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At the start of the 18th century, Napoleon made one of the biggest errors of his life when he invaded Russia in winter; Hitler attempted a strikingly similair move less than a century and a half later. The vast, cold expanses which make up Russia's landscape have long proved its greatest ally in warfare. Now, with its economy improving quite well, Russia's natural wonders are once again beginning to lend a helping hand. Travellers are recognizing Russia's awesome potential for mountaineering, hiking, skiing, cycling, and kayaking. But perhaps the best way to see Russia's vast wilderness is via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In those areas which are inhabited, however, Russia's rich cultural and historical heritage is everywhere. Onion-domed churches, bleak Soviet style architecture and the elegant designs of pre-Stalin Russia can be found within blocks of each other, making for fascinating peeks into the complexity of Russian history.
The history of Russia begins with that of the East Slavs. The first East Slavic state, Kievan Rus', adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in 988, beginning the synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures that defined Russian culture for the next millennium. Kievan Rus' ultimately disintegrated as a state, finally succumbing to Mongol invaders in the 1230s. After the 13th century, Moscow gradually came to dominate the former cultural center. By the 18th century, the Grand Duchy of Moscow had become the huge Russian Empire, stretching from Poland eastward to the Pacific Ocean. Expansion in the western direction sharpened Russia's awareness of its separation from much of the rest of Europe and shattered the isolation in which the initial stages of expansion had occurred. Successive regimes of the 19th century responded to such pressures with a combination of halfhearted reform and repression. Russian serfdom was abolished in 1861, but its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to increase revolutionary pressures. Between the abolition of serfdom and the beginning of World War I in 1914, the Stolypin reforms, the constitution of 1906 and State Duma introduced notable changes to the economy and politics of Russia, but the tsars were still not willing to relinquish autocratic rule, or share their power.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 was triggered by a combination of economic breakdown, war weariness, and discontent with the autocratic system of government, and it first brought a coalition of liberals and moderate socialists to power, but their failed policies led to seizure of power by the Communist Bolsheviks on October 25. Between 1922 and 1991, the history of Russia is essentially the history of the Soviet Union, effectively an ideologically based state which was roughly conterminous with the Russian Empire before the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The approach to the building of socialism, however, varied over different periods in Soviet history, from the mixed economy and diverse society and culture of the 1920s to the command economy and repressions of the Stalin era to the "era of stagnation" in the 1980s. From its first years, government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the Communists, as the Bolsheviks called themselves, beginning in March 1918. However, by the late 1980s, with the weaknesses of its economic and political structures becoming acute, the Communist leaders embarked on major reforms, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The history of the Russian Federation is brief, dating back only to the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Since gaining its independence, Russia was recognized as the legal successor to the Soviet Union on the international stage. However, Russia has lost its superpower status as it faced serious challenges in its efforts to forge a new post-Soviet political and economic system. Scrapping the socialist central planning and state ownership of property of the Soviet era, Russia attempted to build an economy with elements of market capitalism, with often painful results. Even today Russia shares many continuities of political culture and social structure with its tsarist and Soviet past.
Russia shares international borders in Europe with Finland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. To add, the exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast borders both Poland and Lithuania. Russia also shares international borders in Asia with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China and the nearest point of Hokkaido, Japan, is just 20 kilometres away. In the Far East of Russia, Big Diomede Island is seperated by a narrow straight (3 kilometres) from Little Diomede Island, which is US Territory (Alaska). It is the largest country in the world with over 17 million square kilometres and it lies between latitudes 41° and 82° N, and longitudes 19° E and 169° W. From west to east is around 8,000 kilometres apart, from the boundary with Poland in Kaliningrad to farthest point east of the Kuril Islands in the northern Pacific. The Russian Federation spans 9 time zones (coming back from 11 by the way!).
Most of Russia consists of plains that are predominantly steppe to the south and forested to the north./ Along the northern shores there is the tundra and mountain ranges are found along the southern borders, such as the Caucasus with Mount Elbrus, which at 5,642 metres is the highest mountain in Europe, and the Altai, and in the eastern parts, such as the Verkhoyansk Range or the volcanoes of Kamchatka Peninsula. The Ural Mountains divide Europe and Asia. Russia has a very long coastline covering more than 37,000 kilometres the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, as well as along the Baltic Sea, Sea of Azov, Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Russia also has thousands of rivers, lakes and other bodies of water, including the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal. Famous rivers include the Volga, the Ob, the Yenisey, the Lena and the Amur all of which are amongst the very longest rivers in the world.
