RUSSIA

Russia

Russia is a transcontinental country composed of parts of Asia and Europe (cumulatively entitled Eurasia) and, as such, is comfortably the largest country in the world with an area of 17,075,400km², and the ninth most populous country in the world, with approximately 142 million citizens. Its immense size is such that Russia borders countries such as Norway and Finland, but also China, Mongolia and North Korea, and provides easy access to other countries like the United States and Japan.

Churchill once said that 'Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma' and its history goes a long way to explaining why this image has endured. Originally inhabited by scattered tribes like the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the Scythians, much of the territory's ancient history was dominated by the presence of warlike bodies of men, most notably the Huns and the Khazars, many of whom would later make their mark in Europe.

Russia's lineage, on the other hand, starts with the state of Kievan Rus, composed of the Varangians and the Slavs in the region, which became the largest and one of the most prosperous states in Europe in the 10th to 11th centuries AD. Needless to say, this arrangement did not persist due to Turkish incursions, with the Novgorod Republic state and the Vladimir-Suzdal principality rising and falling in turn thereafter. A measure of stability was only achieved with the Grand Duchy of Moscow (Muscovy), which lasted between 1340 and 1547 and set about uniting much of the territory under its rule as well as leading to the well-known Tsarist era from the 17th century up until the 1917 Revolution.

Russia's history in the 20th century was dominated by the influence of communism, with the rise of the Bolsheviks and then the Soviet Union. The Great Patriotic War (otherwise known as World War II) and the Cold War, both central to the Soviet Union, were also pivotal in establishing the Russia we know (and frequently misunderstand) today.

Moreover, despite the demise of the USSR in 1991, communism continues to influence Russia's outlook and state today, although under Vladimir Putin the country has started to recover economically and has also regained a substantial degree of political influence. Nevertheless, while Moscow and St. Petersburg represent very strong tourist centres, the country as a whole still enjoys a remarkable mystique and certainly makes it one of the most interesting places to visit in the world.

  • Population - 142,754,000 (2006 estimate)
  • Language - Russian
  • Currency - Ruble
  • Time Zone - GMT + 4 (in Moscow)
  • Phone Code - +7

Climate

With a distance of approximately 8,000 kilometres between the two most widely separated points in the country, defining Russia's climate singularly is impossible. The areas of European and Asian Russia generally enjoy a continental climate, but mountainous terrain elsewhere can mean the influence of Arctic and Atlantic climates, while certain areas around the Black Sea can be said to have sub-tropical temperatures during the year.

However, across much of Russia, there are only two distinct seasons - winter and summer - and this Arctic influence has given rise to fears over the harsh conditions during the Russian winter (which put paid to both Napoleon and Hitler during their respective invasions). The coldest month is typically held to be January, with the warmest being July. As a major tourist centre, Moscow is indicative as to what to expect in Russia but, should you venture elsewhere, be prepared for anything from minor differences to extreme polarities:

Average temperature in Moscow
Period Celsius
January-March -5
April-June 12
July-September 16
October-December -1

Things to see and do

Much tourism in Russia, even for backpackers, revolves around Moscow and St. Petersburg. This is understandable, as they have been the two most historically significant cities in the country and, moreover, possess almost all of Russia's most recognisable landmarks and sights.

Starting with Moscow, the immediate attraction for visitors is the incredible Red Square (krasnaya ploschad). Separating the Kremlin (the former royal citadel and current residence of the Russian president) from the merchant quarter of Kitay-gorod, Red Square is the most famous square in the country (and arguably in the world) and all the major streets in the city gravitate towards it. Established in 1493 after the wooden buildings on the territory were cleared by Ivan III, the name itself bears no relation to communism nor to the prevalence of red in the square, but rather to the fact that the Russian krasnaya can be translated as both 'red' and 'beautiful' and was initially used to refer to nearby St. Basil's, but was then associated with the square as a whole.

Established as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990, Red Square is today considered a landmark in its own right, but owes much of its pedigree to the surrounding sights. Prominent in this regard is St. Basil's Cathedral. A multi-tented church with distinctive onion domes, the Cathedral was built between 1555 and 1561 under the rule of Ivan IV (otherwise known as Ivan The Terrible) to commemorate the capture of Kazan and legend has it that Ivan, true to his personality, had the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, blinded so he wouldn't be able to build anything that might be more beautiful. Either way, the Cathedral stands today as a symbol of the marriage of Europe and Asia which has made Russia so remarkable.

