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The basics


The name of the nation has changed over time, but the ruble has been the currency since the time of the tsars. It is the second oldest national currency (after the British pound) and also has the distinction of being the first to be decimalized. One ruble was proclaimed equal to 100 kopeks back in 1704. Banknotes are issued in denominations from 5 to 5,000 rubles, decorated with views of monuments and sites rather than the portraits favored in Soviet and Tsarist times.


The first thing that everyone notices about Russian and other Slavic languages is the Cyrillic alphabet, which looks like so much code to anyone used to the Roman alphabet. Peter the Great modernized the alphabet a bit as part of his opening a window to the west in the early 18th century. Words of foreign origin, especially French, began creeping into the language. Today Russian is only the seventh most spoken language in the world, but its speakers are found over the largest area of Eurasia. One of the official languages of international organizations, it is the second most used language on the Internet after English.

Geography & Culture

The vastness is what is most striking about Russia with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Much of the land - all 6,592,772 square miles (17,075,200 sq km) of it - is covered by steppes, great treeless plains. But it also has mountains like the Urals and Europe's largest swamp, the Vasyugan. It is a land of geographic superlatives, three-quarters of it is covered by Siberia, an immense stretch of tundra and pine forest, which is home to Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world. Its great rivers include the Volga, which inspired a Russian folk song that ended up as #1 on US pop music charts when recorded by Glenn Miller in 1941.

Its culture, dating from the tsars, is equally rich and varied. Fabulous Fabergé eggs, created for the imperial family, are on view in museums around the world, but the largest collection of Fabergé works - including nine eggs - is at Shuvalov Palace in St. Petersburg. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn are only a few of the writers it has contributed to world literature. An equally impressive list can be made of Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich and Mussorgsky. It set the gold standard for ballet, introduced with the Imperial Ballet in the 18th century and exported back to the west with the Ballets Russes in the early 20th. Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet in Saint Petersburg are among the most celebrated ballet companies in the world. Russia has produced such international stars as the openly gay Rudolf Nureyev, but the Bolshoi Ballet cancelled a premier of a ballet about Nureyev in 2017, citing the poor quality of dancing the production.


The world's longest and most epic train ride is found in Russia - the Trans-Siberian Railway stretching 5,662 miles (9,289 km) between Moscow and Vladivostok over two continents. Tourists may make the journey in either direction with stops along the way and connections to Mongolia, China and North Korea. Unlike the Eurail pass, stops need to be booked ahead of time. The country has a vast rail system, connecting cities and towns across Russia's 11 time zones, but all timetables are on Moscow time. Long-distance trains come in three sizes: modern sleepers with limited stops (Firmeny), high-speed expresses (Skory) and ordinary passenger (Passazhirsky). The first two offer three classes, but the regular trains have only second- and third-class tickets. Major cities also have commuter train service.

Forget everything you know about rental cars if you decide to rent in Russia, but it can be done. International car rental agencies operate in Russia with offices at airports and cities from Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the West to Irkutsk in Central Asia to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. You will have to present proof that you are over 25 to rent and have a driver's license in your home country plus an International Driving Permit with a translation in Russian or a certified translation of your license obtained at a Russian embassy or consulate. It is also wise to have a rudimentary knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet to help in deciphering road signs. Roads are a mixed bag, depending on where you are, and so is driving etiquette. There's zero tolerance of alcohol, and running a yellow light might lead to arrest. If renting an auto, consider renting one with a driver. Blablacar, the long-distance ridesharing community, also operates in Russia.

Bus travel in Russia is cheap and widely available, but buses are antiquated and crowded. The main bus terminal in Moscow is easy to find next to the Shchyolkovskaya metro station on the blue line. Signs are in Russian and English. But it may take an hour or two to buy a ticket. Mastering some basic Russian before queuing up is advised.

The three busiest airports in Russia are all in Moscow: Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo and Vnukovo. The fourth is Pulkovo in Saint Petersburg. Most non-stop international flights land in Moscow. Transfers to domestic flights may require a layover or a change of airport. Aeroflot, the national carrier that flies both international and domestic routes, runs a special shuttle between Sheremetyevo and Pulkovo to cut travel time. S7 Airlines is the country's biggest domestic airline and also operates international and charter flights. Word to the wise: Double check your reservations and tickets to make sure you're headed to the right airport!