Russia

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Russia is by far the largest country in the world, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area, spanning Eastern Europe and northern Asia, sharing land borders with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (by administering the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave on the Baltic coast), Belarus, and Ukraine to the west, Georgia (including the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Azerbaijan to the southwest, and Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, North Korea to the east and much of the south. While geographically mostly in Asia, the bulk of Russia's population is concentrated in the European part and, culturally, Russia is unmistakably European. (less...) (more...)

Population: 142,500,482 people
Area: 17,098,242 km2
Highest point: 5,633 m
Coastline: 37,653 km
Life expectancy: 69.85 years
GDP per capita: $18,000
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About Russia

History

An Imperial Power

Russian identity can be traced to the Middle Ages, its first state known as Kievan Rus and its religion rooted in Byzantians' Christianity that was adopted from Constantinople. However it was not considered part of mainstream Europe until the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, who ruled until 1725. He was a dedicated Europhile and the first Tsar to visit 'Europe proper'.

Peter established the Russian Empire in 1721, although the Romanov dynasty had been in power since 1613. One of Russia's most charismatic and forceful leaders, Peter built the foundations of empire on a centralized and authoritarian political culture and forced "Westernization" of the nation. As part of this effort he moved the capital from the medieval and insular city of Moscow to St. Petersburg, a city built by force of his will and strength of his treasury. Modelled largely on French and Italianate styles, St. Petersburg became known as Russia's "Window on the West" and adopted the manners and style of the royal courts of western Europe, to the point of adopting French as its preferred language.

The Russian Empire reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many colourful and enlightened figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Nevertheless, the gulf between the authoritarian dynasty and its subjects became more apparent with each generation. By the late 19th century, political crises followed in rapid succession, with rebellion and repression locked a vicious cycle of death and despair. The occasional attempts by the Romanovs and the privileged classes to reform the society and ameliorate the condition of the underclasses invariably ended in failure. Russia entered the World War I in the union of the Triple Entente, like other European Empires with catastrophic results for itself. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, proved to be feckless, weak, and distracted by personal tragedies and the burdens of the war. The government proved unable to hold back the Russian Revolution of 1917. Deposed and held under house arrest, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children—and with them the Romanov dynasty—were exterminated by gunfire in the basement of Yekaterinburg manor house and buried in unmarked graves which were found after Communism and reburied in the St. Paul and Peter Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

Headquarters of Communism

World War I strained Imperial Russia's governmental and social institutions to the breaking point of Revolution in 1917. Following a brief interim government headed by social democrat Alexander Kerensky, the Bolshevik faction of the Communist Party under Marxist Vladimir Lenin seized power, withdrew Russia from the war, and launched a purge of clerics, political dissidents, aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, and the kulak class of wealthy independent farming classes. A brutal civil war between the "Red Army" of the communist leadership and the "White Army" of the nobility and middle classes lasted until late 1920. In his years in power, Lenin used the Red Army, the internal security apparatus, and the Communist Party leadership to exterminate and imprison millions of political opponents, launch a terror campaign to insure strict Communist orthodoxy, secure control over the fragments of the old Romanov Empire, and "collectivize" farmers and farming into gigantic state-owned farms.

The revolutionary state was not directly ruled by the officials in titular control of the government, which was established in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The government in the commonly understood sense was largely irrelevant both in fact and in Communist theory throughout the years of Communist control. The real power lay in the leadership of the Communist Party, the Red Army, and the internal security apparatus (secret police).

Following Lenin's death in 1924, a power struggle among the Bolshevik leadership ensued, with Josef Stalin emerging as the new leader of the Communist Party and dictator of the USSR. Stalin's brutal rule (1928–53) was marked by waves of "purges" in which suspected dissidents in the government, the Party, the Red Army, and even the security forces were executed or exiled to gulags (prison camps) on little or no evidence. In addition to following up Lenin's forced collectivization of agriculture and his destruction of private property and economic liberty, Stalin introduced a ruthless economic system ("socialism in one country") that rapidly industrialized the USSR. Stalin's rivals to succeed Lenin, as well as critics arising thereafter, typically ended up as victims of the purges. Although seen as less of an idealist than his predecessor, Stalin did relentlessly pursue international revolution through the Russia-based "Comintern" control over the communist parties of foreign countries, and foreign espionage.

World War II, from a Soviet perspective, began with Stalin abruptly entering into a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany. The Treaty, which shook Western governments to their core and stunned the Left in Europe and America, guaranteed Hitler a free hand to launch war against Poland, France, and England. The Pact also granted the USSR itself leave to invade and conquer neutral Finland and take over all of eastern Poland after the German invasion in 1939. Finally in June 1941, having conquered France and most of the rest of Western Europe, Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally and invaded the USSR. A change to an alliance of necessity with the Western nations was instrumental in the defeat of Nazism in 1945. The Red Army's bloody campaigns on the Eastern Front, culminating in its capture of Berlin, resulted in over 20 million Russian deaths, most of them civilian victims, or soldiers thrown into ghastly land battles.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, the USSR rapidly moved to establish control over all of Eastern Europe. It annexed the Baltic states and installed Communist regimes in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Romania and effectively crushed political dissent. In Asia, it also helped to install communist governments in Mongolia, China, North Vietnam and North Korea. Western critics came to describe the USSR and its European and Asian "satellites" as trapped behind an "Iron Curtain" of ruthless totalitarianism and command economies. Yugoslavia's Communist Party managed to establish a degree of independence from Moscow, but uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) were ruthlessly crushed.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet heavy industry and military might continued to grow under Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955) and Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964), Stalin's successors as General Secretary of the Party. Although attempts were made to produce consumer goods, the efforts usually failed, and the USSR continued to struggle under the yoke of collectivization and totalitarianism. In 1956, Khrushchev renounced the excesses of Stalin's regime and commenced his own purge to "de-Stalinise" the economy and society of the USSR. Results were mixed, and Khrushchev himself was deposed. In the 1960s, the USSR jump-started the space race and was the first to launch a thing (Sputnik), a living thing (Laika the dog) and a man (Yuri Gagarin) into the space. The Soviet Union's reached its military, diplomatic, and industrial peak during the closing years of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). But continuing corruption and economic malaise marched inexorably to a crisis that eventually led General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–91) to introduce glasnost (openness) and perestroika (limited economic freedom). His initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the empire. The European satellites broke free from rule by the USSR and their local Communist leaders and the USSR itself collapsed into 15 independent countries.