Adjacent to and overlooking Red Square is the Kremlin complex. The word kremlin is actually defined as a citadel, with the Moscow one the most famous, being the historical seat of government. Composed of four palaces, four cathedrals and a series of towers, the Kremlin has been inhabited since the 2nd millennium BC, although the term kremlin was only recorded first in the 14th century. As well as its huge political importance, the Kremlin is also a major tourist attraction today, being home to sights like Cathedral Square, Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the Grand Kremlin Palace and the Kremlin Armory Museum (home to a number of the famous Faberge Eggs).

Other hugely important sights in Moscow include Lenin's Mausoleum - also part of Red Square and home to the embalmed (and increasingly plastic) body of Lenin - and the incredible Tretyakov Gallery, home to the best in Russian art as well as a whole host of prominent works from European artists, not to mention the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre and the immense Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Twice the capital of Russia (between 1712-1728 and 1732-1918), St. Petersburg's significance in history is unquestioned and reflected in its own long list of beautiful landmarks. Of particular note are the many incredible cathedrals, such as the Peter and Paul Cathedral (located inside the Peter and Paul Fortress and the oldest landmark in St. Petersburg, being built between 1703 and 1733), St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the Church of the Saviour on Blood (referring to the blood of the assassinated Alexander II, wounded in 1881 on the site).

Additionally, St. Petersburg has arguably the greatest selection of cultural repositories in the country, being home to the Summer Palace of Peter the Great, the Russian Museum and, the jewel in its crown, the Hermitage Museum. One of the largest art museums in the world, with approximately 3 million works of art in its coffers displayed across six buildings (the most famous of which being the Winter Palace), the Hermitage collection was started by Catherine the Great in 1764 and has only expanded since then. Today, the collection is highlighted by the gargantuan selection of Russian artworks, as well as examples of the European greats such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, van Gogh and Matisse.

Naturally the above represents but a fraction of what can be found in Russia as a whole but, if culture is your thing, you simply cannot avoid the big two cities. Use them as a base, branch out elsewhere and see what else you can discover.

Useful links

Russian Tourism Department (London Office) 70 Piccadilly London W1J 8HP Tel: +44 (0) 20 7495 7570 Fax: +44 (0) 20 7495 8555

Russian Embassy (London)
6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens London, W 8 4QP Tel: +44 207 229-80-27 Fax: +44 207 229-32-15 E-mail: info@rusemblon.org

Russian National Tourist Office
5/10 Chistoprudni Blvd Suite 214 Moscow, Russia Tel: +7 495 980 8440 Fax: +7 495 980 8441

Travel

Moscow is the main destination for international flights, with the city hosting a large number of airports. The largest of these is Domodedovo International Airport, which is also the busiest airport in Russia and carries flights from London-Heathrow courtesy of British Airways, Transaero and bmi. The other major airports are Sheremetyevo International Airport, which flies to and from London-Heathrow with Aeroflot, and Vnukovo International Airport. All three of the airports are comfortably outside the city centre though, so make plans for getting there once you arrive.

Once inside the country, and particularly in the two major cities, travelling around is relatively easy. The Moscow Metro carries some 12 lines covering 172 stations, making travel across the city fairly convenient, while the Saint Petersburg Metro covers 60 stations across 4 lines. Travelling around the country, and to other bordering states, is facilitated by the rail service. Russia has links with Finland, China, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, North Korea and many other states, as well as proposed links with Japan, Alaska and Norway. Using these lines is also a fantastic way to see the rest of the country beyond the major tourist destinations.

Accommodation

Accommodation in the major cities is easily achieved, mainly because of communism's legacy. The establishment of huge hotels during the 1970s when the Soviet Union accepted a degree of tourism means that there are plenty of options for visitors today. Nevertheless, anyone planning a visit should spend a decent amount of time researching their hotel or hostel. For a list of hotels and resorts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, try All-Hotels or Destination Russia. If you are looking at Moscow, one particularly good site for all types of accommodation regardless of budget is Moscow-Hotels.

Health care issues

Healthcare in Russia, although slowly improving, remains in a poor way, with the death rate comfortably out-stripping the birth rate every year and public hospitals woefully underfunded. Therefore, do not expect decent service if you do need to visit one of Russia's hospitals, even if you happen to be in Moscow or St. Petersburg. However, in terms of entering Russia, there are no medical restrictions.

While staying in the country, avoid tap water at all costs. Throughout most of Russia, it is non-potable and therefore purchasing bottled water is strongly advised wherever you visit.