Red Square, Moscow.
The iconic St Basil’s Cathedral, with its brightly coloured, twisted onion domes, is one of Russia’s most recognisable sights. Located on Red Square opposite the Kremlin, the famous cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 to mark the capture of Kazan from Mongol forces. According to legend, Ivan was so impressed at architect Postnik Yakovlev’s work that he had him blinded so as to prevent him making anything as spectacular ever again. Quite a reward! While you’re in Red Square make sure you visit the Kremlin and the famous GUM Department Store. And of course Red Square’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are among the most famous in the world!
Pskov & Pechory
Just 30 km away from Estonia Russia’s north-west, the ancient town of Pskov is a firm favourite with travellers. Dating back as far as 903 AD, Pskov is about as old as the country of Russia itself, and has seen many a Baltic invader in its time. Retaining its medieval outer walls and featuring a fortified Kremlin, the Trinity Cathedral and many tiny churches showcasing classic Byzantine architecture, it’s a beautiful town to visit and the perfect place to brush up on a bit of Russian history.
Pechory is a short drive from Pskov, famous for its monastery founded in 1473 when hermits settled in local caves. Still home to around 70 monks, this functioning monastery features extensive burial caves, where the bodies of over 10 000 monks lie in coffins, piled on top of each other in the tunnel walls. Grim though that may seem, it’s an extraordinary peek at the region’s history. If you’re not up for touring the caves, there’s plenty more to see above ground – Pechory is utterly charming!
An elegant city with a rich and enchanting history, some say St Petersburg’s many canals make it reminiscent of Venice. The city was the seat of the Tsars’ autocratic two-century rule until the revolution in 1917, so there’s plenty here for history buffs.
Visit the Winter Palace, the home once to the Tsars and now solely to their fabled Hermitage Collection, an art collection of such size that it is one of the largest on the planet. See St Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Church on Spilled Blood, where Tsar Alexander II was murdered in 1881. Almost entirely funded by the Imperial Family and private donors, both the interior and exterior are decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics by some of the most prominent Russian artists of the time. Totalling some 7700 square meters of mosaics, it’s believed to have more mosaics than any other church in the world. If you’re in St Petersburg, this is one historic site you simply have to see. And don’t forget Peter and Paul Fortress, the oldest building in the city and – until 1917 – a prison that housed some of Russia’s most famous political prisoners, including Trotsky.
One of Moscow’s most interesting sites is a defunct Soviet Bunker, built in secret during the Cold War beneath an ordinary apartment block in central Moscow. Known as the Tagansky Underground Command Centre, the bunker was in full operation throughout the 1970s, and had a staff of some 2500 people. In the event of a nuclear attack the bunker would have been sealed, and with large food supplies and air purification systems would have allowed a select few to survive the effects of a nuclear attack for up to 3 months. With the Cold War over and the death of communism, the site was opened to the public and now serves only to give visitors the chance to dress up in replica military gear and take a glimpse at life behind the Iron Curtain.
The Russian Ballet
The world-famous Russian ballet has given dance enthusiasts the pleasure of seeing some of the greatest dancers in history. Known throughout the world for their extraordinary discipline and talent, Russian ballet dancers continue to inspire dancers and audiences the world over, carrying on traditions that stretch back through the decades. The ballet is definitely one of Russia’s cultural highlights.
The Russian Banya
Like many of the Northern Hemisphere’s colder nations, Russia has a sauna tradition. Known in Russia as a banya, these saunas are a sure way of beating the chills! Heat up for a few minutes, and when you can take it no longer, dive into the snow and get that circulation going with an invigorating beating with birch branches! (Hey – what else would you do in the old days, in the long winter months without TV, or the internet??) Vodka optional.
The end of the Cold War wasn’t just a momentous occasion for Russia; it profoundly changed the face of international relations. No matter where you were in the world, the ramifications of the fall of the Soviet Union would most definitely have had an impact on you in some way.