A Nascent Democracy

The Russian Federation emerged from the Soviet Union, accompanied by a storm of problems followed. The first leader of the newly formed nation was Boris Yeltsin, who rose to power by standing up to an attempted putsch by the KGB. Yeltsin largely succeeded in transferring control over the country from the old Soviet elite to his own oligarchical apparatus. Yeltsin was a charismatic leader widely supported by the West, but his government proved to be unstable. A wave of economic hardship put Russia's economy in ruins and left the military underfunded and undisciplined. During this time, Russian organized crime and its relationship with the government, now universally recognized as corrupt and incompetent, assumed greater control over the nation, even as political reforms were taking place. Ironically, before he came to power Yeltsin had labelled Russia as the "biggest Mafia state in the world".

Russia was also at war with Chechen separatists, which had devastating consequences for the already weak Russian economy. Widespread corruption, poverty, and large-scale political and social problems, eventually forced to Yeltsin resign, and Vladimir Putin filled his remaining term (January - April 2000) as President. An ex-KGB officer under the Communist regime, and head of the revived Russian spy service under Yeltsin, Putin imposed his own personality and will on the unruly and criminal quarters of the country, but has been much condemned for his authoritarian behaviour. Having served his constitutionally limited terms (2000-2008), Putin titularly stepped down as President but continued to control the government through his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev. To no one's surprise, Putin resumed the presidency when eligible again in 2012.

Since 2000, under Putin's direct and indirect rule, the economy has bounced back from crisis, thanks in no small part to five-fold increases in the prices of raw materials Russia has in abundance. Inflation has dropped down from the triple digits into single units, poverty has been reduced, and Russia has re-emerged as a dominant regional economic, political and military power. This performance has often been called the "Russian Miracle."

Today, the modern Russia still has to fully recover from the doldrums that have hit the country in recent years, with inflation driving up prices, an increasingly unstoppable burden to combat pervasive corruption, an under-competitive political system, conflict in the North Caucasus, a demographic crisis, and decreasing economic competition. Russians also appear to be facing up to the problem of reconciling Putin's successes with his totalitarian and self-aggrandizing impulses. Nonetheless, Russians have achieved a much higher standard of living since the fall of the USSR.

Climate

Russia is a cold country, but there are always shades in the grey. The contrast of tundra's permafrost, which occupies 65% of Russian land and exotic Black sea coast has in between the continental climate, which is the most inhabited zone of European Russia, southern regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Its summers are always warm with a good portion of hot days enabling outdoor swimming in many of rivers, lakes and the seas.

Activities

  • Music — Russia has a long musical tradition and is well known for its composers and performers. There is no doubt you will find more orchestra performances the bigger the city. Classic music is played in various theaters, where domestic and guest concerts are scheduled for weeks ahead. Besides that, the state supports folk ensembles in smaller towns or even villages and singing babushkas gatherings are still a well-established tradition in many areas. In areas traditionally inhabited by non-Russian ethnic groups, you may encounter ethnic music of every possible sound, like throat singing in Tuva or rare instruments of Chukotka[28]. Sometimes only specialists can differ the Cossack songs of the Urals from the Cossack songs of Krasnodar. Professional jazz players meet at Jazz over Volga festival in Yaroslavl. Walking along the main street on a Sunday will definitely enable you to hear guitar, saxophone, harmonium or flute in any city.
  • Military Parade on the Victory Day, which is celebrated on the 9th of May is commonly all-Russia holiday with city squares getting full of uniformed men and military vehicles both dated to Great Patriotic War/WWII and new ones. The Defender of Fatherland Day is a holiday when women in families or at work congratulate their men and co-workers. It happens on 23, February, just a couple of weeks before men return the favor to ladies on International Women's Day, 8 March.
  • Dancing. Russian classic ballet is renowned in the world and some national troops exist even in such remote areas like Dagestan or Yakutia. Lezginka is a vibrant folk dance, always performed at big Caucasian events. If you are interested in folk style then watching a concert of Igor Moiseyev Ensemble alive is simply a must. Out of big cities you may easily find Irish dance, belly and Ball clubs, not to mention hip-hop and all.
  • Cinema festivals. The major movie event in Russia is Moscow International Film Festival held at the end of June during 10 days and boasting first-class stars from all over the world. Kinotavr of Sochi, Moscow's Festival of Latin America and international film festival Zerkalo, named after Andrei Tarkovsky, in Ivanovo are also of interest for film fans.
  • Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games at Sochi, February 2014

Whitewater rafting

  • Team Gorky [29]

Ecotourism

The association between Russia and its two biggest metropolises, Moscow and St Petersburg, is strong in the minds of tourists, but given its vast expanses and low population density, Russia is a nature lovers paradise as well. Russia has a network of exceptional natural areas, comprising 35 National Parks and 100 Nature Reserves (zapovednik) covering a total land mass larger than Germany. List of Russian Nature Reserves (in Russian) one can find here [30]

Some Russian Nature Reserves on the internet:

  • The Great Arctic State Nature Reserve.
  • Central Forest State Nature Bioshere Reserve.
  • Ilmen State Reserve.

