Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Kizhi is a not-to-be-missed pilgrimage site for anyone touched by the magic of old Russian architecture. The big highlight is the fairy-tale Transfiguration Church, built in 1714. With its chorus of 23 domes plus gables and ingenious decorations to keep water off the walls, it is the gem of Russian wooden architecture.
Next door is the nine-domed Church of the Intercession (1764) with a rich collection of 16th- to 18th-century icons. Between the two churches stands an 1862 belltower. These three buildings constitute the World Heritage-listed Kizhsky pogost (Kizhi Enclosure). The little Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus, constructed in the 14th century at Murom monastery, may be the oldest wooden building in Russia.
An old pagan ritual site, Kizhi - one of at least 1600 islands in Lake Onega - made a natural 'parish' for 12th-century Russian colonists. None of the early churches remain, but the churches built in this remote spot in the 18th century and other wooden buildings have been gathered from around Lake Onega since the 1950s to make the 6km -long island the centrepiece of the Kizhi Museum-Reserve.
The 'Pearl of Siberia' is a crystal clear body of the bluest water, ringed with mountains and surrounded on most sides by rocky, tree-covered cliffs. It's the world's deepest lake, though 25 million years ago it was three times deeper. Incredibly, it contains nearly one-fifth of all the world's fresh water.
Considered the 'kitchen' of Siberian weather, its meteorological mood swings are transfixing spectacles as whole weather systems dance for your delectation.
Shaped like a banana, Baikal is 636km from north to south, 60km wide and 1637m deep near the western edge, more than North America's five Great Lakes combined.
Most tourism is based in the southwest, notably in attractive Listvyanka village and the south coast is dramatically visible from Trans-Siberian trains. Around the Selenga Delta are several forgotten, historical villages. Beyond magical Olkon Island on the west coast and the dramatic Barguzin Valley on the east, all roads fizzle out in the forested mountain wilderness. The attractive far north region around Severobaikalsk is only accessible by air, boat, a very long loop on the BAM or, in midwinter, by driving up the ice!
The republic of Karelia stretches from St Petersburg to the Arctic Circle - half is forest, and much of the rest is water. Its more than 60,000 lakes include Ladoga and Onega, the two largest in Europe. Many visitors use pleasant, laid-back Petrozavodsk as a jumping off point for their adventures.
Despite the feel of its present-day, tree-lined avenues and extensive parklands, Petrozavodsk, 420km northeast of St Petersburg, has a short, grim history. It was created in 1703 as an iron foundry and armaments plant for Peter the Great (its name means 'Peter's factory'), and the town was subsequently used by both the tsars and the Bolsheviks as a place of exile for St Petersburg's troublemakers.
The city has the semblance of a small St Petersburg, and is truly worthy of a visit. Many come to Petrozavodsk in order to visit the famous collection of old wooden buildings and churches on Kizhi, an island 66km northeast of the city, in Lake Onega (it's the most famous of the lake's 1368 islands). It's also a starting point for adventure seekers wishing to experience the Karelian wilderness.
Known as Hill 102 during the battle of Stalingrad, Mamaev Kurgan was the site of four months of fierce fighting. It's now a moving memorial to all who died in this bloody fight. The complex's centrepiece is an evocative 72m (236ft) statue of Mother Russia wielding a sword that extends another 11m (35ft) above her head.
The area is covered with statues, memorials and ruined fortifications. The Pantheon is inscribed with the names of 7200 soldiers who died here, which are meant to represent the 600,000 Russian soldiers who were killed in this tragic battle.
With the Caucasus mountains as its backdrop, subtropical climate, warm seas and adjoining trendy resort complex of Dagomys, the resort has long attracted heads of state, foreign tourists and Russians alike. Heading inland, there are waterfalls, hilltop views, spa towns and alpine vistas to enjoy.
Gardens are a feature of the town, as are therapeutic establishments and the dachas (country houses) of the powerful and famous. Heading inland, there are waterfalls, hilltop views, spa towns and alpine vistas to enjoy.
Orthodox Easter and Christmas are celebrated with midnight services, candlelight processions and flourishings of folk art. St Petersburg's white nights (around the summer solstice in late June) are truly unique. The city comes alive and parties all night as the sun only barely sinks below the horizon, leaving the sky a magical grey-white throughout the night. Summer in Moscow sees both an international film festival and a festival devoted to beer. For those with antifreeze in their veins, winter festivals are celebrated in St Petersburg, Moscow and other major cities from late December to early January. The other main winter celebration is New Year, celebrated with presents, champagne and vodka.
When to go?
