Russia is the largest country in the world and has a vast range of different landscapes, including tundras, steppes, mountains, and birch forests. This diverse geography and its remoteness from the moderating influence of oceans produce a wide range of climate conditions, from hot summers to icy winters.
A burgeoning market economy, fueled by natural resources like oil and gas, has helped Russia bounce back from the economic collapse of the 1990s. Energy and mineral exports now account for more than 80 percent of Russian revenues.
As in most imperial systems, the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union faced the immense challenge of ruling an incredibly diverse population spread across far-flung territories. These people spoke many languages, followed a variety of religions, and had varying skin colorations. They were also very poor, a condition exacerbated by the fact that their money was devalued after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
When the Russian Federation was established in 1991, a number of these republics sought independence from their parent state, most notably Chechnya. To date, Russia has fought two wars to prevent this. It feared that the independence of these former republics would be seen as a threat to its own territorial integrity, and has used force to keep them from seceding.
The resulting Russian federation is a unique political and administrative structure that consists of two federal cities; forty-six provinces (oblasts) and nine territories (krais) that function similarly and are the most common type of federal unit; twenty-one republics; and four autonomous districts. The central government has broad administrative powers and is accountable to the parliament of Russia.
Sightseeing highlights of Moscow include touring the Kremlin and Red Square, sizing up the collections at the Tretyakov and New Tretyakov art museums, and visiting the Novodevichy Convent and revamped Gorky Park. In St Petersburg, wander up Nevsky Prospect and take in the Hermitage and Peter & Paul Fortress. To the west, tour the enchanting ancient city of Yaroslavl, home to magnificent churches and monasteries that were built from 1100 onwards.
Hiring a private driver can be an excellent way to explore deeper Russia and its smaller towns and villages. Local drivers know the roads and Russian driving mentality, and will help you avoid the stress of navigating unfamiliar streets and traffic conditions yourself.
The best time to travel to Russia is in the spring or autumn when temperatures are warm but not stifling and the flowers are in full bloom. Winter is the off-season, although some hotels do stay open to cater for hordes of intrepid tourists who brave the harsh temperatures in search of the coveted Northern Lights.