Provided your paperwork is in order, you may visit these areas independently. For those wishing to seek guidance, there are travel agencies specializing in ecotourism in Russia such as:

  • Dersu Uzala: Ecotourism Development Fund +7 495 518-5968, fax: +7 495 692-2053, e-mail: dersu@ecotours.ru.

Food

Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, buckwheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavourful soups and stews centred on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. This wholly native food remained the staples for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century. Lying on the northern reaches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as Russia's proximity to the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire has provided an inescapable Eastern character to its cooking methods (not so much in European Russia but distinguishable in the North Caucasus). Russia's renowned caviar is easily obtained, however prices can exceed the expenses of your entire trip. Dishes such as beef Stroganov and chicken kiev, from the pre-revolutionary era are available but mainly aimed at tourists as they lost their status and visibility during Soviet times. Russian specialities include:

  • Ikra (sturgeon or salmon caviar)
  • Pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings, similar to pot-stickers, especially popular in Ural and Siberian regions)
  • Blini (thin white flour or buckwheat pancakes, similar to French crepes)
  • Black bread (rye bread, somewhat similar to one used by North American delis and not as dense as German variety)
  • Piroshki (aka Belyashi - small pies or buns with sweet or savoury filling)
  • Golubtsy (Cabbage rolls)
  • Ikra Baklazhanaya (aubergine spread)
  • Okroshka (Cold soups based on kvass or sour milk)
  • Schi (cabbage soup) and Green schi (sorrel soup, may be served cold)
  • Borsch (Ukrainian beet and cabbage soup)
  • Vinegret (salad of boiled beets, eggs, potato, carrots, pickles and other vegetables with vinegar, mustard, vegetable oil and/or mayonnaise)
  • Olivier (Russian version of potato salad with peas, meat, eggs, carrots, and pickles)
  • Shashlyk (various kebabs from the Caucasus republics of the former Soviet Union)
  • Seledka pod shuboy (fresh salted herring with "vinegret")
  • Kholodets (aka Studen' - meat, garlic and carrots in meat aspic)
  • Kvass (a fermented thirst-quenching beverage made from rye bread, sugar and yeast, similar to young low-alcohol beer)
  • Limonad (various soft drinks)

Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated, world class dining and a wide variety of cuisines including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. They are also excellent cities to sample some of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Georgian and Uzbek). It is also possible to eat well and cheaply there without resorting to the many western fast food chains that have opened up. Russians have their own versions of fast food restaurants which range from cafeteria style serving comfort foods to streetside kiosks cooking up blinis, shawerma/gyros, piroshki/belyashi, stuffed potatoes, etc. Although their menus may not be in English, it is fairly easy to point to what is wanted — or at a picture of it, not unlike at western fast food restaurants. A small Russian dictionary will be useful at non- touristy restaurants offering table service where staff members will not speak English and the menus will be entirely in Cyrillic, but prices are very reasonable. Russian meat soups and meat pies are excellent.

It is better not to drink the tap water in Russia and to avoid using ice in drinks, however bottled water, kvass, limonad, and Coca Cola are available everywhere food is served.

Stylish cafes serving cappuccino, espresso, toasted sandwiches, rich cakes and pastries are popping up all over Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Some do double duty as wine bars, others are also internet cafes.

Unlike the United States, cafes in Russia (кафе) serve not only drinks, but also a full range of meals (typically cooked in advance—unlike restaurants where part or whole cooking cycle is performed after you make an order).

Drinks

Vodka, imported liquors (rum, gin, etc.), international soft-drinks (Pepsi, Coca- Cola, Fanta, etc.), local soft drinks (Tarhun, Buratino, Baikal, etc.), distilled water, kvas (sour-sweet non-alcoholic naturally carbonized drink made from fermented dark bread) and mors (traditional wild berry drink).

Beer (пиво) Russia is cheap in and the varieties are endless of both Russian and international brands. It is found for sale at any street vendor (warm) or stall (varies) in the centre of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the centre) from about RUB17 (about USD0.50) to RUB130 for a 0.5 L bottle or can. "Small" bottles and cans (0.33 L and abount) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 litres or even more, similar to those in which soft carbonated drinks are usually sold — many cheaper beers are sold that way and, being even cheaper due to large volume, are quite popular, despite some people say it can have a "plastic" taste. Corner stores/cafés, selling draft beer (highly recommended) also exist, but you have to seek them out. The highest prices (especially in the bars and restaurants) are traditionally in Moscow; Saint-Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for the cheaper and often better beers. Smaller cities and towns generally have similar prices if bought in the shop, but significantly lower ones in the bars and street cafes. Popular local brands of beer are Baltika, Stary Mel'nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin'koff and many others. Locally made (mainly except some Czech and possibly some other European beers — you won't miss these, the price of a "local" Czech beer from the same shelf will be quite different) international trademarks like Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality doesn't differ so much from local beers. Soft drinks usually start from RUB20-30 (yes, same or even more expensive than an average local beer in a same shop) and can cost up to RUB60 or more in the Moscow center for a 0.5 L plastic bottle or 0.33 L can.

