UPDATE 2 March 2022: due to Putin’s ongoing military aggression against Ukraine, Russia has become largely isolated; from the West it’s now basically off the menu as a travel destination entirely – with no more flights in and out, that is so from a very basic practical perspective, but also in principle. And that’s such a shame. I also feel for the people I know in Russia, none of whom are behind Putin on this. From now on you have to take all the text below, and the chapters linked from it, as not applying any more. But I’ll let them stand for the time being, if only to serve as a reminder of less insane times …
UPDATE 24 February 2022: as Russia has launched its full-scale military invasion of neighbouring Ukraine
it would be unwise to go anywhere near the border regions for the foreseeable future. The place covered here that is closest to Ukraine would be Volgograd, but that's still over 200 miles (330km) away from the eastern border of the Donbas region. Whether now is a goodtime to travel to Russia in general, I think that's for people to decide for themselves ...
The Earth's largest country and with a history chock full of dark chapters, not only but especially during the 20th century. Revolution, World War I
and nearly III
, purges, deportations, gulags
, nuclear testing
and poisoning, regional wars, terrorism … the works! You'd expect a plethora of dark-tourism destinations to match. There are indeed quite a few. But there'd be potential for infinitely more. So far, these are the destinations covered on this website:
(Red Square & Kremlin
, Lenin mausoleum
, Novodevichiy cemetery
, Lubyanka former KGB building
, Stalin's bunker
, Central Museum of the Armed Forces
, Park Pobedy & Great Patriotic War Museum
, Bunker 42
, Gulag History Museum
, Museum of Contemporary History
, Sakharov Centre
, Muzeon sculpture park
, Jewish Museum
, Cosmonautics Museum
, Polytechnic Museum
, Ostankino TV Tower
In addition, there'd be loads more dark sites all over Russia, but comparatively few are commodified
for (international) tourists, especially not with regard to arguably the very darkest aspect of Soviet history, the gulags
. Most former gulag sites
are neglected, abandoned, and often nothing remains that would be worth travelling to them for. For instance, one of the most infamous names in this context is Vorkuta
– but not much is there to see, apart from remnants of a German POW
cemetery (though the regional museum in town is said to have a small room about the gulag too).
One of the earliest and most infamous “corrective labour camps”, Solovki
on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea in northern Russia, was set up in the early 1920s in a former monastery (seized by the Bolsheviks) and has been referred to as the “mother of the GuLag” system. Thanks to glasnost and perestroika, the first ever exhibition in the USSR
about the gulags was actually set up here back in 1989. However, since 1992 the Russian Orthodox Church has taken over the place again and re-established the monastery. With this the gulag memorial functions were gradually pushed out until it was little more than a superficial sideline, so as not to distract from the place's now primarily religious functions.
Such tensions between conflicting interests can be observed a lot in Russia, and with a resurgent nationalism on top, commemoration of the darker chapters of Russian/Soviet history has frequently come under pressure (see also Perm-36
). Moreover some of the dark history isn't even seen as all that dark any more: Stalin
, regarded worldwide as one of the worst "devils" humanity has ever seen, was voted the third greatest historical figure in Russia in a popular television vote a few years ago, in which 50 million people participated! He was ahead of Lenin
and Peter the Great!
Yet there are exceptions: the memorial at Katyn
, near Smolensk is one such example (beyond the ones in the list above). This is the place where the USSR
massacred the Polish officer class after (as agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
) it had taken over the eastern parts of Poland
while at the same time Nazi Germany
invaded from the west. In Soviet times it was always denied that the Kaytn
massacre ever happened at all, but now it's acknowledged and commemorated (see under Katyn Museum
However, most monuments
pertaining to WWII
, or the Great Patriotic War
, as the part the USSR was involved in is known here, are more of the type that's either glorifying the military or partisans/resistance or is dedicated to the dead. Practically every village has one, and bigger monuments can be found in cities. They are often of a rather uniform design – picture an obelisk with a hammer-and-sickle symbol on it and the years 1941-1945, plus maybe a patriotic slogan inscribed on it. In bigger places the inclusion of a T-34 tank on a plinth is also a very common element. But there are simply far too many of these war memorials to even attempt to cover them here.
