15 Jan How friendly is Russia for travellers with mobility challenges?
Our previous article on this topic “Wheelchair Accessible Travel in Russia” sheds the light on the recent changes in Moscow and St. Petersburg towards becoming barrier-free cities.
General overview is a good point to start. However, if you want to get the whole picture, you need to ask those, who had a real experience. In 2018 we were happy to organize our tailor-made tours for two foreign guests in wheelchairs. Anita Davis from the USA and Anne-Marie with her family from France were in several cities in Russia and agreed to share their review on the accessibility of the environment.
Anne-Marie, her husband, their daughter in a wheelchair and her grandmother Béatrice had a 12-days tour in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The family visited all the major sights of two Russian main cities, like Kremlin and the Hermitage, and had a Back to the USSR tour in Moscow. Besides sightseeing they had a family dinner with ExploRussia and tried traditional Russian cuisine: borchsh, herring with black bread, syrniki, kvas.
Below is what Anne-Marie says about her experience of exploring Russia with a daughter in a wheelchair:
Unfortunately, none of the excursions in your amazing country is 100% accessible for people with disabilities. So, if you travel in a wheelchair, you will need an assistant to help you get around the city.
For example, it’s not easy to use underpasses in Moscow. Though there are ramps, some of them are of the wrong width and the covering can spoil your wheels…Moscow has the most beautiful Metro in the world, but you will need special assistance service to use it, which you have to order in advance. In some stations, the entrances were so narrow that we had to fold the wheelchair to get inside.
Speaking about St. Petersburg, it’s easier to cross streets there, but you might face challenges with crossing bridges because of the stairs. Besides, almost all restaurants we visited there were either on the second floor or on the underground floor, which was also very inconvenient to us.
If I had travelled with my daughter along, it would have been impossible to lift the wheelchair. During the whole trip, people were ready to help, but I think you can’t travel relying only on other people’s help. What we managed to do during our tour became possible thanks to your assistance, and there were four of us.
Before coming to Russia we weighted the possible challenges and our abilities to cope with them. We have the best memories about what we saw in Russia, and about amazing people we met. We will recommend visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg to our friends and colleagues, who are capable of travelling on their own feet.
Anita had the Trans-Siberian Railway Tour, and visited Moscow and St. Petersburg. She also had a cooking class with Explorussia cofounder Olga and her family where she learned to cook traditional Russian dishes.
Below is Anita’s review:
Mostly things on the tour went pretty well thanks to the patience and assistance of guides and drivers who sought out easier routes, helped me carry the scooter occasionally up long flights of stairs and did battle- literally-with a few officious types. My heart goes out to these guides and drivers with deepest thanks. I realized it wasn’t going to be an easy trip, I’ve been to many countries now where getting around is difficult. I’m fortunate in that I am more able to get around than many disabled folks, I’d have a lot of concern for anyone who is less physically capable than I, and would advise them to bring at least one and maybe two very strong helpers with them.
Experience with the hotels
At the hotel in St. Petersburg, the staff was slow at first to operate the lift for the stairs at the entrance, but they became more responsive over time as they realized that they had a guest who needed the machine…. The hotel room was spacious and comfortable, the food in the restaurant was exceptionally good. Like nearly all the hotels I encountered there were no safety handholds for getting into/out of tubs/showers. Suggestion: Let disabled guests know that they might need to have their travel companion to help them, or maybe they could bring a walker frame to help get themselves into and out of the tubs.
Visiting The Hermitage
I have dreamed for decades of visiting this museum at length, and I treasure every moment I was able to be there. Getting into the museum was a different story, one which still upsets me. On the first day, the staff demanded that I sacrifice my ability to move around by myself. They wanted to take away the wheels that I operate myself, and force me into a chair with wheels that someone else would have to operate/push. Their wheelchair was not suitable for someone of my size, but the main point was I could not accept this loss of my autonomy as a human…. Finally, after my brave guide spoke with upper management we received the okay to enter the museum and had a wonderful visit. With the exception of a steep set of stairs inside the museum that has a lift, but NO museum staff would/could operate it. The museum has this equipment, but it’s not useful? Again, I dragged myself up. Wheelchair-bound clients would be stopped here, and would need someone who could carry them up….
Overall, remember that I LOVED this trip and would do it all over again if I could. My guide there was wonderfully fun to be around and very knowledgeable, she had an understanding of my needs and did an admirable job of instructing the driver in getting to good parking places to minimize difficulty for me…”
So, let’s get back to the question in the title. We are still quite far from calling Moscow and St. Petersburg 100% wheelchair friendly zones. However, our experience showed the well-planned organization of the tour helps to minimize the popping-up challenges as it happened with Anne-Marie family and they explored Russia’s two capitals and dived deep into Russian culture.. So, if you, like Anita Davis and Anne-Marie are not afraid of any borders and have a dream of travelling the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway route, visiting the Hermitage or maybe watching Russian ballet, we will do our best to help you accomplish it and offer you even more. Russia is definitely the country to impress!