Cheap beer (less than RUB50 per 0.5 L) may not contain natural ingredients at all and can cause an allergic reaction.

Street vendors usually operate mainly in tourist- and local-frequented areas, and many of them (especially those who walk around without a stall) are working without a license, usually paying some kind of a bribe to local police. Their beer, however, is usually OK, as it was just bought in a nearby shop. In the less weekend-oriented locations, large booths ("lar'ki" or "palatki", singular: "laryok" ("stall") or "palatka" (literally, "tent")) can be found everywhere, especially near metro stations and bus stops. They sell soft drinks, beer, and "cocktails" (basically a cheap soft drink mixed with alcohol, a bad hangover is guaranteed from the cheaper ones. Many of these alcohol cocktails contain taurine and large doses of caffeine and are popular with the nightlife fans) and their prices, while still not high, are often 20-40% more than those in supermarkets. The chain supermarkets (excluding some "elite" ones) and malls (mostly on bigger cities' outskirts) are usually the cheapest option for buying drinks (for food, the local markets in the smaller cities, but not in Moscow, are often cheaper). Staff of all of these (maybe except in some supermarkets, if you're lucky) do not speak or, at the best, speak very basic English even in Moscow. And furthermore, staff of many markets in Moscow and other large cities speak very basic Russian (its mainly migrants from Middle Asia).

Mixed alcoholic beverages as well as beers at nightclubs and bars are extremely expensive and are served without ice, with the mix (for example, coke) and alcohol charged for separately. Bringing your own is neither encouraged nor allowed, and some (usually dance-all-night venues oriented to the young crowd) places in Moscow even can take some measures to prevent customers from drinking outside (like a face-control who may refuse an entry on return, or the need to pay entry fee again after going out), or even from drinking the tap water instead of overpriced soft drinks by leaving only hot water available in the lavatories. Any illegal drugs are best avoided by the people not accustomed to the country — the enforcement is, in practice, focused on collecting more bribes from those buying and taking, rather than on busting drug-dealers, the people selling recreational illegal drugs in the clubs are too often linked with (or watched by) police; plain-clothes policemen know and frequently visit the venues where drugs are popular, and you will likely end up in a lot of problems with notoriously corrupt Russian police and probably paying multi-thousand-dollar (if not worse) bribe to get out, if you'll get caught. It really doesn't worth the risk here.

Wines (вино) from Georgia, Crimea and Moldova are quite popular (although all products from Georgia are illegal 2005). In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines—generally at a high price. Please note that Russians prefer sweet wine as opposed to dry. French Chablis is widely available at restaurants and is of good quality. The Chablis runs about 240 rubles per glass. All white wines are served room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.

Soviet champagne (Советское Шампанское, Sovetskoye Shampanskoye) or, more politically correctly, just sparkling wine (Игристые вина, Igristie vina) is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price. The quality can be quite good but syrupy-sweet to Western tastes, as by far the most common variety is polusladkoye (semi-sweet), similar to Asti Spumanti, but the better brands also come in polusukhoe (semi-dry) and sukhoe (dry) varieties. Brut also exists but is rare. The original producer was Abrau-Dyurso, but Ukrainian brands like Odessa and Krymskoe, are also very popular. Among quality Russian brands, the best brands originate from the southern regions where grapes are widely grown. One of a quality Russian brands is the historic Abrau-Dyurso (RUB200-700 for a bottle in the supermarket depending on variety); Tsimlyanskoe (RUB150-250) is also popular. The quality of the cheapest ones (from RUB85-120, depending on where you buy) varies, with some local Moscow and St. Petersburg brands (produced out of Crimean and southern Russian grapes) being quite good. You can buy if you do want to have a try while not paying much, but it's wiser to stick to something better.

Good genuine kvass (квас) is hard to find in the cities, there are only some chances in rural areas—but even there, only by a recommendation. Whatever is sold in supermarkets as kvass is merely an imitation, and is pretty far from a real product. What makes genuine kvass different includes: limited lifetime (normally 1 week), contains some alcohol (0.7% to 2.6% vol) and should be stored in a fridge. Genuine kvass can be bought in 0.2 L cups, which may be a good idea to sample it before buying in quantity.

In warm periods, genuine kvass can be bought from huge metal barrels on trailers (bochkas). Originally a symbol of soviet summertime, bochkas became rare after 1991. Soviet nostalgia and these trailers' no-nonsense good functionality have given them a revival in recent years. There are also modern, plastic, stationary, upright barrel-like dispensers but these may not sell the genuine article. Towards the end of an especially hot day, avoid genuine kvass from bochkas as it may have soured.

Medovukha (медовуха) aka mead, the ancient drink brewed from many a century ago by most Europeans was widespread among ancient Russians. It has semi-sweet taste based on fermented honey and contains 10-16% of alcohol. You may see it sold in bottles or poured in cups in fast-food outlets and shops.

Tea (чай) is drunk widely in Russia. Most Russians drink black tea with either sugar, lemon, honey or jam.

Shopping

Money

Throughout its history Russia has had various version of the ruble (рубль), which is divided into 100 kopeks (копеек). The latest manifestation, RUB (replacing the RUR) was introduced in 1998 (although all notes and first issues of coins bear the year 1997). All pre-1998 currency is obsolete.