Russia is divided into seven federal districts. Each district is administered by an "envoy" who is in constant liason with the Russian Government.
Each of the seven federal districts mentioned above is subdivided into the so-called oblasts, a kind of Russian equivalent of a state or province and generally named after the biggest city and capital. For the subdivision of the districts into oblasts and possibly other subdivisions, including links to the major cities not mentioned below, see the federal districts links above!
Russia is a huge country with many big cities, important transport hubs, tourist destinations and popular stopovers along the Trans-Siberian Railway. It's beyond the limits of the Russia article to name them all and for more information, also check the regional articles (see above). The largest, most important or most popular ones include:
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The Trans-Siberian Railway, the dream of Czars and Bolsheviks alike, to unite a large and diverse country and secure Russia's place in the far east, nowadays is one of the most popular railways for travellers. The railway passes through the remote and beautiful Siberian countryside on it's way to the Pacific Ocean, a journey of seven days, eight time zones and over 9,250 kilometres. The Trans-Siberian, and her counterparts the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian, are one of the classic train and overland journeys, providing a slow and romantic view of the Russian landscape, people and culture. Running from Moscow to Vladivostok for 9,259 kilometres, the Trans-Siberian "Rossiya" leaves every second day for a seven-day journey. Train No.001 runs westbound while train No.002 runs eastbound. The marker at Vladivostok shows a distance of 9,288 kilometres from Moscow. This is because from 1956 to 2001 many trains went between Moscow and Kirov via Yaroslavl instead of Nizhny Novgorod.This would add some 29 kilometres to the distances from Moscow, making Vladivostok kilometre 9,288.
Red Square separates the Kremlin, the former royal citadel from the merchant quarter. The square holds Lenin's Tomb, everyday except Monday's and Friday's from 10:00 am until 1:00 pm. St. Basil's Cathedral, the famous onion-domed church sits to the south end of the square. To the east is the GUM department store, previously known for it's long lines, it now features a number of high end stores. The Kremlin has long been the one of the most important seats of political power in Russia, and current houses the Russian president. The Kremlin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Moscow Kremlin’s grounds and museums are open every day except Thursdays from 10:00am to 5:00pm.
Lake Baikal is located in the Asian part of Russia, known as Siberia. Closeby is the city of Irkutsk where the Trans-Siberian Railway stops. Many traveller make a stopover here to visit this lake, which is the deepest lake anywhere in the world, at 1,700 metres. It also is the oldest lake (25 million years) in the world and to add, it contains 20% of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserve. The age, islolation and the depth have created one of the world's richest and most unusual freshwater faunas, which is of exceptional value to evolutionary science. Therefore it is placed on the Unesco World Heritage List.
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Kamchatka is located in the far east of the Russian Federation and is one of the natural highlights of the country. The volcanoes of Kamchatka are placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and a visit to this place is absolutely recommended, albeit not cheap. Kamchatka forms one of the most outstanding volcanic regions in the world, with a high density of active volcanoes. The combination of active volcanoes, glaciers, wildlife and beautifully located green mountains forms a landscape of great beauty. Wildlife includes huge variets of salmon and dense concentrations of sea otter, brown bear and sea eagle. Getting around Kamchatka involves some form of airtransport on top of 4wd travel. Usually, helicopters are used to get to some more remote parts, which definately is recommended but comes at a cost of course.
Mount Elbrus is officially the highest mountain in Europe at 5,642 metres above sea level. It is located in the western Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, just north of the border with Georgia. The first ascent was in 1874, but the lower summit's (just 21 metres lower) first ascent was much earlier, in 1829. It's relatively easy nowadays to climb this mountain and thanks to a cable car it is now possible to start walking to the top just after midnight and return the next day before 3pm when the cable car has its last ride.
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There are numerous other attractions in Russia, which is not suprising of course as it is the largest country in the world. Even the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow can keep you busy for many days, if not weeks. But further east there are some beautiful landscapes and deserted parts in Siberia which are very hard to get to in the first place. Below are just a few examples of both the cultural and natural significance of this country.
Russia is the largest country in the world and although much of the country has rather warm summers and cold winters, differences in the country can be huge as well. Russia has a continental climate, with warm to hot summers in some parts and cold to extremely cold winters in that same and other parts of the country. Spring and autumn are very short and not more than a short transition period between summer and winter. The European part of Russia in general is warmer, both during summer and winter. Also, southern regions here are warmer than central parts which in turn are warmer than areas more north and towards the Ural Mountains, the natural border between Europe and Asia.
