Climate

The Russian winter certainly guarantees plenty of snow and frost… but not everywhere. And it doesn’t last forever. Russia’s climate varies dramatically, from the deep Arctic chill of the far north to the searing desert heat of some inland areas further south. Yet, throughout much of the country there are only two distinct seasons – winter and summer. Spring and autumn are only brief spells of change in between.Winters in Russia’s European part are nothing like as terrifying as many myths have it. In Moscow and St. Petersburg the first snow usually falls in late November and stays till early April. The average winter temperature is about -10°C. Colder snaps are not uncommon, but winter chills are compensated for by splendid summers. St. Petersburg usually enjoys 20-25°C and Moscow often swelters in highs of 35-37°C.

Down south, Russia’s vast steppe is hot and dry. Winters are short but cold. In the city of Volgograd, the weather starts flirting with freezing point as early as November. But the Black Sea resort of Sochi makes up for the rest of the country with a sizzling 35°C between June and August – no wonder it is Russia’s top summer holiday spot.

On the other side of the Ural Mountains, Siberia – contrary to its popular image – isn’t the land of eternal ice. It does have a summer – actually quite a warm and pleasant one, with temperatures climbing to 20°C and higher. The weather is rather wet though, so there are mosquitoes. But, true to form, winters are severe. A deadly -50°C is not unheard of. This bone-chilling cold produces the so-called “whisper of the stars”. As you breathe out, water vapor turns into tiny icicles that fall down with a melodic tinkle.

In the Far East, inland areas can get very hot with a tropical 40°C. Coastal regions are much cooler and wetter. Winter is normally milder than in Siberia. The port of Vladivostok sees a typical -13°C in January. And if you think that’s cold – stay away from the village of Oymyakon in north-eastern Siberia. With the lowest recorded temperature of -71.2°C, it’s the world’s coldest inhabited place

Russian alphabet — Cyrillic

A tongue of harsh accents, alien alphabet and a reputation as being hard to crack…

Russian may be all that and more but it’s certainly not the only language spoken in Russia. About 100 others are used across the country. But you don’t need to know all of them – Russian is official throughout the nation, although there are various co-official languages in different regions.

Russian Language

Russian belongs to the Indo-European family, which ties it to Greek and Latin. Its closest spoken relatives are Ukrainian and Belarusian. Over the centuries, its vocabu lary and style have been influenced by German, French and English. Modern Russian also includes a large number of international political, technological and scientific terms.

Until the 1917 revolution, Russian was the only official language of the Russian Empire. In the  Soviet Union, it enjoyed a privileged and unifying status. After the fall of the USSR, most ex-members reverted to their native tongues, with only Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan keeping Russian as an official language alongside their own.

The USSR’s superpower status guaranteed Russian worldwide prestige. It was taught in the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe but after the Warsaw Pact collapsed, the language was dropped as a must-have on school programmes. Still, it remains one of the official languages of the United Nations, and is widely used across the former Soviet Union. Fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century, large Russian-speaking communities, each with its own flavour of language, exist in Israel, Germany and Turkey. In the US, New York City’s Brighton Beach has long been dubbed “Little Odessa” – many of its residents having come from the Ukrainian port. It’s estimated that Russian is spoken by more than 200 million people worldwide.

The Russian alphabet, known as Cyrillic, goes back to the ninth century. Its most ancient version was devised by two Greek missionaries – brothers Cyril and Methodius, both outstanding scholars and linguists. The alphabet assumed its modern shape in the 17th century under Peter the Great, while the written Russian of today was introduced by the Soviet government in 1918. The reform didn’t just simplify the writing but symbolised a break with the Tsarist past.

Population

A blend of cultures and religions

Russia has one of the world’s most diverse societies – as many as 160 ethnic groups live there. The population of about 142 million may look like a lot but its density is low because of the country’s vast size. It’s also very unevenly spread, with most people clustered in European Russia, near the Ural Mountains and in southwest Siberia.

Most Russians are an urban breed – three-quarters of them live in cities. The two major ones are the capital Moscow with more than 10 million people, and St. Petersburg with more than four million. Roughly 80 per cent of the population is ethnic Russian. The rest is a mix of other ethnic groups, with the Tatars and Ukrainians making the largest minorities.
Administration

Russia is made up of 83 federal entities. Some of them are called republics, others are regions and there are also autonomiesThey all have equal representation in the Russian parliament but differ in the degree of autonomy they enjoy. Their administrative heads are often referred to as “governors”, although their official titles vary – several republics have presidents. Moscow and St. Petersburg are federal cities and function as separate regions.