Coins are issued in 1, 5, 10, and 50 kopek and RUB1, RUB2, RUB5 and RUB10 denominations. Banknotes come in RUB10, RUB50, RUB100, RUB500, RUB1000 and RUB5000 banknotes. The 5 ruble note is no longer issued or found in general circulation. The 10 ceased being printed in 2010 and will suffer the same fate. Both remain legal tender. Kopeks are generally useless, with most prices given to the nearest ruble. The 1 and 5 kopek coins are especially useless: even places that quote prices in non whole rubles will round to the nearest 10 kopeks. The ruble has been fairly stable in recent years (up to 2012), hovering around 30 to the US dollar and about 42 to the euro.

All banknotes have special marks (dots and lines in relief) to aid the blind in distinguishing values.

Russian law forbids payments other than in rubles.

Checks: Traveler's Cheques are generally inconvenient (only some banks, such as Sberbank, will cash even American Express - though they do it without commission). So bring enough cash to last you for a few days, or rely on ATMs and credit card transactions.

Currency exchange offices (called bureaus in Saint Petersburg) are common throughout Russia in banks and, in the larger cities, small currency exchange bureaus. Banks tend to offer slightly worse rates but are more trustworthy. Hotels generally offer much worse rates but could be useful in an emergency. You need to show your passport to change money at a bank and fill in copious amounts of time wasting forms.

Be sure to take your time to count how much money you got — different ways are sometimes used to trick the customer, including better rates, prominently displayed, for large transactions and worse rates, difficult to find, for small transactions.

Branches of large banks can be found in any major city. Sberbank has a presence even in unexpectedly small villages.

Dollars and euros are generally better bought outside Russia and then swapped to rubles once in Russia as changing other currencies, while possible, will not attract great rates. You can check the rates that are being traded in Moscow online.

You will have an easier time changing clean, new banknotes. Dollars should be the most recent issue, although changing older versions shouldn't be impossible.

Don't change money on the street. Unlike during Soviet times, there is no advantage to dealing with an unofficial vendor. There are several advanced schemes of scam for exchange on the street — better not give them a try.

ATMs, called bankomats, are common in large cities and can generally be found in smaller cities and towns. Though some may not accpet foreign cards. English language interface is available. Some may also dispense US dollars. Russian ATMs will often limit withdrawals to about USD1,000 per day. Big hotels are good places to find them.

In Moscow and Saint Petersburg more and more shops, restaurants, and services take credit cards. Visa/MasterCard are more accepted than American Express; Discover, Diners Club and other cards are rarely accepted. Most upmarket establishments will accept credit cards, but beyond these it is pure chance.

Museums and sightseeing places take only cash, no credit cards. Have plenty of cash on hand each day to cover entrance fees, photographic fees (museums charge a fee for cameras and video recorders), tours, souvenirs, meals and transportation.

Train Stations may accept plastic, even outside the big cities, be sure to ask as it won't always be obvious. Otherwise take plenty of cash. ATM machines at train station are popular and often out of cash, so stock up before going to the train station.

Like anywhere in the world, it's better to avoid street ATMs (or at least to be very careful), as sometimes swindlers attach spy devices to them, to get your PIN and card details; the safest option is the ATMs in hotels, banks or big shopping centers.

Shopping

In general, Russian-made items are cheap, but products imported from the West are often expensive.

  • MatRyoshka (матрёшка) — a collection of traditionally painted wooden dolls, each one stacking neatly within another
  • USHANka (ушанка) — a warm hat with ears (ushi)
  • SamoVAR (самовар) — an indigenous design for brewing tea. Note that when purchasing samovars of value (historical, precious gems or metal, etc.), it is wise to check with customs before attempting to take it out of the country
  • Chocolate (шоколад) — Russian chocolate is very good
  • Ice-cream (мороженое) - Russian ice-cream also especially good. In general check dairy products, you may like them.
  • Winter coats in department stores are well made, stylish and excellent values
  • Military greatcoats (sheeNEL) available in hard-to-find stores of military equipment
  • Down pillows of very high quality are to be found
  • HalVA (халва) — it's different from the Turkish kind (in that it's made of sunflower seeds, rather than sesame), but Rot-Front products are really good
  • Honey (мёд) — produced around the country; sorts and quality vary dramatically, but the higher-quality are worth seeking. Moscow hosts a honey market in Kolomenskoe some part of the year. A number of honey shops working all the year round can be found on VDNKh/VVTs grounds.
  • Caviar (икра), only red since 2007 (producing and selling black caviare is prohibited for ecological reasons) most easy to find in large stores (but maybe not the best one)
  • Hard cheese — mostly produced in Altai; occasionally available from there in large stores in Moscow
  • Sparkling wine (шампанское) — Sparkling wine, "Russian Champagne" is surprisingly good (Abrau-Durso is believed to be the best brand, yet there are other good ones, too). Make sure you order it "suKHOye" (dry) or Brut. Many restaurants serve it at room temperature, but if you request it "cold" they can usually find a semi-chilled bottle. The cost is surprisingly low also, about USD10
  • Skin-care products. While when it comes to make up, you'll find all the same products, that are popular on the West, a lot of people prefer locally produced skin-care products because of their superior price/quality combination. Brands to check: Nevskaya cosmetica (Невская косметика) [31] and Greenmama [32]
  • Many more traditional crafts


Supermarkets

There are a number of cheap food/goods chains.

