Unfortunately, the price of Russian visas (and the hassle) has soared with the price of hotels and services there. In recent years I have confined my Russia visits to quick cruise ship stops. (I had a great time there in the Gorbachev days with little money and even less Russian language, just a few months in college).
I was then delighted to see the new St. Petersburg guide (along with last year's northern cruise ports guide) from Rick. I thought this summer I would get a 3-year Russian visa and use it for the first time on my Baltics cruise in July, then re-visit Russia on my own a few times.
Ha! The three year Russian visa is for business travel only, and it requires an official invitation from a Russian trade group. So I went back to square one and purchased a visa-free St. Petersburg tour (with a minder) as usual. Such a disappointment.
A few months ago I rented an apartment for a few weeks in Beijing to see what it was like to live like a local. Last month I escaped winter by enjoying the beaches and backwaters of Viet Nam. I hope some day travel to Russia will be as easy as it is to get visas and to travel in China and Viet Nam. (I picked up those visas in a day while passing through Chicago and Washington DC respectively.)
In the meantime it is package tours (ouch!) and minders for Russian travel (who needs a guidebook when one cannot wander on one's own as one used to do?)