A hundred years might be a blink of an eye in terms of the life of the Earth, but a lot can happen in that short a time period. In Russia, the world’s first communist empire rose from the ashes of a war-torn nation and disintegrated – all within a 100 year time period. History comes at you fast. Explore this “sliver” of history on a Russia vacation.
This past November 7 marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which saw Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks overthrow the Russian government, execute the Tsar, and eventually transform the country and the surrounding nations into the mighty Soviet Union. Regardless of your thoughts and feelings about the communist revolution and the empire that was born from it, it was undeniably a momentous event in human history. It changed the world forever.
While western tensions with Russia are at their highest since the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s a particularly interesting moment to head on a trip to Russia. A Russia vacation at this time offers a robust opportunity to explore a significant chapter of world history. If you’ve ever been curious about the Soviet Union, now is as good a time as any to visit Russia and delve into its complicated, fascinating past.
A Brief History of the Russian Revolution
While the Russian Revolution is taught in most history classes, it’s only briefly addressed as a part of larger events that occurred in the wake of World War I. As such, it might not stick in the memories of most people educated in the western world. A brief reminder is in order.
Ever since Ivan the Terrible formed the Tsardom of Russia and Peter the Great consequently consolidated Russia’s holdings, Russia reigned as an empire with a royal class at the top of society. The decadence of the empire created some incredible art – you need only visit the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or listen to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky to witness this period’s artistic heights – but it was also a time defined by the extreme poverty of large portions of the Russian population.
In the midst of World War I, the dissatisfaction of Russia’s working class reached boiling point. Although Russia was on the winning side of the war, it was suffering large casualties at the hands of the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Ottomans. The dissatisfaction with the elites and how they were handling the war culminated in the February Revolution of 1917, where the Tsar, Nicholas II, was deposed and the Russian Provisional Government was formed.
Soon enough, the radical Marxist leader, Vladimir Lenin, and his socialist establishment known as the Petrograd Soviets, overthrew the Provisional Government and transformed Russia into the world’s first socialist state. However, opposition forces, known as the White Movement, countered the Soviet’s revolution and a civil war began, that wasn’t resolved until 1921. Eventually, Lenin’s Bolsheviks came out on top and the Soviet Union was officially born in 1922, when the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic joined with the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian Soviet Social Republics.
While the formation of the Soviet Union did not end with the Russian Revolution, it officially started with it. As such, it’s a significant event in world history and one worth exploring on a Russia vacation.
What to Expect in Russia Today
Today, Russia is a wealthy capitalist state with an enigmatic, powerful leader at its centre. It is a nation that has tried to reach back into the imperial and religious heights of its past, even as it still comes to terms with the ramifications of the Soviet era.
If you visited Russia this past November, you wouldn’t have experienced official ceremonies recognizing the anniversary. In fact, Vladimir Putin’s official response was to leave the commemoration up to the “experts.” Most ordinary Russians were left with complicated feelings about the whole affair.
It’s impossible to summarize the Russian people’s attitudes towards the Soviet era, as they run the gamut of reactions, from young people who are nostalgic about a past they never experienced, to religious conservatives and business leaders who see the fall of communism as a chance to rebuild the traditional empire. In short, you might have some illuminating conversations about the Soviet Union with people you meet in Russia, but it should not be the topic you lead with; let them initiate any discussion of the past, as you don’t know what they or their family experienced during the Soviet era.
The Political Heart of Russia
If you’re heading on a Russia vacation to explore the history of the Soviet Union, much of your trip will centre on Moscow. Moscow was originally the nation’s capital, but Peter the Great moved the capital to the newly-built St. Petersburg during the formation of the Russian Empire. Only after the Russian Revolution did Vladimir Lenin move the capital back to Moscow.
Your first stop on an exploration of Russia’s Soviet past should be Red Square, right in the centre of Moscow; it’s an essential visit on any trip to Russia. There, you’ll find the Kremlin, which is the current seat of the President of Russia that also served as the headquarters for the Soviet government. Also in Red Square, you’ll find Lenin’s Mausoleum, which displays the embalmed body of the founder of the Soviet Union. Joining a tour through the mausoleum is the best way to see Lenin’s body, although you can visit on your own if you wish.
Also in Moscow, you’ll find Lubyanka Square, which used to house the headquarters of the KGB. Today, it houses the Federal Security Service (which essentially replaced the KGB), as well as a KGB Museum, which is open to the public. It’s a bit grisly, but inside you’ll find fascinating details about life in Soviet Russia. If you want to spend hours among Soviet relics, you can head to the Fallen Monument Park, where over 700 sculptures from the Soviet era have been deposited. If you’ve ever seen the James Bond film GoldenEye or played the popular video game based on it, you’re familiar with the park, which is the backdrop for one of its most famous scenes.
