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Capital: Moscow.
Population: 145,470,197.
Languages: Russian, many regional languages.
Predominant Religions: Russian Orthodox, Muslim.
Time Zone: 2-12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+2 through +12 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed March-October.

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When asked what they want for the future, many Russians speak of cars and computers, of "having an easier life, being able to buy good things." Their dreams of prosperity are fueled by foreign films and television programs and infomercials that seem to run nonstop. But, for most, many material goods remain out of reach. While the economy is finally starting to recover from the 1998 devaluation of the ruble, millions still live in poverty.

Today's Russia is often exhilarating, sometimes ominous. Everyday life goes on amid a jumble of trial-and-error capitalism, glitzy casinos, billboard politics, czar mania and slick gangster-hangout restaurants. Some observers have suggested that 30%-40% of Russia's economy is controlled by organized crime. Add to the mix a religious revival: Hundreds of newly renovated Russian Orthodox churches are offering services in Moscow alone.

So far, travelers haven't been affected directly by the country's turmoil or corruption. But conditions are changing so quickly that you should keep a very close eye on the news. And you should be aware that despite all the new doors that have opened and the greater flow of information, there are still plenty of murky areas in Russia - sudden changes of rules, unexpected shortages and mysterious surcharges. Nevertheless, you'll find that the overall quality of hotels, restaurants and services, while wildly variable, is improving.

In any case, travelers should be flexible, tolerant and patient - and aware of risks. Russia can be both an enthralling adventure and a tiring ordeal. For those willing to endure the risks and inconveniences, Russia is simply a fascinating place - from the imperial beauty of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the bleakly romantic Siberian countryside.
Where to go in Russia
Oryol
An ancient city, Oryol is known as the birthplace of novelist/playwright Turgenev (author of A Month in the Country). While some sites in Oryol are associated with the author, ardent followers will want to make the pilgrimage to nearby Spasskoye-Lutovinovo, Turgenev's well-preserved country estate. Oryol merits an overnight trip from Moscow. 210 mi/340 km southwest of Moscow.

Pyatigorsk
Set on a plateau on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, Pyatigorsk (pop. 121,000) is the center of the best-known spa area in Russia. It has some of the nation's finest and most spectacular scenery, which you can best see by taking the cable car to the top of nearby Mt. Mashuk. Local attractions focus almost exclusively on water or rest cures, including rain "massages," hydrotherapy and mineral baths.

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