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Russia

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  • Church on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
    Church on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
  • The Kremlin, Moscow
    The Kremlin, Moscow
  • Siberia, Russia
    Siberia, Russia
  • Throne Room, Hermitage. Russia
    Throne Room, Hermitage. Russia

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.”

  • Capital:

    Moscow.

    Geography:

    The Russian Federation covers almost twice the area of the USA, and reaches from the enclave of Kaliningrad in the west over the Urals and the vast Siberian plains to the Sea of Okhotsk in the east. The border between European Russia and Siberia (Asia) is formed by the Ural Mountains, the Ural River and the Manych Depression. All in all Russia has 16 international borders with countries including Finland, Lithuania, USA, Japan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and China.

    European Russia extends from the North Polar Sea across the Central Russian Uplands to the Black Sea, the Northern Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. Siberia stretches from the West Siberian Plain across the Central Siberian Plateau to the Lena River and takes in the Sayan and Yablonovy ranges in the south. East of Siberia stretches the Russian Far East, a region almost as big as Siberia itself, running to the Pacific coast and including the vast Chukotka and Kamchatka peninsulas.

    Given the vast size of the country, Russia’s terrain is hugely variable. From the Siberian tundra to the mountains of the Urals, the beaches on the Black Sea coast, and the plains of western Russia, such variable geography means one can experience many different Russias.

    Government:

    Federal republic since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

    Head Of State:

    President Vladimir Putin since 2012.

    Head Of Government:

    Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev since 2012.

    Electricity:

    220 volts AC, 50Hz. Russia uses a standard two-pin European plug.

    Timezone:
  • Currency Information:

    Rouble (RUB; symbol руб) = 100 kopeks. Notes are in denominations of 5,000, 1,000, 500, 100, 50, 10 and 5. Coins are in denominations of 10, 5, 2 and 1, and 50, 10, 5 and 1 kopeks.

    Credit Cards:

    Major European and international credit and debit cards, including Visa and MasterCard, are accepted in the larger hotels and at foreign currency shops and restaurants, but cash (in Roubles) is more reliable. American Express cards are rarely accepted outside Moscow and St Petersburg.

    ATMs:

    ATMs are widely available throughout Russia, although if you're venturing into rural areas, they may be less widespread so carry a reserve amount of cash. Most ATMs will offer English as well as Cryllic translations.

    Travellers Cheques:

    Cash is preferred. If carrying traveller's cheques, major currencies are accepted in big cities, but US Dollars and Euros are preferred elsewhere.

    Banking Hours:

    Mon-Fri 0930-1730.

    Currency Restrictions:

    The import and export of local currency is prohibited. The import of foreign currency is limited to the equivalent of $10,000, but sums greater than the equivalent of $3,000 must be declared. The export of foreign currency is limited to the amount imported.

    Currency Exchange:

    Foreign currency should only be exchanged at official bureaux and authorised banks. You will usually need your passport to change money. It is wise to retain all exchange receipts. Bureaux de change are numerous and easy to locate. Large shops and hotels offer their own exchange facilities. All major currencies can be converted in big cities. Outside the main cities, travellers are advised to carry US Dollars or Euros. It is illegal to settle accounts in hard currency and to change money unofficially, although in practice both sometimes happen and are not risky. However, in general everyone will want to be paid in Roubles.

    Currencies: Exchange Rates:

    • 1 EUR = 62.64 RUB
    • 1 GBP = 86.09 RUB
    • 1 USD = 58.20 RUB

  • Best Time To Visit:

    As you’d expect Russia’s climate is hugely dependent on where in the country you find yourself. With temperatures known to hit a tarmac-melting 37°C (99°F) in the cities and fall to -30°C (-22°F) and lower during the Siberian winter, there’s no point generalising about Russia’s weather except to say, be prepared.

    The most favourable temperatures are found along the Baltic coast, where many Muscovites decamp for balmy summer holidays, whilst the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi, also doubles as a beach resort, due to its tropical climate, earning it the epithet ‘Florida of Russia’. Minus the overly tanned pensioners of course.

    While the notion of visiting a snow-blanketed Moscow or St Petersburg has a definite romance, most tourists prefer to come calling in the warm summer months of June, July and August. This means the shoulder seasons of April, May, September and October are good options for visitors keen to avoid the peak crowds – prices are generally lower from September to May, and tourist sites almost invariably less crowded.

    Spring is often characterised by slushy roads. And if your heart’s set on that winter wonderland, December’s the best bet. Seasonal climates apply elsewhere in Russia – Siberia can have devastatingly cold winters, while its summers are generally fairly pleasant, if a little rainy. The region of Russia near the Black Sea has mild winters, but again attracts a fair amount of rain.

    Required Clothing:

    Those visiting over summer should pack a mixture of lightweight and mediumweight clothing – natural fibres such as cotton and linen are best. For the winter visitor, meanwhile – layers, layers, layers. Wools and cashmeres are great material for keeping in the warmth. Sturdy shoes are always a good idea, no matter what time of year.