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Introduction to Russia

Churchill's 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma' remains an apt description of Russia; most outsiders have only a hazy idea of its realities. A composite of the extravagant glories of old Russia and the drab legacies of the Soviet era, it's a country that both befuddles and beguiles.

This is a land of snow and deadly winters, but also of rivers that meander across meadows and a midsummer sun that never sets. Its people, in the words of a Russian proverb, 'love to suffer', yet they also love to party and can be disarmingly generous and hospitable.

The unfolding effects of a deregulated market economy are surrounded by rumours of rampant crime and prostitution, relentless drug-trafficking, mile-long queues for nonexistent food and a general end-of-the-world aura. But with countless cultural treasures having withstood the tribulations of history and economics, and an artistic legacy running the gamut from Karenina to Zhivago, Russia remains a must-see destination.


The crashes of two passenger jets on August 24, 2004, the suicide bomber near Rizhskaya Metro station in Moscow on 31 August, the taking of hostages at a school in Beslan on 1 September and the discovery of a cache of weapons in a St Petersburg cinema all demonstrate that the threat of violence from terrorists within Russia is high. Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed on March 3 and further violence has been threatened. Travellers are advised to be cautious and monitor any changes in Chechnya or Moscow.

Travellers are strongly advised against travel in Chechnya, Dagestan and neighbouring Ingushetia. Military clashes, kidnapping of aid workers and foreigners, violent crimes and muggings are prevalent.

Other neighbouring areas of concern include North Ossetia, Stavropol, Karachayevo-Cherkessiya and Kabardino-Balkariya. Events in all these places are difficult to understand and can change rapidly. On-the-ground consular support can be negligible or non-existent.

Full country name: Russian Federation

Area: 17.07 million sq km

Population: 144.53 million

Capital City: Moscow

People: 81% Russian, 4% Tatar, 3% Ukrainian and numerous ethnic minorities

Language: Russian

Religion: Russian Orthodox, Islam, Animist

Government: federation

Head of State: President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Head of Government: Premier Mikhail Fradkov

GDP: US$1.4 trillion

GDP per capita: US$8,900

Annual Growth: 4%

Inflation: 15.1%

Major Industries: Oil, coal, iron ore, timber, automotive, agricultural and construction equipment

Major Trading Partners: EU (esp. Germany), Belarus, Ukraine, USA, China

Member of EU: No

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Traveler Facts

Visas: All visitors require a visa.

Health risks: diphtheria (Vaccination against this serious bacterial disease is very effective, so you don't need to worry if you've been properly immunised against it. It mainly affects children and causes a cold-like illness that is associated with a severe sore throat. A thick white membrane forms at the back of the throat which can suffocate you, but what makes this a really nasty disease is that the diphtheria bug produces a very powerful poison which can cause paralysis and affect the heart. Otherwise healthy people can carry the bug in their throats, and it's transmitted by sneezing and coughing. It can also cause a skin ulcer known as a veldt sore. Vaccination protects against this form too. Treatment is with penicillin and a diphtheria antitoxin, if necessary), hepatitis (Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures), rabies (This is a fatal viral infection. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution. Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death), typhoid (Also known as enteric fever, Typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease. The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhoea and stomach pains. You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity. Seek medical help for any fever (38C and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating. Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhoea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3 ((+4 Summer) Moscow and St Petersburg), GMT/UTC +2 (Kaliningrad region), GMT/UTC +4 (Samara and Izhevsk), GMT/UTC +5 (Orenburg, Perm, Ufa and Yekaterinburg), GMT/UTC +8 (Irkutsk), GMT/UTC +10 (Vladivostok), GMT/UTC +12 (Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky)

Dialling Code: 7

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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Easter and Christmas are celebrated with midnight services, candlelight processions and flourishings of folk art. In April, St Petersburg celebrates Music Spring, an international classical music festival, and the last 10 days of June feature the White Nights, a time for general merrymaking and staying up late. A film festival is held in Moscow in autumn in odd-numbered years. The Russian Winter Festival is celebrated in St Petersburg, Moscow and Novgorod from late December to early January, and includes folklore shows and vodka. The other main winter celebration is New Year, celebrated with presents, champagne and yet more vodka.

