Clacking out a staccato rhythm, the sleeper train forges further from Moscow. In the fading light, the silhouettes of misshapen shacks alongside the winding track can still be made out; with their exposed beams and peeling paintwork, it’s unclear if they’re half built or half torn down.

The dining cart begins to empty after dinner. Passengers head back to their cabins, hoping the extra shot of vodka will help them find sleep. The darkness outside hardens. There are only two of us left in the carriage. Me, with half a bottle of vodka, and a young soldier, still dressed in combat fatigues, sitting opposite me. There’s an impressive firearm on the table in front of him, next to a plate of bratwurst sausage, which he spears in chunks and pops into his mouth with an enormous hunting knife.

“How’s it going, mate?”

The soldier, inscrutable apart from the storm dancing in his eyes, looks up.

“Fancy a drink?”

Into the bunker

Days before, the streets of Moscow were abuzz with anticipation of a large military parade in Red Square. All over the papers. All over the TV. At odds with the pomp and ceremony, though, is the disused KGB bunker in one of Moscow’s suburbs – a bastion of the Soviet Empire’s martial might that now serves as a tourist attraction. 

Viktor, the tour guide, leads the way down 16 flights of vertigo-inducing stairs. At the bottom, he opens a prodigiously thick blast-door that rattles as it rolls.

“Of course, we will rebuild it when World War Three begins,” Viktor says with a nod, before stepping into the command centre’s firing range, where he hands out rifles and pellets.

Wedging the butt of the loaded rifle against my shoulder, I take aim at one of the rusty cans set up at the far end of the range. Bang. Too high. Bang. Too low. Bang. The can clatters to the ground. I permit myself a shrug of self-congratulation. Next to me, Viktor takes note and then takes aim. One shot. A can that had stood several feet further back from my target topples.

There’s a look exchanged. It’s easy enough to decipher: “You’re not as good a shot as you think. Count yourself lucky that we are no longer officially enemies.”

A massage parlour in Pskov

About 580km northwest of Moscow, a short drive from the Estonian border, sits Pskov, an ancient town on the Velikaya River. Our bus pulls into an old settlement out near one of the river’s many inlets.

Beyond a handful of lightly built wooden cottages and a disued playground, the wide body of water, visible between tall, thin trees, shimmers in the sun. The place appears utterly deserted, apart from the several dozen cats that sit impassively and watch us pass.

A diminutive woman emerges from one of the houses. “Welcome to Russian banya,” she says. “This is where you will enjoy a relaxing massage.”

Minutes later, I’m hunkered down in a sauna, dressed only in a flimsy toga, sweating like a hooker in church. Obviously, saunas are all pretty hot – but this one is overwhelming, like sticking your head in an oven, the heat rolling out in waves.

Once I’ve been suitably steam-tenderised, it’s out of the sauna for the banya – which consists of being beaten with several bushels of birch leaves and then doused with a bucket of ice-cold water. It’s bracing stuff.

Then, it’s back in the sauna for one more blast of head-shrinking heat. When the hairs on my legs start to singe, it’s time for the grand finale. Outside, the cold air cuts through my toga as I step briskly through the weird little village that looks like an abandoned move set. Into the lake, which is even colder. And there, with the reeds swaying gently in the air, the mud of Velikaya squishing up between my toes, there’s only one conclusion left to draw. Russia. It’s different.


Russian dancing

Dancing the night away

St Petersburg, Russia’s second city and cultural capital, is home to some of the country’s most spectacular architecture, whether it’s the apartment buildings that line the waterways or the old churches that cast their dark shadows across the busy shopping thoroughfares. And no stay in St Petersburg would be complete without taking in a spot of Cossack dancing at one of the city’s ornately fitted-out concert halls.

A line of dancers takes the stage, dressed in brightly coloured waistcoasts and tight britches. One giant Cossack man, an absolute bear, barrel-chested and sporting an impressive beard, motions for the audience to clap in time with the music.

Then the dancing begins.

It’s somewhere between ballet and break-dancing, all high kicks and sweeping arm gestures, with something that looks suspiciously like a helicopter thrown in for good measure.
The dances tell a story – one that becomes familiar over the course of the evening. A Cossack boy dances with a Cossack girl, who begins to lose interest, until the boy dances with another girl, at which point the first girl becomes insanely jealous and demands the boy dance with her again, before everything ends happily and they all exit the stage. Timeless stuff.

Sergei the soldier

The dining cart is non-smoking, so the soldier – his name is Sergei – and I, by now slick with vodka, find ourselves lighting up in the cramped walkway between carriages. His English is better than my Russian.

 “Where are you going?” I ask.

“Home,” he replies.

“Where have you come from?”


“Mustn’t have been very nice,” I say, my understatement hanging heavy in the year between us. Sergei just shakes his head.

“Do you like football?”

He nods. “Chelsea,” he replies. “Roman Abramovich – he is Russian.”

I can’t let that stand. “What are you talking about? He’s corrupt. He ruined football with all his money.”

Sergei laughs and jabs his cigarette in my direction as he outlines the virtues of Mr Abramovich. As we stand there, the journalist and the soldier, smoking and swapping football stories, the train races ahead, speeding through the night, faster and faster into the icy wilds of this peculiar country.

A tale of two cities

It’s a familiar tale – the capital city has the history and the landmarks, but the second city probably offers more to visitors. And so it is with Moscow and St Petersburg.

Moscow boasts Red Square and the Kremlin and encapsulates the version of Russia that foreigners are probably most familiar with. Certainly, it’s worth seeing. But there’s something grim about Moscow – it’s functional and remains the country’s administrative centre.

St Petersburg, on the other hand, with its canals and palaces, is not only beautiful but more cosmpolitan. It has embraced tourism and consumerism with fewer teething pains than the capital.

Outside the two majors cities, visitors can also experience the ‘real Russia’ in places like Pskov, Vladimir or Novgorod.

The frozen north

It’s been pared back since the break-up of the Soviet Empire almost 20 years ago, but Russia remains an enormous country with vast stretches of terrain that are among the world’s most inhospitable.

A glance at any map shows that while the major cities are clustered in the west, all relatively close to each other in the context of Russia’s 17,000,000km², the country’s eastern expanses stretch out for half a world.

Anyone travelling to Russia will likely be confined to the western third, as Moscow and St Petersburg remain the obvious locations. The more adventurous travellers, though, may pluck up the courage to held into the frozen northern reaches to explore the deep woods, the islands and the former sites of gulags.

Essential information

WHEN TO GO: Spring or autumn. Summer is too busy and winter is too cold.
GETTING THERE: Regular flights into Moscow or St Petersburg from London Heathrow.
GETTING AROUND: The cities have their own public transport system which are cheap and easy to use, but travelling internally will require you to catch an overnight train or coach.
VISAS: Russian visas are required and can be obtained through the Russian embassy.
CURRENCY: Ruble. 1 GBP = 47 rubles.
LANGUAGE: Russian.
GOING OUT: You can buy a beer for 60-70 rubles.
ACCOMMODATION: Hotels are expensive – maybe £60 a night. Hostels are better value, but you’ll still be paying £20-£30 per night.


Destination guide – Russia
Moscow past and present

» Tom Sturrock travelled to Russia on the nine-day Russia Unplugged tour with On The Go (020 7371 1113;, who offer a comprehensive range or tours to Russia from four days to 14 days, as well as the legendary Trans-Siberian railway journey from Moscow to Beijing. Prices start at £389 and all group tours are led by fully qualified guides.