Despite being stripped of its Soviet-era territories and former Imperial possessions, Russia remains the largest country in the world. This huge territory offers the country's visitors a dazzling range of geographic options - from remote islands in the Polar Circle to the the dustbowl empty steppes.

Winston Churchill famously, called Russia "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma", and in doing so he was merely following a centuries-old belief that Russia was so odd and eccentric that all attempts to understand it were impossible. Richard Chancellor - the 16th-century seafarer and merchant-adventurer - brought home tales of low morals, widespread drunkenness and the "barbaric" practice of spending long hours in the steam-bath whilst beating each other for pleasure with sticks.

Russians have greatly encouraged these tall tales and wild exaggerations about their own country and the strange contradictions of their national character, and at times revel in it. And of course the mystery was greatly deepened by 70 years under Soviet rule, which saw Cold War propaganda about Russia reach new heights.

The Russians themselves are at times struggling to come to terms with their new-found freedom, and, as more visitors flood in, the myths about the country are being exploded, collapsing as rapidly as the concrete building blocks of Communism. But in the place of such myth a new image of Russia is emerging, one of a place of great energy, resource and entrepreneurialism.

"Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone - you must simply feel it!" wrote the 19th-century poet Tyutchev and perhaps now people may at last begin to do that.



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