Russia: Visiting in 2023

Yekaterinburg Opera Theatre, Russia.
Yekaterinburg Opera Theatre, Russia.

Tourists and Business Travelers Visiting Russia in 2023. Here Is What You Will Find There

By Dr. James Pearce

I’ve been traveling to Russia for over a decade. I’ve got familial ties here and have lived in three different Russian cities. It’s a country impossible to understand without visiting, and its vastness and diversity offer something for everyone. But last February, everything changed.

 Ice Town, 1905 Square. Yekaterinburg
Ice Town, 1905 Square. Yekaterinburg

After the war in Ukraine broke out in February 2022, Western boycotts were announced and airline and travel companies suspended their operations in Russia.

It was cut off from SWIFT, the international payment system, and most foreign bank cards no longer work here unless your bank or country uses Russia’s own payment system, MIR.

Overall, the number of foreign tourists in 2022 fell by 90%, and for the few still going to Russia, the trip is a costly headache. Most visitors in 2022 went for work, family reasons or to study.

Harming Reputations

Put simply, many westerners don’t want traveling to Russia to harm their reputation, personally or professionally. I argue that it shouldn’t. Travel should bring people together and not be based on political views.

Moreover, Russia is the world’s largest country spanning nine time zones and bordering fourteen other countries, from Norway to North Korea, across Europe, Central Asia and all the way to the Far East. We ignore and misunderstand it at our peril.

More Visitors from the Middle East and India to Russia

Although tourism from the West fell, travelers from the Middle East and India actually increased along with domestic tourism. China is also expected to post big numbers this year now that it has reopened.

Of course, this won’t make up for the fall in western tourists, and important to note is that few of these countries have condemned Russia’s actions or joined the sanctions. In fact, business is operating as normal – and in some instances strengthening and helping Russia to get around western sanctions.

Unlike before, one must now either fly to Russia from a third country (like Turkiye, UAE, or Armenia ), hop on a bus in Tallinn, or train from Helsinki, which both go to St. Petersburg. It’s also possible to travel by car from a neighboring country with an open border, like Georgia. Each option gives you the chance to explore another part of the world en route you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Novo-Rus style building, Yekaterinburg.
Novo-Rus style building, Yekaterinburg.

Russia by Bus

If going by bus, one usually takes you to the border, and another will pick you up on the Russian side. On average, the trip takes a total of 7-9 hours, not including border crossing and customs time. About half a dozen buses go daily, and it’s certainly the cheapest way in (as little as £35).

The trains are also relatively frequent, and the journey is shorter, at about 3 hours 30 mins. Tickets are upwards from 100 Euros, however. Flights will vary depending on the airline company, route you take, and location you book from. Turning your VPN on can help you get a cheaper ticket.

Last summer, one German couple chose the bus for their first trip to Russia. It might have seemed like an odd time to go, but not to them. ‘Why not?!’ they said. ‘It’s still a fascinating country. Our friends came recently, and had only good things to say.’

Many travelers report long lines and additional questions at the border. Some I spoke to were waiting for three hours, whereas others got through in fifteen minutes with no questions.

The only real danger here is missing your bus on the other side. Depending on the schedule, the drivers don’t always wait if you get stuck in a long line. In which case, you need to hope another bus is due soon or arrange alternative transport.

Flying through Turkiye to Russia

The Yeltsin Centre, Yekaterinburg.
The Yeltsin Centre, Yekaterinburg.

I chose to fly through Turkiye onto Yekaterinburg in the Ural region, where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

In place of the house where they were murdered now stands a Church in their honor. The flight was full both ways.

Istanbul is also significant in Russia’s history and the modern geopolitical climate. Almost 100 years ago, after the Bolsheviks came to power, hundreds of thousands left Russia through Constantinople never to return. As one journalist recently put it, Constantinople is where history and Russian exile begin.

Turkiye is Full of Russians

On almost every street corner one can hear the Russian language now. As one of the few places Russian citizens can still travel visa-free, hotels are frequently full of Russian guests. There are also plenty of Russian businesses also popping up and new employees or nomad workers in the city’s various cafes and bars.

When I landed in Yekaterinburg, I got through the border in maybe twenty minutes and answered only basic questions. It seems individual experiences are precisely that.

