tourist felt frumpy by comparison, and before long I was coveting the chic clothes displayed in the fancy boutiques lining the streets.

A final word on Moscow is that the US could learn a lot from the subways. Most of the stations looked like museums. Murals, mosaics and marble columns decorated the walls and ceilings, chandeliers lit the spacious transit areas (really!), and statues kept guard. Each station was more beautiful than the next. Nary a beggar or piece of litter did we see, and the cars were clean and well-maintained, albeit old. Even better than the attractiveness of the subway system was its functionality. A ride cost about 50 cents, and the trains came every two minutes like clockwork. In fact, digital clocks posted above the tracks tracked duration of time between an outgoing train and the next incoming one. So spoiled were we that we got impatient when once the clock closed in on three minutes before the next train pulled in.