  • Billa. A bit more expensive than the others.
  • Perekrestok (Перекресток). Also one of more expensive ones.
  • Carousel (Карусель).
  • Auchan' (Ашан) and [http://www.ataksupermarket.ru/atak.html Atack (Атак) are the same brand, small local shops are called Atack, while hypermarkets - Auchan. One of the cheapest, notorious for occasional selling out-of-date food, so double-check expiry dates, however mostly it is ok.
  • Magnit (Магнит).
  • Pyatyorochka (Пятёрочка).
  • Lenta. (Лента)
  • Diksi. (Дикси)
  • O'Kay. (О'Кей)

Costs

This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Russia on Wikivoyage.

Popular cities in Russia

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The Center of Saint Petersburg is the area of main interest to the traveller, home to most attractions of the metropolis. It's bound by the Neva river and the Obvodny Canal, on a set of islands formed by numerous rivers and channels.

Interesting places:

  • State Russian Museum
  • Field of Mars
  • Peter and Paul Fortress
  • Bronze Horseman
  • Constitutional Court of Russia
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Central Moscow is the historical centre of Moscow, located in the Garden Ring.

Interesting places:

  • GUM Department Store
  • Minin and Pozharsky Monument
  • Red Square
  • Kremlin Armoury Museum
  • State Historical Museum
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Krasnodar is the capital of Krasnodar Krai.

Interesting places:

  • Krasnodar Regional Puppet Theater
  • Krasnodar Regional Fine Arts Museum
  • Gorky Park
  • Aqualand Waterpark
  • Kuban State University
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Adler is the center of Adler district and is part of Greater Sochi.

Interesting places:

  • Olympic Park
  • Mandarin Mall
  • Sochi International Street Circuit
  • Sanki Sliding Center
  • RusSki Gorki Jumping Center
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Krasnaya Polyana is one of the most expensive and popular (mainly at national level) winter ski resorts in Russia. Located 40 km away from the Black Sea coast and from the city of Sochi, it is, nevertheless, included in the Adler District of Sochi. Krasnaya Polyana is the center of the Alpine cluster of ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • Olympia (Lift A) Ski Lift
  • Rosa Khutor Alpine Center
  • Laura Biathlon and Ski Center
  • Gazprom A2 Ski Lift
  • Gazprom H Ski Lift
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Sochi is one of the southernmost places of Russia and the second-largest city of Krasnodar Krai, with a population of 415,000. Located along the Black Sea coast, it is about 1,600 km south of Moscow. Sochi became world-known in 2007, when it won the bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Interesting places:

  • Sochi Maritime Terminal
  • Michael Archangel Cathedral
  • Winter Theatre
  • Riviera Park
  • Sochi Arboretum
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Novosibirsk is a city in Novosibirsk Oblast, Siberia, and is the third largest city in Russia.

Interesting places:

  • Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre
  • Novosibirsk State University
  • Pervomaisky Square
  • Globus Theatre
  • Novosibirsk State Museum
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Chelyabinsk is a city in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia.

Interesting places:

  • South Ural State University
  • Museum of History of Labor Glory
  • Chelyabinsk Regional Scientific Universal Library
  • World Trade Center Chelyabinsk
  • Chelyabinsk Center of Historical and Cultural Heritage
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Samara , the sixth largest city in Russia and capital of an eponymous region, lies on the Volga River in European Russia. It is a major economic, industrial and cultural centre and has a population of over 1,164,000.

Interesting places:

  • Samarskaya Square
  • Samara Beach
  • Space Museum
  • Mettalurg Stadium
  • Samara State University
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Kaliningrad , also known by its original German name, Königsberg, is the capital city of Kaliningrad Oblast in Russia. It has about 450,000 inhabitants. It is also called 'Karaliaucius' in Lithuanian, as Lithuanians (cousins to the 'Old Prussians') used to live there. So it is truly 'City of the Four K s: ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • Konigsberg Cathedral
  • Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
  • Kaliningrad Zoo
  • Tower of Donna
  • Baltika Stadium
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States in Russia

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Points of Interest in Russia

Russia is immense, and extraordinarily long on attractions for visitors, although many lie in the hard-to-reach stretches of the planet's most remote lands. The best known sights are in and around the nation's principal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Historical attractions

Russia's history is the number one reason why tourists come to this country, following the draw of its fascinating, sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutal, and always consequential national saga.

Early history

Derbent, in the Caucasian Republic of Dagestan, is Russia's most ancient city, dating back 5,000 years. Home to the legendary Gates of Alexander, the walled fortress-city, alternately controlled by Caucasian Albania, Persian empires, and the Mongols (until its eighteenth century conquest by the Russian Empire) was for 1500 years the key to controlling trade between Western Russia and the Middle East. Other ancient peoples of Russia left less evidence of their civilization, but you can find traces of the Kurgan people of the Urals, in particular the ruined pagan shrines and burial mounds around the old capital of Tobolsk and throughout the Republic of Khakassia.

Of early Russia's city states, one of the best preserved and most interesting include Staraya Ladoga, regarded as the nation's first capital, established by the Viking Rurik, to whom the first line of Tsars traced their lineage. Novgorod, founded in 859, was the most important city of Kievan Rus in modern Russia (with Kiev itself in modern day Ukraine), and home to Russia's first kremlin.

