Have been asked by a forum member how we bought rail tickets to travel through Russia literally from the western border to Vladivostok, here's how and why we did it.
Here is a link to the ticket buying agency we used for Russian long distance rail travel. They are a group of businesses under the umbrella name of Trans Siberian Express.
They are based (I think) in St Petersburg but have an affiliate company in Belarus or one of the other previous Russian satellite countries to enable card payments.
The problem of making a card payment into Russia (see note below) is removed as the payment isn't sent into Russia directly but I guess is transferred later.
The service was helpful and efficient, plus fast. It worked as good as any ticket buying service that I have used.
If you want to visit Russia then why wait (except to avoid this year's World Cup). If you want see what makes this vast Russian country Russia then it wont happen on a guided tour, travel independently. Is it difficult? not at all if you have the right ticketing.
There appears to be a problem making a card payment into Russia, it may be connected to Russian anti money laundering controls. I researched our entire journey in Russia using the RZD Russian state railways website, after getting used to it it works just fine with lots of information about the train(s) you want to use and it gives prices. But even to the RZD I couldn't make payment.
Checked through a number of agencies and for price and service the Trans Siberian Express Co above came out best. Some worked really well but their mark-up was far too high above the RZD prices. There may be others who offer the same level of service at the price we paid but this one worked for us.
Russian visas are expensive and sometimes not straight forward for Americans (or anybody else come to think of it). The London based company Real Russia were just superb at providing the arrangements to get a visa, but they charge a full price. It was a price worth paying as it can get a bit complex if everything isn't just right.
They also handle a lot of visas for Americans even though they are based in central London.
We trained all the way from Brentwood, Essex, UK to Vladivostok, we travelled via the Ukraine capital Kiev. There is a night train from Kiev to Moscow, a journey of a lifetime that section. Did indeed feel as though we were in a spy movie. Kiev is a good city to visit too with the deepest underground station in the world to boot.
Hope this is a help to others in the future