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Gap Year In Russia

This diverse country has something for every Gap year traveller - whether you're looking for natural wonders, beautiful architecture, rich culture, outdoor sports, or just a different way of life, Russia should certainly be on your travel calendar!

Why visit Russia during a Gap year?

It’s the largest country in the world; so there is plenty of scope for exploration.

Pretty inaccessible up to 1990 unless you were educated in Cambridge and worked [part time] for British Intelligence, but now the country is opening up to tourism.

A land of extremes; containing the coldest places in both Europe and Asia: namely Ust-Shchuge at minus 58.1 C and Oymyakon at minus 71.2 C. Not all the time obviously!

The two largest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the main attractions.

The rest of the vast land is terra incognita to most visitors, although the awarding of the Twenty Second Winter Olympic Games and the Ninth Winter Paralympics , plus the staging Russian Formula One Grand Prix, all in 2014, to the city of Sochi is likely to open up this area.

Sochi is located on the Black Sea at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains which contain areas of dispute and in some cases conflict.

For example Sochi is close to the border of Abkhazia, which considers itself an independent state and is recognised as such by Russia.

However, Georgia and most other countries consider Abkhazia as part of Georgia.

There are several other troubled, disputed or independence seeking areas: North and South Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Chechnya being examples. Enough of the politics; in summary – in some areas tourism is a risky option.

Let’s concentrate on Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

What to see and do on your Russia Gap year

Saint Petersburg - Peter the Great captured the Swedish fortress Nyanskans  at the mouth of the River Neva in1703 and by 1712 he declared the new city of Saint Petersburg as the capital of Russia.

Built on low lying land around the delta it is a city of islands; one hundred and one of them according to Intourist.

The Peter and Paul Fortress was the citadel established to defend the city from any Swedes or their Great Northern War allies looking to re-establish a presence and hence was the first construction in the city.

It contains, within its walls the Peter and Paul Cathedral where the Tsars from Peter I to Alexander III with the exception of Peter II are buried. (What happened to him?  I hear you gasp – well, Peter II became emperor in 1727 aged twelve and  was pawn of the nobility following the death of Catherine I. He died aged fourteen in Moscow of smallpox and is buried in the Kremlin).

The major attraction in Saint Petersburg is the Hermitage.

The area consists of a number of beautiful buildings, principally the work of the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

The Hermitage itself [Small Hermitage and Great Hermitage] is possibly the greatest museum/art gallery in the world.

It houses ten of the twelve known paintings by Leonardo de Vinci and artefacts that, so it is claimed, would take you fifteen years to see if you spent one minute looking at each.

The collections were started in 1764 by Catherine the Great [she being Catherine II, not to be confused with Catherine I above].

Full details of the collections are at www.hermitagemuseum.org/

On the same site are the Menshikov and Winter Palaces.

The former, originally built in 1710, has been restored to shown the domestic life of a Russian nobleman.

The Winter Palace contains, amongst other attractions, rooms occupied by Peter the Great.

It was believed that Peter’s Palace was destroyed during later rebuilding, but this area was rediscovered and restored to reflect the period.

Located to the north east of Saint Petersburg is an area called the Golden Ring.

This consists of a group of cities which played an important part in the history of Russia as it fought to establish itself in face of incursions from west, for example the Poles and Lithuanians, and from the east, by the Mongols.

These cities are not that well geared up to tell their history to the visitor; they are, however wonderful examples of Russian architecture in terms of their churches, monasteries, kremlins and cathedrals.

Pereslavl-Zalesskiy contains the Saviour’s Cathedral constructed of beautiful white stone and topped with green onion domes.

More prosaically, the city also contains a museum dedicated to flat irons, and another to kettles.

The city of Vladimir boasts the Assumption Cathedral, originally constructed between 1158 and 1160, it was later decorated by the master of the icon, artist Andrei Rublev [c. 1365 – c. 1430]

Moscow - the most famous attraction here is The Kremlin.

All over Russia there are kremlins [fortresses] but this is The Kremlin; a fortified complex of buildings that has given its name to the government of what was then the Soviet Union.

As with the Hermitage, it is a complex of buildings including several palaces and three cathedrals.

The main attractions include the Ivan the Great Bell Tower- raised to its current height of 81 metres in 1600 on the orders of Boris Godunov, it was the tallest structure in Russia until the revolution.

Not in the tower but in the square is the largest bell in the world, the Tsar Bell, weighing in at a mere 201,924 kilograms and standing over six metres tall.

The three cathedrals are the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Cathedral of Archangel Michael and the Cathedral of the Dormition, site of the coronation of the all the Russian Tsars.

The Armoury is the official museum of the Kremlin and contains examples of the applied arts mainly from Eastern Europe.

Examples from the collection are: the throne of Ivan IV known as The Terrible [Ivan that is, not his throne] the Imperial Crown of Russia, and ten examples of the art of Carl Faberge [happiness is egg shaped] More details on; www.kreml.ru/en/info/visitors

Ticketing seems a little [over] complicated. Currently 500 Roubles will get you access to the Bell Tower and the museums; a separate 700 Roubles for access to the Armoury. Some venues are time limited escorted tours rather in your own time access.

The Tretyakov Gallery contains a major collection of Russian art, from Andrei Rublev’s icons to twentieth century masters including Kandinsky and Malevich.

The gallery also includes works of Socialist Realism sculpture, removed from their original locations as the Soviet Union became Russia once again. Further details; www.tretyakovgallery.ru

Before you go

Russia uses the Cyrillic alphabet which has a number of letters which do not exist in our Latin alphabet.

You can learn the phonics of these new characters and be aware that some common letters are pronounced differently; for example B is pronounced V, so Moscow in Cyrillic is MOCKBa, giving us Moskva, which is the way Russians would say Moscow.

The main issue is that signs written in Cyrillic are very hard to decode; in Moscow and Saint Petersburg the English translation is often shown in tourist areas, outside these areas and in wider Russia it is an issue.

The currency is the Rouble divided in to a hundred Kopecks. Credit cards are widely accepted in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, less so elsewhere.

The InTourist web site says that passports and visas should be carried at all times as the police have the right to demand to see them without giving a reason. It would certainly be prudent to travel with copies of important documents in case of loss.

As with most countries you should check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s web site for up to date travel advice: www.fco.gov.uk

Further information

For more gap year travel ideas in Europe, please see: