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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beyond Intourist: A Trio of Guides

Before the Soviet Union dissolved, guidebooks on Russia seemed almost pointless: Intourist was the only way to travel, and its lockstep itineraries left tourists too exhausted to roam on their own, grateful even for that hard bunk at the Rossiya at the end of the day.

But times have changed, and so has tourism.

Seizing on the new possibilities for travel in the former Soviet Union, publishers of travel books are offering a new generation of guides, featuring itineraries for the individual explorer, glimpses of previously closed cities and, in general, delightful options that come from finally having a choice.

Choosing from among the new guidebooks is not easy.

All of the three at hand -- "An Explorer's Guide to Russia"; "Fodor's Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev"; and "Insight Guides Russia" -- do a laudable job.

"Fodor's," of course, is a granddaddy among guidebooks, and the experience shows. Of the three, "Fodor's" is the most traveler-friendly, providing with each itinerary what every parched, footsore tourist ever to trod Russia has always needed: a "Time Out" place nearby to flop into a chair and get some refreshment.

When it comes to providing quality and cost rankings on both restaurants and hotels -- from the new luxury options to the dives of last resort -- "Fodor's" again excels. In general, the book's thorough attention to detail is impressive, down to specific instructions such as the location of the ticket office at the Peter and Paul Fortress so that travelers do not have to backtrack to find it.

"Fodor's" is a guidebook for people who like checklists, priority ratings and just-the-facts tour commentary, so it is the punctilious visitor's choice.

For the tourist who prefers a more relaxed and thoughtful approach, "An Explorer's Guide to Russia" is appropriate. The book is full of valuable insights, tips and asides from its insider author, Robert Greenall, an Englishman transplanted to Moscow.

Greenall alone includes a detailed walk in what Moscow-lovers know to be one of the most delightful parts of town, the area south of the Baltschug Hotel, the zamoskvarechiye, full of churches from various periods, once fashionable town houses and ghosts of Moscow past. Realizing that much of Russia's glory is in its cathedrals and churches, Greenall has helpfully included diagrams with the architectural features labeled.

Also particularly informative is Greenall's tour of the Moscow metro. The offerings for sightseeing around Moscow are also intruiguing, going well beyond the standard fare.

Of the three books, the "Explorer's Guide" caters most to the independent, budget traveler in its offerings of Bed and Breakfast accommodations, a budding concept in post-Intourist Russia.

Greenall's book covers well the territory of Moscow, around Moscow, the Volga and Oka valleys, Bryansk, Smolensk, Pskov, Novgorod and the Russian North -- what he calls the lion's share of early Russian heritage, reasonably accessible from Moscow and St. Petersburg. The author promises a second edition that includes Siberia and the Urals.

Here, "Insight Guides Russia" has beaten Greenall to the punch.

Yekaterinburg, the Urals city for decades off-limits to foreigners, is explored in this commercially savvy guide, whose editors knew tourists would be curious about the city where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed. Also described in this new frontier for tourists are Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk, Orenburg and Perm.

Like the other sections of the book, the Urals segment is masterfully illustrated with color photographs that are not just pretty pictures but mini-documentaries on Russian people and places. These photos, along with a host of absorbing essays on Russian life, history and culture that take up almost half of the text, give Insight Guides Russia the feel of a souvenir volume rather than just a guidebook, something travelers would want to keep on their bookshelves long after the journey is over. The 19 topical essays, by authors ranging from an Associated Press correspondent to an art expert with Sotheby's in London to a Russian feminist leader, are the real strength of the Insight guide, which besides European Russia, the Urals, Siberia and the Far East, also explores Belarus and Ukraine. The subjects explored rove from the mafia to religious revival.

But while creating a guide of unusual breadth and perspective, the editors seem to have scrimped on some of the nitty-gritty that travelers want to know. The section on shopping, for example, is thin, and there is no attempt made to prevent tourist frustration by providing a list of the days and times that museums are open, or at least their phone numbers. In this aspect both "Insight" and the "Explorer's Guide" could take a page out of Fodor's book.

"Fodor's Moscow, St. Petersburg," subtitled "The Complete Guide with Short Excursions," edited by Christopher Billy, Fodor's Travel Publications, Inc. (a subsidiary of Random House), $18.

"An Explorer's Guide to Russia," by Robert Greenall, Zephyr Press, $17.95.

"Insight Guides Russia," edited by Anna Benn, APA Publications, ?12.99, or $20.