8 Things That Surprised Me About Russia

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To be perfectly honest, Russia was never high up on my travel bucket list. It's one of those countries that I assumed I would visit eventually, but that I wasn't actively dreaming about like some other places on my list.

But when I was presented with a chance to go to Russia with Viking River Cruises this past autumn, I decided I really couldn't pass it up. Russia is, after all, a fascinating country with iconic cities, a rich history, and cool UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I figured I would suck up the expensive visa fee and just go for it.

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia
The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg
Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega
A cool UNESCO site: Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega

A lot of Americans have certain preconceptions about Russia. We associate the country with communism and the Cold War, and have visions in our heads of ugly Soviet-era buildings and dour locals. Many even assume that Americans are not welcome in Russia.

I admit that I wasn't immune to these stereotypes. I was expecting fairly ugly cities and unfriendly locals. I was slightly worried that I would be given a hard time at immigration. And I wasn't entirely sure that I was even going to *like* Russia. I was definitely intimidated.

But what I found surprised me.

Smolny Convent in St. Petersburg

Yes, Russia still has plenty of issues (the gap between the rich and poor, for example, is really staggering at times). And no, I'm not really in love with the country's politics. But I liked the Russia I saw much more than I ever expected to.

Here are a few things that surprised me about visiting Russia for the first time:

It's not all Soviet-era apartment blocks

Even though the standard picture most Americans have in their heads when it comes to Russia is of drab, gray buildings from the Soviet days, the reality in many cities is actually quite different. I mean, sure, you WILL find those Soviet apartment blocks. But you'll also find some incredible architecture the far predates the Bolshevik Revolution.

State Historical Museum on Red Square in Moscow

Palace Square in St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, for example, the wide streets and Baroque buildings reminded me of Paris. And the canals there reminded me of Amsterdam (which isn't actually surprising, since Peter the Great studied ship building in the Netherlands as a young man).

St. Petersburg, Russia
In St. Petersburg

The churches – all the churches!

Churches are not the first thing I think of when I think of Russia. But let me tell you that they are everywhere in the country. I’m not sure why this was so surprising to me (maybe from the knowledge that religion was banned during the Soviet years?), but I was absolutely blown away by all the beautiful churches, cathedrals, and monasteries that I saw in Russia.

Troitse-Sergiev Monastery in Sergiev Posad, Russia
Troitse-Sergiev Monastery in Sergiev Posad
Moscow Kremlin architecture
Golden domes inside the Kremlin in Moscow

There are the famous ones like St. Basil's in Moscow and the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. There are churches that survived the Soviet years, and others that were destroyed and have only been rebuilt in the last two decades. There are even a handful of churches inside the walls of the Kremlin.

St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow
St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow
Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg

I'd never been inside a Russian Orthodox church before this trip, and didn't realize how ornate and beautiful they could be.

St. Isaac's Cathedral dome
Inside St. Isaac's Cathedral
Inside the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg
Inside the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The Metro is incredibly affordable

When I visit a new city on my own, I almost always rely on public transportation to get around. And while I didn't need to rely on it much on this trip since I was on a cruise, I still got a taste of the Metro on a couple walking tours.

The Metro in Moscow especially is almost a tourist attraction in and of itself – the stations dating back to the 1930s are breathtaking, resembling underground palaces more than they do your average metro station. With marble walls and floors, bas-reliefs, chandeliers, and even mosaics and stained glass windows, I would recommend taking the Metro even if you don't need to just to see some of these stations.

Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow, Russia
Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow

And the best news? The Metro is incredibly affordable. A single ride in Moscow and St. Petersburg costs between 30 and 35 rubles – which is right around 50 cents USD!

And this is a good thing because…

The traffic is insane

Just as I was blown away by all the churches in Russia, I was also baffled by the insane traffic in both Moscow and St. Petersburg (but especially in Moscow). I've never seen so many cars inching along on 6- or 8-lane highways. It's not just rush “hour” here – more like rush HOURS.