Early Medieval Russia saw two major civilizations, that of the independent Novgorod Republic and the Mongol Empire, which dominated the Russian principalities of former Vladimir-Suzdal (whose initial capital of Vladimir retains an excellent collection of twelfth century monuments and kremlin) and Kievan Rus. While the Mongols left mostly devastation of historical sites in their wake, the wealthy trading nation to the north developed grand cities at the capital of Novgorod, as well as Staraya Ladoga, Pskov, and Oreshek (modern day Shlisselburg), all of which have extant medieval kremlins and a multitude of beautiful early Russian Orthodox churches filled with medieval ecclesiastical frescoes.

As Mongol power waned, the Grand Duchy of Moscow rose to power, and particularly under the later reign of Ivan the Terrible, consolidated power in all of Western Russia, including the conquest of the Kazan Khanate (and establishing another grand citadel there) and concentrated power in Moscow, building its kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, and several other of Russia's best known historical sites. The cities of the Golden Ring surrounding Moscow likewise saw significant construction during this period. A really neat off-the-beaten-path destination also rose to prominence in the extreme north of the country—the Solovetsky Monastery-fortress on the islands of the White Sea, which served as a bulwark against Swedish naval incursions.

Imperial history

Ivan the Terrible's reign ended in tragedy, the Time of Troubles, which only saw destruction and ruin, and you will find little evidence of civilizational development until the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty in the early seventeenth century. Peter the Great, after having consolidated power, began the construction of his entirely new city of Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, the Window to the West. Saint Petersburg from its foundation through the neoclassical period became one of the world's most magically beautiful cities, and the list of must-see attractions is far too long to be discussed here. The surrounding summer palaces at Peterhof, Pavlovsk, and Pushkin are also unbelievably opulent attractions.

The Russian Revolution was one of the twentieth century's defining moments, and history buffs will find much to see in Saint Petersburg. The two best known sites are found at the Winter Palace, which the communists stormed to depose Tsar Nicolas II, and the beautiful Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva River, which housed numerous revolutionary luminaries in its cold, hopeless prison. For those interested in the grisly end of the Romanov family of Nicholas II, perhaps inspired by the story of Anastasia, look no further than the Church on the Blood in Yekaterinburg, built on the spot of his family's execution. Moscow, on the other hand, has the most famous monument from the revolutionary period—Lenin's himself, with his embalmed body on display in Red Square.

Soviet history

The Soviet Era saw a drastic change in Russian history, and the development of a virtually brand new civilization. Mass industrialization programs came with a new aesthetic ethos which emphasized functionality (combined with grandiosity). The enormous constructivist buildings and statues of the twentieth century are often derided as ugly monstrosities, but they are hardly boring (whereas the industrial complexes polluting cities from the Belarussian border to the Pacific are genuine eyesores).

Both World War II and Stalin's reign of terror made their presence felt greatly upon Russia's cultural heritage. The bombings involved in the former virtually wiped out anything of historical interest in Russia's extreme west (the Chernozemye region) and damaged much more throughout European Russia. It did, however, lead to the construction of monuments to the war throughout the entire country. For military buffs, a visit to Mamaev Kurgan, the museum complex at Volgograd (former Stalingrad) is an excellent destination. Kursk, for its enormous tank battle, and Saint Petersburg, site of the Siege of Leningrad, make interesting destinations.

Maybe the saddest of the Soviet legacies is the network of prison camps known as the Gulag Archipelago. The term Archipelago really does not capture the scope of suffering across 10,000 kilometers of cold steppe. Perhaps the most interesting sites for those interested in this legacy are on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, and the devastatingly bleak Kolyma gulag system of Magadan Oblast. If you were hoping to see where Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, you'll have to travel beyond the Russian borders to Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan.

Cultural sights

Russia has several of the world's greatest museums, particularly in the field of the visual arts. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is the true star, with an enormous collection amassed first by the wealthy tsars (particularly by its founder, Catherine the Great) and later by the Soviets and the Red Army (which seized enormous treasure from the Nazis, who in turn had seized their bounty from their wars around the globe). Equally impressive is the edifice housing the collection on display, the magnificent Winter Palace of the Romanov Dynasty. Saint Petersburg's often overlooked Russian Museum should also be a priority, as it has the country's second best collection of purely Russian art, from icons of the tenth century on through the modern movements, in all of which revolutionary Russia led the charge ahead of the rest of the world. Moscow's art museums, only slightly less well known, include the Tretyakov Gallery (the premiere collection of Russian art) and the Pushkin Museum of Western Art.

Other museum exhibitions certainly worth seeking out are the collections of antiquities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, particularly at the Hermitage Museum, and the Armory in the Moscow Kremlin. For military buffs, Russian military museums are often fantastic, truly best-in-the-world, regardless of whether you are at one of the main ones in the Moscow—the Central Armed Forces Museum, Kubinka Tank Museum, Central Air Force Museum, Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), or way off in the provinces. The other category in which Russian museums outshine the rest of the world would be within the literary and musical spheres. Nary a town visited, if only for a day, by Alexander Pushkin is without some small museum dedicated to his life and works. The best of the big city museums include the Bulgakov Museum in Moscow and the Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky museums in Saint Petersburg. Great adventures await in quieter parts of the country, at Dostoevsky's summer house in Staraya Russa, Tolstoy's "inaccessible literary stronghold" at Yasnaya Polyana, Chekhov's country estate at Melikhovo, Tchaikovsky's house in Klin or remote hometown of Votkinsk in Udmurtia, Rakhmaninov's summer home in Ivanovka, Pushkin's estate at Pushkinskie Gory, or Turgenev's country estate at Spasskoe-Lutovinovo near Mtsensk. The best museums are in the countryside. For classical music lovers, the apartment museums of various nineteenth and century composers in Saint Petersburg are worth more than just nostalgic wanderings—they often have small performances by incredible musicians.

