Travelling to Russia: Yes Or No?
Russia's reputation in the west received some heavy blows during the last two years. Putin's dictatorial style of ruling the country and wars against its neighbours have given rise to some serious questions for travellers. Should we boycott Russia? Or go there and promote mutual understanding? Is our image off Russia to negative due to misleading media coverage? Is Russia safe for Westerners? Travel writer Susan Holden argues that the case is not clear cut.
Contributor: Susan Holden Glorious architectural wonders, breathtaking landscapes, vibrant cultures and incredible people: Russia is truly a magnificent country, encompassing some of the most beautiful artworks and musical masterpieces in the world as well as a formidable historical legacy. Secular pilgrimages to its grandiose capitals and remote regions alike have enticed people from all corners of the globe to visit this wondrous land, yet in light of Russia's recent political and social conflicts, many potential visitors are reconsidering their travel plans. Although the Sochi Games have garnered considerable growth for the nation's tourism infrastructure, many travellers question their safety and whether or not this is an optimal time to take that coveted Trans-Siberian route. Here's a few reasons why:
Despite what much of the western media chooses to portray, the complexity of issues surrounding the recent conflict in Ukraine with Pro-Russian separatists isn't as straightforward as it seems. Both sides of the argument feel passionately about their territory and the history which they and their predecessors endured, and like many countries in Eastern Europe, there is no clear-cut answer. Yet people may feel hesitant to travel to regions which are close to the Ukrainian/Russia border, not only for safety purposes, but on principle as well.
Russia's cultural policies have attracted huge amounts of press and its dealings with peaceful protesters have only elevated the limelight. The imprisonment of Greenpeace activists earlier on this year for protesting drilling in the Arctic and the jailing of Pussy Riot members for speaking out against Russia's social injustices have symbolically clamped down on free speech with an iron fist. Travellers may find such a social climate highly unpalatable as well as dangerous should they be of an activist inclination.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow and other cities are hardly the first choice for openly gay couples since the Government passed a bill severely restricting gay rights in 2013 and reigniting a massive uprising of homophobia across the country. Supporters of the LGBT community are reluctant to visit an environment where this kind of sentiment is prevalent.
Class Divide & Social Problems
Russia's Government continues to be subject to the power whims of its ruling oligarchs, and despite the country's social and political progress, there still remains class divides and underlying networks fuelling their own empires. Substance abuse continues to be a huge problem in many regions, and there is an alarming lack of intervention programmes available to help. In fact, since the annexation of Crimea this year, Russia's regressive drug legislation has taken a horrific toll on drug users on drug users with the ban of methadone and other hard drug substitutes. Russia's approach to rehabilitation is very harsh, even resulting in the institutionalising and lobotomising of addicts in extreme cases. This Draconian approach is ironic given Russia's drug trade and the amount of trafficking which goes through its networks, and is reflective of the country's hard-handed approach to tackling contemporary problems. As its HIV epidemic continues to soar, addicts are left without the proper resources to address their needs, especially those from the lower classes. This class divide makes the tourism infrastructure disproportionate; as the Sochi Games proved, the revenue generated from tourism is pooled into the pockets of large corporations rather than the small businesses that fuel them. Generating tourism fails to provide benefits for the people who need it most, which is yet another reason for a conscientious tourist to boycott the country.
But On the Other Hand...
People with a huge enthusiasm for Russian history and culture can still enjoy the many treasures that the country has to offer, with its breathtaking climes and incredible art and science infrastructure which is seen in the museums, galleries, and concert halls of the cities. But a tourist must be conscientious of what they do and where they go, like any region in the world which is currently experiencing conflict. Russia is proud of its legacy and the people are extremely warm and friendly, and there are many experiences to be had in this diverse and unique country - and to halt tourism completely through a boycott would have a detrimental effect. Like sanctions, boycotting may carry symbolic resonance but not harm the people for whom a protest is directed against.
It really comes down to the discretion of the visitor - do these issues mean enough that they would deter you in good conscience? Do you feel that you could have a positive experience with the knowledge they exist? Or could you gain an extra insight or an alternative outlook on things? These are decisions which all of us may make at one time or another, but in the meantime, it's important to stay informed by objective news sources before considering travel to what is currently a potentially dangerous zone for many people.