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The true cost of liberty in Russia today

Chris Upton writes "The two locations on this planet that have given me that special tingle of walking straight into history have been downtown New York and Red Square".

It was easier to visit Soviet USSR than it is to modern Russia

Last summer, while my students and I were flying back from our history field trip to Rome, I polled them for choices for the following year.

They rattled off a list of favoured destinations, including Berlin, Florence, Athens, Istanbul and Moscow.

I was chuffed with the final place on the list. The two locations on this planet that have given me that special tingle of walking straight into history have been downtown New York and Red Square. So would the Sea of Tranquillity, but I’m not expecting to be on the next flight up there.

In addition, I would be able to show off what remains of my Russian A-Level, although – to be honest – it is more effective for quoting from Lermontov than getting served in a restaurant.

Off I went, then, to price up the packages: four nights and a cheap hotel. Interestingly, four of the destinations came in at around the same cost. £400 or so gets you a city centre hotel, a desultory continental breakfast, and all the connections you need.

Moscow, on the other hand, amounted to a staggering £850 per person. On top of this, the travel company insisted that we paid for a chaperone to accompany all our visits, along with any evening excursions to a bar.

How curious and disappointing this was. It was easier to get into the Soviet USSR – only too keen to show off its cultural treasures to Westerners – than into Putin’s brave new, free enterprise, Russia.

Moscow is off the menu, then, until it makes more of an effort to be welcoming, by which time my Russian will have faded away completely.

I’m rather glad, given recent developments, that the second choice on my list, Istanbul, proved to be too problematic in terms of times and connections. I fear we would have been dragged off the plane by a concerned university and the Foreign Office.

Something of an irony, of course, that a history trip would have to be cancelled because the destination was too busy making history to accommodate visitors.

So Florence it was, and I have returned just as exhausted, and just as averse to continental breakfasts, as from anywhere else.

* Dr Chris Upton is slumped over his desk at Newman University Birmingham

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