Vodka, Babushkas and the world’s largest landmass: welcome to the Russian federation – the sleeping giant. Whilst Russia has a rocky human rights record, this is an incredible country to explore which is full of the unexpected. Major cities like Moscow and St Petersberg are grand & wealthy, hidden urban palaces provide an insight to the countries intriguing history, and the freezing and isolated rural regions literally go on for days. Just a quick tip – do a little extra homework before entering Russia, this country beats to its own drum.

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In regards to Russian history, various Russian indigenous communities have roamed the land including the Evenks, the Saami, the Yupiq (Eskimo), the Nenets. the Sakha (Yakuts), Buryat, Komi and Khakass. Many of these indigenous groups still exist today, however numerous communities have been displaced or assimilated. The origin of the Russian state dates back to the 9th century with the arrival of Scandinavian traders known as the Varangians. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century when Russia begun its expansion as a maritime power and embarked on numerous wars, expanding into Estonia, Finland Turkey, Persia and Bucharest. During this period Russia started to increase its involvement in European affairs and continued to gain power in continental Europe.

The 19th century found Russia involved in the French Revolutionary Wars. In 1812 Napoleon began an onslaught on Russia and took Moscow, but the Russian army, and the Russian winter, brought about Napoleon’s downfall and sent him into Exile – Russia and Austria were the leading powers on the European continent. Russia continued its territorial expansion into Turkistan, China and Afghanistan. At the start of the 20th century Russia entered into the Triple Alliance of England, France, and Russia. However, the outbreak of World War I found Russia cut off from its allies in the West and suffered serious defeats against the Germans and Austrians. Following WW1, civil war broke out in Russia and resulted in various countries such as Poland, Finland, Ukraine, Belorussia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia proclaiming their independence. The Russian state that we know today has experienced various name changes, here is why:

  • The Russian Empire until 1917
  • The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) from 1917 to 1991
  • The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1922 when Russia was united with Ukrainian, Belorussian, and the Transcaucasian republics.
  • The Russian Federation since 1991. The Russia Federation was established in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated and the former RSFSR became an independent nation.

From a geographic point of view, Russia is massive. Spanning 6.5 million square miles this is the largest country on earth. The country has 11 neighbouring countries and coastal access to the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea and North Pacific. Russia’s gigantic landmass provides access to a plethora of raw material for export, including oil, natural gas, nickel, and timber. The country can be broken down into three segments, with the European third, Siberia and the Far East. The Russian Federation possesses a well-developed road and rail network in its European third, where the majority of the 150 million inhabitants live.

In regards to International tourism; the number of arrivals in Russia for 2013 totalled 30.8 million tourists. When you venture over to Russia, double check your entry requirements (very stringent) then make sure you visit the capital Moscow, ride the grand St Petersburg subway (which mirrors a museum), explore the imperial palaces throughout the country and if you are feeling brave – why not jump on the Tran Siberian Express through Mongolia to China! [/wptab]

Ethical Travel Issues and advice

Human Rights & Discrimination against LGBT

Today, Gay Pride is celebrated around the world, from Sydney, Australia to Toronto, Canada. As of 2015, there are 22 countries where same-sex marriage is currently legal. This is not the case in Russia.

In 2013, an anti-gay law was passed in Russia. Prior to the 2014 winter Olympics, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law that punishes people for “homosexual propaganda” and allows police to fine people, including tourists, for “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” In the 21st century, it has been seen as highly controversial that Russia’s laws permit the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners. This includes gay-affirmative speech, to hand-holding; even displaying a rainbow flag alongside your countries flag on your backpack is illegal.

In 2013, Four Dutch nationals were the first ‘tourists’ to be arrested under the law. They were arrested for allegedly violating Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda.” Kris van der Veen was reportedly shooting a documentary, interviewing young people and asking them about their views on gay rights, as part of the larger issue of human rights, in Russia. The four citizens from Holland spent one night in jail and were fined 3,000 roubles each (approximately $80usd). However, under the laws, the four could have been jailed for up to 2 weeks and even deported if given a guilty verdict.

Furthermore, in October 2015 an additional draft law is pending in Russia’s parliament that would penalize people who engage in ‘public displays that would suggest that their sexual orientation is gay’. According to Human Rights Watch, “This draft law is a new and absurd low in discriminatory legislative proposals. The draft proposes to effectively outlaw being gay, and just being yourself could land you behind bars.” The authors of the law propose fines of between four and five thousand rubles (US$65-$80) for “the public expression of non-traditional sexual relations, manifested in a public demonstration of personal perverted sexual preferences in public places.” If such public displays occur “on territories and in institutions, providing educational, cultural or youth services,” the offender will be fined or put under an administrative arrest of up to 15 days. 

