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Where to Go in Russia

We like the 300-year-old Siberian city of Irkutsk (pop. 630,000). Its citizens are a proud bunch, much like Alaskans or Texans, and are a pleasure to be around. We found Irkutsk dressed in a fantasy-like attire: The trees were covered by a wonderful lace of hoarfrost, and the snow sparkled brightly under the strong sun and blue sky. Of course, the next day was gray, cloudy, bitterly cold and somewhat depressing, but that's the risk you take when you visit Siberia. While the city doesn't have many attractions, we did like the Museum of Wooden Architecture (a collection of buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) and the quirky Irkutsk Regional Museum (good exhibits on local tribes and the city's history). Irkutsk is also a departure point for excursions to Lake Baikal, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Eurasia, though the majority of tours simply take you to the shore for a look. Most travelers either fly in or visit the city as part of a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Plan two nights in the area. 2,620 mi/4,215 km east of Moscow.

Kamchatka Peninsula
One of the top attractions in Siberia is an excursion to the spectacular volcanoes and parks of this pristine peninsula. There are grizzly bears, salmon-filled rivers and geyser activity to rival Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. It's remoteness makes it difficult and expensive to reach, but if you're looking for unspoiled wilderness, Kamchatka is well worth the trouble. 4,000 mi/6,400 km northeast of Moscow.

East of Moscow on the Volga River, intriguing Kazan (pop. 1,094,000) is an ancient and historical city. Primary sights include its university (where Tolstoy and Lenin went to school), the Kazan Kremlin, the 16th-century Spasskaya Tower and charming gardens and parks. Most visitors add a day to cruise down the Volga, Europe's longest river. We wouldn't make a special trip to the city, but if you're in the area, a day spent in Kazan can be quite pleasant. 450 mi/725 km east of Moscow.

Kizhi Island
A small island in Lake Onega, Kizhi has a collection of fascinating wooden churches and other nicely preserved wood structures. There aren't many places left in Russia where these buildings survive, and as a result, Kizhi has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pine logs and aspen shingles were used to create the buildings, many of which have onion domes. There's nothing to do on the island except admire the structures at this open-air museum, but it's worth it for those with an interest in architecture. (The Church of the Transfiguration, with 22 cupolas and an unusual iconostasis, is especially notable, although it's closed for badly needed repairs.) Most visitors arrive by hour-long steamer excursion from the industrial city of Petrozavodsk. (Use Petrozavodsk only as a transit point - there's not a lot to do there.) Keep in mind that you can't visit Kizhi November-April. 200 mi/320 km northeast of St. Petersburg.

Moscow has changed more in the past decade than over the previous half-century. Once-empty shops have become expensive restaurants, designer boutiques and 24-hour convenience stores. Nightlife, which used to be restricted to cheesy singers at bad restaurants, has exploded into one of the most vibrant and decadent party scenes in Europe. Yet the most surprising thing about today's Moscow is its normalcy - after 10 years of massive upheaval, it has transformed itself into something resembling a typical European capital city. True, the city still has more than its fair share of venal expatriates, foxy young adventuresses and thuggish mafiosi in Versace suits. But you're just as likely to see young Russian professionals driving Volkswagens, reading the Russian-language Cosmopolitan and ordering goat-cheese-and-basil pizza on their mobile phones. Crime - once the most worrisome aspect of the post-Soviet era - has been curtailed, and the notorious mafia has become more subtle in its dress and business methods. Many former crime lords have gone into legitimate businesses or even joined the government.

That said, a visit to Moscow isn't simple. A lot of bureaucratic red tape remains from the days of the U.S.S.R., and those who don't speak Russian will be challenged by communication difficulties - even deciphering the Cyrillic signs can be a chore. We think these hassles are worth tolerating, however. There's something invigorating about observing the city's breakneck sprint toward the future, especially while visiting its famous landmarks of the past.

The largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk (pop. 450,000) is a port town and base for the Northern Fleet (submarines). It's said that Murman translated as the "end of the Earth" when the town was named - with nine months of winter and 52 days of continual darkness, we can believe it. If you do find yourself there, go to the Panorama Restaurant for a full (and warm) view of the city, which stretches for 12 mi/20 km along the shoreline. Note the port's overhanging cliffs, which sheltered Allied supply ships from German air attacks during World War II. Sights in town include the Military Museum of the Northern Fleet (displays about the fleet's role from World War II to the present), Gun Monument (in memory of town defenders), St. Nicholas' Church and the aptly named Local Museum (World War II displays). Nearby is the ancient settlement of Kola, with remnants of 13th-century earthen ramparts and a 400-year-old cross. The Festival of the North (last week of March) is a carnival that features all sorts of cold-weather fun, including swimming in water with chunks of ice. Cruises to the North Pole also originate in Murmansk. 630 mi/1,015 km north of St. Petersburg.