One change from before was the amount of cash I took with me. Most foreigners will have to take enough to last their trip, and either exchange it in a third country or one of a select few Russian banks.

You can still take up to $10,000 in cash, but a new law stipulates that you cannot take any foreign currency totaling more than $10,000 out of Russia.

If you have relatives or a Russian bank account, you can transfer money using Koronapay, Unistream, or Contact. Crypto is also used.

Circus, Yekaterinburg.
Circus, Yekaterinburg.

Russian Life Carries On

Despite the war in Ukraine, Russian life appears to be carrying on largely as normal. The appearance of pro-war propaganda is the only visible difference at first and even small towns have been affected. In Suzdal, an ancient and picturesque city adorned with wooden churches and monasteries northeast of Moscow, its many tourists can now buy matryoshka dolls with the letters Z, V and O – symbols of the military operation.

Russian replacements for Coke and Schweppes in a supermarket.
Russian replacements for Coke and Schweppes in a supermarket.

Storefronts that stood vacant after Western brands left are filling up again. Western products have been quickly replaced with domestic equivalents, and the agricultural industry has done extremely well in the last year.

Restaurants, bars, and theaters are all full as well, but what is immediately noticeable are prices; they have gone through the roof. Friends and relatives all speak of how much more expensive things are, although utility bills remain low.

In fact, most people I spoke to were worried about the rising costs, but generally said their standard of living has been unaffected.

One huge difference is the ability to travel abroad. It’s now much harder for Russians as visas are more expensive, have stricter requirements, and paying for them is more complicated. Many without the means are instead opting for domestic travel.

More Day Trips for Russians

City breaks and day trips to nearby historic towns and resorts along the Caspian Sea are becoming increasingly popular, and even Soviet sanatoriums are getting more visitors.

Agro-tourism has been gaining momentum in recent years, and so have ‘rest houses’ (cottages in the countryside for rent), but the prices are comparatively steep.

Another difference is accessing the internet. Every Russian person now has a VPN on their devices. Roskomnadzor, which regulates Russia’s internet, blocked many foreign websites and social media in response to the western sanctions.

Anyone traveling should download one before their departure, and there is no shortage of free options. They do, however, slow down your connection speed.

Despite a variety of boycotts, importing goods through third-country ‘hubs’ is easy. Tech products in particular are very sought after, and can be purchased via Turkiye, China, and Central Asia – as can clothes. However, movies and books are more complicated as releasing them without permission from the copyright holder is illegal.

IMG 20221222 161507996 1While it would be a mistake to assume that international isolation and exclusion are making the lives of ordinary Russians unbearable, it’s still creating thousands of small daily challenges. Most have turned their televisions off and are tuning out of the war.

Not because they don’t care or feel guilt. Rather, it is a coping mechanism. Public discussion of the war is practically prohibited and the ‘spreading of false information’ carries lengthy prison sentences.

For visitors, most trips to the country remain trouble free and the locals are only too happy to greet foreign tourists. Your trip also doesn’t need to be seen as an endorsement of the war or the Russian government, much the same as visiting any other authoritarian country wouldn’t.

The German couple also had advice for those unsure about traveling: ‘travel is like having children. There’s never a good time and always an excuse not to. If you wait for the right time, you’ll never do something.’

James PearceDr. James Pearce is a journalist and cultural historian of Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has lived and worked in Russia, the UK, and the Marshall Islands and traveled extensively across Eastern Europe and the former USSR. James has written for several other outlets, such as The Moscow Times, bne intellinews, and New Eastern Europe Magazine. He is the author of The Use of History in Putin’s Russia. He is currently writing a history of Russia’s Golden Ring cities. 

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3 thoughts on “Russia: Visiting in 2023

  1. Good Day, my wife is Russian and I plan to go visit her family with her. May I ask what passport you traveled with? I have a USA passport and am only reading info put out by the US govt. about possible aggression towards Americans. Can you provide any first hand insight?
    Many Thanks.

    1. Hi Richard, we have the same questions with my partner, I’m Russian, he is American, in 2021 in August we traveled together to Russia without any issues at all. He still has his 3years visa and now we are planning to travel to Russia together as well. I’ll highly appreciate if you tell me how would be your trip.

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