Cultural Loss and Indigenous tourism

There are approximately 260,000 indigenous individuals in Russia, making up less than 0.2% of Russia’s population. These ‘small-numbered’ indigenous communities traditionally inhabit huge territories stretching from the Kola Peninsula in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, encompassing about two-thirds of the Russian territory.

The Russian Federation is home to more than 180 groups of indigenous local communities. Of these, 40 groups are legally recognised as “indigenous, small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East”, some others are still striving to obtain this status. Among the peoples recognised are the Evenks, the Saami, the Yupiq (Eskimo) and the Nenets. This ‘legal indigenous status’ is tied to the conditions that a local community has no more than 50,000 members, maintains a traditional way of life, inhabits certain remote regions of Russia and identifies itself as a distinct ethnic community. Communities such as the Sakha (Yakuts), Buryat, Komi and Khakass do not hold this status because of their larger populations.

Indigenous Siberians include a diverse population of cultural groups. Many groups continue to live in the tundra and coniferous forests, some subsist through reindeer herding, while others hunt and gather. Today, however, due to the Russian assimilation of Siberia, less than 10% of the Siberian population are indigenous peoples. The majority of indigenous communities have undergone assimilation with Russian culture and most inhabitants of Siberia speak Russian. Younger generations are drawn to new opportunities in cities and contribute to the deterioration of native languages and the preservation of Siberia’s indigenous cultural heritage.

Russia has repopulated vast areas of Siberia, leading to the displacement of Indigenous Siberian groups and the erosion of their cultures. In many cases, the influx of industries such as drilling for Oil and Gas, has resulted in the loss of rights to their land, destroying the Indigenous Siberian peoples’ traditional way of life. Cultural loss has also been experienced in the Khanty-Mansiysk region, today around 2,500 people (around 10% of the indigenous population), live according to their traditional customs.

So, what is being done about the disintegration of indigenous groups in Russia? Ethnic tourism is slowly becoming increasingly popular in Russia – travellers have the ability to visit settlements of indigenous peoples in Yakutia, Altai and Tyva, Chukotka, the Caucasus, and the Komi Republic. When this form of community based tourism is carried out well, it has the potential to support local indigenous groups and provide a diversified income stream. Local governments in Russia are also investing in the conservation of Siberia’s indigenous culture – establishing a special department for indigenous peoples in the legislative branches of many regions. However, such municipal legislation to protect indigenous land rights is not likely to deter multinational corporations funding oil or gas projects.

gail (1)Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.

Taking photos of friendly local people is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities. 

Threatened Endemic Species: habitat loss and hunting

According to Right Tourism, Russia has a wide range of endemic species, however many species have experienced a rapid decline in numbers due to both poaching and habitat loss from logging or industrial development. Among the current endangered species in Russia is the Siberian tiger, Far eastern leopard and Steller’s sea eagle.

The Siberian Tiger is the largest species of tiger in the world and can grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 700 lbs. The wild population of Siberian tigers is estimated to be 350-450 tigers. Almost all wild Siberian tigers live the Southeast corner of Russia, east of the Amur River. The Siberian tiger is considered a critically endangered species – the primary threat to its survival in the wild is poaching

Hunting is widespread in Russia with several national organisers. Trophy hunters focus on the Brown bear, Asiatic black bears, Lynx, Deer, Moose, Ibex, wild boar and many bird species. 

Sochi –Beach resort or winter wonderland?

Sochi, with its warm subtropical climate, is one of the most popular holiday resorts in Russia. The region is located on the eastern shore of the Black Sea and has an adjacent national park along with a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. Average temperatures in Sochi are 12c in the winter, and 26c in the summer. Palm trees line the streets and it’s  even warm enough to grow tea leaves. Sounds like a good spot for a summer holiday right… So why was the 2014 winter Olympics hosted here?

It is well documented that hosting a Winter Games is often more challenging from an environmental perspective than hosting the Summer Games. Mountainous regions often have delicate and pristine environmental habitats and the 2014 olympics played a part in the environmental damage to one of Russia’s most ecologically valuable regions.

Years after the 2014 Olympic games and rapid infrastructure development, it is clear that the sustainable development and green promises in Sochi did not come to fruition. According to the environmental campaign group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC) the construction process for the Games was hugely damaging on the region. The ENWC witnessed illegal waste dumping, construction that blocked the migration routes of animals such as the brown bear and limited access to drinking water for locals.

Aside from the 2014 Olympics, local tourism enterprises have further contributed to environmental pollution in the Sochi region. The rapid growth of the resort and the mass tourism branch of the economy has further resulted in environmental degradation in the region. 

