Covering one-sixth of the earth's land surface, the Russian Federation is a vast, diverse country with a brutal history and a rich, varied culture. There are about 150 nationalities with varying degrees of autonomy within the Russian Federation. Russia's decline from superpower status and its socioeconomic problems after the breakup of the Soviet Union have severely affected the country's collective psyche; its birth rate has dropped precipitously in the last decade, as has average life expectancy.

Moscow and St. Petersburg have much to offer in the way of shopping, history, restored churches, grandiose monuments and museums. Attractions such as the Kremlin, Red Square and the Hermitage are popular. For travelers seeking genuine Russian hospitality, culture, warmth and beauty of Russian women and men, a trip to a smaller town or village is a must. Nature lovers are drawn to the untamed wilderness of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Beach resorts around the Black Sea typically do not attract significant numbers of international vacationers.

Summers in European Russia carry long days with changeable weather, and winters are long and sometimes very cold. Siberia has long, harsh winters with heavy snowfalls, and short, warm summers; the southern steppe zone has mild winters and relatively long, dry summers.

Eighty-one percent of Russia's 147 million inhabitants are Russian by ethnicity; other major ethnic groups include Tatars, Ukrainians, Chuvash, and Belarussian. Most people speak Russian. English is probably the most widely-understood foreign language, especially in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. Most Russians are Russian Orthodox Christian; other religious groups include Muslims, Buddhists and Jews.

The usual ports of entry into Russia are by air to Moscow or St. Petersburg from the West, and Khabarovsk from the East. However, many people enter from Vladivostok or Irkutsk via connections to the Trans-Siberian railroad.

Travel between cities in Russia is typically by air: Domestic flights are reasonably reliable, though not always comfortable or modernized. The bulk of the population travels on Russia's extensive and reliable rail network; it links all the major cities and is relatively inexpensive. The road network is poorly developed and in poor repair.

The phone system in large cities is improving, but is still well below modern Western standards; in the countryside, it is unreliable and in disrepair. English-language media are readily available in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but sporadically available elsewhere. Cash is the primary medium of exchange, but ATMs can be found in most large cities, and credit cards are increasingly accepted at many establishments and banks in major cities. Take precautions against credit card fraud.

Russia is experiencing an explosive rise in crime, especially violent crime. Levels of petty crime are alarming; pick-pocketing, robberies and purse snatching are endemic, perpetrated often (but not exclusively) by rapacious youth gangs. Travelers are specifically targeted. Take particular care in restaurants, hotels, outdoor markets and train, bus and subway stations. Do not travel alone anywhere in Russia, especially at night.

A Russian proverb states that a meal is not a meal without soup; bread, it seems, must be served as well. The cuisine is as varied as the land, with many regional specialties; it is usually simple and safe, though take normal food safety precautions.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are acknowledged as two of the most expensive cities in the world to visit. Other large cities are likewise expensive, especially for travelers trying to maintain a first-world standard of living. Bargain hunters fare better in rural areas. Hotel rates are expensive and accommodations vary. Tourists generally stay in international hotels.



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