The formalities for entering Russia are the most tiresome and stressful procedures that I've ever been through. Russian administration is frustrating to say the least and when you're going through the application process, you'll be faced with so many setbacks and misunderstandings that you'll probably want to tear your hair out.
Getting a visa is a difficult task that requires all the patience in the world. There are two options: applying for a visa yourself or going through a specialist agency. The first option is cheaper but will put your nerves to the test.
To start with, before you approch the appropriate Russian administrative departments, make sure your paperwork is in order. To find out what you'll need, check out the Russia Visa Application Centre's website. Documents needed to pass through customs include: a valid passport, insurance and the famous 'invitation'. The latter is the most irksome. If you go via an agency, however, it's a far easier process, as they'll organise invitations directly with hotels. However, if you're planning to stay with a friend, work or go on a course, the invitation needs to come either from your host or the organisation in question. At this point you shouldn't have any problems, unless the people in question don't understand exactly what you need, the formalities they need to complete and so forth. So, it's recommended you start the process a good three months in advance (if not more) so as to avoid any last minute panic and stress in the days before you leave. So, unless you're a traveller who has meticulously planned their journey, it's well worth using a visa agency.
Once you've got your paperwork in order, don't waste your time going to the Russian Embassy, as they don't deal with visa applications. You'll need to make an appointment with the Russia Visa Application Centre. There's no other option as postal applications are not accepted.
Once your appointment's in the diary, don't think you're done and dusted. Firstly, once you get there you'll be expected to queue...for a long time. This visa application meeting will probably make you feel uncomfortable. Russian administrative centres, London included, are a nightmare and their employees seem to come straight from the the Iron Curtain days. So don't draw attention to yourself, be discreet (even if the endless wait is driving you slowly mad) and remember that these are places littered with CCTV cameras. Once you've been called to your appointment, don't think the process is almost over. Before lining up in front of the appropriate office, make sure your application is correctly filled out by cross-checking with examples on display - this is REALLY important. Print outs of application forms can vary from printer to printer and if there's any anomaly (for example if the margins are not the exact same size!) you'll be turned away. No kidding!
Once you've verified all is in order and you arrive at the office or booth, don't look suspicious under the steely glare of the person dealing with your application. Bear in mind you're going to a country that's not frequented by many tourists, so you'll be asked lots of questions.
The application process may well leave you with a bitter taste that could continue during your trip to Russia. But don't worry, the Russian population is not at all the same, except in the central regions where they may be suspicious of foreigners.
Getting your papers, as you'll know by now, was no mean feat. It's the only time you're likely to break out in a cold sweat. Unless you kick up a fuss at the airport, you shouldn't have any problems at customs. Before landing, the cabin crew will give you a form to fill out (surname, first name, DOB, holiday dates, reason for visiting, travel agenda for Russia) and you'll need to present this at passport control. At this point things should go according to plan. That said, Russian police have a poor reputation and, bearing in mind you're in a foreign country, be discreet and polite.
As far as baggage control goes, it's the same deal as in the UK. For some reason, the Russian personnel seem less concerned by baggage weight/size than in the UK.
Once you've got through all the controls, you're free to begin your Russian adventure and forget, as quickly as possible, the stress involved when organising your trip.