Federal entities have formed over the years. Some have historically been frontier regions, others evolved as homes to specific ethnic minorities. Under President Putin, the number of federal entities was reduced through several mergers and reshuffles. The idea was to bring down trade barriers and boost business development.

Russia’s territory, including all its entities, is grouped into seven federal districts, each administered by an envoy appointed by the President. They act as a link between the federal entities and the federal government. Their key task is to make sure the federal entities comply with the federal laws

Religion

Since the fall of communism, religion has thrived with churches and monasteries springing up all over the countryDecades of Soviet rule have left their mark: up to half of Russians declare themselves atheists, although figures vary. Among believers Orthodox Christianity dominates, but smaller Christian denominations also exist.

Doing it differently

Religious holidays, banned after the 1917 revolution, are now back on the Russian calendar. Christmas and Easter are once again marked in grand fashion. Still, Russian Christians do it differently from the West. Soviet Russia adopted the Gregorian calendar, already widely accepted by most of the Western world. But the Russian Orthodox Church still used the old Julian calendar that now falls 13 days behind. Instead of December 25 Russian Christmas is marked on January 7. The same goes for the other religious holidays – when Europe’s finished celebrating, Russia only begins to gear up for the festivities.

Russia’s revered monasteries

Since ancient times, the largest and most important Russian Orthodox monasteries were called “Lavra” (from the Greek “monastery”). Russia has two. The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, 70 kilometres from Moscow, was founded in the 14th century by the St. Sergius of Radonezh, one of Russia’s most revered saints. The monastery and the city built around it, Sergiev Posad, are a Russian Vatican of sorts. A major spiritual magnet and a unique historical site, the Laura is world-famous for the rare beauty of its murals and the enchanted singing of its choir.

Alexander Nevsky Lavra was founded by Peter the Great in 1710 in St. Petersburg – seven years after the city itself. Construction works lasted for almost a century. The monastery complex is home to some of St. Petersburg’s oldest buildings. From the outset, the Lavra was known as the most prestigious burial site in Imperial Russia where members of the royal family, priests, prominent poets and composers were laid to rest.

Back from the ruins

One of Russia’s most famous churches is the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It’s also the country’s largest. Clad in marble, its white bulk crowned with a gleaming golden dome, it is visible all over central Moscow. The original cathedral was constructed in the 19th century to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. It took more than 40 years to build… and only a day to reduce to rubble on Stalin’s orders in 1933. Rebuilt in the 1990s, it’s become a symbol of Russia’s spiritual revival and the newly found power of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Islam in Russia

Russia’s second most popular religion is Islam. It’s thought the country is home to around 14 to 20 million Muslims, making up 10 to 16 per cent of Russia’s population. Almost all Russian Muslims are Sunnis but there are small pockets of Shiites in the Caucasus. Russia’s Muslims mainly live in the Volga Region and the North Caucasus, although Moscow and St. Petersburg also have thriving local communities.

The largest Islamic centres are Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The republic of Tatarstan on the Volga River has as many as 1150 mosques. Its capital Kazan, an ancient Tatar stronghold, boasts the largest mosque in Russia and, reputedly, in Europe – the Qolsharif Mosque. Built in the 16th century, it was destroyed in 1552 during Ivan the Terrible’s Tatar campaigns, when his armies captured Kazan. Now looking decisively modern, it’s the gem of the city’s architectural landscape.

Buddhism revival

Buddhism made its way to Russia in the late 16th century, when Russian explorers travelled to and settled in Siberia and the Far East. Russia’s key Buddhist centre is Kalmykia. Vast steppe land on the north-western shores of the Caspian Sea, the republic of Kalmykia is the only place in Europe where Buddhism is the major religion. Descendants of the nomadic Mongols, the Kalmyk people revere the Dalai Lama, who visited the republic in 2004. Buddhist teaching is also widespread in Tuva and Buryatia. Located at the midpoint of Asia, the republic of Tuva is famous for its bewitching throat singers. The Buryat Republic, along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal has a strong tradition of Tibetan Buddhist medical practices.

In the 1930s the temples were closed down or burnt and many monks fled or were arrested. But with the beginning of Gorbachev’s era, the Buddhist revival gathered pace and dozens of monasteries were rebuilt. Buddhist centres also opened in many large cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.