July and August are the warmest months and the main holiday season. If you want to avoid the crowds, try May-June or September-early-October. In early autumn the leaves are turning and you can pick mushrooms and berries. Although winter is bitter, theatres open, the vodka comes out, buildings are warm and the snow is beautiful. Spring is slushy, muddy and generally horrible. Definitely try to avoid late Feb, March and early April.
Travel Visa Overview
Everyone needs a visa to visit Russia, and it will probably be your biggest single headache, so allow yourself at least a month before you travel to secure one. There are several types of visa, but most travellers will apply for a tourist visa, valid for 30 days from the date of entry. The process has three stages: invitation, application and registration.
European plug with two circular metal pins
Vaccination against this serious bacterial disease is very effective, so you don't need to worry if you've been properly immunised against it. It mainly affects children and causes a cold-like illness that is associated with a severe sore throat. A thick white membrane forms at the back of the throat which can suffocate you, but what makes this a really nasty disease is that the diphtheria bug produces a very powerful poison which can cause paralysis and affect the heart. Otherwise healthy people can carry the bug in their throats, and it's transmitted by sneezing and coughing. It can also cause a skin ulcer known as a veldt sore. Vaccination protects against this form too. Treatment is with penicillin and a diphtheria antitoxin, if necessary.
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
There are 6 known types of viral hepatitis:A, B, C, D, E and G. G is not dangerous. A and E are passed on by the fecal-oral route of transmission; there is a vaccine. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. A and E cause an acute illness, but you will recover fully from it.
B and D are passed on via blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids. They can be passed on by close contact, sexual contact, and blood-to-blood contact. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. There is a vaccine.
Hepatitis C is only passed on from blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine.
This is a fatal viral infection. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution.
Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death.
Also known as enteric fever, typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease.
The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhoea and stomach pains.
You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity.
Seek medical help for any fever (38°C and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating.
Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhoea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment.
Russia's extremes range from the frosts of the Siberian north to the heat of the European south. With no discernable spring or autumn, Russia has a dry continental climate. Siberian summers are surprisingly warm; it's the winters that make regions distinct. So while daytime summer temperatures over the nation may only vary from 20 to 30°C (68-86°F), in winter it is more like 10 to -50°C (51 to -58°F). Major towns like Moscow and St Petersburg share similar pleasant summer temperatures, both averaging around 24°C (75°F). Spring in both cities brings the great thaw, the reappearance of vehicles on the road and a general sense of mayhem.
History and Culture
Russia's myriad ethnic groups collectively form a rich cultural stew, one that has added much flavour to the country's spiritual life via institutions such as the Orthodox Church, to Russian visual arts with their recurring religious and existential themes, and to the society-focused aesthetics of the national literature and performing arts.
Pre-20th Centure History
The founding of Novgorod in 862 by the Viking Rurik of Jutland is traditionally taken as the birth of what became the Russian state. Rurik's successor, Oleg, helped make Kiev the dominant regional power in the 10th and 11th centuries, until shifting trade routes rendered it a commercial backwater. The merchants of Novgorod eventually declared independence from Kiev and joined the emerging Hanseatic League, a federation of city-states that controlled Baltic and North Sea trade.
Centuries of prosperity were quashed in the 13th century by the marauding Mongolian Tatars, who held sway until 1480. The 16th century witnessed the ugly expansionist reign of Ivan the Terrible, whose incursions into the Volga region antagonised Poland and Sweden to Russia's later cost. When the 700-year Rurikid dynasty ended with the childless Fyodor, vengeful Swedish and Polish invaders each bloodily claimed the Russian throne. The issue was finally settled in 1613, with the 16-year-old Mikhail Romanov issuing in a dynasty that was to rule until 1917. Peter the Great, the dynasty's strongest ruler, celebrated vanquishing the Swedes by building a new capital in St Petersburg.
The 19th century began with a bang, thanks to Napoleon, and ended with the country in ominous turmoil. The long-suffering serfs were freed in 1861 and there was growing opposition to the repressive and autocratic tsarist rule. Peasants were angry at having to pay for land they regarded as their own, liberals advocated constitutional reform along western European lines and terrorists assassinated Alexander II in 1881. Many radicals fled, including the famous exile Vladimir Ulyanov, better known by his later nom de guerre, Lenin.
Under the young, weak Nicholas II, ignominious defeat in the war with Japan (1904-5) led to further unrest. The massacre of civilians on Bloody Sunday led to mass strikes and the murder of industrialists. Social Democrat activists formed workers' councils (soviets), and a general strike in October 1905 brought the country to its knees. The tsar finally buckled and permitted the formation of the country's first parliament (duma), only to disband it when he didn't like its leftist demands. Russia's disastrous performance in WWI fomented further unrest. Soldiers and police mutinied and a reconvened duma assumed government, manned by the commercial elite. Soviets of workers and soldiers were also formed, thus creating two alternative power bases. Both were unified in their demands for the abdication of the tsar, an action Nicholas was forced to undertake on 1 March 1917.