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Best time to Visit

July and August are the warmest months and the main holiday season. They're also the dampest - it might rain one day in three. So if you want to avoid the crowds and the rain, try May-June or September-October. In early autumn the leaves are turning and you can pick mushrooms and berries. Although winter is bitter, theatres open, the vodka comes out, buildings are warm and the snow is beautiful. Spring is slushy, muddy and generally horrible.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Rouble


Budget: R110-200

Mid-range: R200-280

High: R280-440

Deluxe: R440+


Budget: US$10-45

Mid-range: US$45-80

High: US$80-100

Deluxe: US$100+

Latest information: You could rent a fully furnished apartment in resort towns for about $100/month.

If you're really frugal, avoiding plane trips, taxis, overseas phone calls and decent restaurants, as well as always looking for the very cheapest place to stay, you should be able to get by on US$30 a day. If you always stay in comfortable hotels and eat in restaurants two or three times a day, you're looking at more like US$85 a day. If you prefer to spend your day eating in Moscow's finest restaurants and sleeping between their crispest sheets, plan on around US$350 a day.

Very few places in Russia expect you to tip. Top-end hotels and restaurants add 5% to 15% to your bill, while porters expect around US$1 a bag. Shops have fixed prices, but in markets you'll be expected to bargain.

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Moscow is the barometer and nucleus of the changes sweeping through Russia. Nowhere are Russia's contrasts more apparent than here - ancient monasteries and ultra-modern monoliths stand side by side, and New Russian millionaires and poverty-stricken pensioners walk the same streets.

Moscow's history lies in layers. In the Kremlin, for instance, both Ivan the Terrible and Stalin orchestrated their terrors; Napoleon watched Moscow burn; Lenin fashioned the dictatorship of the proletariat; Kruschev directed the Cold War and Gorbachev unleashed perestroika.


Novgorod was settled in the 9th century and for 600 years was Russia's pioneering artistic and political centre. Lying just 190km (118mi) south of St Petersburg, the city was annexed by Ivan III, razed by Ivan the Terrible and methodically trashed by the Nazis, but there's still a lot left to see.

Its Kremlin includes the Byzantine Cathedral of St Sophia, the Millennium of Russia Monument, the icon-filled Chamber of Facets and the research-based Museum of History & Art. Across from the Kremlin, Yaroslav's Court includes medieval markets, churches, arcades and palace remains.


With the Caucasus mountains as its backdrop, subtropical climate, warm seas and adjoining trendy resort complex of Dagomys, the resort has long attracted heads of state, foreign tourists and Russians alike. Heading inland, there are waterfalls, hilltop views, spa towns and alpine vistas to enjoy.

Gardens are a feature of the town, as are therapeutic establishments and the dachas (country houses) of the powerful and famous. Heading inland, there are waterfalls, hilltop views, spa towns and alpine vistas to enjoy.

St Petersburg

St Petersburg has been dubbed the Venice of the North for its palace-lined waterways. It managed to escape the architectural incursions of Stalinism and its grandiose relics of tsarist days are rather intact. Sculpted by islands and the sinuous Neva River, the city is a vista of geometric elegance.

St Petersburg is a wondrous city, part fable, part nightmare, floating in diaphanous light. Its heavy imperial luxuries, literary heritage and artistic bounty are enhanced by its rickety charm, a crumbling shabbiness that palliates its white-and-gold tsarist excesses.

The Volga

The main artery of the Russian heartland has always been the 3700km(2299mi)-long River Volga (Europe's longest), which meanders from Yaroslavl, north of Moscow, all the way down to Volgograd. Cruisers and steamships ply its waters, the most interesting section is between Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don.

Towns en-route include Kazan, one of the oldest Tatar cities in Russia, which features a limestone kremlin and several mosques; and Lenin's birthplace, Ulyanovsk, replete with attendant memorabilia. Volgograd, previously known as Stalingrad, is best known for the decisive and protracted WWII battle.

Trans-Siberian Railway

A jaunt on the Trans-Siberian Railway is the way to see this massive country. The six-day, 9446km (5857mi) journey takes you from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, passing through endless forests of birch and pine, log-cabin settlements and vast steppes.

Life on the rails can be boring or fascinating, depending on the nature of your travelling companions, your choice of paperbacks and the friendliness of your carriage attendant (a vital factor). The route takes you past Siberia's huge Lake Baikal and the multicultral and highly appealing Irkutsk.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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