When in Russia, do as the Russians do, and look straight ahead and pay no attention to all that really weird stuff going on all around you. Sure you can find a lot of normal things in Russia. This nation prides itself on trying to look really, really normal. Everyone, even Russians, knows that it’s all just a mask covering the fact that Russia is a very unusual land.
For example, I spent four years living in Moscow as an English teacher, and every day there was something that made me scratch my head in wonder. I once saw a shirtless man shooting at a goat with a pellet gun while casually smoking a cigarette. The goat itself was chasing after a shrieking woman in a sundress. This happened in a village an hour outside Moscow.
Russia’s weirdness comes from its unique culture. Russia is an extremely creative nation, and its people are emotive and passionate. This is the land that gave us great novelists, composers, poets, ballerinas, and leaders of academia. That creative genius is on display today in places like Lukomorye, where you can see a forest filled with wooden sculptures. Russian history, both natural history and human history, stretches back to the beginning of time, and this is where some say you can go when you explore the Golosov Ravine. Here people are rumored to travel through time, and in 2007 witnesses reported a squad of Mongol warriors, complete with authentic 13th Century armor and weapons, riding through the ravine on horseback!
Without further ado, here are the 20 most unusual places in Russia every traveler should visit!
20 20: Izmailovo Kremlin
Looking to get completely lost in a bright colorful surreal Russian castle that’s part labyrinth, part fortress? If so, Ismailovo is the place for you! The Ismailovo Kremlin is located just outside Moscow, in the Izmailovo district. This kremlin was built in 2007 as a cultural site to showcase Russian arts and architecture in the era before Peter the Great brought baroque gaudiness to Russia. It is basically an insane maze of brightly colored walls and towers, and if you can’t read Cyrillic, you’ll never be able to follow the directions to get back out.
19 19: Golosov Ravine
The Golosov Ravine can be found in a park in Moscow. It has several springs, a meandering brook, and Mongol warriors from the 13th Century. Apparently several Mongols were seen galloping through the ravine on horseback, but even more strange was when a group of Tatars was caught scaling the nearby Kremlin walls. They were questioned and informed their Russian captors that they were part of the force that had attempted to sack the city but was now trying to escape. The problem for their captors is that the last Tatar attack was in 1571, and this was 1921! Two peasants from the 19th Century have stumbled out of the ravine, blinking in confusion at the modern city around them. Apparently, a strange mist envelops travelers and hurtles them through time. Well, according to guys dressed as Crimean Tatars, at least.
18 18: Bunker 42
Bunker 42 is 65 meters below the streets of Moscow. It was built when the Soviets were certain that American nuclear bombs were going to fall at any moment, and it was important that the leadership stay safe while the rest of the population burned. Stalin himself hung out in this bunker, forcing his goons to get stupidly drunk with him. Stalin and Kruschev were a little disappointed that there was no World War Three, but they put the bunker to use as an air force command center. Today it’s open to the public to explore.
17 17: The Museum Of Soviet Arcade Games
In the west we had Pac-Man. In Soviet Russia, they had “Giant Turnip”. We had “Space Invaders” while they came up with “Lucky Shot”. If you thought 1970s-era pinball machines were wicked awesome, you haven’t seen anything yet! The games inside this museum were all built by the Ministry of Culture of the USSR. Top-tier materials were used, and most of the games were reverse-engineered rip-offs of American and Japanese games, but the Russkis managed to make a few originals themselves, including the classic Tetris. Enjoy a fun afternoon in St Petersburg at this awesome museum (and yes, you CAN play the games!).
16 16: Lenin’s Mausoleum
If you think you’ve seen one corpse, you’ve seen them all, then you have never seen Lenin’s corpse. There is an eerie similarity between Lenin’s wax-filled body laying in the Mausoleum on Red Square, and the vampire in the classic film Nosferatu. If you want to spend a few hours waiting in line at specific, pre-announced times of day, you can filter through the mausoleum and pay respects to the long-dead dictator and founder of the Soviet Union. You can be excused if you’re waiting for him to rise up eerily and stare longingly at the long neck of a young woman, but just remember to keep your hat off out of respect.
