Russian visa applications are notoriously complex but the pay off is worth it, writes Kaye Holland
Russian president, Vladimir Putin, relaxed visa restrictions for hundreds of thousands of British football fans who visited Russia earlier this year for the 2018 World Cup.
All footy-mad Brits needed to do, was obtaining a document called a Fan ID which could be obtained online in a few minutes by anyone with a FIFA World Cup match ticket.
Consequently I watched in an equal mixture of awe and astonishment as roughly 10,000 England football fans up and down the country made a mad dash to Moscow after the Three Lions comfortably defeated Sweden in the quarter final, so as to be there for the World Cup semi final against Croatia – despite the fact that tickets to the big game cost circa £650 and up.
England may not have made the final following a 2-1 defeat to Croatia, but English football fans were handed a parting gift by Putin – who told them that they could return to the world’s biggest country WITHOUT a visa, until the end of 2018.
Alas the courtesy hasn’t been extended to those who didn’t rush to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, as I recently discovered to my chagrin.
Having been transfixed by the images of Moscow, with its communist and capital influences, that had been beamed into my living room during the summer of football, I knew that I needed to experience this vibrant city of high-brow culture, extravagant shopping, ancient monasteries, onion-domed cathedrals and, of course, the famous Red Square.
Subsequently once the World Cup was out of the way, I booked a flight to the Russian capital ready to discover -– come September – for myself that there’s more to Moscow than billionaires and vodka.
Then came the visa process, which is much tougher than in the days of the Soviet Union.
You see in order to to get a Russian visa, the first thing you need is an invitation (also known as visa support letter). This invitation will be extended to you by your hotel, whom will charge a small fee (usually around £30).
Once my invitation came through in early August, I – as an applicant – had to visit a visa centre in London (other options include Manchester and Edinburgh) with my passport (which must be valid for six months after the visa expires and contain at least two blank pages), to submit an application form as thick as the bible.
I was asked for information about my parents (regardless of whether or not they were travelling with me), bank accounts, monthly income and social media accounts – in addition to having to supply details of every country I have visited in the last 10 years. For a travel journalist who has lived and worked around the world, this was a time consuming and patience testing process to put it mildly.
Next I had to be photographed, as my passport pictures – which had been taken less than 10 months ago – were judged to be “too old”, which I had the pleasure of paying £8 for in the visa centre’s photography booth.
After handing over the completed form and having my finger prints scanned, I was then informed that my visa would be outsourced to a company called VFS Global who, since March 2018, need a full four weeks (20 business days) to process visa applications.
Since I had submitted my application three and a half weeks ahead of my trip, instead of four, I would have to pay an extortionate £186.60 -– more than my air fare! – to guarantee that my visa arrived ahead of my September trip.
Even if I hadn’t missed the deadline by a mere three days, I would been forced to fork out £108 which is what a single-entry visa to Russia costs.
To say that the cost and complexity of the Russian visa process left my feathers ruffled is akin to describing England ace, Kieran Trippier, as an average crosser of the ball: a major understatement.
Indeed I felt so aggrieved by the painful visa process that I couldn’t help but wonder: will the red tape be worth it?
Happily, dear reader, it was. Moscow – with its majesty, Soviet architecture, impressive art, wonderful parks, beautiful metro stations, hearty food and history – was, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, my kind of town.
I also – don’t laugh – loved the Russians. Forget the stereotypes of hard, humourless agents and/or oligarchs. The reality is that Russians are warm, incredibly friendly (as they look to shed their city’s international reputation after the Salisbury poisoning) and full of jokes.
It’s my hope that Putin improves his visa regimes rules and grants easier access to Russia, so that my fellow Brits won’t be deterred from visiting magnificent Moscow.
What’s on in Moscow
The World Cup may have concluded but festivals and events abound in Moscow – boredom is not an option. Discover great things to do with JAT’s guide
Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week
This thrilling fashion event attracts top-name Russian and international fashion designers to unveil their new collections on Moscow runways, every October.
The sponsorship deal with Mercedes-Benz has raised the event’s profile even further, allowing it to receive the kind of coverage usually reserved for Paris and London.
