Moscow, St Petersburg and Novgorod encompass Russia’s profound cultural diversity. Its historic roots lie in the shadow of the Byzantine Empire. From Mongol rule it emerged as a major European power in the 18th century. Russia’s Orthodox, mystical, Asiatic past is reflected in brilliantly decorated, onion-domed churches like Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral. It also informs shrines surrounded by defensive walls like the Kremlin and Sergeiv Posad Monastery. The Kremlin also displays exquisite Fabergé eggs and other Imperial treasures in its Armoury Museum.
The Baroque splendour and the calm, grand classicism of St Petersburg, on the other hand, reflect Russia’s more recent European identity. Its great Winter Palace (Hermitage) is echoed in brilliant aristocratic residences like the Yusupov Palace. Outside the city, the Catherine Palace, Pavlovsk, and Peterhof rival Versailles in regal grandeur.
In Moscow’s fascinating Tretyakov Gallery and Pushkin Museum and St Petersburg’s vast Hermitage, richly coloured traditional icons contrast with some of Europe’s greatest masterpieces. These include works by Van Eyck and Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Cézanne and Matisse. The Hermitage’s Golden Room displays an extraordinary collection of golden artefacts from archaeological sites along the Central Asian steppe. Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery has a vast collection of 20th and 21st century Russian art. It includes Soviet Realism, works by avant-garde artists such as Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Goncharova and Popova, and the very latest in post-modernism.
Russia boasts one of the world’s greatest literary cultures and a wonderful music tradition. There is Leo Tolstoy’s house, and great performances in both Moscow’s and St Petersburg’s fine concert halls. Hanseatic Novgorod combines lovely old Orthodox churches with fine, small, merchant churches and one of the world’s best village museums.
From the Soviet past are Lenin’s mausoleum with the leader’s embalmed body. Also in Moscow, a cold war command bunker with its astonishing tunnel network shows what Soviet power meant behind the ‘iron curtain’. In strong contrast, Russia’s scenic waterways may be enjoyed on river and canal cruises in Moscow and St Petersburg.