Photos by PhotoXPress, Lori/Legion Media, Kommersant, Itar-TASS, FocusPictures
Russia’s favorite holiday, New Year’s, is fast approaching. On Dec. 31 at midnight, millions of Russians will sit down at their festive tables and raise glasses of champagne. The last night of the year is assumed to have miraculous qualities: children wait breathlessly for Grandfather Frost, as Santa Claus is called in Russia, and look for their presents underneath the yolka, the Russian version of the Christmas tree, while grown-ups make their most heartfelt wishes.
The Russian nature, people and legends include many wonders. For the day before the festivities, we have compiled our own very subjective list of Russian wonders.
Children are not the only ones to receive New Year’s gifts. Despite the increasing workload for Russians and the talk from some oligarchs about switching to a 12-hour workday, over the past five years each Russian citizen has received a small gift from the state: 10 days of paid vacation. Starting in 2005, Russia has officially gone on holiday from Jan. 1-5. Together with weekends and Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on Jan. 7, this adds up to 10 days that a Russian can use to take a break from the hustle and bustle of work and, if nothing else, sleep to their heart's content.
Those who have decided to celebrate the New Year in the Russian countryside should expect another wonder, the Russian banya. The Russian banya tradition, dates back 10 centuries. Visiting the Russian banya is a challenge for the uninitiated. Never mind the fact that the steam room is extremely hot; the host will always want to put you on the upper bench where the air is the hottest and beat you with birch switches to whip up that scorching air. Once out of the steam room, you will be offered a “snow dip” or invited to jump through a hole in the ice of the nearest body of water. Those with a weak heart are advised to refuse on the spot, but if your body is up to the challenge, do not hesitate and throw yourself into the nearest pile of snow. If by that time you have not yet drunk yourself silly with your host, you will experience a unique feeling when coming out of the banya. Some call it the “second birth.” It is when every cell in your body feels acutely younger and you fall into such deep and healthy sleep that you feel a strong energy surge the morning after.
To witness the next wonder you need to walk across Red Square in Moscow. What you will see is St. Basil's Cathedral, a true masterpiece of architecture. The cathedral is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of eight churches grouped around a ninth church dedicated to the Intercession of the Mother of God. In 1588, a side-chapel was built and sanctified in the name of St. Basil the Fool for Christ, and a pyramid belfry was constructed in the 1670s. Other buildings, roofs above porches, the intricate dome design and interior and exterior ornamental paintings were developed later.
Had the architects in the 16th century known how their client, Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible, would thank them, it is unlikely they would have finished their work; in fact, they would have tried to clear out of Moscow as swiftly as possible. Legend has it that the fearsome Russian ruler was so stunned by the cathedral's grandeur that he ordered its architects to be blinded so that they could never re-create their work elsewhere. However, other legends have it that one of the cathedral's architects was later among those building the Kazan Kremlin.
The actual birth of the cathedral was associated with a wondrous occurrence. At the time when Kazan, still independent of Muscovy, was under siege, a deacon pronounced the following words from the Gospel at a liturgy: “There shall be one flock, one Shepherd.” It is said that at that very moment, a part of the enemy’s city wall went up in the air and the Russian troops entered Kazan. It was in honor of that victory that the foundation stone of the church that was later to become St. Basil's Cathedral was laid.
Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, is certainly a natural wonder. At almost 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) high, it is a magnet for mountain-climbers visited by mountaineers from all over the world. Climbing to the top of Elbrus is considered a highly prestigious accomplishment and not everyone succeeds. Statistics vary, but between 12,000 and 18,000 have reached the top. More than a thousand of those who have tried never made it back.
For the local peoples, Elbrus is the Caucasian Olympus. The local people believed that the ancient god Teiri once inhabited the mountain. Mountain rivers and springs carrying the famous Caucasian medicinal mineral water originate on its hillsides. Ancient tribes used to hold their sports and rhetoric contests on the mountain. It was on this mountain that one of the most prominent ancient epic heroes of local lore procured fire for his fellow tribesmen (similarly to the Greek Prometheus).
A different kind of natural wonder is Lake Baikal. It is the deepest lake on the planet and the world’s largest source of fresh water. The total water surface equals approximately the territory of Belgium, the Netherlands or Denmark. The deepest point is 1,642 meters (5,400 feet). The lake holds approximately 19 percent of the world’s fresh water. To put this figure into perspective, Lake Baikal holds more water than the five Great Lakes combined.