Held on 4 November, this public holiday celebrates the expulsion of Polish forces from Moscow in 1612. There's usually a parade in Moscow's Red Square.
Day of Reconciliation and Accord
For 70 years this was called Revolution Day, marking the 1917 events that brought the Soviets to power. The post-Soviet government didn't have the heart to take away the holiday, so they renamed it. A small number of Communist die-hards still gather around Red Square to visit Lenin's tomb.
December Nights Festival
This prestigious annual festival in December is hosted at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, with a month of performances by high-profile musicians and accompanying art exhibits
Marks the 1993 referendum that approved Russia's first post-Soviet constitution.
25 December - 7 January
Every year Moscow is transformed into a glorious winter wonderland at the annual Russian Winter Festival. Visitors to the city will be able to enjoy ice skating, warming drinks, charming markets and cozy troika rides over the festive period.
New Year's Day
This is the major holiday of the Russian year, a family event focused around a fir tree, a huge feast, and gift-giving traditions transferred by Soviet leaders from Christmas to the more secular New Year's Day. Even the smallest children stay up to ring in midnight. Both January 1 and 2 are holidays.
Russian Orthodox Christmas
Ignored in Soviet times, this is now a primary religious holiday, with many people attending midnight Mass and more festive meals.
Old New Year
Not an official holiday, but celebrated nonetheless. It's left over from the pre-revolutionary days when Russia followed the Julian calendar, which was about two weeks behind the one used by the Western world.
Maslenitsa or Butter Week
Maslenitsa, also known as Pancake Week, is the last week before Lent. It celebrates the end of winter, symbolised by the burning of effigies. The celebration has been been getting more popular in recent years and now there is a Maslenitsa event on practically every Moscow street corner.
International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day in Russia was first marked on March 8, 1913, when women demanded the right to vote via a public demonstration. It became a recognised public holiday in Russia in 1918. On this day, Russian men and women bring gifts and flowers to all the important women in their lives and greet them with the phrase: “C vos’mym Marta!” (Happy March 8th!).
Women’s Day in Moscow is roughly comparable to Mother’s Day in the rest of the world, except that it celebrates all women – mothers, sisters, grandmothers etc.
Easter Arts Festival
The Moscow Easter Arts Festival was inaugurated by the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre (former Kirov Ballet Theatre) Valery Gergiev and the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzkov, in 2002. It has quickly developed into one of the largest and most authoritative musical forums in Russia and Europe.
May Day parades under red Communist banners still wind through Moscow's streets, though they're no longer allowed on Red Square, site of the tremendous Soviet-era demonstrations of Kremlin-enforced proletarian solidarity.
The Soviet Union lost more people than any other nation in World War II, and even six decades later the day commemorating Hitler's defeat is a major Russian holiday.
Every Russian has a relative or friend who served in what they call the Great Patriotic War, and the sight of elderly veterans pinning on rusting medals for a day is a poignant reminder of one of the most impressive feats of the Soviet era.
Usadba Jazz Festival
In summer, Arkhangelskoe Estate is the exquisite setting for this popular open-air festival that join jazz, funk, world music, acid-jazz, lounge, jazz-rock, blues and other directions of contemporary improvised music.
Russian Independence Day
On this day in 1990, the Russian Federation declared itself independent from the Soviet Union, a symbolic move inspired by nationalist movements in the Baltic and eastern Europe.
Moscow International Film Festival
This 10-day event that’s typically held in late June attracts filmmakers from the US and Europe, as well as the most promising Russian artists. Films are shown at theatres around the city.
Spasskaya Tower Military Music Festival
26 August - 3 September
Leading up to City Day (usually the last week in August), the capital hosts a week of military music, equestrian parades, pomp and circumstance on the Red Square.
First weekend of September
Over the first weekend in September, the Borodino Field Museum-Preserve hosts a reenactment of the historic Battle of Borodino (the largest, bloodiest and most significant battle of the war against Napoleon) , complete with Russian and French participants, uniforms and weapons.
First weekend of September
City Day, or den goroda in Russian, celebrates Moscow’s birthday on the first weekend in September. The day kicks off with a festive parade, followed by live music on Red Square and plenty of food, fireworks, live music concerts and fun.