There are only four reasons why anyone would go to Russia in mid-winter. The first would be masochism, while the second is the chance to test your cold weather clothing before, perhaps, being relocated to the South Pole. Thirdly, you may go because St Petersburg and Moscow are incredibly beautiful under snow. Lastly, there's the universal travellers' imperative - you got a cheap ticket.
If you listened to all the rumours you may be tempted to turn down any ticket, no matter how cheap. Most people who've been there delight in relating horror stories. So the image is that Russia is the land of everlasting no's: no smiles, no service, no food, no colour, no beauty and no real reason to go there. Russians themselves develop this theme. In fact, the whole of Russian literature is based on bitching about life.
So, when the cheap ticket presented itself I set out with trepidation. Throughout Moscow and St Petersburg I discovered cultural richness, a surprising diversity of sights and unfailing friendliness. But one expectation was met - it was cold.
Moscow has suburbs full of drab apartment blocks but these are more than compensated by the grandeur and beauty of Red Square at its heart. St Basil's Cathedral is a surreal wedding cake of spires and brightly-painted onion domes that looks as if it was designed by Walt Disney and decorated by Darrel Lea. In fact it was built by Ivan the Terrible who, on this achievement, would have been better named Ivan the Quirky but Tasteless.
The red wall that lines one side of Red Square delineates the Kremlin, the centre of tourist activities in Moscow. "Kremlin" is the Russian word for fortress and within its walls is a mini-city with cathedrals, towers, gardens, museums and palaces. Political dignatories are whisked by limousine into the closed areas of the Senate and the Presidium through the tower gate near St Basil's. Tourists enter by the back gate, just as Napoleon did in 1812. Faberge's jewelled eggs, the world's biggest bell, rooms roofed in gold, priceless religious paintings and a throne of some 800 diamonds are among the highlights.
For the human face of Moscow, one must visit Arbat Street, traditionally the artists' quarter. It's now a pedestrian mall full of young artists displaying their wares. The paintings range from a few that are very good to the record-cover lurid majority. But it's a great place to walk and talk to people with Stalin's towering skyscrapers behind. The reality of Russian life is much more relaxed than suggested in propaganda and many young Russians have a few words of English - and total recall of English-language rock songs.
Of course, one issue to confront is: how safe is Moscow? When the USSR was one of the world's most repressed societies, it was one of the safest to visit. However, Moscow now has crime, not at a level of violence like New York, Rio, London or Sydney but the threat can't be completely ignored.
The Moscow Metro is unique among world subway systems: it has some really beautiful stations. Indeed, there is more marble in Kropotkinskaya station than any building in Australia. Brass chandeliers, vast murals and gilt framed oil paintings are all part of the decor. And the art works and a train every two minutes are a revelation to someone from Sydney.
Like Lenin, I came to St Petersburg by train. One clear winter day with the midday sun low on the horizon, I stepped onto the train and a few hours later I was coming into Russia. Despite the comforts of the polished wood compartments there's a trepidation when approaching Russia. Memories of spy films won't go away. But the border passed without incident and Natasha the beautiful spy must have been in a different compartment.
This was the rail journey that Lenin took when he returned to Russia in 1917 disguised as a railway fireman and intent on revolution. I peered out across the January landscape to see what the Russia he created is like. After a lifetime of propaganda, the first town looked surprisingly normal: it was much like anywhere else in Europe. A glimpse of a pot plant in a brightly lit window stayed in my mind. Except for its snowy frame, the room behind it could have been in Australia.
Incidentally, the famous Red Arrow train leaves St Petersburg every evening at 11.55 pm and arrives in Moscow at 7.55 am. It's claimed that the departure time is before midnight so public servants can claim a two day travel allowance.
"The Venice of the North" and "Home of the Tsars", St Petersburg is a fantasy city with one foot in legend and the other in the mudflats of the Neva delta. Peter the Great's royal city was built by Europe's foremost designers and deserves the title of one of the world's most beautiful cities.
The prime attraction of St Petersburg is the Hermitage that houses one of the world's great art collections. The buildings are magnificent and the collection awe inspiring. It's so big even regular researchers use compasses to find their way about. There are rooms full of the inspired genius of Rubens, Van Dyck, El Greco, Renoir, Monet, Cezzane, van Gogh, Gauguin. There are 7,500 paintings in the Western European art section alone including 35 Matisses and 26 Rembrandts. Plus there's Etruscan art, primitives, gem collections, Greek, Egyptian and Babylonian treasures, incredible jewellery, the world's best coin collection, Chinese porcelain, Russian and oriental art.
In this city of superlatives, the Peter and Paul Fortress with the rapier-like spire of its church is visible across the city. This was Peter's fortress against the Swedes and the simple log cabin he lived in still stands. Many other sights of St Petersburg are to be found along Nevsky Prospekt. Here's the imposing curved colonades of Our Lady of Kazan Church and further along, the Pushkin Theatre rises behind the park that contains a statue of Catherine the Great.
Outside St Petersburg are two royal estates. The Pushkin Palace is an opulent monument to the excesses of the tsars. Although it's beautiful, if I had been a nearby peasant, I too would have marched to evict its occupants. Petrodvorets is only open in summer because its major feature is the Great Cascade, a huge complex of fountains and water curtains. In winter, the cascades are frozen.
Situated on a lattitude of about 60 degrees north, St Petersburg is one of the world's most northern cities. In mid winter, temperatures below minus 30oC are not uncommon and snowfalls are frequent. But, as long as you pack warm clothes, the unexpected will bring you back to Russia again, no matter the season. It's walking into a drab tower block and finding a cosy home inside; stepping around a windswept corner to be confronted by the fantasy of form and colour that is St Basil's; or seeing a dour slavic face transformed by a sudden grin.
The rate of change as the world's biggest country pulls itself into the twentieth century ensures that Russia will never be boring. It may well be the most fascinating travel destination on earth.
David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd