Travel - Russia

From Russia, with mixed feelings

As the world's eyes focus once again on Russia, Tom Albeson visits galleries, walks the streets, and gets a feel of contemporary life in Moscow and St Petersburg

Imagine going to Moscow and not seeing Red Square. From behind the police cordon I cursed Condoleezza Rice - not for US foreign policy, but for potentially messing up my trip. She was visiting the Kremlin and as a result everything was closed, including Lenin's sombre mausoleum and the riotously colourful St Basil's Cathedral. She wasn't even doing any sight-seeing: she was there to discuss US plans for missile defences in Eastern Europe.

Like the needlessly-closed Red Square, it would appear the drama of Putin's sabre-rattling is just part of life in Russia. Having been turned away from Krasnaya Ploshchad (that's Red Square), I tried to buy some water. Separated from the babushka at the kiosk by an unassailable language barrier, I somehow managed to become embroiled in a full-scale argument. I thought she was going to call the police, but as fast as it had flared up tension subsided and I had the bottle in my hand, none the wiser as to what had upset her. This is the way things go these days, in the former Soviet Union.

I met an ex-soldier who had been in Chechnya, and, trying my best to be a polite visitor, I asked him what the Russian was for 'please', 'thank you' and 'sorry'. He told me, but then added dryly, 'You will not need these words. These are not words we really use in Russia.' It was at this point that I decided my visit was going to be hard work. That is not to say it wasn't rewarding. There is a lot of drama and ceremony surrounding everyday life in Russia. That is what makes it such a thrilling destination.

There's just no middle ground and this is a principle which applies as much to the architecture as the people. I did eventually make it onto Red Square and to the other-worldly St Basil's. Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, the Cathedral is a labyrinth of small stone chapels with the haunting strains of Gregorian chant echoing around the chambers. The more imaginative visitor might see it as 'a cryptic clue to the mysterious Russian soul', as my guidebook put it. What struck me was the marked contrast between it and those other well known Moscow landmarks, the Seven Sisters: vast, monumental buildings which encircle the city centre, built in a style known as Stalin Gothic. Huge and magnificent edifices, they block out the light and, as intended, leave you in awe of the regime that created them. This contrast between the unfamiliar beauty of St Basil's and the awesome spectacle of these communist creations said the most to me about the 'mysterious Russian soul', if there is such a thing.

On the subject of spectacles, one of the best experiences for the first-time visitor to Russia has to be the overnight train from Moscow to St Petersburg - a real rail adventure. Smartly uniformed train crew usher you on board while Moscow's rousing anthem plays over the station speaker system. You fall asleep in your very basic bunk to the sound of the train rattling through the countryside, and wake up over 400 miles away in a completely different city. I can't think of a better way to arrive: St Petersburg at dawn is serene and splendid, all calm wide boulevards and majestic canals. A more hectic side is revealed as the city wakes up, but the feel of the place is still very different to Moscow's grandiose, heavyweight atmosphere. Built only 300 years ago by Peter the Great, St Petersburg was designed to be a much more European city, tying Russia more closely to the West. As a tourist, it certainly feels much more accessible.

What really drew me to St Petersburg was the impressive art collection of the Hermitage. The Winter Palace of the Tsars, which houses the Hermitage is itself a baroque masterpiece, though - you could spend days exploring its 400 rooms and the views of Dvorsovaya Ploshchad or the River Neva, without even glancing at the magnificent collection of work by Matisse, Picasso and Rembrandt.

Another big hitter is the Russian Museum, with exhibitions charting the history of art in Russia over the last 1000 years - no mean feat. Surprisingly, what its permanent collection doesn't cover is photography. In the early 1900s the Russian avant-garde was at the forefront of photography, but with the advent of Soviet rule, photographs depicting anything other than an idyllic life under communism usually resulted in imprisonment for the photographer, and, until very recently, photography has taken a back seat in stories of Russia's cultural history, at least until now. The emergence of pictures taken during this period, in exhibitions all over the country, has begun, slowly, to expose a country and a people much more akin to my experiences.

Until the 1990s, Ukrainian-born artist Boris Mikhailov exhibited in friends' apartments. Now his social-realist work - most notably the Red series pictured here - sells for thousands of pounds, and earlier this year these pictures showing life behind the iron curtain were part of the Barbican's In the Face of History exhibition.

New organisations, like the National Centre for Photography of the Russian Federation in St Petersburg and the Moscow House of Photography, have been established in the last ten years. As well as retrospectives of early Russian pioneers, these venues showcase work from contemporary photographers like Georgy Pervov who, through the figurative (almost abstract) photographs of his Totalrealism series, hints at a side of life not accessible to casual visitors like me.

In revealing a new perspective, these images symbolise what is so exciting about visiting Russia, and how the country hooks you. You do come up against language barriers and cultural differences, but the prospect of getting round these and understanding something of this huge, historic and complex country is just too enticing to be dismissed.

Fact File

KLM flies directly to Moscow from Edinburgh. Flights start at £240. Air Berlin flies directly from Glasgow, with flights starting at £175.

Getting around
The Metro is the best way to get around Moscow. (single fares cost less than a packet of crisps and the stations are pretty impressive too). In St Petersburg, it's easier to walk, but you shouldn't pass up the opportunity of a boat trip.

Learn the words for 'café' and 'restaurant' or there's a chance you could go hungry for the first few days. Don't miss out on Georgian food, which is equally great for both vegetarians and carnivores.

Tourist visas are essential for travel in Russia, and you need to start organising them at least two months prior to departure. If you're not on a package tour, you will require visa support, which can be obtained by contacting your hotel or B&B, again, well in advance.

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