I still have mixed feelings about this country for I have been there twice just to confirm to myself how much I liked it out there. Often, people advise you not to go to a particular country because of how they deal with black people and traveling should not be a chore, it's the most amazing experience one could ever have aside from family. It is truly a coincidence that while I am writing this article, people are literally being killed on the other side of the ocean and the only thing they did wrong was to be born with a colour of skin they did not choose. Even if I had to choose the colour of my skin, I would not trade mine for any other skin colour - This is in no way a black vs non-black but right vs wrong. On this trip, I cannot say that I have experienced racism but definitely have been treated differently because I am black.
I did find part of the trip quite fun and if I was ever to return, it would be just for those.
Getting to Russia
Depending on where you are going, Russia is either 3 or 20 hours away - The eastern side is a neighbour to Finland, the western one with Wales (Alaska,Canada) and southern part with Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Those countries are not all on the same continents yet share a border with Russia.
Pretty much everyone needs a visa to go to Russia. Unless you are a citizen from a ex-communist country (Cuba, China, etc...), you will need to apply for a visa, and do so pretty early. The process works as follows:
Book a hotel in Russia
Request for a sponsorship from the hotel
Book an appointment at the Russian embassy (All applicants must come in person - E-visas have been introduced for citizens of certain countries)
Attend the appointment with the relevant supporting documents - The list can be found here
Where to stay?
Hotel St Petersburg offers a view on the Neva River.
Hotel Sovietsky allows you to step back in time and live the Tsar era all over again.
Because the country is so big, I had focused my time only around St Petersburg and Moscow. The choice of cities was probably the most random as I saw tickets to St Petersburg for about £200 then did some research about the city and off I was to Russia.
The closest big city to Finland, I think of St Petersburg as a bigger version of Amsterdam (but somewhat colder) for the vibe, the buildings, lights, etc.
I was so drawn to the beauty of the place that I was taking a photo of almost any build I would walk passed, which led to this awkward encounter with a big and tall Russian soldier who suspected I was up to no good:
Conversation with the Russian dude:
Soldier: Hey, stop! (while getting closer at a fast pace)
Soldier: You, American? (pointing his huge finger at me)
Me: (Putting on the most British accent I can impersonate) No, I'm from Senegal. It's in Africa
Soldier: Ah...Good. Go, no photo here
Me: Oh...Sorry, mate
PS: I only realised later it was actually a military building and if you know a bit about the US-Russian relationship, I think I was lucky to only get away with just a slap on the wrist.
Saint Isaac's Cathedral was originally built as a place of worship before it was then turned into a museum by the Soviet government in 1931 and has remained a museum ever since. It is one of the numerous landmarks with a western European influence.
It also has a rather impressive set of mosaic...
Fee: 250 Rubles (£3/$4/€3.5)
State Hermitage Museum
The second-largest art museum in the world is indeed in Russia and was founded by a woman (yet again, who runs the world?) named Catherine the Great. It all started in 1764 and since has become home to the world's largest collection of paintings among the 3 million items stored in the museum.
The art collection spans from Egyptian art to Italian renaissance and it can take visitors hours to go around the museum - You may need a whole morning/afternoon to see most things and apparently, that's only a third of the available art in the building as most are just stored out of sight.
If you're at all interested in history, I think the Hermitage museum is just right for you.
Fee: 300–830 Rubles (£3.5/$4.5/€4 - £9.75/$12/€11). Depending on the number of buildings you would like to visit.
Tserkovʹ Spasa na Krovi
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood used to be an orthodox church that has been converted into a museum. The church was built on the very same spot where political nihilists assassinated Emperor Alexander II or Alexander the liberator in 1881. The emperor was known for his reforms such as the liberation of the Russian serfs (almost slaves as they could only be sold with the land they work in) and the sale of Alaska to the US in anticipation of a takeover by Britain.
Fee: 250 Rubles (£3/$4/€3.5)
The capital and the most dynamic city in the country is home to about 20 million people. Although I preferred St Petersburg, Moscow is still worth the detour for the red square and the great architecture around the city. I hopped on the 4-hour Sapsan train from St Petersburg, Moscow bound but missed the train on both legs thanks to language barriers. I got to the train station relatively early (around 30-45 minutes) and still managed to miss my train because all of the boards are displaying information in Cyrillic - Ensure you know what you're looking for and perhaps take screenshots of the name of cities or train information in Cyrillic just so you won't be as lost as I was. I asked around to as many people I could lay eyes but not one could help, even at the ticket office but I ended up with a free re-scheduling of my train ticket.
There are also two things I very much enjoyed in Moscow. One was the 2nd best burgers in the world on the Nouche scale from Black Star Burger and the second was the best soufflé au chocolat from 45°/60° - The Argentinian prawns were also amazing. Hopefully, I will try them in Buenos Aires one day...
Moskovskaya sobornaya mechet
Moscow Cathedral Mosque is located right next to the Olympic stadium, in the city centre of Moscow. It is known to have gone through two building phases as it initially deviated from the Qibla (direction to Mecca) and at its inauguration, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine all attending the ceremony. The design very much reflects the Russian identity as the dome is similar to most churches in Russia.
Sobor Vasiliya Blazhennogot
My favourite landmark by far, St Basil's Cathedrale is yet another church that has been converted to a museum. Once the tallest building in the country, it also used to be confused with the Kremlin.
I remember someone approaching me and asking whether I was not cold as I was from Africa lol...
The most famous square, surrounded by the Kremlin, St Basil's Cathedrale, the Kazan Cathedrale, Zemsky Prikaz, and GUM.
The Kazan Cathedrale...
GUM, the department store...
FIFA World cup - Russia 2018
I very much loved most parts of Russia but the FIFA World cup did not change the treatment I received or the availability of support to help understand certain directions or information.
Just like football players, we exchanged jerseys with supporters from other countries and that is the kind of memory I would like to keep of Russia...
Always proud to see the flag of my country displayed around the city of Ekaterinburg...
The world turned up in Russia for the competition. The most cheerful I have ever seen Moscow!
The Mexican exposition of art and culture in Moscow...
There are things you can only experience/see in Russia, here are a few...
Unique restaurant names such as this ...
Another awkward incident that occurred was when our flight from Moscow to Ekaterinburg had a gate change. We went to the information desk after waiting for a while in the gate number on our boarding passes and we were told the gate was changed and an announcement has been made (in Russian). We still made it to the gate just 30 minutes before the flight but were turned away and ended up being forced to buy business class tickets on the spot, not to miss the game. We even lost our return ticket - Thanks Aeroflot!
On my way back from St Petersburg, I met Usain Bolt!
I still think a trip to Russia is very much worth it. My experience is in no way a guarantee for every visitor to go through the same. If anything, there is so much to learn from the country as the media has been portraying a much worse image than the reality.
Until next time...