The explosion of car ownership after the fall of the Soviet Union has led to Moscow's traffic being rated the worst in the world. (And it doesn't help that most locals choose not to use all those beautiful Metro stations…)

Kalyazin Bell Tower in the Volga River
Luckily there wasn't much traffic on the Volga River…

More English than I expected

I didn't expect to find wide-spread English in Russia, and it's true that people outside the cities speak very little of it. But for those worried about not being able to communicate in bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, I actually encountered much more English than I expected to – and especially within the tourism industry.

And, to be honest, the Cyrillic alphabet isn't as difficult to learn and decipher as it first seems, either. I would brush up on your Cyrillic and learn a few key Russian phrases before you go, but you don't need to be fluent to visit Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Russians do have a sense of humor

Russians are often depicted as being very severe and angry-looking. And this leads to them being characterized as unfriendly and lacking a sense of humor. But guess what? This is another one of those stereotypes.

Russian folk music in Moscow
This guy at a Russian folk music performance had me in stitches.

Sure, some Russians can be pretty dour. And they won't smile at you on the Metro or on the street. But I actually met quite a few Russians with awesome senses of humor! I even had two separate tour guides tell Putin jokes.

I felt safe the entire time

I wasn't sure what to expect as an American in Russian. Would I be questioned heavily at immigration? Would people be rude to me? Would I feel unsafe?

Well, the short answer is no. I had no trouble at immigration, encountered no anti-American sentiments, and felt very safe the entire time in Russia. There definitely was a security presence at major tourist sites (and I even had to walk through a metal detector to get into the GUM department store), but it actually wasn't much more than what you'd find in bigger cities in the U.S.

The Tsar Canon at the Kremlin in Moscow
The Tsar Canon is a good symbol for Russia: it LOOKS super intimidating, but it poses no threat to tourists.

The media paints a certain (intimidating) picture of Russia here in America, and I definitely don't think it's an accurate one.

It was easier to get a visa than I thought

Lastly, it was much easier to get a Russian visa than I expected it to be. I was expecting a tricky application, and possibly difficultly getting everything approved. But, in reality, it was pretty simple.

Viking suggests a visa company to all its passengers to make things even easier – but since I wasn't able to part with my passport 30+ days earlier this year because of my travel schedule, I decided to get the visa on my own in person. Viking still provided me with the invitation letter that I needed as an American to visit Russia, and I did the rest.

Peterhof Palace fountains in winter

If you want to apply for a Russian visa in-person, you don't do it through an embassy. In the U.S., you go to Invisa Logistic Services (ILS), which acts as the official Russian Visa Center in the U.S. They have a handful of locations around the country, and I decided to get mine in Washington, D.C.

I filled out the visa application (which is a couple pages long), got passport photos taken, and made an appointment at ILS. During my appointment, they looked over my application to make sure I didn't make any mistakes, took my passport and payment, and told me when I could come pick my visa up. That was it!

The application was much simpler than I feared, and the whole process was actually pretty painless. (Except for the price – since I got a 3-day expedited visa, I ended up paying nearly $300… yuck! Regular visa processing starts at $193.)

Inside the Refectory Church at Troitse-Sergiev Monastery
Definitely worth it, though, to see things like this!

So, overall, Russia really surprised me – but in a good way. Visiting on a river cruise was a great way to experience the country for the first time, and I'm already plotting when I might be able to go back to St. Petersburg during the summer for the White Nights and to see some of the palaces (like Peterhof) and gardens in their full glory.

I totally understand the people who won't visit Russia because they don't agree with Putin and his politics – but, just like almost every other country in the world, the government in Russia does not always reflect the sentiment of the people who live there.

If you've ever toyed with the idea of traveling to Russia, I would say go for it.

Is Russia on your travel bucket list? If you've been before, what did YOU find surprising?


Things that surprised me about visiting Russia for the first time


*Note: I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip to Russia, and received a complimentary cruise. As always, though, all opinions, photos, and observations are 100% my own.


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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100 Comments on “8 Things That Surprised Me About Russia

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  1. You talk a lot about your preconceptions and about being an American.

    Why would any educated person not associate Russia with churches and St Petersburg with elegant streets and palaces. It’s actually world famous for it, and has been throughout the cold war, where a church was pretty much a stand in symbol for the Kremlin, itself an historic building.

    Why would Russia and Russians care that you are American.