Similarly ubiquitous still all over Russia are busts and statues of Lenin
. It seems that every town and city has one of those too, in a variety of poses, with the one of Lenin
standing and resolutely pointing somewhere a firm favourite. Statues of other members of the Soviet communist
pantheon can also be encountered, be it Kirovs, Frunzes, Kalinins, or whoever else. Plus of course plenty of Marx
and Engels representations in stone too. Only Stalins
are now extremely rare (except at the Muzeon park
However, there is a second Stalin bunker
(complementing the one in Moscow
), an important regional city on the Volga River. The bunker was constructed to serve as a hideout in case the Germans did indeed take Moscow
. Since that never happened, Stalin
never even visited this bunker. Yet it is a unique attraction in Samara. Visits are by guided tour, normally in Russian only, but local tourism companies may be able to arrange an English-speaking guide. Unfortunately I haven't yet made it to this place so I can't report anything first-hand.
Proper war museums and military gear collections are quite common in Russia too, either at particular battle sites (e.g. in/near Kursk, where the largest tank battle in history took place in the summer of 1943), or independent of that.
The latest grand addition to Russia's military displays is the vast “Patriot Park
” that opened as recently as in 2016. Its vast collection of vintage and modern military hardware and technology has been dubbed a “military Disneyland”. As the official name implies, it's more aimed at Russians, but those who get a kick out of these things may want to consider it. It's in the town of Kubinka about an hour out of Moscow
(reachable by commuter train, and open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission 400 RUB). Having been to the similar Stalin Line
theme park in Belarus
, I decided to give this a miss and can therefore not provide a first-hand account of this either.
Near Kursk is something that might appeal to those dark tourists who (like me) have a penchant for nuclear tourism. The Kursk Nuclear Power Plant
is pretty much a copy of the Chernobyl NPP
– and it is still in use (for a few more years to come). Photos of the four-block plant look exactly like Chernobyl did before the accident. Even more interestingly, Block 5 of the Kursk NPP was never completed. Yet it was over 70% finished, and thus offers a unique chance to explore a near clone of Chernobyl's exploded Block 4, complete with the same sort of iconic chimney stack, but without any risk of radiation. Well, at least hardy urban explorers have had that chance (see this report
– external link, opens in a new window). For normal mortals I would expect this to be out of bounds.
Finally, a brief mention is due here of perhaps the very darkest – and totally out of bounds – nuclear place in Russia: Mayak
and Lake Karachay
. At Mayak
the plutonium for USSR
's nuclear weapons arsenal was mostly produced (cf. Hanford
in the USA
). It was also the site of the Kyshtym disaster in 1957, which is regarded as the third worst nuclear accident in history (after Chernobyl
). Nearby Lake Karachay was used to dump nuclear waste in such concentrations that it was once regarded as the world's most polluted spot (radiation levels on its shore were said to be lethal after an hour's exposure). The lake has meanwhile been completely covered up with concrete. Still, since Mayak is still in use (mainly as a reprocessing plant these days) the whole area is of course closed off and inaccessible anyway.
But back to things tourists can do and what to expect as a traveller in Russia in practical terms:
Unfortunately, it's not all that easy for Westerners to travel to Russia [UPDATE March 2022: currently there no flights in and out of Russia, and Westerners are advised to stay away altogether anyway while the war against Ukraine is ongoing] – visa
complications are still quite a stumbling block. And if you don't know any Russian, the language barrier adds more problems. That said, travelling to the capital Moscow
is comparatively easy and the city's tourism infrastructure is amongst the best anywhere in the country (together with St Petersburg
). Further out of the tourism hubs, expect things to get a bit more difficult.
You can get to and get around within Russia by train or plane. The train network is pretty excellent and modern high-speed lines have been added (e.g. between Moscow and St Petersburg). And tickets for long-distance trains can now be purchased online as well.
