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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Visa/Tourism Debate Really Strikes a Chord

In response to "Imagine 500,000 Tourists Spending $425/Day," a letter to the editor, May 25.

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It is not so much a fear of crime that gives me pause to return to Russia — it is the rip-offs! With its important history and wonderful culture, Russia has the potential to attract its share of visitors.

Let me say, however, that the minute I got off of the plane at Sheremetyevo Airport to travel on to Siberia, I was ripped off by the Russian tour company that organized my trip. I was told that a driver would meet me to take me from the international airport to the domestic airport in another part of Moscow. This cost me $80. I later found out that it would have cost just $5 for a van ride from one side of Sheremetyevo to the other, since the international and domestic airports are right next to each other, separated only by the runways.

In Siberia I ran into the same thing. Many Russians think that all Americans have a limitless supply of money. I do not have much money and saved for many years to fulfill my lifelong dream of traveling to Russia and Siberia.

Don't get me wrong. I am not judging all Russians based on a few people. I still love Russia, but I have no desire to return. Had I not been ripped off numerous times by many people, I most certainly would have come back to Russia. It is a matter of getting all of the money you can out of each tourist, or treating them right and getting them to return. I think the latter leads to more tourism revenues in the long run.

Wayne Sharp
Indianapolis, Indiana

Russia on the Cheap

I am an American who has traveled extensively through Russia, spending a total of nine months on four separate occasions. I have never spent $425 a day in Russia. I seriously doubt that I ever spent that much in one month!

Russia is not only one of the most beautiful and diverse countries in the world, but it is also the most economical. Just last year, I paid roughly $13 a night at a hotel located near the Chistiye Prudy metro station. I sat across from Lubyanka at an outdoor cafe, enjoyed several beers and an ample meal with a friend and spent less than $15.

In addition to the view, good food and cold beer, we also had a little Russian entertainment — young girls stood in front of the cafe and casually attracted the attention of male drivers. Those who pulled over drove around the block and down the alley that ran parallel to the cafe. The girl then joined the driver and a little while later returned to the cafe and gave money to a large, leather-clad gentleman holding court at a nearby table. We found it quite ironic that this all took place in the shadow of the formerly most feared building in the world.

But I digress. My point is that no one should be spending $425 a day in a country where American cigarettes are less than a dollar, a bottle of beer is less than 10 rubles, a traditional Russian meal for two can be found for less than $5 and most tourist attractions are either free (the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square) or very affordable.

Why is it that my Russian experiences differ so much from most tourists? I speak the language. Unfortunately, most Americans don't feel the need to learn a second language, and we get a reputation for arrogance because we just expect English to be understood in every foreign locale we visit. So when we travel, we gravitate to what we know, places where we expect English to be understood. But by doing so, we miss the whole point of traveling to another country. We don't mingle with the average Russian in such places, and we don't get to experience what it is really like to be away from home.

These people spending $425 a day are missing the point. Do they attempt to take the metro, bus or trolley? Do they notice the big store beside the Bolshoi and browse? Do they go out to Izmailovo? I use Moscow as my example, but I have traveled all over Russia, including to St. Petersburg, Novgorod and Kursk. The prices in all these cities made me feel as if I had been transported back in time at least 50 years.

My advice to travelers is learn a little of the language and venture off to places your friends at the Metropol won't. Take the metro while they pay a cabby $50 to go across town. Buy a pirozhok from a babushka as you pass by McDonalds. Haggle with the merchants at an open-air market instead of paying $100 for a matryoshka set of the U.S. presidents at the mall.

But the most important thing is to try to connect with the people. If they see you are attempting to communicate in their language, you will find that Russians are the warmest and most giving people in the world. You'll find yourself the guest of honor in a Russian home with a table spread with food better than any restaurant, and you'll be the audience at an impromptu concert of Russian folk songs with a guitar or accordion as accompaniment.

Take my advice and you will go home with cherished memories rather than a suitcase of expensive gifts and Visa bills that will take a year to pay off. And you will have friends for life.

Jackie Slabaugh
Canton, Ohio

Full-Service Hotel?

In response to "City Sets Sights High for Hotel Industry Revamp," May 29.

Robin Munro reports that the staffs in Moscow hotels are seeking to become more professional in order to attract more tourists. Having just returned from a stay at the Metropol, I have a concrete suggestion: Get rid of the prostitutes who sit in pairs on each floor of the hotel opposite the elevator. There are many guards at the front door stopping visitors and, on occasion, even those officially registered as guests. But somehow the prostitutes never have a problem.

When I complained to the manager, he asked if I was certain that they were prostitutes, but promised to check. He may have checked, but they were back the following night. That is not what one would expect from a well-run hotel.

Marshall Goldman
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Hate Those Visas

In response to "Transit Visas Are Empty Symbolism," an editorial, May 8.

Before you criticize the U.S. transit visa system, you should look at Russia's antiquated system, which only allows those of us traveling on an American passport a meager 72 hours in Russia.

A full tourist visa is much more expensive and still only allows a few days to visit this beautiful country. I have traveled to many third-world countries with much more ease and comfort than I have experienced traveling to Russia.

I know many people, including myself, who genuinely enjoy visiting Russia and other CIS countries, but who are overwhelmed by the requirements of obtaining visas and by the high fees.

For the past 12 years I have been traveling to Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, and I have found it very difficult to deal with all the red tape. It would seem that somehow Russians would understand that it would be much more beneficial for tourism and investment if the government would ease these requirements. And it wouldn't hurt to make an effort to make people feel welcome rather than always looking at foreigners with suspicion.

Jerry Young
Asheville, North Carolina

Moscow's Not L.A.

In response to "Urah! For Moscow's Art Scene," an editorial, May 11.