15 15: Fort Zverev
Welcome to a Russian nightmare, a Nightmare in Kronstadt! This old 19th Century fort was used during the Soviet period to store weaponized chemicals, and in the 1970s a napalm-like substance exploded in the basement, melting the bricks and even the very earth itself! Russia has never told us what the chemical was that can burn hotter than the sun, but judging by the melted brick, concrete, and pure granite, it was the fire of Satan himself, launched from the depths of hell. What other explanation could there possibly be?
14 14: Oymyakon
If Fort Zverev is the fiery gates to a nightmarish hell, then Oymyakon is the frozen town at the center of hell when it freezes over. Oymyakon is the coldest inhabited place on earth. It has the lowest recorded temperature of a town in the world, once reaching -79 centigrade in 1981! Why anybody would live here is a mystery, but if you want to go and ask them yourself, simply head to the middle of Siberia, then turn north and go as far as you can before you either leave Russia or fall into the Arctic Ocean. Somewhere around there you’ll find the maniacs of Oymyakon.
13 13: Fallen Monument Park
The Fallen Monument Park was one of the coolest levels in the Nintendo N64 classic “007 Goldeneye”. It’s the one where there are busts of Lenin and heads of Stalin and giant red stars strewn randomly about. This park in Moscow is just as cool in real life, although jumping up on the statuary and sniping your friends isn’t allowed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the people of Moscow began tearing down all the symbols of their oppression, and all the grand statues meant to glorify horrible dictators were dumped into this park where James Bond now plays!
12 12: The Vodka Museum
Who invented vodka? According to the Russians, it was them. Don’t tell the Poles or Ukrainians or Finns that, however. They all believe they were the first. Chances are it was all of them, as it was a Slavic drink created before modern borders came about, but that doesn’t stop the Russians from celebrating the history of vodka at this St Petersburg museum. It’s actually in a restaurant, Vodka Room No. 1, and here you can celebrate vodka as a Russian cultural and folk institution and go all the way to the bastardized Soviet versions of vodka that the proletariat was supposed to drink.
11 11: Lena Stone Pillars
The stone pillars along the banks of the Lena River is Siberia were obviously put there by aliens. Nobody believes me when I tell them this, but how else did an entire forest of massive stone pillars, towering hundreds of feet high, end up here? Some “scientists” would have you believe that wind and rain have been forming the soft limestone and marble into pillars since the Cambrian age, but what will they have us believe next, that the earth is round? If that were the case, how come these impressive, beautiful, serene stone pillars don’t fall over, eh college boy?
10 10: Kadykchan
If you thought Detroit had it rough, you haven’t seen Kadykchan. There is literally nobody here. This is an entire industrial city that was completely abandoned in the years after the collapse of the USSR. Located way out in Siberia, this coal mining town once had a population of 20,000 people, but by 1995 it had a population consisting of a bunch of wild dogs, some tough trees that grew through the middle of buildings, and the odd curious tourist snapping photographs. Unlike Detroit, there isn’t too much graffiti and the nights are relatively crime-free.
9 9: Soviet Dacha
Cottages are so bourgeois. In the Soviet Union, we have dachas! These country homes outside of the big cities, mainly Moscow, were given to every member of the government and Red Army as a place to relax, grow some potatoes, and drink vodka. Who are we kidding, they drank vodka everywhere, but at the dacha, they could drink vodka in peace and comfort. Dachas are still popular today, but for a look at a Soviet-era dacha head to Moscow and visit this perfectly recreated Soviet Dacha, complete with a mustachioed mannequin drinking vodka!
