The beautiful city of Novgorod, 120 miles south of St Petersburg, was the first centre of the Russian lands. In the 9th century, Slavic tribes vied for supremacy in the region but just as they were on the brink of fratricidal war they invited a Viking prince called Rurik of Rus to rule over them and impose order. "From him did the Russian land receive its name," says the ancient Russian Chronicle.
My most recent visit to the city came via a journey onboard the milk train from Moscow and so, while the town was sleeping, I took a cab to the far side of the Volkhov River. From here, across the water, the full moon floated above the walls of Novgorod's kremlin (the Russian name for a fortified citadel) in one of Europe's most perfect vistas – red medieval battlements planted on green river banks and, rising above them, the high golden domes of a soaring cathedral.
Walk through the gates of the kremlin and you'll find manicured lawns and a statue of Rurik complete with Viking helmet and shield. There's also a fascinating history museum with birch bark documents from the earliest days – merchants' bills, love letters and even schoolboys' crib sheets. The white-walled 11th-century Cathedral of Saint Sophia is Russia's oldest church, with splendid frescos and a miracle-working icon.
The Golden Gate of Kiev
In 882 Rurik's heirs shifted their headquarters south to Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. Take a bus to the top of the Berestov Hill on the edge of town (you can't miss it – it's crowned by a three-storey-high Soviet statue to the Red Army) and you'll see why they chose it. The mighty Dnieper river bends its way through the gorge beneath you, at the heart of the trade route from the Viking north to the Greek Byzantine Empire in the south.
For the next four centuries, Kiev – not Moscow – was the capital of the Russian lands. When its Grand Prince, Vladimir the Red Sun, adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988, Kiev's Monastery of the Caves became the new state religion's highest holy place. Here, I took a wax taper and wandered through the catacombs, shivering with surprise as I stumbled across the embalmed bodies of its earliest Christian monks.
Kievan Rus developed a remarkable, quasi-democratic form of governance that allowed the people to elect and dismiss their rulers. But on the edge of Kiev, you'll find evidence of the sticky end it came to. The Golden Gate of Kiev – commemorated in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition – was part of the city's mighty walls, designed to keep out the tribes of the wild eastern steppe. But in 1240, a Mongol army smashed down Kiev's defences and murdered its inhabitants. Rus was plunged into the 200-year darkness of the Mongol occupation.
Kulikovo Polye (Field of Snipes)
The Mongols stifled native culture and forced the Russian princes into humiliating shows of submission. Some resisted, but it wasn't until 1380 that 29-year-old Dmitry Ivanovich from the previously minor city of Moscow persuaded his fellow princes to mount a concerted challenge to the occupiers. At Kulikovo Polye, 160 miles south of Moscow, Dmitry assembled his forces on the banks of the River Don and squared up to the Mongol cavalry. You can still visit the Kulikovo Polye battlefield with its 90ft Orthodox cross, church and museum.
The site has been adopted by Russian nationalists, and every September they re-enact the battle in period costume. During one such mock battle I watched burly men in chainmail knock the stuffing out of silk-clad Mongols with swords and lances before heading off to share a beer and a shashlik. However, in 1380 things were less amicable. "Christian bodies lay like haystacks", the Chronicles tell us, "and the River Don flowed red with blood". Mongol rule would last for another century, but in Russian folk memory Kulikovo Polye is "the place to which Russians came divided and left as a nation".
As Mongol power waned, Moscow's grew. Prince Ivan I, known as Kalita ("Moneybags") because of his knack for accumulating territory and wealth, laid the foundations of the Moscow Kremlin in the 1320s. Today its palaces and churches are Moscow's leading tourist attraction. So long as there's no big political set-piece going on, you can tour most of them. And while you're there, pop in to see Lenin in his Mausoleum on Red Square beneath the kremlin walls. In communist times I used to queue all morning; today you can walk straight in.
Events from more recent days centre around the Russian White House, the imposing white marble building on the Moscow River, where Boris Yeltsin defied the hardline communist coup in 1991. But none of that would have been possible without Ivan Moneybags. His wheeling and dealing sealed Moscow's pre-eminence, replacing Kiev as the seat of the Grand Prince (the future Tsar) and of the Orthodox Church. In the Cathedral of Archangel Michael, you'll find Ivan's tomb at the very beginning of the long rows of Moscow tsars who followed him down the centuries.
Russia's borders are long and vulnerable; the fear of invasion has been an enduring national terror myth since the Mongol Yoke. When the French began exporting revolution after 1789, the Russians were ill-prepared. Napoleon's armies advanced rapidly until they reached the village of Borodino, 75 miles west of Moscow. The ensuing battle, in September 1812, is the centrepiece of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and the subject of Tchaikovsky's rousing 1812 Overture.
These days there are guided tours of the battlefield – it's marked with signposts at key spots – and in a small museum you'll find the bloody uniforms of Russian and French troops. But watch out for the babushkas in charge of the place: I got a very public ticking-off for talking into a tape recorder. The museum explains that Borodino was a defeat for the Russians – their casualties were much higher than Napoleon's – but the French were fatally weakened. They rolled on to Moscow, only to find that the retreating Russians had set the city ablaze. Deprived of food and shelter, frozen by the Russian winter, the half-million French turned homewards. All but 200,000 of them died in two hellish months of headlong retreat.
Also at Borodino, look out for the memorial to the Soviet 82nd Rifle Division who perished trying to halt the Nazis' advance in 1941.