    The Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia is not some superpower with an army and technological economy to stand against the United States. They want your MONEY!

    This being afraid of the whole world HAS TO STOP!

    You are more likely to get raped— the liberal fantasy — and killed in some rough part of Chicago.

    As for the security, I hate to tell you but it wasn’t for Americans.

    Perhaps you should stop stuffing your craw with Ellen Degeneres and Oprah Winfrey/Barbara Walters garbage?

      Being an American means we’ve been conditioned to think about Russia in a certain way. It doesn’t matter how “educated” you are; constant negative media coverage will subconsciously color your opinion of any place. I am all about encouraging people to travel and break down stereotypes with their own experiences, which is exactly what I did here. I invite you to read just about any other post on my site; how about this one: https://www.dangerous-business.com/travel-and-fear/

    I visited Moscow little over 6 months ago and I did not find many people speaking English but as I am from Croatia It was not so hard to communicate with Russians. After 2 days I was kicking arse in Russian.
    I loved Moscow and I will visit again. I also plan to visit Iran. Oh and don’t forget to visit space museum.

    I would love to go to Russia. It’s just not on the top of the list for me either, especially not with that visa price tag…

      Visas are definitely a bit pricey – hopefully that will change in the future!

    I would be cautious about this tale as she traveled with the tour company (Vikings) and that is by no means the same as traveling by yourself in Russia. English is not present outside immediate city centers (think Kremlin and Hermitage).
    Russian knowledge is a must if you travel independently.

      Traveling independently is definitely a different experience! But I only write about the travel experiences I *actually* have, and these were my takeaways from that!

        Thank you, it was interesting to read the opinion of Americans about popular tourist places in Russia. Write from Moscow.

    I wanna visit Russia, mingle with the locals and enjoy good food and drink while seeing the sights !!

    Would visit outside St. Petersburg or Moscow? Like a few hundred km outside Moscow.

      I did visit places outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow, though mostly stayed in western Russia on my trip.

    I just returned from a Norwegian cruise that stopped in St. Petersburg, and I was surprised that a) no visa was even required as long as you book a cruise excursion through the cruise line and the ship is stationed less than 72 hours, and, b) the Russian security checkpoint (customs, passport check) was actually far more efficient, faster, and easier than U.S. and other European security checkpoints!!! As an American trying to return to my own home country I have to go through more hassle!

      Next time I visit St. Petersburg, I think I’ll try it that way!

        It is interesting that you would have a problem with the gap between rich and poor in Russia, when indeed said gap is bigger in the US and even more pronounced in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize. It’s all a question of perception …

          There are vast wealth gaps in many countries. This post is specifically about Russia. Pointing out that it exists here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in other places? But thanks for this asinine comment – reminds me that I should add a disclaimer on this post about not traveling to Russia presently.

    Hi, Amanda! Russia is my native country, I was born in Saratov, and now I live in Moscow. I read your post, and it is very interesting and I almost agree with everything! I recommend you to visit the cities of the so-called Golden Ring, and other small cities of Russia, because they still retained a real Russian flavor. If we talk about people in our country, I think, they are different, as in any other country. I treat Americans well. I have always respected Americans, and I like your culture) Really, Russia and America have a lot in common-Russia is an international country too, and we are accustomed to different people and cultures. Tolerance is a very important human quality. Sorry for my English-it is very poor, because at school we were taught only German.

    Great to see russia as tourist. But reality starts when you are living in a country as Russia is. When you are tourist you see just a very small part of who russians really are. And of course you are bringing money to the country and they are very aware of that fact.

