Have you ever wondered what rural life beyond Russia’s bustling major cities is like? Or have you simply wanted to escape to the more quiet, pleasant outskirts beyond its capital hubs?
This article will take you through a riveting journey across the vast lands of Russian soil…from its sprawling rustic countrysides dotted with beautiful fairy-tale cottages and quaint terrace houses…to its magnificent architectural structures and breathtaking natural splendours. It’s no secret that Russia is the home of rich, diverse cultures and adventurous expeditions, yet there are so many hidden layers underneath its national fabric that still need to be unravelled.
Contrary to popular belief, Russia’s rural regions have plenty to offer for your travelling desires, including exquisite mouth-watering cuisines and unique cultural activities such as railway voyages, opera concerts and theatres, dog-sledding and traditional folklore. You’ll also be given an insightful look into the resilient livelihoods of rural locals and indigenous tribes across different Russian regions.
Before we dive in, we should have an understanding of how Russia’s past has shaped the various lives of its citizens today.
Ever since the Soviet Era, an archipelago of tiny, isolated rural villages and state farms were the building blocks of Russian society. Today, many of them have become ghost towns and have risked losing their way of life across generations.
In Russia, rural villages and countryside regions have many state industrial farms that specialised in the production of raw materials such as potatoes and beetroot seeds. Like many industries, agriculture was collectivised. Many of these communities had at least 200 workers and their families, who operated within their own local administrations and Communist Party organisations. These traditional self-governing communes are known as obschina. Each worker typically had their own houses and garden plots to alleviate economic catastrophes such as famine.
When the USSR was dissolved, workers were no longer restricted to their designated work conditions. This caused an exodus of youth and eventually middle-aged people, who fled to the cities in a rapid wave of urbanisation. Now, these Soviet farm communities are lost and slowly withering away, with various abandoned buildings, empty streets and destroyed grain silos. It is estimated that 35,000 rural communities have less than 10 inhabitants. However, many Russians still have close ties with nature and continue to grow food in a thriving dacha culture.
It is important that these communities and their rural heritage are preserved, especially since they form such an integral part of the country’s national identity and cultural relevance. While there are still lingering social and economic problems, Russia’s countryside possesses an intimate, tranquil beauty that is rarely seen in the major capitals, exploding with a vast array of intriguing historical significance.
Found in the Karelian Republic, Kinerma is a beautiful ancient village which has preserved its traditional way of life. The village is full of welcoming farmers and artisans, who are keen to share their knowledge about Karelian dishes and local customs.
In Kinerma, visitors can find a wooden 18th-century chapel, complete with a surviving iconostasis, and an old cemetery. There are wooden residential buildings which are recognised as architectural monuments, alongside open-air museums that evoke the development of folk architecture in Southwest Karelia of XIX-XX centuries.
The Centre of Rural Tourism, also known as the ‘Guest House Kinerma’ helps to organise accommodation in the historic village. It receives thousands of tourists each year, providing rustic dining rooms and steam baths in black banyas. It even delivers masterclasses on traditional Karelian cuisine, along with workshops on ritual dolls and baking wickets.
Located in thick forest on the Svir River — halfway between bustling St Petersburg and the lonely island of Kizhi, famous for its towering, onion-top churches — Mandrogi was bombed out of existence by the Germans in World War II.
The war left it a burnt ruin, but after the Soviet Union fell, a group of Russian investors bought the land and invited the best of the region’s woodworkers to use their creativity and traditional skills to restore the town to its former glory. Between 1996 and 1999 the traditional buildings were restored, and today the settlement is called Upper Mandrogi (Verkhny Mandrogi).
Passengers traveling between St. Petersburg and Moscow on a Russia river cruise along the most popular waterway route usually explore the streets and the local museums, each featuring a different aspect of Russian culture and folk life.
Vyatskoye is an intriguing old merchant village located in the Yaroslavl Region (around 300 kilometres from Moscow). It has around 1500 inhabitants and perfectly preserved buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Over time, the village has transformed into a historical and cultural complex with several museums, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues (cinema and concert hall).
Not so long ago in the 1990s, Vyatskoye was a local collective farm which provided local employment. Yet this collapsed and the village gradually fell into decay, with residents migrating to improved economic conditions in other regions. With restoration initiatives and property investments, the village was replenished, becoming the scenic historic site we know today.
Nowadays, the village is scattered with little churches and wondrous natural landscapes, coupled with the reconstruction of merchants’ households into local museums, attracting nearly 100,000 people every year. These unique museums often contain rare exhibits, such as egg boilers and toasters that were used during the Russian Empire.
