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Winston Churchill called Russia a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” which is perhaps even more true today; just read the news. Russia is on the far eastern edge of Europe and tourism there can be expensive and frustrating. Nevertheless, the only possible way to understand one of the world’s great countries is to stand on her soil. I worked at the Anglo-American School of Moscow (AASM) for two years, and Russia rooted herself into my heart and memory. For the traveler, there are hundreds of reasons to visit Russia, but let’s start with just ten.
MOTHER RUSSIA IS NEVER DULL
You are unlikely to travel anyplace more flat out interesting. Beautiful “high value” tourist cities like Florence and Vienna are essentially static, but Russia is geopolitically vital and in a ferment of change, not necessarily good change. This newsworthiness and to be honest, corruption and dysfunction, give the Russian air a certain fizz and make the experience even richer. You can say ‘I was there when…’
HER ICONIC SIGHTS WILL GIVE YOU CHILLS
When you think of Russia, golden onion domes pop into your head; iconic sights positively litter the landscape. You will never forget your first sight of the unexpectedly small St. Basil’s church and her gaudy domes appearing like magic over a rise as you enter Red Square at night. If you are old enough to remember the Cold War, Red Square feels like a newsreel: the familiar red Kremlin Towers, ghostly Cold War tanks parading in Red Square, a waxy Lenin in his tomb. Russian history lies under your feet and around every corner.
RUSSIANS LOVE THEIR DICTATORS
Russia as a state is nearly 1,200 years old and has a convoluted, violent past filled with outsized characters in an unbroken line of czars, dictators and tyrants who left behind today’s monuments. The Kremlin’s brick walls were built in 1485 by Ivan the Great to protect against the Mongol invasion; St. Petersburg exists as the embodiment of Peter the Great’s drive to force Russia to face West instead of East; Catherine the Great left behind the core of her magnificent art collection which grew into the Hermitage, one of the world’s most prodigious art museums; Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square and the former KGB prison building on Lubyanka Square are physical remnants of the Communist era; Stalin is still spoken of fondly by some in the older generation. Then there is Vladmir Putin, with popularity ratings over 80%. Few European countries can match this monumental history of raw power.
A PARADISE FOR CULTURAL TOURISTS
Russian cultural experiences are world class, starting with the Hermitage, although the displays are a bit shabby and might be watched over by snoozing guards. The Bolshoi Ballet is incomparable, even if ridden by vicious internal strife. Moscow”s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Tretyakov Gallery house the country’s finest collections of Russian art. Literature fans can visit Chekhov’s country house, Pasternak’s dacha, Tolstoy’s estate and the Dostoevsky or Pushkin apartments. Where else on earth is this possible?
YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE METRO
The Moscow Metro is unlike any mode of transportation in the world, and the experience is a must. For one thing, the Metro is fantastically efficient and moves over 9,000,000 people every day. Moscow traffic is so unspeakable that without the Metro, the city would lurch to a halt. Each station is a work of art in a different style, all proudly designed to embody a glowing Communist future. You could easily spend a day exploring stations and their art, but only if you learn enough of the Cyrillic alphabet to decipher where you are going and deploy sharp elbows in the busy times. Tuck your wallet into a money belt, hang onto your purse, and only then take your time looking up at the worker art ceilings.
ESCAPE TO SUZDAL AND OLD RUSSIA FOR A BREATHER
Outside Moscow lies an idyllic countryside best appreciated in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Suzdal, the most beautiful and intact of the Golden Ring cities. Suzdal was an important religious center in medieval times, but the Trans-Siberian railway passed it by, leaving seven square kilometers of easily walkable muddy streets and traditional wooden houses with intricate hard-carved window decorations, fronted by gardens and geese marching down the street. Suzdal is profoundly evocative, peaceful and ageless. You can hire a driver or find a tour for a side trip from Moscow; it is too much for a day-trip. Several times we spent the night at the wooden cabins of the Pokrovskaya Hotel and returned numerous times, most memorably in winter, for a welcome break from the madness and filth of Moscow.
SPENDING YOUR SOUVENIR RUBLES AT IZMAYLOVSKY MARKET
Novy Arbat Street and the GUM Department store on Red Square are the same shopping experiences you can find anywhere. Izmaylovsky Market is decidedly not. We made regular trips and always brought out of town visitors. Izmaylovsky is a sprawling souvenir market where you’d better bargain hard and not take the vendor’s word that it’s really a fox fur hat or an antique; probably not. The food stands provide cheap and delicious shashlik (kebab) and cold beer for lunch. We had a set of matryoshka (nesting) dolls painted with portraits vaguely resembling family members and every Christmas fondly remember Ismaylovsky as we set them up on the mantle. The metro stops right outside the gates, and a day at Izmaylovsky is always a very good, very Russian day.
RUSSIAN SOUL REALLY DOES EXIST
If you should be so lucky as to already know some Russians or become aquainted with a guide or someone who speaks English, count yourself fortunate. Russian staff at the Anglo-American school spoke of ‘Russian soul’, and they considered Americans only superficially friendly but afraid to enter fully into a deep friendship. Russians may appear grim and unfriendly, but if you manage to break through the barrier, you will be engulfed by their warm hearts and extravagant loyalty. At the very least, get to know one of your guides, who are universally well-educated and profoundly proud of their complicated country.
“KEEPING RUSSIA WEIRD” IS NOT A PROBLEM
“Keep Portland Weird” is a famous bumper sticker, but Portland (Oregon) cannot hold a candle to Russia. You are almost guaranteed to be stunned by something you would never see in Western Europe. A bulky bodyguard with an Uzi slung over his shoulder, waiting by an armor-plated luxury SUV for his boss to pick up pizza? A Mercedes jumping the curb and driving on the sidewalk to avoid slow traffic? The Cat Circus? Keep your eyes open and you are guaranteed to return with stories.
INTENSITY MEANS MEMORIES
A memorable trip is often directly related to the intensity and difficulty of the experience, which traveling to Russia is almost certain to provide. Even our visitors who were the most experienced travelers called it a “beast.” Two Budget Travel Magazine articles are titled “Where You Shouldn’t Go Alone,” and “8 Countries That Don’t Roll Out the Welcome Mat.” Russia is not Western Europe with its well-developed tourist infrastructure, and although a package tour will ease the shock, it’s still Russia. You won’t be able to read the signs unless you learn another alphabet. People are not particularly friendly or helpful at first contact. Bureaucracy seems designed to flummox tourists. Crime can be a problem if you are not alert. Driving is hell. The weather can be an issue. However, Russia has the potential to justify the cliché “the trip of a lifetime,” and I hope these 10 reasons have convinced you to at least consider Russia as a destination.
Note: with the Ruble currently in free-fall, Russian travel should be more affordable these days.
Written by and photos by Guest Contributor Kathy Fritts for EuropeUpClose.com Kathy Fritts is a retired school librarian who has lived and worked in six different countries. Now she travels for fun and writes to educate and encourage readers to take a chance and enrich their lives by traveling