Enigmatic. Intimidating. Fascinating. Boasting some of the most spectacular cities,
churches, and fortresses on earth, wrapped in a culture that's as monolithic and xenophobic
as its onetime rival (read: us), Russia is an exciting frontier for adventurous Western trav-
elers. Though no longer the great military and political power that it was during the Cold
War, Russia remains a country of huge natural resources—energy, minerals, forests, rivers,
and arable land.
Russia was poor and remote for centuries, with a good part of the population bound in
serfdom until the 1860s. In the late 19th century, Russia began to industrialize, built closer
ties to Europe, and fostered writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov.
One of the new ideas that came to Russia from the West was communism. Led by Lenin
and Stalin, the communist experiment lasted almost 75 years before it collapsed in 1991.
Since then, despite widespread corruption, Russia has managed to build up something akin
to a free-market economy. In urban shopping districts, you'll watch Russians release dec-
ades of pent-up desire for once-forbidden goods and services.
Recently, Russia has taken baby steps toward making it easier for tourists to come on
short visits to St. Petersburg, especially by ship. But high prices, still-improving service
standards, limited knowledge of English, and a general lack of user-friendliness continue to
challenge. And complicated, expensive visa requirements make Russia an uninviting destin-
ation for independent American travelers. However, the travel experience in Russia is slowly
improving, year by year—particularly as the country gears up for the world spotlight as it
host the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the World Cup in 2016.
Traveling in Russia—or even just tuning into the news from there—leaves a strong im-
pression of a place that, while massive and powerful, is still finding itself in the post-com-
munist world. Yeltsin-era reforms and optimism have faded. Recent changes in the law have
alarmed lovers of free speech, gay-rights advocates, and anyone who supports democratic
ideals. And, a decade and a half into his quasi-authoritarian rule, Vladimir Putin casts a long
shadow over the world's largest country.