The Old Believer village of Kimzha in the Arkhangelsk Region remains one of the most fascinating places in the Russian Arctic. Every house is a captivating monument of northern wooden architecture, with many of them being over 100 years old.
The Arctic village was founded in the early XVI century from Pinega, and since then it has flourished with 100 inhabitants and 71 historical buildings, including the five-domed wooden hip-roof Odygitriya Church. It is rooted with deep Paganism, old belief and orthodoxy, with many people honouring sacred customs and traditions. There have been no cemeteries remaining since 1951, and votive crosses are displayed near houses.
Kimzha resembles an animated museum of wooden architecture, riddled with children playing in the courtyards and the local villagers engaging in various activities such as river fishing, gathering berries and hunting in the woods. Reminiscent of rural fairytale cottages, visitors can smell gingerbread cookies and smoke trails drifting from chimneys.
Kenozero National Park is an outstanding North-European cultural landscape which has preserved the traditions and ancient forms of folk art, agriculture and use of natural resources. The cultural and natural heritage of Kenozero has, throughout many centuries, avoided periods of mass destruction and preserved its historical integrity and authenticity.
The park is situated among the northern forests and lakes of the Arkhangelsk Region and named after the largest lake in the region – Lake Kenozero. Upon arriving in the village of Vershinino, located in the centre of the park, you will be immediately greeted with its symbol: the wooden St Nicholas’ Chapel which stands on the highest point of the village.
The best way to see the villages and the nature of the Kenozero National Pak region is to book an excursion by boat.
This is not just one of the most beautiful villages in Russia, but also one of the oldest! It was founded back in the middle of the 8th century, and the 9th century stone fortress, as well as St. George’s Church and the Assumption Cathedral of the mid-12th century have all survived to this day. It is believed that, in the olden days, Staraya (Old) Ladoga was the capital of ancient Rus.
Buryatia, for the most part, is a region inhabited by Buddhists, but not far from Ulan-Ude, there is an old village of “Old Believers”. Its first 200 settlers founded it in 1765 and their descendants, now numbering over a thousand people, have preserved a rural way of life. The wooden houses of local residents are particularly impressive: Bright and decorated with contrasting carved windows and doors, surrounded by unusual decorative features.
Located 6500 kilometres from Moscow, Esso is a charming village surrounded by the wilderness of Kamchatka’s ancient volcanoes and hot springs. Nestling snugly in a valley of green mountains, it is home to many indigenous Russian people, including the Itelmens, the Evenks and Koryaks.
Esso is a worthwhile place to visit, brimming with the vivid cultures of indigenous peoples and their quaint wooden cottages, lush gardens and fertile soil, winding gravelly roads and thriving wildlife.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a great way to explore Russia’s splendid rural villages, architectural masterpieces and breath-taking natural landscapes.
Spanning an incredible length of 9288 kilometres, it is known for being the longest continuous rail journey on Earth, stretching across the entirety of Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok (largest Russian city in the Far East). In fact, a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express will cover 8 different time zones, 87 towns/cities and 16 major rivers in Russia over the span of a week! Travellers can embark on an epic journey that will take them across the glimmering cityscape of the major capitals Moscow and St Petersburg, rural fairytale villages and rustic countryside towns, along with the untamed wilderness of Krasnoyarsk forests and the Ural Mountains.
Other notable stops include the jaw-dropping Altai Golden Mountains, the ancient freshwater Lake Baikal, the colourful Buddhist temples and monasteries of Ulan-Ude and the hauntingly beautiful Tsarist monuments of Yekaterinburg.
Russia’s most significant river voyages are the Volga River Cruise, which features the main panoramic attractions of Moscow and picturesque countryside towns of lower Volga. Travellers will be able to marvel at classic onion-domed churches and imposing medieval fortresses.
The Volga River is the epicentre of Russia’s major settlements, providing a vast, interconnected network of cultural, agricultural and industrial ties to the largest population centres. Sailing the Volga River will mean taking a spectacular glimpse at Russia’s beautiful yet hidden rural landscapes, archaic city infrastructure and scenic historic villages bristling with a lively celebration of Russian culture, folklore, art, history and cuisine.
Location hotspots include the magnificent town of Uglich with its brightly painted Kremlin perching along the shore. Yaroslavl is another ancient city found in Russia’s Golden Ring which holds neoclassical buildings, including its infamous Spassky Monastery which holds incredibly intricate artistry.
So what are you waiting for? Embark on an epic journey across Rural Russia, where the hidden gems and marvellous sights are awaiting your arrival!
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