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Russia Draws Tourists

January 17, 1988|JOAN SCOBEY | Scobey is a free-lance writer living in Scarsdale, N.Y

MOSCOW — Whether it's glasnost , optimism about Mikhail Gorbachev and his campaign for openness or just plain tourist detente , Americans are coming to the Soviet Union in increasing numbers.

Curiosity is overcoming disinterest and even anxiety about Russian travel.

You'll see young people dancing and painting in the streets in Moscow's version of Montmartre, priceless Czarist treasures in the Kremlin, incomparable paintings in Leningrad's Hermitage Museum and the brilliantly colored onion domes of St. Basil's Church on Red Square, looking for all the world like a Technicolor entrance to a Russian Disneyland.

What's more, the Soviets seem genuinely friendly, happy to talk in some combination of pidgin Russian and sign language.

But be prepared. The way you travel is unlikely to resemble anything you've ever experienced. Americans, after all, don't take kindly to being told where to stay, what to see and when, where and what to eat--all standard Soviet Intourist hospitality.

Join the Group

But therein lies both the fun and, occasionally, the frustration.

Choosing your itinerary and tour company may be the main decision you'll make about your trip. To minimize the frustration of dealing with the bureaucracy on your own, even seasoned travelers, who haven't toured en masse since their school day trips, happily join a group.

The language barrier aside, once you see boarding procedures at a Soviet airport or the information desk at a major hotel (which may have 2,000 or more rooms), you'll be glad to have an Intourist guide run interference for you.

As Natasha, a Moscow guide, acknowledged: "Individual tourists are barely tolerated. We take care of the tours first." That's not to say that you can't travel on your own, but a tour is the cheapest and most efficient way to go.

Because you eventually end up in the hands of Intourist anyway, does it make any difference which tour operator you choose? Not very much.

"It's a matter of style," says E. Wallace Lawrence, chairman of Russian Travel Bureau, an American company and one of the major operators.

His premium-priced tours try to add some special touches: a Russian-speaking American tour guide for even small groups (although they don't promise one for fewer than 15 people), extra theater tickets, wine at meals, backstage visits at the ballet and opera and groups limited to about 25.

General Tours, celebrating its 40th year of Soviet-American travel, features a representative in Moscow and guarantees shared rooms if that's your preference (with no single supplement if a roommate isn't available).

Soviet Visa

It's helpful if the tour company will get your Soviet visa, which is likely to arrive at the last minute, and make arrangements if you want to go early or stay late.

(It's easier to extend your stay at the end of your trip when your visa is in hand and your tour operator can make hotel reservations, without which you can't stay in the Soviet Union.)

Whatever their individual services, many tour companies seem to charge about $85 to $100 a day per person, excluding air fare.

When you choose your itinerary, keep in mind that any trip with more than two major stops a week is likely to waste too much time in transit.

The best of all worlds may be the tour you put together yourself. Most tour operators are glad to arrange custom itineraries.

"We send many groups with special interests, like art. And sometimes 6, 8 or 10 people in a family want to trace their Russian roots," Lawrence said.

The Only Way to Go

Packing Hints:

--A copy of the Cyrillic alphabet is extremely handy, especially when you're trying to read a street sign. You can find it in the Soviet language books and guidebooks. It won't help you to learn Russian, but it will let you decipher enough words to pick up some local flavor, such as the electric signs on many buildings that say things such as: "Glory to the Soviet People, Builders of Communism."

--Bring maps of Moscow and Leningrad, and a map of the Moscow metro. Tour companies don't usually furnish them.

--There's no need to import toilet paper (unless your standards are extremely high), but do carry tissues with you because public toilets are far from modern.

--A flat sink stopper will come in handy. Even though you may have a TV set, a refrigerator and sometimes even a hair dryer in your room, hotel washbowls and tubs often lack plugs. In fact, no matter how new, Soviet hotels may be in some state of disrepair.

--Russian children love almost anything American, and you're likely to be followed by groups asking for goom. That's gum, preferably bubble gum. And if you feel you're a little old to be carrying it, bring a bag of small buttons with messages or slogans--they can say anything at all--and see how fast you'll make friends with Soviet youth, who will often swap their own buttons.

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