From now until the last fireworks light up Sochi’s sky on February 23, G Adventures will offer up the best original and curated content from around the web. Want to follow along? We’ll share our take on Sochi 2014 through through the @gadventures handle, on Facebook—and right here on the Looptail. Check out all of our Winter Games–related articles here. This is your planet—see it at play.
It’s ancient, reserved, mysterious, and more than a bit chilly—it’s Russia, and the largest country in the world is in the spotlight due to the Winter Games being held in the resort city of Sochi. Even though it covers a wide swath of Eurasia, Russia still maintains an air of secrecy and isolation—and that’s not the only contradiction the country seems to hold. It’s hard to get a handle on what Russia is all about, but if you’re looking for somewhere that marries tradition with modernity, opulence with understated elegance, and hominess with large-scale grandeur, then you’ve come to the right place.
Age of the Empire
It goes without saying that Russia is old. The country began somewhere between the third and eighth centuries AD, founded by the East Slav people (possibly Swedish Vikings!) who eventually adopted Orthodox Christianity as their religion. Over time, the medieval state known as Rus grew and splintered into smaller regions, most of which ended up being invaded by the Mongols. However, by the eighteenth century, the Russian empire truly began to form through annexation and conquest, and was understood to be the third-largest empire in history.
A Tale of Two Cities
This deep history is especially reflected in its two most-visited cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, the current and former capitals of the country. Both cities feature world-famous theatres, churches, fortresses, museums and palaces. Moscow has a slight edge of modernity on St Petersburg, though, as it has a lot of newer architecture, but the latter is where you want to go if you want to experience Old World canals and structures. But the world’s focus now is on Sochi, a city on the subtropical coast of the Black Sea—not particularly a prime spot for winter sports, especially considering how frigid other parts of the country are, but Sochi is a resort town and considered popular with travellers.
The Cultural Mosaic
(I grew up in a very small southeastern Ontario village called Moscow. After telling people where I was from, I reflexively answered that, no, I didn’t speak Russian.) These days, the 160 ethnic groups in Russia speak 100 different languages, with Tatar and Ukrainian ranking high as well as the requisite Russian (a pretty difficult yet rather elegant language in itself). Another varied aspect of Russia is its peoples’ religious beliefs—as well as the Orthodox Christianity of its heritage, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and even paganism are all recognized by Russian citizens. The Orthodox church continues to hold the most power in the country, although Islam is rising in prominence as well, as the country’s Caucasian and Turkish minorities grow.
Recently, the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence (as well as its ties to the country’s radical fringe) have contributed to some polarizing policies. Russia’s negative view of homosexuality is a sticking point for many Western countries, and rightly so; the Kremlin’s stance that homosexuality be banned by law is incredibly problematic in terms of human rights. In addition, unrest in the Caucasus—and Russia’s military response to it—has cast a shadow over the nation’s image abroad. And while not everyone in Russia shares these views, the complexities of modern Russian culture are important for visitors to understand.
This isn’t to dissuade anyone from visiting Russia—far from it. This ancient country has the ability to provide a number of unique experiences for anyone looking for a slice of history and culture that you won’t find anywhere else on Earth. It may come off as imposing, but Russians are as warm and friendly a people as you’ll find anywhere, and historic locations like St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square are worth the price of admission. Long after the games in Sochi have ended, Russia will be standing as it has for centuries. Don’t keep it waiting.
If you’re skittish about travelling to Russia on your own, don’t worry—we’ve got a pretty nifty Golden Ring of Russia group trip, as well as a Baltic to St Petersburg journey that will keep you within a tight-knit group of travellers led by an expert CEO who knows the land and its people well.