There is no denying that Russia is a country riddled with controversy. Political corruption, powerful displays of military muscle and some questionable human rights laws are just a handful of the polemic issues that surround the country. I cannot condone many of Russia’s recent actions, be it the nation’s haphazard military intervention in Syria or the stance on LGBT equality. However, I would argue that the international response to these issues has been shambolic, demonstrating a total unawareness of Russian culture and customs. In short, the issues have been exacerbated by serious diplomatic misjudgements.
In my opinion, relations with Russia are characterised by misunderstandings and a lack of communication. But rather than debate the many political controversies, I would prefer to focus on a cultural one. The notion that Moscow and St Petersburg provide the bulk of Russian culture and the most authentic ‘Russian experience’ is one that troubles me. In the same way that there is far more to France than just Paris, Russia comprises a wealth of cultural and natural beauty beyond its western metropolises. However, while visitors to France have ventured from the rugged seclusion of Normandy to the ostentatious exuberance of the Mediterranean south, some of Russia’s finest gems remain relatively undiscovered.
Russia offers remarkable variety. Given its size, this is hardly surprising, but it is perhaps not widely acknowledged. Sochi, best known for hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014, doubles up as a holiday destination on the Black Sea. Siberia is famous for harsh temperatures and vast, snowy plains, but the biggest threats in summer are the scorching sun and mosquitoes. The Altai Mountains line the border to China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan with majestic serenity, while the jagged, ominous landscape of the Caucasus reflects the region’s political climate.
Exploring Russia’s vast wilderness is challenging. Ludicrously long distances mean that, realistically, a weekend break in the Caucasus is not a viable option. Furthermore, rural Russia can be a peculiar place and some knowledge of Russian is essential. In cities, there is a far greater likelihood of finding English speakers to offer some assistance. However, there is no definitively ‘Russian’ city. Some are products of attractive 17th century architecture, while others are victims of rapid Soviet industrialisation. Tomsk thrived, whereas Novosibirsk suffered. Yekaterinburg sits proudly as the gateway to Siberia, whose reach extends to the Orthodox architecture of Krasnoyarsk, the domed churches of Irkutsk and the far-flung Golden Horn Bay of Vladivostok.
Russia undoubtedly has many flaws. Political and social issues are rightly scrutinised by the media, but culturally and geographically, the country is diverse, varied and an enthralling place to visit. Embrace the tradition, embrace the culture and disparage the myths. Visit Russia.