The U.S. Embassy in Moscow just announced sweeping changes to the visas that Americans can get to visit Russia:
Starting September 9, Russian and American travelers for business or tourism will be eligible to receive visas valid for multiple entries during a period of 36 months. The agreement also outlines other simplifications in the bilateral visa regime and eases visa processing time for travelers from both countries.
Thanks to the agreement, three-year, multiple-entry visas will become the standard “default” terms for U.S. citizens visiting Russia and Russian citizens visiting the United States. No formal invitation will be required to apply for a business or tourism visa, although applicants seeking Russian tourist visas must continue to hold advance lodging reservations and arrangements with a tour operator. Both sides have also committed to keep standard visa processing times under 15 days, although the circumstances of individual cases may require additional processing.
When I visited Russia in 2010, the visa application required the actual dates and modes of travel, and an official invitation from the hotel. Russian visas were only valid for the dates on the application, so missing a flight or train could cause serious difficulties crossing the border. (I saved a pdf of the rules in effect through September 9th.)
I'll be interested to see if Russian tourism picks up with this liberalization scheme.