Straddling Europe and Asia, Russia, officially known today as the Russian Federation, is a diverse land with a colourful mix of culture and natural habitats, and is the world’s largest country in terms of land mass.
Russia is a fascinating place. Not only because of its exciting and occasionally tumultuous political and social history, most recently the transition from communism to a federal democracy, but also because of its boisterous cities full of history and culture and awe-inspiring landscapes that spotlight the best of nature. Let’s start off on a journey through the land that once inspired Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and gave us modern ballet and world-class symphonies.
For many foreigners, cosmopolitan Moscow, Russia’s largest city, epitomises the influence of the West. Luxury shops, stunning cityscapes, famous sights – the wealthy city on the Moskva River offers unlimited cultural and leisure activities, and is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.
In particular, the historic Kremlin, which means ‘fortress’, influences the city’s atmosphere and appearance. Standing proud and strong at the heart of the city, the magnificent complex was constructed from 1482-1495 and has served many purposes throughout history, including the Tsar’s residence and the home of Soviet leaders. Today it’s the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation.
St. Petersburg, named after Tsar Peter the Great, is a city on the Baltic Sea with a seemingly ever-changing identity. In the 20th century alone, it was referred to with three names: St. Petersburg (before 1914 and after 1991), Petrograd (from 1914-1924) and Leningrad (from 1924-1991).
Modern day St. Petersburg, population 5.1 million, is a lively, green place. In fact, its long lists of parks and gardens – both historic and new – earn it the title Russia’s greenest city. A special highlight in this grand city is the Hermitage Museum, home to one of the biggest and oldest art and culture collections in the world.
Did you know…?
World heritage: Russia boasts a total of 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow, the entire historic centre of St. Petersburg, and the Western Caucus region.
At their closest points, separated only by the Bering Strait, Russia and the United States, or more precisely, the state of Alaska, are only 85 kilometres apart! Thousands of years ago the two continents were connected here by a land bridge. Alaska actually belonged to Russia before the US purchased it in 1867.
Presuming 5,642-metre-tall Mount Elbrus is located in Europe and not in Asia – a long-established point of disagreement – it beats 4,810.45-metre-tall Mount Blanc to win the title of Europe’s highest peak
In vivid contrast to its pulsating urban centres are Russia’s thousand-square-kilometres of rural landscapes. The renowned Tran-Siberian railway, a network of trains connecting Moscow with Eastern Russia, chugs along through the Russian countryside. The railway, which is used for both freight and passengers, is longest in the world. There are three possible routes to choose from and arguably the most famous is the 9,258-kilometre or 6-day stretch from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok, located on the Sea of Japan!
In the western part of the Caucasus Mountain Range, near the border Russia shares with Georgia, all attention turns to Mount Elbrus. This majestic mountain, technically a dormant volcano, clocks in at 5,642 metres, making it the world’s 10th highest peak. Every year in July and August, international climbers come in droves to ascend its summit – a feat that requires years of training and preparation and takes on average a week to complete
Many superlatives can be used to describe Lake Baikal – it is both the world’s deepest and oldest lake, as well as the world’s largest fresh-water reservoir. According to many, it’s also the lake that has the clearest water. Located in Siberia in central Russia at 445 metres above sea level, the body of water is surrounded by mountains on all sides. The lake has 22 islands the largest of which, Olkhon Island, is an amazing 72 kilometres long and 21 kilometres wide.
Unique natural phenomena are inherent to Lake Baikal. For example, the so-called Baikal glitter, a special glistening of the lake in the sun that only happens when the water is completely calm. The way the light reflects on the water is reminiscent of molten glass. Also, the lake is affected by tides, though the ebb and flow are not as dramatic as in the world’s oceans.