The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was composed of many countries east of Europe. This great nation broke up in December 1991 into many individual, independent states. Many of these countries have begun to thrive since the break-up and have established and asserted themselves on the world scene. Because many of these nations are west of the Ural mountains, the traditional dividing line between Europe & Asia, they are considered European countries. The largest of these nations is Russia, the motherland. Here is my discussion of the major tourist attractions in the European part of the old USSR. A photo album will follow in the near future.
1. St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg, Russia, is an elegant and cultured city which has endured much Tsarist history and the consequences thereof. Lately, however, after years of deterioration and neglect, it has reemerged to its royal splendor. The city, sometimes called the “Venice of the North” is built on 42 islands, part of the delta of the Neva River as it empties into the Baltic Sea. Its grand palaces and regal facades can be best appreciated by strolling the streets, especially along the Nevsky Prospekt, a wide, imperial avenue which stretches for three miles through the most elegant part of the city. Walk into Palace Square and admire the regal Winter Palace, now one of the most famous museums in the world, the Hermitage.
Besides its extensive collection of masterpieces, including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, El Greco, Rembrandt, Monet, Renoir, and many others, the Hermitage building is an incredible attraction itself, for this vast collection is housed in the Winter Palace, the urban residence of Russian rulers from Catherine the Great (1762) to the premature end of the reign of Nicholas II, during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The palace’s 1000+ rooms are dripping with opulence. Several must see areas include the Malachite Room, with its columns made from the green gem, the Great Throne Room, with its bronze and marble, and the Gallery of the 1812 War, with portraits of the generals who took part in the war against Napoleon.
In the museum itself, the first floor contains ancient art, including relics from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman eras. It also houses the Treasure Gallery(Golden Room), which contains precious gems, jewelry, gold and silver.
The second floor houses primarily European Art, especially of the Renaissance. Because the Russians loved the French, there is a particularly large collection of French art.
The third floor houses more recent art, including the Impressionists, sculptures by Rodin, paintings of Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, and many others.
Because of its immensity, it is easy to spend the better part of a whole day in the museum.
There are many churches in the city which are significant and worthy of a visit. In particular, St Isaac’s Cathedral, with its 16 foot thick walls and golden dome (45 pounds worth), the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, whose name derives from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II which took place on this spot in 1881 — its many colored domes and mosaics are modeled after St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow (see below), Kazan Cathedral, and Smolny Cathedral.
The Peter and Paul Fortress, built for the defense of the city, was used as a prison and has an ominous past. It is now a museum.
There are also many fine palaces outside the city which make great day trips. Most important is the Peterhof Palace, located about 20 miles west of St Petersburg, which was constructed in the early 1700’s by Peter the Great as his Summer Palace. Here, the grounds of the palace are perhaps more significant than the buildings.
In the Lower Park, visitors will be impressed by the Great Cascade, an integrated collection of waterfalls, fountains, and gilded statues, and amused by the “trick fountains” which may spray water on unsuspecting individuals who step on a particular stone in the path. (Kids will love it, especially in summer!). Above the Lower Park is the Bolshoi Dvorets, a sumptuous house which has a commanding view of the entire complex.
The Upper Park is not as interesting or fanciful, and is basically a formal garden with a central fountain, the Neptune Fountain.
The main palace building has several notable rooms, including the Audience Hall, the ultimate in Baroque design, the Chinese Study Rooms, the Picture Gallery, with paintings by the Italian artist Rotari, the Throne Room, with its beautiful parquet floors and splendid chandeliers, and the Oak Study Room, the only vestige of Peter’s original design, since the rest of the palace was remodeled extensively.
Also worthy of a day trip are the Pushkin Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, which contains the magnificent Catherine Palace, with its Golden Gallery, Amber Room, and Ballroom, and finally the Pavlovsk Palace, with its English-style garden.
Purchase a multi-access ticket which allows the visitor into the Hermitage, the Treasure Gallery, the wooden Winter Palace of Peter the Great, and the Menshikov Palace.