Moscow for example has summer temperatures of over 20 °C during the day, while in winter average nightly minimum temperatures are around -15 °C in January. Precipitation is quite evenly spread out during the year, with somewhat more mm during summer. In winter, most of this falls in the form of snow of course. To the north, both winters and summers in for example Archangelsk are colder, while to the east (like Perm) temperatures are lower in winter and equally high in summer, although summers are shorter here already compared to Moscow.
Towards the European south, temperatures rise both during winter and summer. Astrakhan for example has averages round 30 °Cin summer, while in winter temperatures vary between 0 °C and -10 °C. It is also much drier with low precipitation in all months totalling aroun 200 mm a year, a semi-arid climate.
A totally different area is the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Sochi for example has much warmer weather and long and dry summers, with average maximum temperatures above 20 °C from May to October, topping 27 °C in August on average. Winters are well above freezing with even nights averaging around 3 °C. Most of the rain falls during the wintermonths.
Finally, the Asian part, Siberia, has very cold winters, averaging between -15 °C and -30 °C (day and night respectively) in cities like Jekaterinenburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Irkutsk. Summer here are warm but short, lasting from June to August. This is also when most of the precipitation falls. Further east and northeast where the Siberian lowlying areas become more mountainous, extreme temperatures occur. Verkhojansk and Ojmjakon are the coldest permanently inhabited places on earth and also have the largest differences between summer and winter, sometimes over 100 °C! Between November and March, temperatures are below -40 °C and both places have seen temperatures over around -70 °C!
In the very short summers, temperatures can rise up to 35 °C on the other hand. This is also when most of the precipitation falls. In winter, there isn't much because it is simply too cold. Most of the snow falls between the end of September and early November and only starts melting in May. Still, further southeast towards the Ocean, places like Vladivostok are milder, but still cold and comparable with temperatures in Moscow, both during summer and winter. Most of the rain falls in summer here.
Aeroflot is the national airline of Russia and is based at Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO) near the capital Moscow. Destinations include Amsterdam, Bangkok, Beijing, Berlin, Cairo, Delhi, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London Heathrow Airport, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington, D.C. and Zürich. KLM from Amsterdam and Air France from Paris have flights among a few dozens of airlines as well.
Domodedovo Airport (DME) is another airport in Moscow which has many airlines serving the airport with Transaero having the most international destinations. S7 Airlines has a growing number of flights as well.
Pulkovo Airport (LED) serves St. Petersburg and Rossiya Airlines (former Pulkovo, merged with other airline) has numerous flights to destinations in Europe and several outside. Many other airlines from European, Asian and former USSR countries fly to and from here.
Other international airports with less flights are located in numerous other cities throughout the country. Services compared to the airports near Moscow and St. Petersburg are relatively limited, though sometimes there are convenient flights, for example from Helsinki to Murmansk, from Beijing or other Asian cities to Vladivostok and from several German cities to central Russian and Siberian cities like Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Omsk and Novosibirsk. There are more options from cities like Khabarovsk, Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk as well. Some other smaller airports like the ones in Samara and Kazan have some international flights, and there are sometimes seaonsal and charter flights from quite a few additional smaller cities.
Russia - Finland
The only direct train links to and from Finland are the ones to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia.
Between Helsinki and Moscow, there are direct daily overnight trains with 'The Tolstoi', taking roughly 13 hours to cover the routes. Trains are fast and comfortable.
There are two daily trains ('The Sibelius' and 'The Repin') between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, both travelling during the day and evening. One train is Russian, the other one is Finnish. Both trains take about 6 hours to cover the route.
Trains also stop in Lahti, Kouvola and Vainikkala in Finland and in Vyborg in Russia.
Russia - China
There are two routes between Moscow and Beijing: the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Machurian routes, both of which are southern branches of the better-known Trans-Siberian Railway. The first train goes via Ulan Bator, cutting across Mongolia and then into China. It leaves Moscow every Tuesday night, taking about 6 days to reach Beijing. The second cuts into northern China at Manzhouli and continues to via Harbin. Trains leave Moscow on Friday night and takes about 6 days as well to cover the distance to Beijing. For more information look at the article: Trans-Siberian Railway or check the Timetable directly for exact schedules.
