Russia is huge, stretching from Europe all the way east to the Pacific coast, yet is it fairly unknown to most foreign tourists. Outside of Moscow, Saint Peterburg and the famous Transsiberian railway, there are endless travel options. If you enjoy discovering less known destinations few ever heard of, keep reading to discover 6 off the beaten track places in Russia you should definitly add to your bucket list !
Last updated : 07/11/2022
The Mari El Republic
The Mari El republic located in the central part of the Volga River is inhabited by the Mari people, a Finno-Ugric group often called the last pagans of Europe.
In the XVIth century when Ivan the terrible conquere the Khanat of Kazan which the Mari people were part of, many of them fled to the neighboring republics and even to Siberia to escape forced conversion to Christianity.
They are also known as Cheremis people in Russian; the word Cheremis meaning “white man”. White is a sacred colour & back in the days many wore white clothing.
The Mari language is divivied into two subgroups : the Meadow Mari & the Hill Mari.
Their religion has a strong connections to nature, and rituals are still taking place few times a year in forests wih traditional payer ceremonies where animals such as geese & bulls are sacrificed.
The Republic of Kalmykia is Europe’s only Buddhist region. The republic is located between the north of the Caspian Sea and west of the Volga.
Kalmyk people are descendants of the Torghuts, a subgroup of the Oirats who were nomads and came from Mongolia and China in the 16th & 17th centuries in search of pasture lands.
In the 18th century some tried to returned to they ancestral lands and those who stayed were called Kalmyks, meaning “those who remained“.
Kalmyks followed their traditions and nomadic lifestyle until the 1920’s. Their buddhist culture was almost lost during Stalin’s repression, they were deported in 1941 like many other minorities and all Buddhist monasteries were closed or destroyed.
Elista, the capital and the only official city in Kalmykia is the best place to get a good insight of the history, traditions & food of Kalmyk people.
Hidden in the shadow of neighoring Chechnya, the little Republic of Ingushetia is a gem in the North Caucasus mountains. Ingush people, known as Ghalghay in their own language are part of the Nakh-Caucasian group and speak their own language.
They lived in the lowland before the Mongol invasions in the 14th century and built the famous Vainakh towers (smiliar to those found in Svaneti & Tusheti in Georgia) to protect themselves. The 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen – Ingush population by Stalin to Kazakhstan put an end to their way of life in the mountains.
They are thousands of these towers across the whole Caucasus but Ingushetia has most the those that survived until today. The Dzheyrakhsky District is a giant open air museum with hundreads of towers and temples still standing
Ingush people were pagans until the 19th century, when they converted to Islam. Remains of their Pagan traditions can easily be find carved on the stones of the towers, in the folklore legends, tales and songs.
Also simply known as Bashkiria, this republic is located between the Volga and the Ural mountains & is name after its inhabitants, the Bashkir people.
Bashkirs were originally nomads and are believed to have colonised the region in the 1th century ! They ended up under the Golden Horde rules and then were part of the Khanat of Kazan until volontary submitting to the Russian Empire in the 16th century. Cossaks founded the city of Ufa, which is now the capital of Bashkiria.
Up the the 10th century Bashir people had various religious believes from Tengrism to Shamanism and ended up converting to Islam.
Bashkir people stopped their nomadic lifestyle in the 19th century after political pressures from the Russian government.
Bashkiria is today famous in Russia for its honey. Bashkir honey is still harvested in the traditional way called “bor” : beekeepers (called bortevikis) build artificial hollows inside the trees, quite high so bears can’t reach it. When time comes to collect the honey the beekeeper ties himself to the tree with a sort of leather belt and climb up, following the same centuries old methods.
Birobizhan / Birobijan officially called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast is the first Jewish “state” (having had a various level of autonomy over the years), established 20 years before Israel by Stalin to basically get rid of Jews in the Western Soviet Union .
He offered them a deserted swampy piece of land in the far eastern part of Siberia by the Bira & the Bizhan rivers next to China.
The capital of the Oblast is also called Birobizhan and its official languages are Russian and Yiddish.
By 1937 almost 40 000 Jews from all accros the Soviet Union moved there but many moved away to Israel and the USA when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Today a tiny Jewish population still lives there, you can chat with Jewih grandpas and even buy the local Yiddish newspaper !
The edge of the world. Or at least the very edge of Russia, 9 time zones away from Moscow. The region was discovered in the 17th century by Semyon Dezhnev, a Russian explorer who was actally the first Westerner to sail across the Bering Strait, decades before Ivan Bering.
The Russian fortress of Anadyr, which is now the current capital of Chukotka, was founded in the middle of the 17th. Nowadays the buildings are quite colorfuls so they can be spotted easier by the locals in the winter blizzard …
Few groups of indegenous people live in the region :
- The Chukchi people, divided in 2 groups, the ones living inland & those living on the costs shores. The largest group that gave its name to Chukotka.
- The Koryaks, whom are culturally & linguistically similar to the Chukchi people.
- The Siberian Yupik people whom are related to the Inuits of Alaska.
- The Yukagurs, only a few thousands of them left, mostly around the Kolyma.
- Also some Chuvan & Even people live in the region in a tiny number.
Many of these people are still living their traditional nomadic lifestyle today.
Chukotka as two coastlines, one on the Bering sea & the other one on the Chukchi sea which is part of the Arctic Ocean.
Nature is obviously the main sight to see in Chukotka, the majority of the region is covered of tundra but you can also find taiga. About wildlife, there’s a large population of polar bears and walrus.
All of the people named above have their native language listed on the UNESO endangered languages list, among +130 in Russia itself. There aren’t enough native speakers left anymore due to heavy assimiliation with Russians or lack of interests among the younger generations.
Let me know in the comments below which one of these regions are you the most curious to discover ?