Russia is at once breathtaking and baffling. Winston Churchill’s much-quoted line that the world’s largest nation represented “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” is as true today as it was back then.
Monumental in every respect, it’s a land where burnished imperial splendour coexists with icy Siberian tundra, where timeworn Soviet-era monuments backdrop uber-hip urban cultures and where everything from the ruling party downwards functions in its own, impenetrably Russian, way.
The west of the country draws the most visitor attention, thanks to the presence of two extraordinary cities. St Petersburg and Moscow serve up sweeping postcard sights by the dozen. Moscow is the rapidly beating heart of the “New Russia,” where Asia and Europe combine to create a boisterous, enigmatic metropolis on a grand scale. St Petersburg, meanwhile, with its living film-set of palaces, cathedrals and waterways, is the grandest and most European of Russia’s cities, yet still retains a deeply complex character.
Exploration beyond these two main hubs, however, is well advised. The Golden Ring, a collection of ancient towns northeast of Moscow, still has plenty of period architecture and is easily accessed from the capital. By cruising along the mighty River Volga, meanwhile, it’s possible to travel south towards the Caspian Sea and see the country beyond its increasingly westernised veneer. And those heading east, into Siberia, will find a land of varied, often sublime natural beauty. From Lake Baikal to the old imperial city of Irkutsk, and from the mountains of the Altai and the shamans of Tuva, Siberia has many secrets.
A combination of the above is drawing an increasing number of tourists to the Russian Federation – that it remains as obscure and mysterious as ever is all part of the charm. As the poet Fyodor Tyutchev once said: “Russia cannot be understood.”