Is it still possible to visit Russia?

NOTE: The purpose of this article is to address the many queries which I have received over the past few months, with regards to whether it is (a) still possible to visit Russia, and (b) if it is safe to visit Russia during these troubled times. The answer is “YES!”, you can still visit Russia, however, making arrangements are now much more challenging.

If you are even considering visiting Russia in the near future, I urge you to read the following. It is important to take into account, that things in Russia can change overnightPaul Gilbert

When the Alexander Palace reopened to the public on 14th August 2021, many Romanovphiles – myself included – began making plans to return to St. Petersburg, in order to visit the reconstructed interiors of the private apartments of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in the Alexander Palace. Sadly, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hopes and plans of many were dashed.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia very hard. Since April 2020, more than 18 million cases and more than 372 thousand deaths have been reported. As a result, Russia closed its land borders to foreigners as a precautionary measure to try to stop the spread of coronavirus. While it was still possible to visit via air, Russia imposed very strict measures regarding vaccines, etc.

I myself, was scheduled to visit Russia in September 2020, however, Aeroflot were forced to cancel my flights to St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg due to COVID.

On 15th July 2022, the Russian government lifted COVID-19 related entry restrictions. You may enter Russia by air, sea or land via any country, but non-Russian nationals must still produce a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours before their arrival in Russia.

On 24th February 2022, Russia began a military invasion of Ukraine. The world responded with swift sanctions, which have now made it near impossible to visit Russia. This latest move has had a very negative effect on foreign travel to Russia, impacting plans for many of us, who were hoping to return to rediscover the Romanov legacy, a subject which is so near and dear to many of us.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, I was already making plans to visit Russia in July 2023. My itinerary included St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Tobolsk. On the agenda for this journey was the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo; the Museum of Emperor Nicholas II in Tobolsk; and the ceremonies marking the 300th anniversary of the founding of Ekaterinburg.

Warnings against visiting Russia

The governments of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and the European Union, have all issued warnings to nationals about visiting Russia, urging them to “avoid all travel to Russia due to the impacts of the armed conflict with Ukraine, including limited flight options and restrictions on financial transactions”.

While popular tourist destinations such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg are far removed from the current Russian-Ukranian conflict, there still remain risks, which must be taken into consideration before planning a visit. Please consult your respective government advisories for the latest updates.

Many of the countries which imposed sanctions, have restricted financial transactions and air connections with Russia. Russia has retaliated with similar measures.

The sanctions, the suspensions and the Russian retaliation may have an important impact on the availability and the provision of essential services.

The value of the Russian ruble is currently volatile and the value of holdings of Rubles may fluctuate considerably.

If you decide to visit Russia despite government advisories, it is a good idea to register and update them with your contact information through your respective embassy. Please be aware that in the case of an emergency, you should not depend on your government to help you leave the country.

The U.S. Department of State has advised Americans of the potential for the singling out and harassment of U.S. citizens by local police and government security officials . . . and the possibility of violence against U.S. citizens by right-wing nationalists.

Some embassies are reporting an increased police presence and ID checks. As a result, you should keep your passport and Russian visa with you at all times. It is important to make copies of both, and keep them separate, such as a hotel safe.

UPDATE: In August 2022, Ukraine began bombing of Crimea, therefore, this region should be avoided!

So, is it still possible to visit Russia?

Despite the sanctions imposed on Russia earlier this year by the United States, Canada, UK and EU, Russia has not closed its borders to foreign visitors. For the palaces, museums, art galleries and theatres, it is still business as usual. As far as shopping and dining goes, most of the major Western-owned hotel chains, retailers and restaurants have closed their doors.

The cost of transportation and transit time have increased significantly and remain very volatile due to high demand, limited flight availability and rerouting. Contact your travel agent or tour operator to determine if the situation will disrupt travel arrangements.

In May 2022, the UK government designated Aeroflot, Rossiya Airlines, Ural Airlines and Russian Railways for the purposes of UK sanctions. This means that British nationals and others who are bound by UK sanctions are prohibited from entering into transactions which result in making funds directly or indirectly available to these companies, such as purchasing tickets from them. On 23 May 2022, the Office for Financial Sanctions Implementation issued a general licence which means that for journeys originating in, or within, Russia, British nationals may purchase tickets from these companies without breaching UK sanctions.

The Russian aviation sector has been severely impacted by Western sanctions in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Aeroflot, in particular, landed in deep water with the grounding of planes and canceling flights to many international destinations.

It is still possible, however, to book flights on 3 foreign carriers – see below – to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg.

Flights from North America, UK and EU

Following the outbreak of hostilities on the territory of Ukraine, Russian carriers are prohibited from flying to the EU countries, the UK, the USA, and Canada. At the same time, 11 airports in the south and central part of Russia have been closed since 24th February. In addition, Western countries have stopped deliveries of civil aircraft and spare parts and have obliged their lessors to return liners already leased from Russia.

For Americans and Canadians, there are currently only 2 airlines offering flights to Russia: Air Serbia from New York (Daily) and Chicago (2 x a week beginning April 2023) via Belgrade to Moscow and St. Petersburg; Turkish Airlines (via Istanbul) to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg.

Both Air Serbia and Turkish Airlines offer flights from numerous cities in the UK and EU.

For Australians, Emirates offer flights from Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth (among other cities) to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg – the latter via partner Fly Dubai.

By coach and train from Helsinki and Tallinn

In addition, it is still possible to reach St. Petersburg by coach from Helsinki and Tallinn. International bus carriers Lux Express and Ecolines. Currently, Lux Express offers 4 daily buses from Helsinki St. Petersburg, while Ecolines offers 2 daily buses. Please note that seats sell out quickly, due to the high demand. 

You can also travel by coach from Tallinn (Estonia) to St. Petersburg. Ecolines also offer 2 daily buses, while Lux Empress offer 4 weekly buses on the route.

Finnish Rail has currently suspended all trains from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and Moscow. 

Accomodations

I recommend booking accomodations directly through the hotel web sites. Not only will you get the best rate, you can also book a room and prepay the full amount using a credit card. The hotel can also supply the necessary documents in which you will need to apply for a Russian visa. In addition, they can also arrange transfer from the airport upon your arrival.

Russian Visas

The Russian Federation still maintain diplomatic relations with the United States, Canada, UK and EU, and have not restricted travel by nationals of these countries to Russia. Please consult the web site of the Russian Federation in your country to download and print Russian visa applications.

Currency exchange

Unless you have a suitcase filled with Russian rubles stashed under your bed, changing money is going to be your biggest obstacle when visiting Russia during the current climate.

MasterCard and Visa have suspended operations in Russia. This means that MasterCard and Visa cards issued outside of Russia will not work at Russian merchants or ATMs. You should be aware that it may not be possible for you to access your funds through Russian banks or to make payments to Russian businesses with non-Russian credit/debit cards.

The country’s central bank said in a statement on 1st August that the restrictions introduced following unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia by the West in early March over its war in Ukraine, will remain in place until at least March 9, 2023.

In the West, foreign currency vendors are not permitted to buy or sell Russian rubles at this time. Non-residents of Russia are barred completely from withdrawing dollars and euros.

Disclaimer: the information contained in this article is for information purposes only. It is based on information from sources believed to be reliable. Should you embark on a visit to Russia during these troubled time, please note that I will not be held responsible for any problems which you may encounter in the planning of your visit, or during your stay in Russia. I will endeavour to update this page as new details are made available to me – PG

© Paul Gilbert. 6 July 2022