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 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 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.
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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