How do you define a country that’s spent centuries proving virtually undefinable?
Winston Churchill called it “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”; a vast landscape stretching virtually halfway around the world, and there’s no way I can do justice to every aspect of this complex, contradictory, bewildering and beautiful country. However, here’s my attempt that will inspire you, I hope, to discover more.
We should probably start with the capital. Moscow is intimidating, there’s no doubt about it. It’s huge, chaotic and fast-paced, with traffic and people everywhere you look. It’s a very extreme place as well, which unnerves a lot of people: it can be spine-crackingly cold or stiflingly hot, dazzlingly beautiful or shockingly ugly, distant and calm, or viscerally immediate and in-your-face. One thing it is not is boring.
You’ll find it exhausting and confusing, but as an experience, it’s totally worth it, for better or worse. The Metro, for example, is crowded and noisy, but is also beautiful and fascinating. Many museums and monuments have taken it upon themselves to cherry-pick which parts of history to venerate and which to expunge (visit Lenin’s mausoleum for an almost hilariously somber deification of the former leader), while on the ground the art and music you’ll see everywhere from bars to bookshops and underground music venues will tell the story of Russia today.
Russia’s imperial capital was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, and spent a couple of centuries as one of Europe’s powerhouses. Today, where Moscow is the mighty, sprawling, concrete crunch that defines 20th- and 21st- century Russia, St. Petersburg still has a touch of grandeur and elegance about it.
Built on a series of islands where the Neva River flows into a large bay and outward into the Gulf of Finland, the city also has a network of canals, making it one of the (many) cities that claim the title The Venice of the North. Although it’s not as immediately picturesque as Venice, it can lay claim to being as culturally rich. The Hermitage Museum, for example, is one of the largest in the world, and there are a raft of churches, galleries, parks, gardens and monuments to discover.
Visit the beautiful Smolny Convent, or head out of the city a little way and visit some of the imperial palaces that were built for the Russian Tsars. Take a boat trip to see the city from the water, or get up high with a rooftop walk. Come in winter for snow-covered classicism, or in summer when the sun barely sets. Whenever you feel like visiting, you can find a more in-depth guide to St. Petersburg here.
Romantic and poetic…
There has been a lot written and discussed over the centuries about the meaning and importance of the so-called Russian Soul. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Idiot called it “a dark place”. Alexei Tolstoy called it “unlimited sadness without hope”, but conceded that it’s also marked by “unconquerable strength and the unalterable stamp of Fate”.
It’s this mixture of apathy and anger, brooding despair, romance and ill-starred glory that, despite Russia being a modern country, people still cling onto, veering wildly from anguish to ecstasy and back again, either unable — or simply unwilling — to make life any easier or more frivolous than it should be.
This is reflected in the people you’ll meet. Your author lived in Russia for just over a year and all the stereotypes about people being cold and inhospitable appeared, at first, to be true, but what seemed to be gruff misanthropy, was simply wary privacy. Here, friendship is something to be earned, but when it is, you’ll be let in, both to home and to heart.
… but imposing and brutal
That absolutely doesn’t mean it’s all sweetness and light. The history of Russia is long, complicated, and frequently horrendous, and nothing is ever black and white.
Some parts of history are celebrated again today, time and distance making them easier to acknowledge (although they do produce “celebrations” like Moscow’s horrendous statue of Peter the Great, located where the Vodootvodny Canal meets the Moscow River), while some are more ambiguous (see Muzeon Park, which was originally a dumping ground for statues of Soviet figures after the collapse of Communism, many of which were gradually hoisted back onto their feet; it’s now a curious mix of battered statuary and modern sculpture).
The same goes for a lot of the architecture. Stalin’s Sisters, the seven mighty skyscrapers built between 1947 and 1953, are some of Moscow’s most recognizable and well-loved buildings, but constructed in a bombastic, Baroque / Gothic crossover style that wouldn’t look out of place in 1940s Manhattan. Yet at the same time, whacking great slabs of concrete were going up all over the place; not the clean lines and arched windows of Constructivism twenty or so years previously, but square, heavy and oppressive, much like the regime under which they were built.
Today, the architecture and monuments of the recent past are, if not loved, then at least respected as relics of an experiment that was ultimately doomed.
But what lies beyond the great cities? Well, a vast, unconquerable, almost ungovernable landscape stretching halfway around the world. From the southern grasslands and steppe, to the frozen north, all the way to the borders of Mongolia and to within touching distance of Alaska, it’s a huge and unknowable place.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, mind you. One of the most famous railways in the world, the Trans-Siberian, connects Moscow with Vladivostok, 9,300km away. If you travel non-stop, it’ll take you almost a week to get there, but that’s not the point. Stops at Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and other cities let you see the history and culture of Siberian and Asian Russia, as well as the stunning landscapes of Lake Baikal and the town of Birobidzhan, capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.
Alternatively, head south from Moscow to the city formerly known as Stalingrad, Volgograd; east to Kazan, a beautiful and vibrant mix of Oriental and Russian culture; or to Kaliningrad, the curious exclave crammed between Poland and Lithuania. Wherever you go, you’ll only be scratching the surface of one of the world’s most overwhelming and fascinating countries.
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