    Hi! I read your post with curiousity as I’m a native Russian,it’s always interesting to look at yourselves through somebody’s mind. If you return to the Golden Ring, I do recommend you to visit Pereslavl Zalessky,this is the most amazing town among the others included into this route. I’ve visited most if them – Vladmir, Sergiev Posad, Rostov etc.,but Pereslavl is my favourite point of the Golden Ring. First if all,there are not only ancient churches and cathedrals (by the way,one of the oldest stone churches of Russia still exists there,it was biult in 1152 if i’m not mistaken) famous for its architecture and interior, but also a number of funny and fascinating museums (like the Tea Pot Museum,the Money Museum,the Flatiron museum, and the Museum of Wit where fantastic and unforgettable things like bottles with dancing ballerinas and a thing for cracking nuts made as a naked woman are collected,there are also other creative objects). Along with this, Pereslavl hosts the ballooning festival almost every summer that lasts till night when all these huge balloons seem burning… In Pereslavl you can see one of the firts ships built by the order of Peter the Great as it was the place where our navy originated from. And I can tell you more and more about what to do there. If you got interested,write me a letter, I’ll help you with logistics etc. and maybe I’ll be able to accompany you there.

      Thanks for that excellent tip, Anastasia! Sounds awesome!

    I was a frequent visitor to main cities in Russia several years ago (and planning a trip now). Living outside major cities is affordable but you have to know the language well. Living in Moscow can be expensive as hell but there are always options to downgrade. Most Russians don’t care about foreigners (and Americans too) since they just making ends meet (especially outside Moscow).

    Great photos of Kizhi and Kalyazin. Totally off-the-beaten-track destinations even in Russia!

      My trip to Russia was on a cruise/tour, and I loved that we visited a few of those off-the-beaten-path locations – really gave a more complete view of what Russia is like. (Though there’s still SO MUCH left to see!)

    HA HA HA…I love it !!! I’m so glad that you learned something true about Russia as an American…It’s good to hear from someone who has discovered truths about Russia in these modern times. Your pre-Russian perceptions are a part of something in Russian-America diplomatic politics that is termed “Russian Demonization” and at times in history it has gone both ways; with certain influential Russians demonizing America(ns). Russian humor is nothing new either it’s just suppressed under demonization. Nakita Kruschev was one of the most hilarious individuals in Russian political history…it is told through historical accounts that even Stalin had a sense of humor…but V.Lenin less so because he was so intent on leading Russia through the tumults of the collapse of the Tsarist Empire and then through a pretty violent series of revolutions. Lenin’s resolve and dedication to Russia are where that “contemporary” ominous portrait of Russians comes from; before that, the image came from Ivan the first…Russian humor is actually very intimate and comes from comradery and observing absurdity in nature and then emphasizing that absurdity by cracking jokes. We are relocating to Moscow within the next five years or so, and we are not going as Americans but as Russian-Americans and we are intent on becoming Russian citizens (once again)…Moscow is termed “the city of billionaires” and that is the reason for your experience with security at Gum Marketplace;you are basically talking about a city that has a population that is the same as New York; Moscow today is global city center for Europe and Asia…the traffic is almost identical to NYC, I’m glad that you enjoyed your trip and found an experience unexpected…thank you for this article.

      Yes, I heard that statistic about billionaires in Moscow and was surprised! Yet another thing I learned there.

        I speak Russian and I have a lot of specific Russian History coursework in both my undergraduate and graduate degree because as I am learning in life that Russian diplomacy is becoming my life’s work…I am academically trained in the sciences and engineering but I’ve always felt strongly about Russia, Russian Life, Russian Politics, Economics and Russian culture…the Departmental relations between e.g., Dept of State and the Russian Consulate are horrible and a general political nightmare…The US state department constantly terrifies prospective travelers and travelers with aspirations of an extended stay in Russia, or others who want to become Russian citizens with accusations that the Russian Government will fine, convict and imprison us for even for the slightest infraction of visa laws and will hold anyone for ransom who are even remotely associated with the US…be glad that you were on your visa-free cruise travel permit and that Russia is creating a cultural and economic renaissance for its citizens, and that V.Putin is a really great person and global leader…we are applying for an Entry Visa that is suppossed to shelter us from the US State Department and allows us to apply for citizenship without becoming their example of stateless victims…

    Amanda, thank you for a reasonable post about Russia.

    Amanda, thank you for an honest article about our country. I live in the South, on the don river. Here live the don Cossacks. Russia is not only Moscow and St. Petersburg. Come to the world Cup in 2018 and you will see many good and kind people and beautiful architecture of the cities. We may not like smiling people like you, but I assure you that when you call you will always help and answer your questions. Too bad that the press divides our peoples. Come again to visit us)

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