- The Smile on the Face of the Tiger
Where to Stay, What to Do
Russia can be a
tourist's delight, and is becoming increasingly a source of
business opportunities too.
In the mid 1990s, Moscow was
consistently rated as the most expensive city in the world to do
business. But, I've spent the last two weeks staying both in an
all-suite hotel for $84 night and in a good four star hotel for
$110/night (these rates included all taxes and cooked
breakfast), I have a private car (BMW) and English speaking
driver to chauffeur me around town during the day at a cost of
$5/hr, and even the rule of thumb 'Big Mac' price index also
confirms that Moscow is no longer expensive - a Big Mac costs
Note - this was written in Feb
2002, prices have increased considerably since then, alas, but
smart people can still get good values.
Russia is still evolving and
The Russian financial crash
of 1998 has given the country a much sounder base to build upon.
In 1999, the economy grew by a mild 1.8%, then soared 8.2% in
2000 and in 2001 grew another 5%. 2002 is projected to bring
another 4% increase. The new Russian President, Vladimir Putin
(now the good friend of President Bush) took over after Boris
Yeltsin resigned at the end of 1999, and has brought stability
and consistent improvement in all elements of Russia since that
A simplified tax code,
reductions in business paperwork and taxation for both
individuals and corporations, a growth in the predictable rule
of law and order, continuing clampdowns on corruption, combined
with boosting social services and the growing acceptance of
western business standards by the major Russian companies are
all making the country very much more attractive to western
investors, partners and tourists.
Traveling to Russia
Although there are vague
provisions for 'visa free' short visits to Russia (no more than
72 hours) you are better advised to always secure a visa before
your travels. This is, however, a simple task these days, and
you are almost 100% assured to be granted the visa you request
with only a minimum of paperwork needing to be easily filled
When you fly to Russia, you
have a choice of either Aeroflot or any one of many other
western carriers. You might think you 'know' Aeroflot, but
chances are you don't. Today's Aeroflot operates nearly new 767
and 777 aircraft on its flights from the US, with either two or
three class cabins. Even discounted Aeroflot coach fares allow
you to purchase a space available business class upgrade for
only $350-500 extra in each direction - making it the best
bargain in the skies. Sure, it isn't the best business class in
the skies, but it is probably the cheapest!
Aeroflot's business class is
Otherwise, most of the major
international airlines can get you to Moscow and St Petersburg
via their European hub (often with a requirement for an
overnight stay at the hub in one direction or the other).
Staying in Russia
There are more western style
hotels in Moscow and St Petersburg now than ever before, and
increasingly major international hotel franchisors are taking
over the management of hotels and branding them with their
recognizable names and imposing their usual standards of service
In Moscow the city radiates
out from a central point which can be considered to be
approximately at the Kremlin/Red Square. A central hotel is
convenient for tourists, but not so meaningful for business
visitors. There is no clear 'Wall Street' or 'London City'
region in Moscow, with businesses having their offices randomly
distributed, variously in glittering new buildings of the
absolutely highest standard or in dowdy old Soviet style
buildings (which may or may not have been extravagantly
renovated inside). The key location issue in that case is merely
to keep within the central part of the city (ie inside the
Hotels range in price from
about the $100/night mark - which will maybe get you a
surprising bargain at an 'unknown' hotel such as the stylish
Sretenskaya that I stayed at for several nights and the
Best Eastern Volga all-suite hotel that I also stayed at, or
a gloomy room in a former Soviet mega-hotel such as the Rossiya
or Cosmos. Once you pass the $200/night point, you can expect a
room in a fully westernised hotel that would be
indistinguishable from any other room in any other hotel in any
other major international city.
Your first challenge is to
get from the airport to the city. Try to have a transfer
pre-arranged for you, at a cost probably between $25-50. If you
have to take a taxi from the airport, you will pay as much as
the driver thinks he can extort from you, and probably very much
more than a private transfer would cost!
City traffic in Moscow is
atrocious. The best way to travel around the city is often to
use their very efficient (and extremely crowded) metro system
(25c per ride). Otherwise, if you are adventurous, and can speak
a smattering of Russian, you can simply flag down any passing
car and ask them to take you where you want to go. If the driver
has some spare time and is keen to earn a few extra dollars,
he'll take you there - most trips around the inner city are
unlikely to cost more than $3-5. If you're going to want to hire
a car and driver for an extended period of time, as you travel
from meeting to meeting, then you will pay a flat hourly rate,
typically in the $5-10 range (depending on the type of car, the
driver's language skills, etc).
If you want an interpreter,
they will charge a similar rate to that charged by a car and
driver, with more seasonal variation - in the peak tourist
months there can be shortages of good interpreters (especially
in St Petersburg when cruise ships are in port).
As an amusing aside, a local
Muscovite told me that their traffic was becoming more sedate
and orderly - a situation that is generally ascribed to the
changing demographics of the drivers. Once a rare sight, women
are increasingly to be found behind the wheel of cars.
New restaurants are opening
all the time, and there are vast numbers of McDonalds outlets,
all usually extremely busy!
The good news - most mid
market and up market restaurants will have menus in English as
well as Russian. The bad news - the servers may not speak
English themselves. This can add a certain edge of ambiguity and
uncertainty as to what you actually end up eating, and in what
order! Mid market restaurants are no more expensive than 'back
home' (a decent two or three course meal and a drink or two can
be had for under $25 per person including tax and (no more than)
If you're a lover of the
performing arts, prepare yourself for a treat. Earlier this week
I enjoyed a front row center seat at the Kremlin Palace Theater
for a performance of Swan Lake - the ticket cost $27. The
previous Saturday night saw me at the Bolshoi - $50 for an
excellent seat there.
As for shopping, the new
Okhotny Ryad underground shopping center, and its adjacent
neighbor GUM give you two extravagantly deluxe malls full of the
same types of stores you'd see back home. The main difference is
price - it seems that things are more expensive in these malls
than in the US!
The Rest of the Tiger
Moscow is atypical of Russia
as a whole, and while Moscow has enjoyed substantial foreign
investment and is definitely western-leaning, much of the rest
of the country is primitive and unfriendly to most westerners.
Things can even turn sour in Moscow - make sure you always carry
your passport and visa with you in case of a random police stop,
(and beware of pickpockets). Also make sure you have formal
confirmations from all providers of travel services - 'Murphy's
Law' can operate with a vengeance in Russia and if you don't
have total documentation to confirm your reservations, you might
find yourself with major problems.
But, in a managed manner,
Moscow and St Petersburg are tourist delights and business
opportunities. See you there!
More Russian Information
See also our article on
Speak and Read Russian, and, of course, why not consider
going on one of our
Russian River Cruises.
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1 Feb 2002, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.