"The most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe." Fyodor Dostoevsky
For most people Russia still conjures up images of a land of bitterly cold winds, cutting across desolate wastes, of people queuing for hours just to buy bread. It's also home to vodka and James Bond villains. But this is a country so hard to define that it prompted Winston Churchill to call it a 'riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. At its height, in the mid 19th century, the empire of the Romanovs comprised more than one sixth of the earth's surface. It was a "whole world, self-sufficient, independent, and absolute", flaunting the greatest wealth in Europe. Its culture, both rich and brilliant, would continue to shine, decades after the demise of its imperial benefactors.
It is only in recent years that this mystery is beginning to unravel, as the Russian government finally realises that whilst tourism may not look as exciting as the oil or nickel industry, it does have huge untapped potential for bringing in badly needed foreign spending power. So gradually the iron curtain is starting to lift, and for tourists this means that the days of being shunted around in large groups are now a thing of the past and independent travel within this fascinating and beautiful country is now a real possibility.