2. Moscow, Russia
Moscow is the capital of Russia and was the center of Communism from 1917 till its ultimate downfall in 1991. It is a fairly somber city, without the exuberance of many world capitals, but this is changing. A nationalistic spirit is emerging which will probably transform the city as well.
The city’s focal point is still, and will always be, Red Square. It is both red and beautiful. However, it is difficult for the tourist to forget the menacing reputation of the Kremlin, the vast, walled center of government and Lenin’s Mausoleum, which is still revered and visited. It is a grim reminder of Russia’s dark past. Within the walled Kremlin, there are numerous buildings, some of which may be visited. Highlights include the Armory Palace, now a museum, the Annunciation Cathedral, which was once the private chapel of the Royal Family, the Cathedral of the Archangel, which is the burial place for many Russian rulers from before the 1700’s, and several towers.
More fanciful and less ominous is the spectacular St Basil’s Cathedral, a fantasy of brightly colored domes. St Basil’s Cathedral also known as the Church of the Intercession, located on Red Square, in the center of Moscow, was built in the 1500’s at the direction of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who, as the legend goes, put out the eyes of the architect so that nothing as beautiful could ever be built again. The exterior certainly dazzles and is especially beautiful at night when soft lighting augments its beauty. The interior is disappointing, probably because of the dramatic contrast with its ethereal outside.
Another icon of Moscow is the Bolshoi Theater, which is magnificently crafted and still in use as a ballet and concert venue. Try to attend a performance while in the city.
Other worthwhile sights, on the perimeter of the city, include the Donskoy Monastery which contains Khrushchev’s grave, and the New Maiden’s Convent, with its several churches.
Be sure to check out Moscow’s Metro stations. Their architecture is interesting and unusual, and they display thoroughly enjoyable capsules of Russia.
Probably the most worthwhile excursion from Moscow is northeast to an area known as the Golden Ring, a group of villages with considerable charm which have preserved much of their old Russian architecture and history. The most significant of these villages are Vladimir and Suzdal. Others include Sergiyev Posad, Rostovm Yaroslavl, and Kostroma. The tourist attractions within each town tend to center around their churches and Kremlins (citadels). A popular way to sample at least some of these villages is via a Volga River cruise.
3. Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius is the capital and largest city of Lithuania, one of the Baltic States which finally became independent when the Soviet Union split up. Its Old Town, Senamiestis, the largest in Europe, a Medieval maze of cobblestone streets, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cathedral Square is a major gathering place. The Cathedral contains the lovely Chapel of St Casimir. Walk up Castle Hill to the Gediminas Tower for a great view. The presence of Vilnius University keeps this city forever young.
While in Lithuania, if time permits, visit Palanga on the Baltic coast to experience the Northern Europe beach scene. Also in town is the famous and unique Amber Museum, with thousands of samples of the golden resin, many of which have imbedded prehistoric plants and animals.
4. Talinn, Estonia
Talinn, Estonia, another Baltic gem and World Heritage Site, has an extremely lovely and pleasant-to-walk Old Town, known as All-Linn. Spend some time drinking beer in Raekoja Plats, a square with numerous cafes, and check out the Town Hall, the oldest in Europe. Also, be sure to climb the tower of St Olaf’s Church for a great view of the city.
5. Riga, Latvia
Riga, capital of Latvia, another of the Baltic States recently separated from the Soviet Union, has a pleasant, Medieval, Old Town (Vecriga), which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While strolling the maze of streets, be sure to find Dome Square, with its Cathedral Church of Riga. Nearby is St Peter’s Church, whose spire can be climbed for a great view of the city. While in Riga, admire the architecture in the Art Nouveau District, within walking distance of Vecriga.
6. Kiev, Ukraine
Kiev (or Kyiv), Ukraine, has emerged recently not only from Soviet domination, but also as a tourist destination. The most important sites in the city, for the visitor, include the Kyiv-Cave Monastery, with its Refectory Church, Holy Trinity Gate Church, and St Sophia Monastery, with its onion domes and mosaics. The oldest part of the city, the Podil District, is worthy of a stroll.
