To the west, Russia rubs up against Scandinavia and the Baltic, while her easternmost islands are separated from Alaska by just a few miles of sea. To the north lies the icy and inhospitable Arctic, and to the south the bleak deserts and steppes of Central Asia.
This is the land of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, a cultural powerhouse that holds incredible artistic treasures, and a country that has had a profound influence on world history, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Vladimir Putin. Russia is also home to a rich tapestry of ethnic groups, from the Muslims of Tatarstan to the Nenets reindeer herders of the Russian Far East. Once you leave the big cities behind you find a Russia where bears and wolves still lurk in the woods, and where the rural way of life has barely changed in centuries.
A country so vast and varied is impossible to digest in a single trip, so here is our guide to five different ways you can visit Russia by cruise, each with a different perspective on this fascinating country:
The most popular way to visit Russia by ship is on a Baltic cruise, with a call in beautiful St Petersburg. This is Russia's most European-facing city, the 'Venice of the North', and a guaranteed highlight of any Baltic itinerary. Cruise ships will usually spend one or two nights here, giving you time to visit the magnificent Hermitage Museum, the Russian Museum and the onion-domed Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. An advantage of visiting St Petersburg by ship is that you don't require an expensive Russian visa, provided you're staying no longer than 72 hours and your excursions are booked through your cruise line or an approved local tour company.
To really get a feel for the culture and contrasts of Russia's European heartland, a river cruise is the way to go. Your itinerary will usually be bookended by city stays in St Petersburg and Moscow, and will take you along the inland channels of the Volga-Baltic Waterway through the timeless Russian countryside, with its medieval kremlins and fortified monasteries. You'll visit the cities of the famous Golden Ring, including Suzdal, Yaroslavl and Uglich, and you'll learn about traditional Russian crafts and architecture. The key cruise lines to consider are Uniworld, Scenic and Viking, though be aware that their Russian ships may not be up to quite the same standard as their vessels elsewhere in Europe.
Cruise lines are slowly returning to the Black Sea as the geopolitical situation in Ukraine and Turkey stabilises, though sadly the Crimea remains off-limits for now. There are some interesting itineraries from the likes of Crystal, Ponant and Azamara that visit the Russian port of Sochi, along with calls in cities with historical and cultural links to Russia, such as Odessa in Ukraine and Batumi in Georgia. Another intriguing option, if you don't want the hassle of arranging a Russian visa, is Viking's cruises on Ukraine's Dnieper river.
The Russian Far East offers a very different experience, and cruises here are usually expedition-style itineraries sailing from Alaska or northern Japan. This is a fantastic wildlife destination, home to bears, eagles, seals, whales and vast seabird colonies, against a backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes, rusting Cold War outposts and thick forest. Key cruise lines operating in the Russian Far East include Silversea, Ponant and Crystal on their new expedition yacht, Crystal Endeavor.
5. Northeast Passage and the Russian Arctic
Sailing the epic Northeast Passage between Alaska and Norway is only possible during August, when the sea ice is just about navigable, though a successful crossing is never guaranteed. On this journey, skirting the northern coast of Siberia, you will have the opportunity to sail to the edge of the ice, looking out for birds and sea life including polar bears. If you don't fancy the full Northeast Passage there are also some interesting shorter voyages with polar specialists Quark Expeditions, sailing from Murmansk and visiting the Russian Arctic archipelagos of Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya.