Getting into Russia , even for a simple one-week tourist visit, was no simple task. It's the first country I've ever been to that required advance paperwork. (Not counting applying for a work permit for Canada, not quite the same, and actually a little easier to get permission to stay there for a year or so.)
Russia requires a visa, which must be obtained through the Russian consulate. Before you can even apply, you must have a formal "invitation" from someone such as a travel agency, which technically has responsibility for you when you are in the CIS. The invitation documents contain reference numbers required for the visa applications.
We also needed proof of medical insurance, which I do not currently have (no, I did not sign up for Obamacare ... didn't even go near the website). We bought a couple of inexpensive policies which also provided travel insurance in case the trip didn't happen for some reason.
In my case, as an American citizen, the consulate I had to apply through was in Washington DC. For D-L, as a Swiss, through Geneva. My online application form was longer than hers and the fee was higher. (Call it the penalty for being an American.) Indeed, the visa fees ended up exceeding the cost of my airfare!
After considerable searching on the web, I located what seemed to be a reliable third-party service to help expedite the application.
Since the Russia visa had to be pasted into our passports by consulate personnel, I had to ship my passport with the application document. However, because I would be traveling from the US to Europe while my passport/visa was in process, I had to get a second, temporary US passport in Dallas.
The online form asked almost the same information as when I applied for a Secret clearance in the US -- including parents' names and their places of birth, a list of all the countries I've visited in the past 10 years (Canada, Mexico, UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Dubai, etc.) and dates, and questions such as did I have training in explosives. (US visa applications, I'm told, ask foreigners if they are a terrorist! Wonder if they've ever had a 'yes' answer to that one?)
The biggest challenge, surprisingly, turned out to be paying for the processing service. They required a money order or cashier's cheque in US dollars, and the bank in France, where we live much of the time, could do neither. Fortunately, the service could accept a wire transfer, which I did from a US account.
We were scheduled to fly to Saint Petersburg on May 27, and every day we got closer and our visas had not arrived we got a bit more anxious that the trip might have to be called off. Then, about 10 days before our flight, our passports and visas showed up in Geneva, one after the other.
Our time in Saint Petersburg was wonderfully amazing, and I'll share some of the experiences and photos over the next few days.
D-L has pre-empted me in several blog posts about the trip starting on Jun 3: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2014/06/a-clock-like-no-other.html. I'll try not to duplicate too much.