7. Yalta & the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine
The Crimean Peninsula of the Ukraine has long been a resort for the Russian powerful and wealthy. Lately, it has been discovered by international tourists. The region juts southward into the Black Sea from the mainland.
The most famous town of the area is Yalta, made forever famous by the conference of Allied leaders (Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt) which took place here in February, 1945.
There are numerous attractions in the Yalta vicinity. Start first in the city itself by walking the lovely seaside promenade and visiting several of its 19th century churches.
Just west of the city is Palace of Livadia, an Italian Renaissance-style mansion, striking in appearance with its white limestone exterior. A trail (the Sunny Path) leads from the palace for about 7 scenic kilometers (4 miles), a 1 ½ hour walk, to the Swallow’s Nest, perched on and precariously overhanging a 38 meter (120 foot) cliff beside the inland sea. This tiny castle, today, houses an Italian restaurant (of all things!) but has remained a symbol of Yalta. Swallow’s Nest is more commonly accessed via boat from the town.
Further (17 kilometers/10 miles) west is the more magnificent Alupka Palace with its 150 ornate rooms. Note especially the Winter Garden room, with tropical plants covering its marble floors. It dramatically overlooks the sea.
A third palace lies just east of Yalta. Massandra Palace is a yellow-bricked chalet with extensive gardens. The Rose Garden, in the Upper Park, claims to have the world’s largest collection of roses, over 2000 varieties.
There are also several other communities on the peninsula which merit the tourist’s attention. Sudak, northwest of Yalta, has completely restored its Genoese Fortress and its extensive, crenulated walls, reminiscent of China’s Great Wall. Visitors can walk the walls and climb the occasional towers for about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles). Sevastopol, west of Yalta, has impressive limestone buildings along its broad, tree-lined avenues and many monuments to its heroes, but it is most famous for the nearby ruins of the Greek colony of Tauric Chersonesos (Khersones) which dates to about 430 BC.
Bakhchysaray, north of Yalta and inland, boasts a reminder of the Ottoman domination of the region, Khan’s Palace, which dates to the 16th century. Note, in particular, the ruler’s Fountain of Tears. In the vicinity is one of several Cave cities, which dot the landscape. Chufut-kale and its fascinating subterranean metropolis occupy a plateau in the area.
8. Brest, Belarus
Brest, Belarus ( the country name means “White Russia”), is located on the Polish border and, as such, has a decidedly Western connection. The city is noted for its famous Brest Fortress, a huge complex of partially-restored buildings, 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) southwest of the city center which, today, commemorates the extraordinary bravery of the soldiers who held off Hitler’s advance for an entire month at the beginning of World War II. Note the gigantic, brooding, stone face of the Valour Monument and the tall, obelisk with its eternal flame. Other sights on the property are the Kholmskie Gate, whose façade is riddled with bullet-holes, and the Thirst Statue. Finally, the Nikalaivsky Church, the oldest in the city, is also found on the grounds of the fortress.
In town, there are numerous other churches. Notable ones include St Nikolaiv Church, St Christopher’s Church, and the St Simon Orthodox Cathedral, constructed in Russian-Byzantine style, with its gold-domed cupolas.
About 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the northwest lies Minsk, the capital of Belarus. It is also worth a visit if time permits. The city was completely reduced to rubble during World War II, but has been attractively rebuilt with wide boulevards, large squares, and imposing buildings. Independence Square is one of the major focal points. It is flanked by the Government Building on the north, the University on the south, and, in between, the Church of St Simon and Elena, made from brick, with a tall bell tower. The inside is both dark and ornate. Off the square is the ominous KGB Building.
The busiest square in the city is Oktyahskaya Plushchad. It boasts the Palace of the Republic (the concert hall), the Trade Union’s Cultural Palace, colonnaded in Classical style, and the somber and moving Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Only about 60 kilometers (36 miles) from Brest is the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Nature Reserve, which preserves the last remaining habitat of the European Bison, the continent’s largest mammal, as well as many other species.