Another natural wonder is the weathering pillars of the Komi Republic. Only well-prepared hikers attempt the trip there. Two hundred million years ago, tall mountains stood in their place. Centuries passed, and the mountains were gradually destroyed by rain, wind, snow and heat. Now they are weirdly shaped and, depending on the angle, can look like a giant human figure, a horse head or a ram head.
One legend has it that the pillars used to be giants. One of the giants fell in love with the beautiful daughter of his friend, the local tribal leader. However, not only did the girl refuse the giant's overtures, but also ridiculed him. The resentful giant called his brothers to his assistance and together they decided to assault the town where the beauty lived. She called for the protection of her brother who, with the help of good spirits and a magic shield, turned the giants into stones.
Another natural wonder comes from northern Russian cities, in particular, from St Petersburg. For two or three weeks in May there is no night in those cities. It is replaced by rather thin twilight. Tourists tend to be very impressed by the “white nights;” many of them purposefully stop in the street to read a newspaper. It is during this time, specifically on May 27, when Founder’s Day is celebrated. An annual graduation celebration for students from the city’s schools called “Scarlet Sails” takes place after June 20. The main square in St. Petersburg is given over to popular musicians while an enormous sailboat with red sails can be seen on the river.
As for Petersburgers, they aren’t as excited as everyone else about this natural wonder and traditionally prefer blinds that allow them to sleep during the white nights.
The sculptural ensemble “Mother Motherland,” built on the Mamay Burial Mound near Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad), is one of the world's tallest monuments. The overall height is 85 meters (279 feet). When it was built in 1967, it was the world's tallest monument and is now seventh on the list.
The Mamay Burial Mound acquired its name in the era of the Golden Horde. Watchmen were stationed at the top of the mound. On its crest, there would be stationed a rider looking out for any hazards. In 1942, the mound was named the main high point of Russia; it was the highest point during the battle of Stalingrad and changed hands on numerous occasions. The fight over this generally speaking unimpressive hill carried on for 135 days and nights.
Today the Mother Motherland monument symbolizes the valor of those Soviet soldiers who stopped the Nazis by the Volga River, thus protecting the lives and freedom not only of the former Soviet Union peoples but also of many Asian people.
Some people are completely averse to air travel. They would much rather travel to resorts by train. The world’s longest train trip, which lasts about a week, can only be experienced on Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway. At more than 9,000 km (5,600 miles) long, it is the world's longest railway and it rolls through 80 Russian cities.
The construction of the main line began in the 19th century, but while its power system was completed only in 2002. The world's longest Trans-Siberian through-passenger journey (from Kiev to Vladivostok) takes almost 188 hours. The fastest Trans-Siberian train (from Moscow to Vladivostok) takes six days and two hours.
In the very heart of Siberia lies The Great Vasyugan Mire, the largest swamp on the planet. Its area totals 53,000 sq. km, which is approximately the size of Switzerland.
Notwithstanding the swamps’ somewhat gloomy reputation, they play a paramount role in reducing air pollution. In essence, the Great Vasyugan Mire is a gigantic natural filter that absorbs toxic substances from the air while binding carbon dioxide and preventing the greenhouse effect.
In the spring of 1941, a unique valley, the Valley of Geysers, was discovered on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. The valley features fountains of boiling hot water shooting up from underground against a backdrop of exuberant. The valley was home to over 200 thermal springs, about 90 of which were geysers.
In 2007, a massive landslide in the valley blocked the Geysernaya riverbed. The resulting lake flooded some of the geysers, destroying two of the three helipads and a number of tourist attractions. However, the unique natural site was preserved and around 20 natural hot water fountains remain active.
Kamchatka is known not only for its geysers. It is home to Avachinsky Bay, the world's second largest bay, capable of accommodating the world’s entire fleet of ships. On the north side of the bay stands the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The city port serves fishing boats and cargo ships all year round. In addition to a civilian port, the bay hosts a number of Russian Navy military bases.
This natural wonder has its own legend. The passage into the bay is “guarded” by the rocks of the Three Brothers. Legend has it that in ancient days, these rocks used to be people. The local tribe was often hit by tsunamis and the brothers decided to protect their people. They stood up at the passage into the bay and stopped the deadly waves, but were turned into stones.
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