Travel tips and advice for Russia: What it's really like to travel there

You could make a case for the idea that Vladimir Putin is our enemy. In fact, you could say the entire Russian government is a fairly sinister foe. The Russians have been meddling in elections, allegedly poisoning spies and shooting down planes, invading another country, hacking computers, sponsoring rampant drug cheating, and who knows, maybe even colluding with or blackmailing a US president.

You could easily look at all of that and see Russia as the enemy. And you could then take that a little further and assume that the government is truly representative of its people. You could look at the stern faces and the opaque culture of everyday Russians and figure that they, too, are not our friends. The whole nation is our rival. Us good, Russia bad.

But you'd be wrong there. Because Putin might be nefarious in intent, and the Russian government might be questionable in its actions. But the Russian people? Russia itself? We have no beef with this nation.

If you've been watching the FIFA World Cup over the last month or so, you would already know this. What was being touted as potentially the most unfriendly tournament in history was no such thing. The Russians were great hosts; generous, friendly hosts. They put on a fun, enjoyable competition pretty much without incident.

See also: Russia travel guide: Visiting the world's largest country

That's not a surprise. It actually gels pretty well with the Russia I know, and the Russians I know. This country might seem like the big scary, but it's truly a great place, particularly as a travel destination.

The problem is that for the uninitiated, Russia, and Russians, are confusing. This is a foreign land in which things don't work the way you might expect them to. People there look pretty much the same as you do, and you expect them to act the same as you do. And yet, they don't.

Most Russians are pretty stern and unfriendly. They don't wave and say hello to strangers. They ignore them. There were stories before this World Cup of local hosts being sent to special classes to learn how to smile properly, such is the Russian aversion to overt displays of joy, particularly when directed at people they don't know. Russians are far more circumspect; you have to work for a welcome.

Everything in Russia just seems a bit more brutal too, a bit starker, than it is at home. The national drink isn't something subtle and beautiful like wine, or even beer; it's vodka, drunk in straight shots, a throat-burning ritual that just seems designed to take you to boozy oblivion in the shortest time possible.

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The weather is bitterly cold. The architecture – or at least, the buildings that survive from the Soviet era – is bleak and unlovely. And in contrast, the fashion sense is bizarrely outlandish. No wonder we're confused; no wonder we think this place is so strange.

We in the West tend to forget, too, what Russian culture really represents. We remember the doping and the poisoning, the oligarchs and the KGB. We know Stalin and Lenin, Putin and Dzerzhinsky. But we forget about all of the contributions to the arts, to science, to history. We forget about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Baryshnikov.

See also: Moscow: now catering for vegans and promoting contemporary art

When you travel to Russia, as so many football fans recently have, you begin to see the real country reveal itself. You notice that among all those Communist-era apartment blocks there are structures of great beauty, churches and palaces and castles more spectacular than any you've ever seen. You crack the locals' brittle exterior and find warm hearts within. You realise that regardless of what Putin is up to, most of these people are just the same as you are, just normal citizens trying to get by.

You have to ignore the politics to see this. You have to pretend that Russia's dictatorial leader isn't almost comically sinister, that elections in Russia aren't rigged, that the country's recent record on homophobia and racism isn't highly questionable, and that the members of Pussy Riot who staged a pitch invasion during the World Cup final aren't currently locked deep in the bowels of the Lubyanka, never to be seen again.

And granted, that is a lot to ignore. But those things really are unrepresentative of the Russia I've seen, and the people I've met. That falls much closer to the country that has been on display during this World Cup, the genuinely kind and highly cultured Russia, the interesting, surprising Russia.

You have to go there to see that. You have to stroll the streets of Moscow to realise how beautiful it is. You have to traverse Siberia to consider how its vast bleakness plays into the Russian psyche. You have to visit Kazan, and St Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg, and Novosibirsk, to realise that we can't just think of all the people who live in these places as the baddies. It's not true.

Russia, and Russians, will make sense eventually. It just takes time, and patience, and vodka.

Have you been to Russia? How did you find it? Is it different to what people would expect? Or is Vladimir Putin a fair representative of his country?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater 

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