Gateway Travel | Travel to Russia | World Cup
As the World Cup is slowly coming to a close, we’ve decided to take a look at the effect the World Cup will have on people wanting to travel to Russia. Thousands of travelling football fans have been discovering the joys of Samara, Kaliningrad and Nizhny Novgorod in recent weeks. All three have their own charm. Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg and part of a Russian exclave that’s closer to Amsterdam than Moscow, is a salty Baltic city with connections to Immanuel Kant and a fascinating, sandy, Unesco-listed peninsula, the Curonian Spit, on its doorstep. Samara, on the banks of the Volga, boasts riverside parks and an impressive art museum. Nizhny Novgorod - hats off if you can find it on a map - has its own hilltop kremlin and a clutch of imposing churches. However, all three have one thing in common. Entry into these cities used to be forbidden.
During the Soviet era, dozens of towns and cities - normally those that contained military bases or secret research facilities - were completely closed to foreign visitors.
Kaliningrad, for example, as the country’s most westerly major port, was of huge strategic importance and home to the Soviet Baltic Fleet. As many as 600,000 soldiers, sailors and their families were based there at the height of the Cold War, accounting for around half of the city’s total population.
Wrecked by the RAF during the Second World War, handed to the Russians after Potsdam and then hidden for almost 50 years, Kaliningrad - renamed in honor of one of Stalin’s particularly nasty henchmen - finally reopened in 1991. The first tourists to return, including many former German residents, found nearly every remnant of old Königsberg obliterated.
An LA Times report from 1991 said: “Some of the damaged old buildings had stood until 1968, people said, when Nikita S. Khrushchev decided that old Konigsberg, the cradle of East Prussian militarism, should finally disappear. Houses that could have been repaired were torn down and their bricks loaded onto barges to serve as construction material in Vilnius, Riga and Leningrad [now St Petersburg].
“What went up in their stead was a nightmare landscape of post-Stalinist architecture, grim ranks of colorless concrete apartment buildings, among which stand the few remaining old homes, with their pointed Hanseatic roofs and rococo trim tower.”
There have been improvements since then, however. Adrian Bridge, writing for Telegraph Travel, said: “Visitors can now enjoy glimpses of that rich German legacy. The city boasts its own Brandenburg Gate (albeit much smaller than the one in Berlin); and the city’s cathedral – thanks primarily to funds from Germany – has been rebuilt. Within the cathedral, the Kant Museum provides a fascinating insight into the life and times of the great philosopher. Nearby, the ‘Fishing Village’ with its red-roofed buildings and colorful façades along the river Pregolya has something of the look and feel of the old Königsberg. You can even enter the bunker to which the German generals retreated as the Soviet forces closed in.”
Samara, renamed Kuybyshev in 1935 after a Bolshevik leader before being handed back its historic name in 1991, was closed to foreigners because of its role in the Space Race. Its factories built the rocket that sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961 and it is no coincidence that the city’s swanky new football stadium - built for this year’s World Cup - is called the Cosmos Arena and resembles a flying saucer. The city’s top football team will inherit the ground after the tournament. Its name? Kriylya Sovetov or “Wings of the Soviets”.
The city, where England defeated Sweden last week, is still home to Russia’s aerospace and aviation industries - but the veil of secrecy has now been lifted. Indeed, since 2007 visitors have been able to visit Cosmic Samara, a museum dedicated to the city’s lofty achievements.
Nizhny Novgorod, meanwhile, renamed Gorky from 1932 until 1990 after its most famous son, the writer Maxim Gorky, was an important industrial centre, dubbed the “Russian Detroit”. It was the largest provider of equipment to the Eastern Front during the Second World War, and continued to serve as a centre for military research after the conflict, making the Soviet Union’s decision to close it to foreigners during the Cold War entirely unsurprising. In fact, despite its vast size (it is Russia’s fifth biggest city by population), street maps were not available for public purchase until the 1970s.
The three cities hark back to a lost world of Cold War secrecy. Well... not entirely lost. Remarkably, Russia still has as many as 60 closed settlements, firmly shut - unless special permission is granted - to outsiders. These cities are roughly named ”closed administrative territorial formations”.
Many are publicly acknowledged. They include Vilyuchinsk, a base for nuclear submarine construction; Dikson, Russia’s northernmost port and one of the most isolated settlements on the planet; Zheleznogorsk, a centre for the production of plutonium nicknamed “Atom Town”; Fokino, home to the Russian Pacific Fleet; Tsiolkovsky, which serves the nearby Vostochny Cosmodrome; Severomorsk, home to the Russian Northern Fleet; and Snezhinsk and Sarov, Russia’s main centres for nuclear research (a model of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created, is found in Sarov’s atomic bomb museum).
Among the most notorious closed towns is Ozyorsk, a centre for the processing of nuclear waste, previously known as Chelyabinsk-65 and City 40. It remains one of the most contaminated places on the planet more than 60 years after the 1957 Kyshtym nuclear disaster in which a tank of liquid waste exploded, releasing more radioactive contamination than Chernobyl. Despite the severity of the disaster, it was covered up until 1980.
Russia, a country filled with historical value and charm is still an unknown place. Before traveling through this country, (and before sending your clients to unknown territories) check with your favorite tour suppliers who are trustworthy and have done all the due diligence needed before taking on this adventure. Fear and feeling unsafe will crush any dream vacation before it starts.