Russia was grim, but not because of the cold, but the money grabbing rudeness of everyone, the studied ignorance, the closure of museums at random by uncommunicative militiamen, the lack of any signs in Russian let alone English, French or German. I suspect that the rampant corruption is why everyone is so down and why in a major city like Moscow or St.Petersburg it takes 45 minutes at least to order a taxi, due to the fact that any enterprise attracts the attention of corrupt officials. On the other hand the Russians themselves seem to react to this with a studied glumness and large quantites of alcohol. so do not expect a sober driver or indeed for any driver at all. I travel everywhere in Europe, including all the old Warsaw Pact countries now in the EU, I have travelled worldwide from the Americas to Asia and I have never ever encountered such unfriendliness, lack of interest, money grabbing extortion and sheer horribleness of Russia and the Russians. Don’t go. They have nothing of interest, their art, architecture, culture and food was either bought by a monarch by mail order or one of the long lost of Italians, English, French and Germans that they hired to make or build it. The only part of their history that is fascinatingly Russian is the USSR and they have obliterated all traces of it, so that you can’t get any grip of what it was like, and the place seems to have been run by a succession of kleptocrats of one kind or another since 1991. It’s scary that Stalin seems to be being rehabilitated as a “Great Russian” (ironically exactly how Lenin described him as a warning to others) and the place reeks of xenophobia. If you want to try Eastern Europe, go to Budapest or Prague, do not try Russia for at least another 30 years.
Ok, now I have offended all Russians and people of Russian descent, let me add that I have known Russian ex pats all my life and it was falling in love with the idea of the place as a kid that made we want to go.. maybe that made it worse for me.. I know that behind the rude ignorant glumness there are happy husbands and wives and children and if I knew them as people they’d be fine.. but that’s true everywhere and nowhere else (not even Poland which was a bit like it in Warsaw) treats visitors so badly whilst gouging every last ruble from them.
The fact that my Leica M4 was robbed from my bag on the St Petersburg Metro, a camera bought for me by Ann for my 40th and therefore both of great sentimental value and a beautiful artefact in it’s own right soured things still further, but be clear, we were so deeply sick of the place before then.