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The Volga is Europe’s longest river and flows through the centre of Russia’s vast spaces with eleven of the country’s largest cities in its drainage basin. It has some of the world’s largest reservoirs along its route that provide hydroelectric power and, with its many tributaries, it drains most of western Russia and ends in the Caspian Sea. There are many navigable waterways connected with it too linking Moscow to the White Sea, the Black Sea and the Baltic as well as to St Petersburg and the vast lakes Ladoga and Onega. For three months of the year it freezes.

The Volga system flows through the most populated area of Russia though that is sometimes hard to believe. Outside the great cities, this is a landscape of woods and water. Occasional villages and windmills and the onion domes of churches rise above endless forests of silver birch. It is still, quiet and not even an aeroplane vapour trail can be seen in the sky. Not something you can say about Moscow, a fitting introduction to the enigma that is Russia. In Red Square the Kremlin, powerhouse for decades of a regime that suppressed religion, faces the baroque gilded gingerbread masterpiece that is St Basil’s Cathedral. Across the square from them both is the great emporium GUM, nowadays an extravagant mall filled with the likes of De Beers and Cartier, conspicuous consumerism having long replaced the drabness of the Soviet era. St Petersburg is exquisite, built on numerous islands, criss-crossed by bridges and canals, and lined with 18th century palaces. Must-sees include St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Hermitage, the world’s best ballet and the scene of Rasputin’s murder, a stroll down Nevsky Prospekt. and Catherine the Great’s Palace – that marvel of white marble and goldleaf she called her “little toy”.

Smaller but no less fascinating gems can be found between the two great cities of Russia. Kizhi Island is on Lake Onega, Europe’s second largest lake – frozen from October to May. It is essentially an outdoor museum with a multitude of original wooden buildings, including the Transfiguration Cathedral built in 1714 without a single nail. Its 22 onion domes sheathed in aspen shingles shimmer like silver in the sun. Uglich is another highlight with the medieval gem of the Alexeyevsky Monastery and the Resurrection Monastery with its huge cathedral – where you shouldn’t miss a concert of male voices (with those famous Russian basses).