A country of breathing history, welcoming people, and sprawling geography, Russia boasts a never-ending stream of splendors. Its onion-shaped domes, inspired by exotic Byzantine imperial palaces and churches and ancient castles built to fend off the terror-inspiring Mongol Golden Horde tower above sightseers. Continent-spanning railroads, the longest in the world, constructed by Imperial Russian and Soviet architects, offer so many destinations that the travel possibilities are endless!
Consider its 1,150 year history. Formed by the merging of Viking military leadership with the dreams and ambitions of a people who commanded the great trading routes of Eastern Europe, it is no great surprise that today it is the world’s largest country. The sons of Rurik, the first Grand Prince of Novgorod, built an empire that spanned the land between the Scandinavian-dominated Baltic Sea, the Persian-dominated Caspian Sea, and the Byzantine-dominated Black Sea. They ruled for 250 years before a great catastrophe struck.
This catastrophe took the form of an invasion led by the great Batu Khan. His Mongol horsemen emerged from an impossibly successful campaign carried out by his father, the great Genghis Khan, one that took down the Celestial Empire of China and the mystical civilizations of Central Asia. With the intent to build an empire that would span the known world, the Mongols invaded Russia. It took two years for the Golden Horde to capture and destroy all of its cities, a delay that perhaps prevented the invasion of Central and Western Europe.
However, though down, Russia was not out. Free Russians continued to rule in principalities barely within or beyond the reach of the Mongol tribute collectors. Eventually, the nation re-emerged and overcame the Horde, and built an even greater land than had the descendants of Rurik in the days before Batu Khan.
Of course, what Russia is today is the result of a young Romanov prince who dreamt of sailing the world’s seas. Peter the Great was so taken by the idea of building a Russian navy that he first fought a war with Sweden for control of the Baltic, and then fought a war with the Turks for a foothold on the Black Sea. He went to Western Europe in a Great Embassy, bringing back not only naval technology, but the know-how to build a more organized and modern Russia. Inspired by European cultures and traditions, Peter dragged Russia into its own renaissance, and his mostly landlocked and relatively backwards Empire blossomed into a modern world power.
The names of Catherine the Great, and perhaps even Napoleon Bonaparte’s rival for control of the continent, Tsar Alexander I, are familiar to most people interested in this great country. So, too, is Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, and Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary that brought him down. His protege, Joseph Stalin, actually a native of the Transcaucasus nation of Georgia, also comes to mind when thinking of those who politically advanced the country onto the world stage. Naturally, so do its most recent leaders, the last Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev, the tank-defying first President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin, and the presidential team of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.
However, this has been a country also of great scientists and explorers - Vladimir Shukhov advanced Russian engineering in the fields of hyperboloid structures and petroleum production, and Admiral Thaddeus von Bellinghausen is credited for discovering Antarctica, sighting the last continent just days before a U.S. expedition. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin likewise beat the American space effort by becoming the first human to travel into space. And countless Russian scientists effectively established the founding principles of cold region engineering.
Its culture, a mosaic of over a hundred ethnic groups, inspires the world, even today. The musical stirrings embodied in Tchaikovsky's works, the incredible expression of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano performances, the dramatic writing of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the reality-teasing humor of Ukrainian transplants Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, all exemplify the talent that still lurks in the cities and countryside of Russia today.
The marks of such great people and their incredible achievements are indelibly left upon both the face of Russia, and the course of advancement of humankind. Many of these great marks can be seen in the many astounding and inspirational buildings, statues, and passages that serve as monuments to these great contributions, and the people from which they emerged. Where the ambitions of the world’s largest nation will lead is anyone’s guess. However, one thing is certain: this centuries-long quest for greatness continues even today.
To see it all requires the span of a lifetime. And of course the help of folks who know Russia.
10 MUST-DO THINGS IN RUSSIA
1. To visit the heart and the soul of Russia – world famous Red Square ensemble. While walking around on Red
Square, make sure you come to a bronze plaque marking Russia’s “Kilometre Zero” and make your dearest
wish, throwing a coin over your shoulder.
2. To take a night boat tour along the Neva River to admire the splendor of St. Petersburg and to witness bridges
across the Neva getting raised every night during the navigation period.
3. To explore a circuit of the ancient provincial towns northeast of Moscow, better known as “The Golden Ring of
Russia”, get to know their history and culture, admire their world famous onion domes as well as other unique
monuments of Russian architecture of the 12th–18th centuries.
4. To visit the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan – thousand-year-old city of Kazan, situated at the juncture of
two cultures: Western and Eastern.
5. To take a tour to Russia’s most picturesque religious destinations – island of Kizhi so as to admire unique
Transfiguration Church built without a single nail.
6. To travel to Kamchatka and watch bears “fishing” on Kurile Lake, just few steps away from you.
7. To undertake a cruise along the deepest lake in the world – Lake Baikal.
8. To plunge into the Black Sea somewhere near Russia’s subtropical city - Sochi.
9. To get acquainted with the most Western and the most European city of Russia – Kaliningrad, the place
where German and Russian culture are tightly interwoven with each other.
10. To reach the legendary Elbrus Mount, a site of pilgrimage for mountaineers and downhill skiers from all over