Useful Information

Did you know that Russia has the earth’s widest temperature range? Russia is the largest landmass in the world and therefore has an extraordinarily variable climate. Northern Russia experiences extremely cold temperatures; Verkhoyansk in Siberia is the coldest settled place on earth (-68c!). Compared to Sochi on the Black sea which experiences subtropical temperatures of up to 37c! 

From a geographic standpoint – Russia spans 9 time zones and contains all of the world’s vegetation zones (except a tropical rain forest). Russian habitats include the tundra and taiga belts, wooded steppe, sections of semi-desert, desert, and subtropical zones. The highest peak in Russia is Mt. Elbrus (15,633 m) and the major river systems include the Don, the Volga and the Western Dvina.

 With such a gigantic landmass, also comes a huge array of Fauna & flora. Animal life is restricted in the northern regions, however as you head south you can find the arctic foxes, lemmings, reindeer, moose, bears, lynx, reindeer, sable, hazel-grouse, owls, woodpeckers, wild boar, deer, mink, marten, bustard, cranes and skylarks. Russia’s flora is also varied with approximately 11 400 species of vascular plants. Russia has 38 national parks along with another 101 zapovedniks (strictly protected areas).

In terms of environmental policy: Russia has long been known as a country with little regard for environmental concerns. Despite Russian ratification of the Kyoto protocol the country’s leaders have continued to question the human role in climate change. In 2009, the Russian government adopted a new climate target that accepted human induced global warming. Because the country’s emissions remain more than 30% below 1990 levels, any climate pledges mean very little. 

At first Russian people can be cold, so when meeting a Russian person for the first time do not expect friendly smiles. Greet with a firm handshake (make sure you remove your gloves). Public physical contact is common in Russian conversation, actions such as hugs, backslapping and kisses on the cheeks are common among friends or acquaintances. Older Russians are generally quite pessimistic and don’t have much faith in a better life in the future. Younger urban Russians have adopted a more Western outlook on life. However, both the younger and older generation still love to smoke cigarettes – do not expect to find smoke-free areas anywhere.

Russians are very proud of their culture and enjoy opportunities to talk about their music, art, literature and dance. Some knowledge Russian history, sport, art, music is appreciated. Keep in mind that western symbols and body language are not internationally recognized. For example, putting your thumb through your index and middle fingers or making the “OK” sign are considered very rude gestures in Russia. 

When winter temperatures drop below freezing, expect to find some hearty local cuisine. Typically you will find potatoes, bread, pastry and sour cream featuring as common ingredients. However, you may also be surprised to find smoked fish, crêpes and red and black caviar. Classic Russian dishes are just as good from streets stalls and local eateries as they are from high-end restaurants, make sure you try some of these:

  • Borsch: A beet and cabbage soup. This red concoction is a delicious belly warmer on winter days and can be served with meat, potato, dill and Russian sour cream.
  • Smoked salmon or salted herring: Smoked, salted and marinated river or saltwater fish. Typically you will find marinated or smoked salmon served alone, or with pancakes. Salted herring is usually served in salads, such as ‘shuba’, served with grated boiled vegetables, beets, onions and mayonnaise.
  • Stroganoff: Worldwide renowned, eating stroganoff in Russia is smoother and creamier than you’ve ever had. The credit goes to the Russian sour cream.

Of Russia’s estimated 150 million inhabitants, over 80% speak the official language of Russian as their only language. However, there are over 100 minority languages spoken in Russia today, the second most common language is Tatar (Tartar), spoken by more than 3% of the country’s population. Other minority languages include Ukrainian, Chuvash, Bashir, Mordvin, Circassian and Chechen. Most speakers of these minority languages are bilingual speakers of Russian.

Indigenous Siberians include a diverse population of cultural groups that speak many different languages. Although these communities make up less that 1% of the Russian population, their languages are prominent in key regional areas. Try a couple of these Russian phrases out:

  • Dobraye ootro: Good morning
  • Dobriy vyecher: Good evening
  • Zdrastvooyte: Hello
  • Kak pazhivayesh?: How are you?
  • Spaseeba preekrasna!: Fine, thanks!
  • Za zdorovje: Cheers (For health!)

The Russian Orthodox Church has about 60 million adherents and has grown rapidly since the end of Soviet rule. The Soviet Union had an antireligious ideology and therefore the majority of Russia’s population have no religious affiliation. Other religions in Russia include the Old Believers, Muslims, Buddhism, Judaism, and various tribal religions.

In regards to ethnic groups, there are around 60 different recognized groups in Russia. The vast majority of the population are Russians (80%), followed by Ukrainians (2%), Tatars (4%), Bashkirs, Chuvash, Komi, Komi-Permyaks, Udmurts, Mari, Mordovians, Jews, Germans, Armenians, and numerous others.

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