On 25 October a splinter group of Social Democrats (known as Bolsheviks and led by the exiled Lenin) seized control and empowered the soviets as the ruling councils. Headed by Lenin and supported by Trotsky and Stalin, the soviet government redistributed land to those who worked it, signed an armistice with Germany and created Trotsky's Red Army. In March 1918 the Bolshevik Party was renamed the Communist Party and the nation's capital was moved from Petrograd (St Petersburg's new, un-German-sounding name) to Moscow. Strongholds of those hostile to the communist regime had developed in the south and east of the country. Their collective name, the Whites, was their only source of cohesion. Three years of civil war resulted, with over a million citizens fleeing.
The economic consequences of the civil war were disastrous, culminating in the enormous famine of 1920-21. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established in 1922 and, following Lenin's death in January 1924, new lows in human brutality were reached by his successor, Josef Stalin, who introduced farm collectivisation, destroying the peasantry both as a class and as a way of life. Millions were executed or exiled to Siberian concentration camps.
Stalin was keen to avoid embroilment in WWII, which engulfed Europe in 1939, and the Ribbentrop-Molotov nonaggression pact was signed. The tables turned in 1941 when Hitler's invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa) issued in a bloody period of warfare that would eventually kill a sixth of the Soviet population. The battles for Leningrad (former Petrograd) and Stalingrad (today again known as Volgograd) were particularly protracted and obscene. One million Soviet troops died defending Stalingrad, the symbolically important namesake of their leader.
At the war's end, the Soviet's 'liberation' of Eastern Europe was soon recognised as a misnomer. Russia's extended control over much of Eastern Europe was the key to its emergence as one of the world's superpowers. Stalin re-established the old pattern of unpredictable purges and, as the Cold War developed, he established Western ideology as the country's new enemy. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Krushchev emerged as leader and cautiously attempted to de-Stalinise the Party with his secret speech in 1956, which lambasted the cult of personality and sent shock waves around the world. Krushchev, long held to be an embarrassment to the Soviet nation due to his brash peasant ways, was eventually toppled in a coup lead by his long-time protégé, Leonid Brezhnev.
Despite increased repression, dissident movements sprang up. But change was on the way and Soviet communism's poor image was soon thoroughly overhauled by iconoclast Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev introduced political and economic reforms (perestroika) and called for greater openness (glasnost). In 1988 he held elections to transfer power from the Party to a new parliament. Reduced repression led to the eventual independence of the 15 Soviet republics, with the Baltic republics leading the way. This reduced sphere of influence and severe economic crisis caused Gorbachev domestic strife. A reactionary coup in August 1991 opened the way for his even more radical successor, Boris Yeltsin.
Post-Soviet Russia was marked by the misdealings of corrupt officials, financiers and out-and-out gangsters, as well as soaring rates of corruption, racketeering and murder. Despite the unpopularity of change, Russians narrowly voted back the indecisive, incoherent president Yeltsin in mid-1996 elections. The Yeltsin era was marked by the globalisation - by hook and by crook - of the Russian economy. The new democracy veered between the rise of ultra-nationalism and communist nostalgia. By 1999 things were looking even shakier - Yeltsin sacked his governments regularly, but the economy was getting steadily gloomier. In August 1998 the ruble was floated and immediately went into freefall.
On New Year's Eve 1999, with his health on the wane, Yeltsin resigned, stepping aside for Vladimir Putin, a steely-faced ex-KGB officer who was prime minister at the time. Elected president the following year, Putin's policy of steering a careful course between reform and centralisation made him highly popular. Russia began to recover the confidence it had lost during the Yeltsin years, and the economy boomed off the back of oil and gas exports. However, the West became alarmed at Putin's tightening of control over the media and political opponents, as well as his brutal clampdown on the independence movement in Chechnya following terrorist attacks in the capital and elsewhere in 2002 and 2004.
Due to constitutionally mandated term limits, Putin was ineligible to run for a third consecutive presidential term. With no credible opponent, Dmitry Medvedev's election to president in March 2008 was never in doubt. Non-Russian observers worried about how 'democratic' this practically preordained outcome really was, and fretted even more in August of the same year when Russia came to blows with Georgia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
With Putin, who is again back in the role of prime minister, Medvedev presides over a strong economy growing at an average 7% per year (although the economic crisis of 2008/9 put a big dent in that figure) and a nation awash with US-dollar billionaires that has become the world's number-one luxury goods market - Lenin is surely spinning in his mausoleum!
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