Russia...we were scared to go...don't be...Most of people very friendly and helpful....No scary moments, not a one. People on the streets look like Americans...unbelievably...much more than the rest of Europe...the only difference was the language ....and boy is that different! the Cyrillic alphabet is a challenge...and there is very little in English alphabet. This was more challenge than hardship.It makes you stretch and use other cues...altho I must admit my I-phone's google map in English and Cyrillic saved the day on more than on occasion.....thankyou Steve Jobs.
The other experience was the terrific food, which we didn't expect....Russian food is varied, complex, tasty and excellent. Public transit is also good and we got a transit card and went everywhere on it.
The Architecture of St Petersburg is amazing. Much of the pre Soviet architecture is preserved and restored beautifully or will be. Some of the Soviet architecture is interesting too.
Capitalism will be a while coming to this land......which may be a good thing. Clearly some people like the old ways and compared to home, it is not a consumer driven economy. Finding stuff to buy , as a tourist and not wanting T shirts, curios or mugs, was a challenge. Those linens and amber jewelry that we might have been interested in were out of our sight. Even their huge book store (Singers) had only one English language cookbook and that one was poor quality.
Touring the sights was great but one really needs a guide of some sort because of the language issues. There is more to see here than you could do in a month....
A friend took me to an authentic Russian men's Banya.This is the Russian version of a sauna but with higher moisture content and an exceeding hot temperature. But not a steam bath. This was an experience of a lifetime. There is nothing like it anywhere I have ever been. The men beat or rather flog each other with small birch branches tied together, almost like a bouquet. This makes the skin fiery red. then you go out and plunge into cold water. Repeat process until done. It felt like I was in a 300 year old time warp...no high tech equipment just a wood fired furnace with a soot covered concrete chamber...and crude wooden benches...no bathing suits allowed...you sit on your towel or as some hardy Russians do, you sit on your skin on the fiery hot bench...ouch! Some men beat themselves with these branches (veniki)...the place "Mytninskie Banya".There are others. No English spoken.
BTW the only time we needed passports was at the Hermitage entrance. Next time passports will stay at safe in Hotel...not strapped to my chest!!!As my friend told me, they don't care about you....no body will stop you....maybe in old days not now!