All tourists in Russia find themselves looking at a lot of churches. Ecclesiastical architecture is a significant source of pride among Russians, and the onion dome is without question a preeminent national symbol. The twentieth century, sadly, saw cultural vandalism in the destruction of said architecture on an unprecedented scale. But the immense number of beautiful old monasteries and churches ensured that an enormous collection remains. The best known, as usual, are in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, in particular the old baroque Church on the Spilled Blood, Alexander Nevsky Lavra, and the monumental Kazan and Saint Isaac's Cathedrals in the former, and Saint Basil's Cathedral and the massive Church of the Annunciation in the latter. The spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church is to be found at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad on the Golden Ring circuit (lavra is the designation given to the most important monasteries, of which there are only two in the country), although the physical headquarters of the Church is at Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Vologda Oblast is often considered Russia's second most important (and is a neat way to get off the beaten track). Other particularly famous churches and monasteries are to be found at Saint Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir, the fascinating Old Cathedral of Königsberg (home to Immanuel Kant's tomb) in Kaliningrad, Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, Optina Putsin (the basis for Father Zossima's monastery in The Brothers Karamazov), and Volokolamsk Monastery in West Moscow Oblast. Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega and Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga are also popular sites, especially with those cruising between Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

Ecclesiastical architecture does not, however, end with the Russian Orthodox Church—Russia also has a wealth of Islamic and Buddhist architecture. The nation's most important mosques are the Qolşärif Mosque in Kazan (the largest mosque in Europe) and the Blue Mosque in Saint Petersburg (originally the largest mosque in Europe!). Notably absent from that list is the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, which was formerly considered the principal mosque in the country, but was very controversially demolished in 2011. Russia's most prominent Buddhist temples are in both Kalmykia—Europe's lone Buddhist republic, and the areas closer to Mongolia, especially around Ulan Ude in Buryatia and Kyzyl, Tuva.

Natural attractions

While the distances are great between them, Russia's natural wonders are impressive and worth seeking out for nature lovers. The best known destinations are far to the east in Siberia, with Lake Baikal known as its "jewel." At the extreme eastern end of Russia, nearly all the way to Japan and Alaska, is wild Kamchatka, where you will find the Valley of the Geisers, lakes of acid, volcanoes, and grizzlies galore.

Other highlights of the Far East include the idyllic (if kind of cold) Kuril Islands to the south of Kamchatka, whale watching off the coast of arctic Wrangel Island, the remote Sikhote-Alin mountain range, home to the Amur Tiger, and beautiful Sakhalin. The nature reserves throughout these parts are spectacular as well, but all will require permits in advance and specialized tours.

The northern half of Russia stretching thousands of miles from the Komi Republic through Kamchatka is basically empty wilderness, mostly mountainous, and always beautiful. Getting to these areas is problematic, as most are not served by any roads, infrastructure, or really anything else. Russia's great north-south rivers are the main arteries for anyone moving through the area: the Pechora, Ob, Yenisey, Lena, and Kolyma. Beyond that, expect to be in canoes, helicopters, and military issue jeeps will be the only way of getting around, and you'll likely want to go with a guide.

Russia's other mountainous territory is in its extreme south, in the Northern Caucasus. There you will find Europe's tallest mountains, which tower in height over the Alps, including mighty Elbrus. Favorite Russian resorts in the area include those at Sochi (which will host the next Winter Olympic Games) and Dombai. As you go further east in the North Caucasus, the landscapes become ever more dramatic, from the lush forested gorges and snow capped peaks of Chechnya to the stark desert mountains of Dagestan, sloping downwards to the Caspian Sea.

Throughout the entire country, there are over a hundred National Parks and Nature Reserves (zapovedniki). The former are open to the public, and considerably more wild and undeveloped than you would find in, say, the United States. The latter are preserved principally for scientific research and are often not possible to visit. Permits are issued for certain reserves, but only through licensed tour operators. If you have the opportunity, though, take it! Some of the most spectacular parks are in the aforementioned Kamchatka, but also in the Urals, particularly in the Altai Mountains (Altai Republic and Altai Krai).

Itineraries

  • Circum-Baikal Railway is the road on the shore of Baikal Lake.
  • Golden Ring — the classic route around ancient cities and towns in Central Russia crowned with golden cupolas of its churches and convents.
  • Green Ring of Moscow — Natural Parks and Reserves in Moscow vicinities.
  • Silver Ring — the chain of Northern towns surrounding Saint Petersburg.
  • Trans-Siberian Railway — the endless train ride that needs no introduction.

GUM Department Store - Moscow

State Russian Museum - St. Petersburg

Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin - Nizhniy Novgorod

Millennium of Russia - Novgorod

Kazan Kremlin - Kazan

Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius - Sergiyev Posad

Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre - Novosibirsk

Solovetsky Monastery - Solovetsky

Peterhof Palace and Garden - Petrodvorets

Suzdal Kremlin - Suzdal

Assumption Cathedral - Vladimir

Monastery of the Transfiguration - Yaroslavl

Rostov Kremlin - Rostov

Lenin Square - Arkhangelsk

Komsomolskaya Square - Khabarovsk

Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land - Yekaterinburg

Tula Kremlin - Tula

Minin and Pozharsky Monument - Moscow

Red Square - Moscow

Kremlin Armoury Museum - Moscow

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