Despite the disintegration of its empire, Russia is still huge - stretching from the borders with Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey in the west, passing Kazakstan, Mongolia and China, to reach the Pacific Ocean some 6000km later. The landscape is predominantly flat, punctuated only by the Urals, which rise no higher than 1900m, and the more substantial ranges of the Far East. The three major rivers west of the Urals - the Dnepr, Don and Volga - all rise within 400km of Moscow and flow south into the Black and Caspian Seas. Russia's Far East is Siberia, with all its connotations of tundra, steppes, ranges, exile and mindblowing nothingness.
Due to its size, the land passes through several environmental bands. The northern forests of pine and spruce hide reindeer, wolves and brown bears. The mixed deciduous and coniferous forests are home to deer, lynx and the Siberian tiger (which has been known to wander into the suburbs of Vladivostok). The black earth steppes are the grain basket of Asia. Snow leopards, cheetahs, porcupines, gazelles, wild goats and the chamois grace the deserts of Central Asia, though pollution and fur-hunters threaten the existence of many species. There are over 140 state nature reserves, several of whose breeding programs have ensured the continued livelihood of animal species, including the European bison.
Moscow and St Petersburg share similar summer temperatures, both averaging around 24°C. Moscow is frozen by the end of November, with snow remaining until early April, and has an average January temperature of around -12°C. St Petersburg swings between lacking real darkness in summer to having only about five hours of murky light a day in winter. Its average January temperature is a sweltering -8°C. Spring in both cities brings the great thaw, the reappearance of vehicles on the road and a general sense of mayhem. Vladivostok, on Russia's Pacific coast, experiences slightly milder weather than elsewhere in the Russian Far East. Its -13°C winter temperatures seem positively balmy compared to the northeastern town of Oymyakon, which just happens to be the coldest inhabited place on earth. Its winter temperatures drop to -65°C.
www.iht.comGulsine Fatakhudinova, a 56-year-old Tatar Muslim, came lugging suitcases to pray at the lime-green mosque in central Moscow - one of dozens of people who arrived bundled in the weighty coats, fur hats and other winter garb they would soon cast off, at least temporarily.Barred by the Soviets for decades from carrying out Islam's most sacred rite, such pilgrims were among the tens of thousands of Russian Muslims who traveled toSaudi Arabia to join the masses in Mecca for the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, to one of Islam's holiest sites. Their numbers have swelled in the last several years thanks largely to Russia's growing wealth and increasing stability in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, including in Chechnya, where the effects of nearly a decade of war have begun to fade.Fatakhudinova is making the journey for the second time."This year I wentfor my mother, for my dead mother, who was unable to go on the hajj during her life," she said. She explained that her family had always been religious, even during the Soviet era, but had neither the means nor permission from the state to make the trip before her mother died."I went forher," Fatakhudinova said, "so that before God, when we are resurrected, she will feel herself a hajji."The Soviet government allowed just 18 people a year to make the trip, said Rushan Abbyasov, director of international relations at the Russian Council of Muftis. Now, the only restrictions on the number of pilgrims come from Saudi Arabia, which is host to the hajj.This year, the Saudis increased the quota for Russian pilgrims to 26,000 people from 20,000, and despite estimated costs of $2,000 to $3,000 a person for the trip, Abbyasov said, all visas allotted for this year had been claimed. Chechnya sentabout 3,000 pilgrims for the five-day pilgrimage. "This year, because of religious consciousness, the end of violence in the North Caucasus, and in Chechnya in particular, and the current growth of people's well-being, people can just allow themselves to do this," said Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov, president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Russia.Muslims who are financially and physically able are required to perform the hajj at least once in their lives, though many believe that a relative can complete the pilgrimage on behalf of someone who died or is chronically ill.Islam, like Orthodox Christianity, is in a state of revival here after years of confinement to the kitchens and basements of the Soviet Union, which severely restricted the open practice of all religions.Russia has about 4,000 mosques now, compared with about 90 in the waning days of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, Muslim groceries and other stores selling Muslim fashions have appeared, and the first hospital catering to Muslims opened this month.Fourteen million to 23 million Muslims live in this country of about 140 million people, making Islam the largest minority religion.They live mostly in the Caucasus and in two autonomous republics, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan; there are also about two million Muslims living in Moscow.The Kremlin has worked to facilitate the pilgrimage, part of a strategy to ward off potential unrest among the country's Muslims and monitor their activities, while also improving ties with Saudi Arabia, where Russia has budding economic interests. When President Vladimir Putin visited Saudi Arabia in February - the first Russian leader to do so in decades - his lobbying efforts helped persuade the Saudis to raise the quotas for Russian Muslims this year.At a meeting with Russia's Muslim leaders in November, Putin pledged continued government assistance for the hajj.The government has created a liaison office that offers pilgrims help with visas and transportation, and the state airline, Aeroflot, often gives pilgrims special rates. The government has also set up a $60 million fund to support Islamic culture, science and education, part of which is designated for state-accredited Muslim schools and universities.