Russia is a country of contrasts—a vast territory rich in natural resources (especially oil and gas), where some are incredibly rich and millions of others live below the poverty line. That said, a rising urban middle class is steadily changing the makeup of post-Soviet Russia. When asked what they want for the future, many Russians speak of "having an easier life and being able to buy good things."

Their dreams of prosperity are fueled by foreign movies and television programs, a crop of extravagant Russian films and soap operas, commercials that seem to run nonstop and billboards on many a street corner advertising luxury goods. But, for many, even standard material goods remain out of reach. Although the economy is finally recovering from the devaluation of the ruble in the late 1990s, millions don't have access to the country's wealth, while others buy luxurious property abroad.

Today's Russia is often exhilarating and sometimes ominous. Everyday life goes on amid a jumble of trial-and-error capitalism, billboard politics, czar mania, slick gangster-hangout restaurants and posh nightclubs. Although the situation differs from that of the 1990s, when both careers and fabulous fortunes were made overnight (and lost as well), most Russians still rely on fortune and fate more than on law, state and order.

Some observers have suggested that 15%-20% of Russia's economy is controlled by organized crime. Add to the mix a religious revival: Hundreds of renovated Russian Orthodox churches are offering services in urban centers, and thousands of worshippers make pilgrimages to the country's numerous monasteries and other sacred places. Most religious interest still remains external, though: Most Russians go to church two to three times per year, or to celebrate a wedding or the birth of a child.

Late 2011 brought along a wave of civil protests against the parliamentary voting violations and the corrupted political system. So far, travelers haven't been affected directly by the country's turmoil or corruption, but conditions are changing so quickly that you should keep a close eye on the news. You should also be aware that, despite all the doors that have opened and the greater flow of information, there are still plenty of murky areas in Russia—sudden changes of rules, unexpected shortages and mysterious surcharges. Nevertheless, you'll find that the overall quality of hotels, restaurants and services—although wildly variable—is improving, many on par with western European institutions.

In any case, travelers should be flexible, tolerant and patient—and aware of risks. Russia can be both an enthralling adventure and a tiring ordeal. For those willing to endure the risks and inconveniences, Russia is simply a fascinating place—from the imperial beauty of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the bleakly romantic Siberian countryside.

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