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Murmansk

Life isn't easy in Murmansk, located halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, 200km north of the Arctic Circle. It's surrounded by tundra, pitch black for all of December and most of January, home to Russia's nuclear-powered ice-breakers and surrounded by municipal housing blocks. The town comes alive when visitors from the northern islands flock in during the Festival of the North, held in the last week of March and featuring reindeer races and a ski marathon.

 
Solovetsky Islands

The far-northern town of Kem is the departure point for the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. The islands' monasteries once housed Stalin's most infamous Gulag camps, and medieval Solovetsky Monastery has been used as place of imprisonment and exile since the Middle Ages. The sheltered islands experience a remarkably moderate climate, making boat trips an interesting and safe way to get around. The islands' lakes and interconnecting canal systems also offer good boating.

 
Vladivostok

You can't get much further from European Russia than this famous Pacific port and naval base. Before WWII the city was a thriving and multicultural commercial centre, but from 1958 to 1990 it was entirely closed to foreigners. Its site is often compared to that of San Francisco, because of its picturesque hills and heaps of sea views - though the battleships moored offshore somewhat detract from this comparison. The city is surrounded by the Far East Maritime Reserve and the Ussuri Nature Reserve, home to black and brown bears, Siberian boars, Ussuri tigers, the rare Amur leopard and hundreds of local and migratory birds.

 
Vyborg

This Gulf of Finland port is the main town on the Helsinki-St Petersburg route. It's one of Europe's oldest cities and has an imposing medieval castle built on a rock in the bay. The place has changed hands many times, tossed from Sweden to Finland, added to Russia in 1710, lost to Finland a century later, retaken by Stalin in 1939, lost to the Finns and Germans during WWII and regained with a flourish by deporting all the Finns. Today, the town's Finnish imprint is noticeable, with buildings from all periods surviving - there's even some early 20th-century Art Nouveau beauties. Vyborg is populated by fishers, shipbuilders and timber-haulers.


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