Introduction

 IntroductionDespite being stripped of its Soviet-era territories and former Imperial possessions, Russia remains the largest country in the world.

Winston Churchill famously, called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”, and in doing so he was merely following a centuries-old belief that Russia was so odd and eccentric that all attempts to understand it were impossible. Russians have greatly encouraged the tall tales and wild exaggerations about their own country and the strange contradictions of their national character, and at times revel in it. And of course the mystery was greatly deepened by 70 years under Soviet rule, which saw Cold War propaganda about the country reach new heights.

The Russians themselves are coming to terms with their new-found freedom, and, as more visitors flood in, the myths about the country are being exploded, collapsing as rapidly as the concrete building blocks of Communism. But in the place of such myth a new image of Russia is emerging, one of a place of great energy, resource and entrepreneurialism.

You can also point to one of the world’s richest resources of the arts. The Soviet-era put great stock in the power of art, both visual and performance, in nurturing the spiritual well-being of the populace. Added to this are some of the most significant art collections in the world displayed in the finest buildings imaginable, all seized for the people from the hands of aristocrats during the revolution.

But there was a cost to the Soviet administration – people who delve deeper in the history of Russia will know of the Gulags, and on the Trans-Siberian express, undoubtedly the world’s greatest train journey, you can visit the sites of these forced labour camps in the remotest corners of Siberia.

People are becoming more willing to explore the implications of Soviet rule and the truth of life behind the Iron Curtain is slowly emerging. Foreigners are increasingly being welcomed further and further into this remarkable territory and although it remains a sobering, but rather understandable statistic, that only one in twenty of the country’s visitors ever stray beyond the Moscow-St Petersburg corridor and the Golden Ring, gradually even that will change as this unique country shares its secrets.

“Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone – you must simply feel it!” wrote the 19th-century poet Tyutchev and perhaps now people may at last begin to do that.

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