Moscow also has Cosmonauts Alley, which is where the space program used to be based and is now home to monuments dedicated to the Soviet Union’s aeronautic achievements. (Remember, it was the Soviet Union, not the United States, which first orbited a rocket around the earth and sent the first man to space.) You can also learn about Soviet Expressionism and other cinematic achievements of the Soviet Union at Mosfilm, the oldest film studio in Moscow where many of the most famous Soviet films, including Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, were shot. You’ll also be able to see some Soviet architecture in the Moscow Metro, which is also home to some hidden bunkers from the Stalinist era that you can tour while on your Russia vacation.
The Old Capital of the Empire
St. Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire, then known as Petrograd. However, when the Soviet Union formed, Lenin moved the capital to Moscow. After Lenin’s death, the Soviet authorities even renamed the city Leningrad in his honour. However, despite the posthumous renaming, you won’t find as many holdovers from the Soviet Union in St. Petersburg as you will in Moscow. That being said, you can still explore the Soviet past on a trip to St. Petersburg.
It you’re looking for Soviet highlights in St. Petersburg, the House of Soviets should be near the top of your list. The massive office building was built in the imposing Stalinist style, which is known for its towering columns and oppresive size. A statue of Vladimir Lenin stands in front of the building. St. Petersburg also has the Museum of Political History of Russia, which traces the nation’s political changes and has Lenin’s desk from Pravda, the Communist Party magazine he ran prior to the Russian Revolution.
While in St. Petersburg, you can also head to the battleship, Aurora, which was the site of a mutiny during the Russian Revolution. Today, the boat houses a museum that explores its importance to Russian history. If you want to experience a typical day in the life of the Soviet Union, head to Pyshki, a small bakery on Sadovaya Street, which has been open since the 1950s and only serves traditional doughnuts with powdered sugar on them. These doughnuts were a popular treat in the Soviet Union, and Pyshki is a rare example of a private restaurant that retains the atmosphere and practices of life in the Soviet Union.
Remote Soviet Highlights
You don’t have to stay in Moscow and St. Petersburg to find remnants of the Soviet Union. In Volgograd, you’ll find the largest statue of a woman in the world, called The Motherland Calls. The statue was erected in 1967 as a memorial to the Battle of Stalingrad – Stalingrad being Volgograd’s name at the time. Currently, the statue is in the process of an extensive restoration.
Novosibirsk, located in the southwestern part of Siberia, is probably your best spot outside Moscow and St. Petersburg to explore the Soviet Union. In Novosibirsk, you can find the Monument to the Heroes of the Revolution, which commemorates 104 fallen soldiers of the Russian Revolution. As the monument has been largely neglected and not updated, it remains one of the country’s most authentic Soviet sites. Facing the monument is the House of Lenin, which was originally constructed as a memorial after his death and today serves as a Philharmonic Chamber Hall. The wall of the building that faces the monument is decorated with images of the revolution, done in the Soviet style.
As the city boomed into a large industrial centre during Stalin’s reign, Novosibirsk developed many Soviet building blocks and complexes, such as the Akademgorodok, a scientific research complex around 30km outside of town, as well as the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences. Even if you’re not very interested in Soviet monuments, a visit to Novosibirsk is recommended, as it has one of the best tourist infrastructures in the nation and is on the main rail line of the Tran-Siberian Railroad.
Prepping for Your Russia Vacation
Russia can be complicated to visit. Your journey will go much smoother with the help of a good travel company like Goway. Goway can help you get your visa and travel documents sorted out prior to departure, and pre-arrange all your transit and accommodations in the country so you don’t wind up paying too much for an impromptu hotel room or train ticket. (Be forewarned: prices in Russia are often more expensive for foreigners if you show up without bookings.)
A good travel agent will also let you know about all the particular quirks of travelling to Russia, like the fact that police might randomly stop you and ask to see your passport and visa or that “monetary incentives” are sometimes expected. Also, be sure to learn a bit of the Cyrillic alphabet before visiting. Cyrillic will help you navigate everything from street signs to menus. Russia can be trickier than many countries to visit, but it has so many treasures to share if you do manage to navigate its distinct waters.
A Russia vacation require more patience than other trips, but if you are fascinated with the history of the 20th century, it offers so much to explore. If you take some time to delve into the Soviet era in the midst of marveling at treasures of the old empire, you’ll experience the breadth of Russian history and culture.
Plus, a Russia vacation offers you the chance to learn just how significant the Soviet Union was for Russia… and for the world.