8 8: Zayatski Island
Zayatski Island is where you go when you want to recreate Theseus exploring the Labyrinth on Crete, but you’re in Russia, head to Zayatski Island. Here, several massive natural stone labyrinths have been carved out of the rock by the ancient stone-age peoples who once lived here. These labyrinths are actually as big of a mystery to historians as Stonehenge, and they predate the Greek tale by a thousand years or so. You won’t find a Minotaur in one of these mazes, but you do risk stumbling upon a babushka angrily trying to sell you some kvass and bread.
7 7: The Diomedes
How would you like to visit The Diomede Islands? Would you enjoy standing on an uninhabited rock in the middle of the Bering Straights, and throwing a stone to another rock next to it, but that rock is part of the USA and not the Russian Federation? Also, once that rock landed, it would have crossed the International Date Line and it would have traveled back in time some twelve hours. Does that sound nice? There are great discounts available, and a ferry or helicopter trip to Big Diomede Island (the Russian one) will only set you back $2500. Enjoy your vacation!
6 6: Pavlov’s House
France fell to the Germans in six weeks. In the southern Russian city of Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad stands a pillar of brick which was formerly an apartment building. Here a Red Army sergeant, named Pavlov, and his band of Russian infantrymen held off attack after attack by German troops and tanks for six months! The Nazis suffered more casualties trying to take Pavlov’s House than they did in the entire conquest of France! Today you can stand where Pavlov once stood, and face west, and laugh at the French.
5 5: The Batagaika Crater
No meteor crashed to earth here, nor did the Reds detonate an atom bomb here. The Batagaika Crater was formed because some geniuses stripped away the forest in the 1960’s, and the entire freakin’ earth collapsed! Apparently, those tree roots had been all that was holding up a soft sandy crust, and when the roots were gone, gravity took over! The crater continues to expand as the permafrost thaws and the raw elements eat away at the sandy slopes. You can visit this 1-mile wide man-made disaster, or wait until it swallows up the entire world. At least you’ll save a few bucks.
4 4: The Independent Republic Of California Embassy In Moscow
Did you know there was a secessionist movement in California? Neither did I! Apparently, there is, and they have enough financing to open their own embassy in Moscow. You can visit it and learn all about why California should separate from the US. You can’t really get a visa or any type of consular help, and so far nobody there is granted any diplomatic status. They want the Russian government to recognize them as an independent country, although so far the Kremlin has merely shaken its head. Vladimir Putin was overheard muttering “Americans” as he rolled his eyes.
3 3: Kaliningrad
Some would say that the nicest area in Russia is in Poland. Kaliningrad is a part of Russian territory that Russia never gave up. It’s sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland and was formed during the closing days of World War Two when the Red Army surrounded a German garrison that refused to give up until after the war ended. When the fighting stopped, the Russians said: “This is as good a place as any” and sat down, and never left. Kaliningrad is mostly a military base from where Russian aircraft can annoy NATO and scare the bejeebles out of Sweden whenever they get bored.
2 2: Vorkuta Abandoned Gulag
Life in a Soviet gulag was nightmarish and brutal, but today this abandoned gulag in the far north is fun fun fun! Traipse through the fields where political prisoners accused of thought crimes labored all day in chains. Don’t forget that Instagram #selfie in the grassy fields just to the east of the Vorkuta prison boundary. There’s a mass grave there! What’s better than parkour on the old wooden shacks where prisoners lived out their lives, never knowing if they would be freed? Better post that one on YouTube!
1 1: Lukomorye Wooden Sculpture Forest
Lukomorye Wooden Sculpture Forest is what happens when a sculpture competition gets taken too far, which is exactly how this forest near Irkutsk ended up filled with thousands of wooden sculptures for miles and miles. Sculptures of Russian folk characters, Pushkin’s fairy tales, Greek myths, and famous world leaders are dotted all over this forest. It started as a friendly international wood carving competition but the annual event has grown so much, and so many sculptures have been carved over the years, that these sculptures are now poised to take over the world!