Modern Russia’s history can be divided into three distinct political phases. After defeating first the Mongols and, later, the Poles, rulers like Ivan the Terrible continued to unify Russia until Michael Romanov was elected czar in 1613. The Romanovs become the imperial family and ruled relatively peacefully for the next 300 years. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great both made multiple, forced changes in an attempt to modernize their country and modeled many aspects of their new society after European courts.
The Romanovs ruled until the ill-fated reign of Nicholas the II. During the cold winter of 1917, the Russian people, starving and angry, overthrew the monarchy and executed the last remaining Romanovs. After several tumultuous years, the Bolshevik Party and Lenin gained control, but it was short-lived. Lenin’s untimely death led to more turmoil and the rise of the Communist Party.
The Communist rule included state-run farms, a tight control of art, music and literature, religious repression and rapid industrialization. Once again, Russia was attempting to keep up with the modern world.
WWII caught her unprepared for the conflict, but forced to pick a side. Even though a pact for non-aggression was signed with Germany, troops began to attack western borders and eventually march on Moscow. By 1944, the Russians had pushed German troops back to Berlin and the tide of the war was turning.
The end of WWII saw the construction of the Berlin Wall and the infamous Iron Curtain, virtually separating the Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc countries from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, lack of understanding and communication led to a rise in tensions during the 1950’s and 60’s that caused many to live in fear of nuclear attacks.
Forward-thinking leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev began pressing for reform and the country was once again on its way to change. In fact, the much-anticipated changes led to a snowball effect, so much so that by 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down by citizens on both sides of the city. Shortly thereafter, former Soviet Bloc countries, as well as republics within the U.S.S.R., broke away from their former union. By 1991, the Soviet Union no longer existed and modern-day Russia was formed.
Russia was once part of the great Soviet Union that dissolved into 15 separate countries in 1991.
After the split, Russia still had over 6.6 million square miles of land and remained the largest country in the world.
Russia has 12 seas. Yes, twelve. They are – Kara Sea, East-Siberian Sea, Laptev Sea, Chuckchi Sea, Barents Sea, Bering Sea, White Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, the Black Sea, the Sea of Azoz, the Sea of Japan and the Caspian Sea (although the Caspian Sea is technically considered a lake).
Until recently, Russia was part of the communist Soviet Union, but it is gradually embracing capitalism.
Russia and Alaska are only 2.5 miles apart. In fact, Big Diomede Island belongs to the United States while Little Diomede Island belongs to Russia.
- French bistros got their names from impatient, Russian soldiers. Apparently, after defeating Napoleon, they enjoyed the many outdoor Parisian cafes, but were notorious for banging their cups on the tabletops and shouting “bystro” at the waiters, which translates to quickly. The name stuck.
- It is also important to note that while dollars and euros are accepted in Russia, the Russian people like crisp, new bills and frequently refuse crumpled ones. Pack an iron before traveling.
- Over 10% of the government’s budget is funded by vodka sales.
- Russians are notorious for not liking anything that is inexpensive. In fact, there is no word in their language for “bargain”.
- Russian is a difficult language to learn; this is due in part to the fact that they use the completely different Cyrillic alphabet.
- The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow is home to the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet and should not be missed. Performance tickets can be purchased in advance during the season;
- The famous Red Square has seen more than its share of political history. Famous since the 1400’s, Red Square did not receive its name due to the color of the communist party as some would erroneously assume, but, rather from a Russian word for beauty, which also loosely translates to red;
- Moscow’s Metro system is one of the best in the world. It also happens to be home to incredibly beautiful architecture. It can be popular on the weekend to hop from station to station simply to admire its grand scale;
- The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the state museum of Russia, is infamous for its prized art collection, once the private holdings of the czars. In the art world, the massiveness of the collection is unrivaled;
- St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is the iconic image that is conjured up upon mentioning Moscow to most people. The vivid colors of the twisting, turret-topped spires are equally lovely and garish;
- Petrodvorets Palace is the summer residence of the former imperial family and is located just outside of St. Petersburg along the shores of the Baltic. Arriving by boat lets the visitor take in the scene as a whole and marvel at its beauty.
How to Get Cash
Traditionally in Russia, rubles (sometimes spelled roubles) were required for all officially purchases and U.S. dollars were used for “under-the-table” transactions. Today, the economy is more stable, and most places will willingly accept rubles, dollars and euros. If you need extra rubles, in addition to what you brought into the country with you, it is relatively easy to get more.
- Traveler’s Checks: You need to declare the amount of traveler’s checks that you are bringing into the country and you cannot use them to purchase items directly. That said, exchanging traveler’s checks for cash is a simple process that can be done at any bank during normal business hours. American Express checks are preferred and exchanged at all banks for a fee of up to 4%.
- Credit Cards: Russia is very modern and credit cards are accepted at most establishments, just as they are in the United States. Some smaller cities prefer cash, so be sure to carry some with you if you’re off the beaten path.
- ATM: Called a “bankomat” in Russia, ATMs are readily available at all larger hotel chains and most banks. Be aware that they are notorious for “eating” cards and you will have a much easier time if this happens at an ATM located within a bank.
- Western Union: Transferring money this way is a very common transaction in Russia. Most banks can facilitate this in less than 20 minutes. Western Union is preferred but larger cities, like Moscow, also use MoneyGram.
- Official Exchange Offices: These exist in Moscow and St. Petersburg; look for ones that appear clean, official and offer good rates.
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