This city (pop. 240,000) is more than 1,000 years old. At one time it competed with Moscow for domination of Old Russia. Today, it's primarily modern and industrial but still retains a well-preserved Kremlin and old city center. See St. Sofia Cathedral (begun in 1045, with six domes) and the city's other ancient churches, which are concentrated in the Yaroslav Estate across the Volkhov River from the Kremlin. Two-hour river cruises are offered from a dock just south of the Kremlin. Also in town is the apartment where physician/dissident Andrei Sakharov lived in exile. Just outside of Novgorod is the Vitoslavlitsy Museum of Wooden Architecture, which has about two dozen wooden structures, all built without nails. Novgorod can be reached by rail or air from St. Petersburg or Moscow (the town is closer to St. Petersburg). 100 mi/160 km southeast of St. Petersburg.

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.

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. The Lermontov Baths is the oldest bathhouse in Russia. Other resort towns offering similar cures are Zheleznovodsk, Yessentuki (with mud baths) and Kislovodsk (where all traffic is banned to ensure clean air). Other area attractions include Sochi, a popular beach resort on the Black Sea, and the ski slopes on Mt. Elbrus or in the Dombai Valley. 330 mi/530 km southeast of Volgograd.

St. Petersburg
Any city that has changed its name three times in less than 100 years might appear to have an identity crisis. And so it does, but St. Petersburg's upheavals mirror that of its mother country. It frequently took center stage in the drama that was Russia in the 20th century, not to mention the tumultuous centuries that came before. The names of its places and people are almost a roll call of Russian history: the Winter Palace, the czars, Dostoyevsky, the Peter and Paul Fortress, Tchaikovsky, Lenin. The city remains essential for visitors who want to understand what came before and what's happening in the country now. Travelers will find much of interest on the streets and canals of Russia's most beloved and stylish city.

Suzdal is one of the oldest towns in Russia, dating from 1024. It's full of onion-domed churches, monasteries and other examples of traditional Russian structures. One monastery in town has rooms available for lodging. The city's Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life is similar to those in Novgorod and Kizhi, with a varied and interesting collection of buildings. Suzdal is enjoyable any time of year, but it's particularly nice in winter, when the landscape is covered in snow and the Russian Winter Folk Festival takes place (25 December-5 January). 135 mi/220 km northeast of Moscow.

Founded as an industrial center, Tula (pop. 540,000) has a number of sites worth a day trip from Moscow. Visit the 350-year-old Kremlin, the History of Arms Museum and the Imperial Small Arms Factory (founded by Peter the Great in 1712). Some of Russia's finest samovars (teapots) were created in Tula, some of which can be seen in the Samovar Museum near the Kremlin. The city's most famous draw, however, is nearby Yasnaya Polyana, the country estate of author Leo Tolstoy. While there, visit his home, museum and (unmarked) gravesite. 110 mi/180 km south of Moscow.

The birthplace of Lenin, Ulyanovsk (pop. 625,000) used to be a much more popular destination than it is now. However, the city is a fascinating glimpse into the cult of Lenin: The entire city center is a memorial to the man. There's a large museum complex devoted to Lenin's life and the Russian revolution. The seven houses his family lived in have been preserved as museums, as has the neighborhood where they're located. A visit is worthwhile to see how much the communists truly glorified Lenin. 445 mi/715 km east of Moscow.

This city (pop. 343,000) once rivaled Moscow for the predominance of central Russia. That was before the Mongols invaded in 1238 and destroyed most of the city and killed most of its inhabitants. What remains of special interest to visitors today are three 12th-century structures that claim to be the first examples of "white-stone" Russian architecture: St. Demetrius Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Assumption and Vladimir's Golden Gate (part of the city's defenses), which now has a museum with a diorama depicting the city at the time of the Mongol invasion. 100 mi/170 km northeast of Moscow.

The last stop on the Trans-Siberian Express, Vladivostok (pop. 648,000), is set amid hills overlooking the Sea of Japan. The town has a few interesting museums, including the Arsenev Regional Museum (natural-history displays and Japanese ceramics), the Museum of the Pacific Fleet and the Krasny Vympel (Red Pennant), the first ship of the Soviet Pacific Navy. Vladivostok is also a good center for organizing camping and trekking trips to Siberia and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Because it is a strategic port city (home to the Russian Far Eastern Fleet), it was closed to foreigners for many years. 4,000 mi/6,400 km east of Moscow.

This city (pop.1,000,000) on the western bank of the Volga River was once known as Stalingrad, but it was renamed in the late 1950s when Stalin's policies were reassessed - less favorably - in official history books. It has been given the title "Hero City" because of its courageous and tenacious resistance to the Nazis in "The Great Patriotic War" (as the Russians call World War II). The city itself has been totally rebuilt since the war. We suggest one day in Volgograd to visit the impressive Museum of the Defense of Stalingrad, to see the memorial atop Mamayev Hill (allow at least an hour, preferably in the early morning), and to take one of the 90-minute boat rides on the Volga.
560 mi/900 km southeast of Moscow.

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