International flights mostly use one of the three major Moscow airports, or St Petersburg and even smaller cities such as Perm. Internal flights are affordable and save a lot of time when travelling between points in this vast country. The national carrier Aeroflot has a wide-reaching network, complemented by numerous additional independent airlines and subsidies.
Outside hubs served by trains and planes, buses and so-called marshrutkas (vans and small buses that are a cross between a shared taxi and a regular bus) provide public transport. Beyond that taxis are usually available, and Russians also have a tradition of negotiating rides in private cars for a little money – but to do that you have to be able to speak Russian.
levels, both in price and quality, vary to the extreme, but it is now possible to get something decent in practically all the places in the list above. If you can do without Western-standard creature comforts, super-cheap bargains can be found, whereas at the other end of the scale the sky's the limit (esp. in Moscow
). Fortunately, the mid-range is well catered for in most places too.
Russians love the countryside, and many people have a “datcha” – a simple (or for the wealthy not so simple) house, usually wooden and often with a “banya” (sauna), out in village-like clusters outside the cities. Here they grow their own veg, and quite a few home-distil their own moonshine (known as 'samogon') too. But in order to experience any of that Russian life you really have to know some Russians personally. Regular foreign tourists rarely get to see any of this. (I've been lucky to experience this through friends that my wife, who spent some time in Russia as a student, still has there – I'm also fortunate to have her as my personal interpreter in Russian-speaking countries.)
Food & drink
has improved by light years since the Soviet days and the economic crisis years of the 1990s. Typical Russian staples still exist in abundance, such as pelmeni (filled, ravioli-like dumplings) or soups like solyanka. Cabbage, beetroot, potatoes, pickles, buckwheat, sour cream, dill, etc. remain popular traditional ingredients, while spicy dishes are fairly uncommon.
Beyond that, though, a vibrant culinary scene has developed in the bigger cities at least, especially, again, in Moscow
and St Petersburg
. But even in further-away places such as Perm
or Volgograd, you can now eat very well – and often for good value for money too. And where the restaurant scene is not so developed there is often at least still a Georgian
restaurant saving the day. This is especially so for vegetarians
, for whom Georgian cuisine is often the only real option beyond going bland-and-boring or resorting to self-catering.
On the drinks
front, things have improved too. Beer lovers will be delighted to find that the craft beer revolution has taken Russia by storm, even far beyond just the main cities (I had some outstanding brews even in Perm
), and at prices you could only dream of in the USA
or Western Europe.
Wine used to be all imported and thus more expensive, but due to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, there is suddenly plenty of “Russian wine” about too (i.e. Crimean).
The national favourite tipple (some would say curse) remains vodka, of course. It's a bit of a cliché; but it is indeed available everywhere and often at prices that make a bottle of water look expensive.
Another typically Russian drink is kvass – made from bread and somewhat fizzy, this is an old-school refreshment especially in the summer heat. But it is very much an acquired taste.
Russia is traditionally a tea country, and theirs tend to be strong and black, and many Russians like to throw plenty of sugar in it. Getting good coffee is not so standard, though it's become “hip” in the bigger cities too.
Note that tap water is normally not safe to drink in Russian cities/towns, or at least there is a certain risk, even if it's not downright dangerous. Better stick to bottled, boiled or purified water.
- Russia 01 - national flag and national animal
- Russia 02 - blue is a favourite colour
- Russia 03 - Soviet-era architecture
- Russia 04 - there are still countless Lenin statues all over the country
- Russia 05 - even in private he is still to be found
- Russia 06 - resurging religiousness
- Russia 07 - old industry
- Russia 08 - rural vastness
- Russia 09 - regional marshrutka transport
- Russia 10 - datcha
- Russia 11 - rainbow over datcha country
- Russia 12 - moonshine distilling inside
- Russia 13 - banya
- Russia 14 - Kungur ice cave
- Russia 15 - Russian food, babushka style
- Russia 16 - canteen-style food with kasha and beetroot and kompot
- Russia 17 - pelmeni
- Russia 18 - dried fish beer snacks
- Russia 19 - Siberian strogana
- Russia 20 - contemporary Russian haute cuisine
- Russia 21 - quo vadis