Russia - Kazakhstan
There is train every second day between Moscow and Almaty in Kazakhstan, leaving Moscow at 10:30pm and arriving on day 5 early in the morning in Almaty. Going from Almaty, trains leave at around 7:30am, arriving on the 4th day at around 10:30am. Check this site for schedule details.
Russia - Kyrgyzstan
Two trains a week link the capitals of Russia and Kyrgyzstan. From Moscow, trains leave on Thursdays and Sundays at 11:15pm, arriving in Bishkek on Mondays and Thursdays respectively at 2:30am. Trains leave Bishkek around 10:00am on Mondays and Thursdays, arriving in Moscow on Thursdays and Sundays just after 3 in the afternoon.
Russia - Uzbekistan
There are three trains a week between Moscow and Tashkent (Uzbekistan). Trains leave Moscow on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:15pm, arriving 3 days later at 7:15pm in Tashkent. In the opposite direction, trains depart from Tashkent at around 7:00 pm on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, arriving in Moscow 3 days later at just after 3 in the afternoon.
Russia - North Korea
There is one train a week between Moscow (Yaroslavski station) and Pyongyang, usually leaving on Friday from Moscow, and Saturday from Pyongyang. It takes a week to complete the entire journey.
You are allowed to bring your own car, but be sure to have every official document in order. These include passport and visa and car registration number and full details of your route, itinerary and hotels where you stay. You also need a form provided by customs upon arrival at the border which guarantee that the car will be taken out of the Russian Federation on departure. A road tax has to be payed when entering the country and insurance for travel within the Russian Federation has to be arranged before departure or when entering the country at one of the offices of Ingosstrakh, the Russian Federation foreign insurance agency.
There are many road links and bus connections with neighbouring countries, but many people either fly into Russia or travel by train to the country. For bus links from many European countries to Russia, check the Eurolines website. There are also regular buses between Kirkenes in Norway and Murmansk in the northwest of the country.
Two daily buses provide services to Vyborg and St Petersburg from Helsinki in Finland, one of which originates in Turku. There's also one daily bus from Tampere and three weekly buses from Lappeenranta. Check Matkahuolto for more information about prices and schedules.
In the north, Goldlines has buses three times a week between Rovaniemi via Ivalo to Murmansk.
From July to October a ferry runs twice a week from Vladivostok to Fushiki, near Toyama, but most people are business people importing and exporting cars. Still it's possible to book tickets with Bisintour.
The Heartland Ferry has sailing between Wakkanai in Hokkaido and Korsakov on Sachalin.
Most flights originate and terminate from any of Moscow's four airports. Domodedovo Airport (DME) is one of the biggest airports and handles hundreds of flights a day. Vnukovo (VKO) and Sheremetyevo (SVO) airports are options from the capital as well.
Russia has dozens of airlines flying to literally almost everywhere in the country. For example Aeroflot flies from Sheremetyevo International Airport (Moscow) to and from Adler/Sochi, Anapa, Astrakhan, Barnaul, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Kemerovo, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Magadan, Mineralnye Vody, Nizhnevartovsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Perm, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Samara, St. Petersburg, Surgut, Tyumen, Ufa, Vladivostok, Volgograd, Yekaterinburg and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Other major airlines in the country are Rossiya Airlines, Transaero and S7 Airlines. Check the list of airlines for the dozens of options choosing an airline in Russia.
See also: Trans-Siberian Railway
Russia has an extensive railroad network, but it is hard to get reliable online information. To get some idea of the sheer size and granularity of the network, have a look here.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is one of those journeys that every traveller would like to make sometime during their life. Besides the 'original' that runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, there are connections to cities and towns around the country.
For buying (inter)national tickets you can go to the nearest station or book online.
Renting a car in Russia is getting more and more popular and routes are being upgraded all the time, especially in and around the bigger cities in European Russia. Still, getting around can be a little bit of a hassle with potholed rural roads (or even 'highways'), absence of street signs and petrol and some policemen wanting bribes. It's not unsafe though and you will be able to rent cars in most airports and bigger cities. You need an international driving permit and national driver's licence translated into Russia. Driving is on the right and be sure to have a detailed itinerary and route with you, as hotels must be booked in advance.
The most interesting is to ride across Russia by bus, because you can see more sights inside and outside the cities. There's a search engine tracing routes of Russian intercity buses. Buses are not as comfortable as trains though and wherever possible it is best to use the train. It's a great addition when travelling to some smaller cities where trains are absent or go less frequently.
