With the collapse of Communism some years ago, Eastern Europe has been opening up and the rump of the former Russian Empire has itself undergone remarkable changes, to the point where now the old, cold heart of the Commissars has itself become a great tourist destination. The Russian Federation is full of interest and excitement for travellers looking for a break with a difference, a feast for both body and mind, and with cheap package holidays to places like Moscow and St Petersburg now commonplace it’s a great time to explore the land of the Tsars, Tolstoy, Kirov Ballet, Kremlin, Uncle Joe Stalin and all.
The State Hermitage Museum,Saint Petersburg,Russia
The six magnificent buildings that comprise the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg house one of the world’s premier art collections. The collection begun in 1764, when Catherine the Great started putting it together in her Winter Palace, which is still at the heart of the Hermitage. The three storeys of Baroque extravagance and splendour are truly breathtaking; visitors can also look around the Theatre and Menshikov Palace as well as the Small Hermitage, Great Hermitage and New Hermitage buildings. Quite apart from the overwhelming architecture – one of the positive spin-offs from autocratic rule – the collections include objects dating back to Palaeolithic times, and the likes of Rembrandt, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and all the usual suspects are well represented.
Kremlin alongside Red Square
The Kremlin fortress, which sits at the heart and indeed the soul of Moscow, dates back to 1147, when the city was founded at the strategic confluence of the Neglina and Moskva rivers. All the long succession of grand princes and Tsars resided here until 1712. In 1917, the Commissars moved in and the Politburo got on with the heavy responsibility of governing their vast empire and at the same time wading through oceans of champagne, caviar, blood, mountains of cigarettes and their favourite book, the Forsythe Saga.
The great edifice of the Kremlin is centred on Cathedral Square and its churches, and there are numerous other historic attractions housed in the brooding walls and towers of this uniquely sinister fortress. Check out in particular the Patriarch’s Palace, Armoury Museum, State Diamond Fund and The Tsar Bell and Cannon.
Red Square, with Lenin’s mausoleum in the center of the photo.
No visit to Moscow is complete without a stroll around Red Square in the evening. This vast expanse has seen centuries of history played out, and it was actually laid in the 15th century by Ivan III. The Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and the Lenin Mausoleum, all of which stand around the Square, are major tourist attractions. The Square has witnessed riots, executions, parades and demonstrations in its time and despite the violence it remains one of the most beautiful parts of any city.
Lake Baikal In Winter
For a touch of nature in the beautiful raw, head for Lake Baikal in southeast Siberia. It’s the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake and is ringed by fabulous mountains and forests, home to lynx, elk, bears and sables. A national park since 1992, the Lake Baikal area is also hugely popular with backpackers and trekkers.
Although the Russian Federation still retains some vestigial associations with the old repressive regimes, it’s a brave new world of capitalism now, and the smothering cloak of communist isolation has long since been shrugged off. It’s probably fair to say that if you come here for a holiday now you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at what’s on offer.
David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.
Photo 1: Lemmo2009, Photo 2: thisisbossi, Photo 3: Alan Cordova, Photo 4: joe.routon, Photo 5: Jim Linwood