I would like to comment on your recent editorial bragging about the cultural wonders of Moscow.

First, I have visited Moscow, as well as New York, Rome, London and Paris. If your editorial intended to claim that Moscow's high culture is somehow the rival of those cities', I would earnestly disagree.

Moscow's opera, ballet, symphonies and museums are fine, even very impressive given the meager means that Russia has to support them. But no serious person would claim that Muscovites have as rich cultural resources available to them as do residents of other major European capitals (except, perhaps, in the rather limited world of purely Russian art).

In my view, relatively speaking, you have nothing to brag about. Moreover it's a very eccentric view, to say the least, to suggest that Moscow's cultural delights could somehow compensate for polluted water, rampant disease, Gestapo-like police or the total absence of peanut butter!

Second, my own home city of Los Angeles receives more foreign visitors in any given month than all of Russia does in an entire year. Not only does Los Angeles have world-class opera, ballet, symphony and art museums, it also has the attractions of Hollywood, the Pacific Ocean and a dozen amusement parks that put Moscow's Gorky Park to shame. Los Angeles achieves all this without being even a state, much less a national, capital.

I am willing to bet that if you took a group of Russians who had never visited either Los Angeles or Moscow on a two-week tour of each city, 100 percent of them would opt to return to Los Angeles before Moscow given the choice. In short, international tourists have already voted with their pocketbooks about which cities are interesting to visit, and Moscow has come in nearly dead last.

It's fine for you to tout your city and try to attract tourists. But when I was in Moscow I didn't receive much indication that tourists are really welcome there. It's a well-documented phenomenon that Russians are ambivalent on the subject of foreign visitors. And I also think that there are many dangers present in Moscow that shouldn't be overlooked in advising tourists where to travel. Therefore, I would have appreciated a more balanced editorial.

Lenard Leeds
Los Angeles

Ashamed of the Queen

Next week, the queen of the Netherlands will be visiting Moscow. She will have several meetings with President Vladimir Putin. As a Dutch national who has dedicated the last 20 months to collecting (generally horrific) evidence of Russian war crimes in Chechnya, I am ashamed that such a visit takes place at a time when Russian troops continue to detain, torture, murder and "disappear" civilians in Chechnya on a daily basis.

Vladimir Putin, as president of Russia and supreme commander of its armed forces, has ultimate responsibility for these crimes. As prime minister, Putin started the Chechnya campaign in September 1999. He then called it his "historic mission." He promised the Russian people that Chechen rebels would not be safe anywhere and would be wasted even in their outhouses.

Humanitarian organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Memorial and M?decins sans Fronti?res have repeatedly brought abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya to the attention of Putin and other Russian leaders. Putin, however, has consciously chosen to ignore these messages of alarm. Worse, he has promoted, decorated and publicly praised military officers who were involved in some of the most serious human rights violations that were committed.

Violations committed by Russian troops in Chechnya amount to war crimes or even crimes against humanity. They are in no way less serious than those committed by Serbian troops in Kosovo before NATO's intervention there in January 1999. The international community then exerted enormous diplomatic and economic pressure on the Yugoslav government and eventually even staged a controversial military intervention. The Yugoslavia tribunal in the Hague indicted then-President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Human rights organizations have frequently called for an international investigation into abuses in Chechnya. The European Union, the United States and other Western countries, however, stubbornly refuse to go beyond their routine rhetorical condemnations. As a result, almost all the perpetrators of serious human rights violations in Chechnya walk free. Also, no attempt is made to establish whether Putin himself is criminally responsible for the systematic abuses and the lack of a meaningful criminal investigation.

The visit by the Dutch queen and crown prince should not take place. Putin has blood on his hands, and the privilege of meeting such distinguished members of the Dutch royal family should not be granted to such people. The visit is also a slap in the face of the many thousands of Chechens who have been murdered, tortured and "disappeared" by Putin's troops.

Diederik Lohman
director, Moscow office
Human Rights Watch

No Mercy for Tobin

In response to "Tobin's Dad Visits," May 30.

As a public school teacher and cable-television talk show producer/host, I oppose the use of yellow ribbons in my hometown of Ridgefield, Connecticut, to show support for the convicted drug user Jack Tobin.

Ridgefield High School students are having a problem dealing with drugs these days, and to tie yellow ribbons around town trees in support of a convicted drug user is the wrong message for adults to be sending to these kids.

Although Jack Tobin has family roots here, his behavior in Russia demands the kind of discipline that the authorities there have already dished out for him and no less!

Furthermore, I oppose my local U.S. Congressman James Maloney in his use of my tax dollars to help a convicted drug user. In short, I salute the Russian government for its handling of the Jack Tobin case.

Albert Bruhn
Ridgefield, Connecticut

Odds and Ends

In response to "The Continuing Class Struggle," a column by Boris Kagarlitsky, May 25.

Thank you for Kagarlitsky's interesting column. It provides excellent information about workers' rights and pending legislation in Russia. I find his knowledge and reporting very fresh and interesting.

I was very lucky to hear Kagarlitsky speak in the United Kingdom earlier this year. I look forward to reading more of his columns in The Moscow Times.

David Fagan
Stradishall, Britain

In response to "Diplomacy May Be the Best Defense," an editorial, May 30.

Congratulations on your frank and sensible assessment of the latest U.S. attempt to "sell" national missile defense to Russia and the world. Could you make sure that George Bush receives a copy of this editorial? It's about time that someone told him that Russia and the rest of the world are looking straight through his cheap "I need to please those who financed my election campaign" politics and will not put up with it at the expense of destabilizing the world. No one can expect Russia and world to be that altruistic — especially not a person who doesn't even know how to spell the word.

Astrid Manroth
London School of Economics,