Travelling around Russia on one of it's many rivers and lakes is an adventurous way of getting around, especially more to the east which is much less popular. The summer season is of course the best season as many rivers are (partly) frozen from October to April. Apart from regular passenger services there are cruise options as well, but these are totally organised and expensive and your itinerary will be fixed. Better to go for the public boats and meet some Russians. The most important routes are between Moscow and St Petersburg, and between Moscow and various points on the Volga and Don, including Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd, Astrakhan and Rostov-on-Don. Further east travelling along the surface of the Ob and Jenisej rivers is great as well. From the end of June until the end of August, there are also regular hydrofoil crossings across the entire lenght of Lake Baikal, from Irkutsk to Severobaykalsk.
The Russian visa process is a nightmare because it changes constantly and some embassies or consulates have different rules. For most countries an invitation is required via an approved travel agency. These approved travel agencies usually add a pretty expensive charge on top of the visa cost unless you use one of their tours. Also many embassies and consulates will sometimes just not issue visas for anyone or certain countries for no practical reason. Examples are the Russian embassies in Beijing or Ulan Bator that have a very strict process that will only use one or two local travel agencies, will take a week no matter what and sometimes just not approve people even after all that. While the consulate in Shanghai doesn't seem to really care at all and will just approve the visa no matter what. Therefore check what the situation is with the embassy or consulate you plan to get a visa from.
See also: Money Matters
The ruble (RUB) is the official currency of Russia. The ruble is subdivided into 100 kopeks.
Banknotes are in denominations of 5 (rarely used),10, 50, 100, 500, 1000, 5000 rubles.
Coins come in 1, 5, 10 (rarely used), 50 kopeks, 1, 2, 5 rubles.
Russian is the national language, but there are litterally hundreds of local languages throughout the country.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Russia. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Russia) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Russia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis, typhoid as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. It is also recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for several days or more in the period of March to November. Only in rare cases is vaccination against Japanese Encephalitis recommended, as it only occurs in an area north of Vladivostok.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Russia in general is not particularly unsafe. It is just a little harder to travel independently. There is a lot of corruptions and bureaucracy, you need to register with the local police in lots of cases and people speak almost no English, except for some cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. The biggest safety hazards are probably the possible extreme cold in large parts of the country and sadly enough the homo- and xenophobic mind of large parts of the Russian society.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Russian Post is the national postal service of Russia. It's English version is currently under construction, but mainly involves the track&trace system. The domestic post is reasonably reliable, and sending international mail is fairly reliable but slow, taking at least a few weeks to European countries, longer to the USA or Australia for example. The delivery of mail sent from abroad to Russia is highly unreliable, and people or companies tend to use foreign adresses, from where a private carrier sends it to Russia. Alternatives like poste restante are non-existent with Russian Post. Most cities and large towns in Russia have a Central Post Office (Glavpochtamt), which also sells stamps and envelopes, and usually has fax services and Internet availability, though the latter mostly not in smaller places. Also, many hotels have postal services, including mail boxes. Post offices tend to keep long hours, usually from 8:00am or 9:00am until 8:00pm or 9:00pm Monday to Friday, and closing earlier during weekends. The main central post offices in the biggest cities keep even longer hours. For sending parcels, you can also try services by DHL Russia and FedEx Russia. For all mail you can use the regular alphabet, though maybe include the country's name in Cyrillic. For sending post to Russia (or trying to receive it) note that addresses should be in reverse order: Russia, postal code, city, street address, name.
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Ask Tom TravelLocal a question about Russia
I lived in St Petersburg for two years and have organised trips there for a UK tour operator.
Ask Steeltramp a question about Russia
Travelling across Russia overland, coming in from Kiev and out to Ulan Bantor, I have learned from my own mistakes and picked up tips from other travellers on how to make the journey as smooth as can be.
Ask Brendan a question about Russia
I travelled across Russia for 3 months, and could come up with some good tricks and tips.
If you are looking for some adventure, I know some people in the Government that can get you into a National Park in Tunguska, Siberia! It's worth it!!
Ask Tory-Vic a question about Russia
Hi, I live in St-Petersburg. Please let me know if there is anything I can help you with.
Ask trubo4ka a question about Russia
My native country. travelled around Central Russia and Urals a lot. will be glad to help.
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