Russia – An Enigma Wrapped Inside Massive Bureaucracy

Time for a dad to blog….

Ever since I studied the Soviet Union back in Mrs. Singer’s 9thgrade Social Studies class in Hudde JHS, I have always been fascinated with the Soviet Union. So much so that I ended up becoming a subscriber to the USSR’s Soviet Life for most of my teens and early twenties (it was a total propaganda magazine. Long story on that one).

So, from the time I met my wife, I begged to visit Russia. She thought I was insane, but listened, and eventually acquiesced.

A few years ago, we both turned 50, it was our 25thwedding anniversary, my son turned 21 and my daughter turned 18 – all in the same year. We decided to go big. With points and airline miles, this trip cost us next to nothing. Today the Ruble is cheap: about 70 Rubles to the dollar. You can get your bang for the buck, if you know what to do.

Moscow can be very intimidating, if you decide not to take a guided tour. St. Petersburg is more tourist-friendly.  This was a bona fide adventure.

So, here are a few words of wisdom if you want to do this trip totally on your own:

  1. Hire a Visa Company: Russian visas cost $160 per person. You do not want to apply through the Russian Consulate. Hospitality is not exactly the word that comes to mind for Russian bureaucracy. Instead, bring your passport and (Very lengthy!) application to a Russian Visa Agency. I used Russian-American Consulting Corp. They charge about $35 per person to process the visa. Trust me, it’s worth the cost.
  2. Learn the Cyrillic Alphabet: In Moscow, signs are only in Cyrillic. It is quite easy to master. PECTOPAH is restaurant. METPO is the Metro, or the famous Soviet subway systems.
  3. Travel like a Native: The Metro systems in Moscow and St. Petersburg, built during the Soviet era by Stalin and his crew, are efficient, cheap (70 cents for one trip) and beautiful. Also, they were built as bomb shelters, so they extend deep into the ground. When you land at the bottom of the escalators, notice the women in the small kiosks. They are supposed to maintain the platform. Usually they are asleep: they are drunk. (BXOD is entrance, bIXOD is exit). Both Metros have apps, so it should be quite easy to get around. Don’t take taxis! The taxi drivers don’t speak English and are quite dishonest. Look for the red star with the big red M; those are Metro stations.
  4. Take a Free Tour to Orient Yourself: We used Moscow Free Tour and St. Petersburg Free Tour to get a sense of each city. The tours were better than any paid tour I’ve ever taken. You can take many of their paid tours as well. We did one and it was fantastic.
  5. There’s Not Much to Bring Home: Unless you want a shapka (those big furry Russian hats), everything in Russia is very costly. I went into the Ralph Lauren store in Moscow and saw a tie I purchased at Bloomingdales. Price in Moscow: $315. Price in New York: $89. Russian books are cool souvenirs. My daughter purchased a few Harry Potter novels in Cyrillic. And I purchased a Calculus textbook: yes, Math is a universal language.
  6. Lenin’s Tomb: Go! It’s free, and fast. You have to leave all your belongings in a cubby outside of the tomb. It’s like the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode: you go in, take a step to the left, one to the right, and leave. Oh, and no photos for you!
  7. Eat like the Locals: Yes, both cities are inundated with American fast-food. Try the Russian version. We loved Tepemok (Teremok), a blini and dumpling Russian chain that briefly did business here in New York. Also, many Russian restaurants serve pizza and sushi. Lastly, because of the diversity of the former Soviet Union, there is a vast food diversity. Georgian, Uzbek, Tajik, and Azeri food abound. And they’re delicious and cheap!
  8. You can take an overnight train between the cities or use a local Russian carrier: We opted for the latter, using S-7 airlines. They were perfectly fine, efficient, and professional. Yes, our seats had seatbelts. No, the Internationale was not played on the flight.

So, if this whets your appetite (and I hope it does!), a trip to Russia on your own, while sounding daunting, is exciting, interesting, and rewarding. Just remember your sense of humor when dealing with bureaucracy and brusque Russians.   This was one of the best European trips I’ve ever taken, made more worthwhile knowing we did most of it with points and miles.

Check out some of our photos…..



St. Petersburg Metro-A must do on any trip to Russia is a trip on the Metro. Fast, efficient and cheap, the stations are magnificent, thanks to the Public Works projects Stalin initiated.





Church on Spilled Blood and Canals– Orthodox churches do not have pews: the parishoners stand. Icons line the walls. The priest stands behind the devoted. This church is beautiful, located right next to a cute park (great flea market) and abuts one of many canals.






St Basils Cathedral– The iconic Russian photo. But, did you know that, to thank the architect who designed this magnificent edifice, Ivan the Terrible had his eyes gouged out, so that he could never create such a masterpiece elsewhere?








GUM Department Store-A magnificent, but very overpriced, mall on Red Square.






Alexander Gardens-Gorgeous gardens outside of Red Square.





Peterhof-Peter the Great’s palace outside of St. Petersburg. Go for the gardens and fountains!







Astoria Hotel St. Petersburg-Iconic St. Petersburg hotel. Hitler planned to create his government there once he vanquished the Nazis. We all know how that went down…



About Alan-Europhile Alan Sheptin runs Sheptin Tutoring Group, a successful education consulting practice with offices in Chappaqua and New York City. His love of European travel has also led him to clientele in London, where he hopes to further expand his business. When he’s not spewing math formulas, teaching students how to integrate and teaching effective SAT and ACT test strategies, you can find him wandering Manhattan or any major European city. He has led his family through sixteen european countries and has plans to try to conquer at least eight more.