The biggest country in the world doesn’t always get a fair shake in terms of travel publications. And “should we visit Russia?” is a question that comes up all the time. Well, yes, yes we should. Watch this video with eleven of our reasons why…along with some beautiful footage of Russia. (And listen to Robert discussing the subject on Rick Steves’ radio show!)
PEOPLE & COZINESS
English has no word that compares with hygge, that Danish notion of warmth, coziness and contentment. Russians do: уют. Often outsiders have a false notion of what Russians are like, limiting them to sour-faced people in blue filter light queuing in long lines for drab choices of gray foods. In 1985, Sting even noted, “I hope Russians love their children too.”
Well, inside those socialist dorms, you find an explosion of grandmotherly color and warmth. Russian cities have more flower shops than anywhere else in the world. In St Petersburg, we visited a punk rock back-alley bar where local youths brought blankets to sit down – to listen to politicized punk reggae.
2. ART & ARCHITECTURE
Russia definitely has a “look.” You find it with the onion-domed cathedrals. It’s unknown when these started. St Basil’s, the famed anchor of Red Square, as its since the 1500s. Some scholars say they started following the Mongol invasion two centuries before. Wood cathedrals, such as Kizhy on Lake Onega, have 22 domes.
Art-wise, St Petersburg’s Hermitage is one of the world’s great art museums; though we preferred seeing Russian art at the nearby State Russian Museum or Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Or just the constant array of social-realist murals, mosaics and statues.
3. SOVIET NOSTALGIA
Speaking of social realism, you’ll find artful nods to the past (including Lenin statues on public squares) and less artful ones like housing blocks and factories. The best way to experience the past is at the Soviet Arcade Machines Museum (in Moscow and St Petersburg), where you get old 15-kopeck coins to play a few dozen games from the ‘70s and ‘80s. WATCH our video above! (Or read more about the museum here.)
While there, you can buy colorful Dva Myacha Soviet-era sneakers, newly made from historic equipment. The name means “Two Balls” because they’re to be used for basketball and soccer.
4. TRAINS & SUBWAYS
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the world’s longest train journey, connecting Moscow to Vladivostok in seven days. It’s as much about what happens on the train as what passes by the window. This is where it’s easiest to befriend locals, who’ll hand over fresh produce from their gardens and pour their vodka as if you’re a long-lost cousin.
The metro systems of St Petersburg and (particularly) Moscow are epic creations too – built deep to double as bomb shelters. Moscow’s are thematic. In stations like Revolution Square, bronze figures of armed Red Army figures lurk ominously in the shadows.
5. RUSSIAN FOOD
Nothing is more surprising about Russian dining as how seasonal, fresh, varied and flavorful it can be. In other words, it’s not just borscht (which isn’t Russian anyway). Pelmeni dumplings, coated in smetyana sour cream, are unreal. Soups are a delight. The schi is a cabbage soup, while the ukha is a tasty fresh soup. In Siberia, you’ll find locals selling fresh smoked fish on train platforms of the Trans-Siberian and Central Asian-style skewered meats on menus. At old-school stolovaya (cafeterias), ask for kasha, a buckwheat porridge soup.
6. SWEATERS & SOUVENIR KITSCH
The stacking matryoshka dolls are found across seven timezones, made in folk style or with political or sports of rock figures. Many souvenirs play off the CCCP era, with t-shirts, caps and Red Army hats. You’ll also find Putin mugs of a topless leader “riding a bear.” The fur hats are legendary (but also expensive). There are alternative winter souvenirs. The Volga River town of Uglich is known for wool sweaters. We picked up ones that offer serious Russian warmth for much less.
7. LITERARY CULTURE
The land of Tolstoy and Dostoesvky is very very fond of books and reading, and talking about books and reading. Subway stores in New York sell overpriced water bottles and tabloids with Trump on the cover. In a St Petersburg metro stall, we found a hand-carved wood pin devoted to the early 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin. A common gift for a new friend is a book. (Robert has literally been given books with bookmakers in place, as a sign of friendship). While in St Petersburg, go to Dom Knigi (World of Books), an Art Nouveau masterpiece on Nevsky Prospekt.
8. MUSHROOMS, FORAGING, FORESTS & LONG WALKS
Russians love mushrooms. Really really love mushrooms (gribi). Russians don’t “pick” mushrooms, but “collect” (sobirat’) them, as if their our lost children rounded up to their rightful place. Robert once gave his Russian teacher in New York some fresh mushrooms, and got an unexpected equal in praise. Part of the fun is foraging for them in Russia’s great forests. The country is not often mountainous, but the rural bucolic is often found in wild birch forests, taking long walks. When you meet a local, they won’t choose to go sit in a bar to talk. They’ll invite you on a long walk. Take it as a compliment. You’re “in” with them.
9. RIVER LIFE
People think of the ultimate transport in Russia as the train. But rivers across its girth offer myriad alternatives. The Volga (Europe’s longest and largest river) is the obvious choice, passing Moscow and 10 other cities – we rode it, passing medieval monasteries and historic towns, on a Viking Cruise in 2017. Out east, the Lena River is where Lenin got his name.
You can take cruises from Yakutsk, the coldest city of the world, to the Leninski Stolbi (Lenin Pillars), a triumphant rise of jagged peaks far distant from the nearest roads.
10. RUSSIAN BALLET
Didn’t think we forgot, did you? The Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St Petersburg are world champs of ballet. And it feels like being in a Tolstoy novel to just attend a performance. We got box seats for a Marinksy ballet for $25 each (not including opera glasses), and watched a witch win the day in a French romance ballet. Fun.
11. BECAUSE IT’S DIFFICULT
The visa process for Russia is notoriously expensive and complicated. So what? The added filter adds a layer of adventure, and means – mostly likely – fewer people will be there. Services like GenVisa eased the difficulty (the questionnaire for a visa is hilariously detailed). The point is, don’t let a little bureaucracy get between you and seeing Russia.
BONUS: ITS REMOTE BEAUTY!
Siberia’s Laike Baikal holds 22% of the world’s fresh water, including more than all of the Great Lakes combined. The key is depth. It’s about four or five times deeper than any Great Lake. The 25-million-year-old lake is rimmed by mountains and forest, and has hundreds of endemic fish, aquatic worms and crustaceans. Weird guys. It freezes in winter. If you go in late spring, you can hear the surface “groan” as the ice starts to crack open and reveal some of the world’s clearest water once again.
Northwest runs the Lena River, where you can go by cruise to the Leninski Stolbi (Lenin Pillars, below). Muddy roads get to this area in summer, but if you insist on driving, go in winter when the frozen rivers become the most reliable road system in this corner of the Russian Far East. Farther east, in that peninsula dangling in the face of Alaska, Kachatka brims with snow-capped volcanoes and valleys of geysers, or nomadic reindeer herders you must track down by old Soviet helicopters. Russia is gorgeous.
More Russia …
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