Moika Canal, Saint Petersburg
When Peter the Great chose the site of his new capital in 1703, the Russian aristocracy were appalled; St Petersburg would be built in a swampy, desolate bog on the Gulf of Finland. But Peter's choice was emblematic of boldness and renewal. He was shuffling off the old, backward-looking connotations of Moscow, taking Russia on "a leap from darkness into light". The city that became Peter's "window on the West" is full of wide avenues and splendid vistas, and it has fascinated me ever since I was a student here in the 1970s.
Don't miss the tsars' Winter Palace, home to the incomparable Hermitage Museum; Palace Square where the events of Bloody Sunday unfolded in 1905; and the Battleship Aurora, still anchored at the quay where it fired the starting gun for the October Revolution of 1917.
Spare a moment, also, for the spot by the Moika Canal where Russia's hopes for democracy were blown apart. Here in March 1881, the reforming Tsar Alexander II was torn to pieces by a revolutionary's bomb. He'd freed the serfs and was planning a new liberal constitution, but Alexander's reforms died with him. The Cathedral of Spilled Blood, with its marvellous mosaics, now marks the site. Forty years later, Russia was in the grip of an autocracy worse than anything the tsars had imposed on her.
The Bolsheviks were a small, fanatical clique of professional revolutionaries who set little store by democracy. In February 1917, Russia's first revolution had brought liberal democrats to power, who released political prisoners, granted civil rights and planned free national elections. Lenin's forces were scattered, and he fled in disguise to a hiding place on Lake Razliv, 20 miles north of St Petersburg. You can get there on an elektrichka (commuter train) from St Petersburg's Finland Station, followed by a short bus ride. In communist times it became a shrine, with cafés, a museum and the remarkably preserved grass hut in which Lenin hid from the tsarist police. I found the place eerily rundown, but still open for business.
The scenery is breathtaking; the walk through the birch forest alone is worth the trip. Lenin, of course, returned to St Petersburg in time to overthrow the embryonic democracy of the Provisional Government in the October Revolution. Having freed itself from the yoke of the tsars, Russia would soon be enslaved again.
The Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the Urals, has an attractive centre, set around an artificial lake, and a colourful past. Its place in history was cemented in the early hours of 17 July 1918. The Bolsheviks had imprisoned Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the commandeered house of a Yekaterinburg merchant, but when anti-revolutionary forces threatened to capture the city and free the royals, Lenin sent orders that they should all be shot.
The spot where the last Tsar of Russia met his fate is occupied by a newly built cathedral, the Shrine of Redemption through Blood, surrounded by billboards showing life-sized images of the dead Romanovs and asking for prayers to "the holy martyrs". The bodies of Nicholas and his family were dumped in a mine shaft outside Yekaterinburg and weren't discovered until 1991. Take a cab from here and drive out into the Siberian forest. There's a thriving Orthodox monastery there now, which welcomes visitors.
Today Lake Ladoga, which lies to the north-east of St Petersburg, is a popular beauty spot, rich in fish and wildlife. It's a pleasant day's outing and you may even spot native Ladoga seals. But from 1941-44 it was the scene of a desperate struggle for national survival. Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then known, was besieged for nearly two and a half years by Nazi troops with orders to "erase the city from the face of the earth".
Leningrad could be supplied only via an "ice road" across Lake Ladoga. Under enemy bombardment, lorries carried food and fuel to the city's population. Nearly one in three of the 2.5 million inhabitants would eventually starve to death. Certain of victory, Hitler printed invitations to a celebratory party in the city's Hotel Astoria. But Leningrad held out and the siege was lifted in January 1944. You can see Hitler's unused party invitations in the State Memorial Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, which also has personal testimonies from Soviet civilians and the diaries of German soldiers.
The Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev was plagued by economic problems, but there were areas in which it excelled. I found the story of the Soviet space programme inspiring and horrifying by turns. Moscow achieved a string of remarkable firsts, from the sputniks of the 1950s to the first dog in space, the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) and the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963). You can trace their fascinating story at Star City (Zvezdny Gorodok) 50 miles north-east of Moscow.
Star City is still a military zone, but state-approved travel organisations now offer guided tours and they are well worth taking. The heroism of the Soviet cosmonauts helped the USSR beat the Americans at every turn. But Khrushchev and Brezhnev became so obsessed with propaganda victories that they demanded ever greater risks be taken.
Tragedy ensued; cosmonauts died and the space programme went into meltdown. The Americans won the race to the moon and no Soviet would ever follow in their footsteps. It's a fitting image for the whole communist century, which promised much but ended in failure.
Martin Sixsmith's Russia, a 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East is published by BBC Books at £25. His 50-part BBC Radio 4 series marking the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR continues in July.
Travel essentials: Russia
The 21st-century British visitor to the world's largest country can enjoy far more freedom than did tourists to the Soviet Union – but even today Russia is a far-from-easy destination.
The red tape is just as tangled as it was back in the USSR. The visa queues have moved from outside the Russian consulate in Kensington to an outsourcing company, VF Services at 15-27 Gee Street, London EC1V 3RD. The easiest way is to apply online at ru.vfsglobal.co.uk, but you still need to deliver your passport in person to the Visa Application Centre in London or Edinburgh.
Allow at least a week for normal service (£71.40 including service fee), though you can pay £123.30 to jump the queue and get a next-day visa. Be warned that "you may be required to appear before a visa officer for a personal interview at the Russian Consulate in London or in Edinburgh prior to a decision being taken on your application". In practice it is much easier to use a visa-procurement service, or apply through a tour operator well versed in helping visitors make the most of Russia.
Once you arrive, assuming it is for a stay of more than three days, your presence must be registered with the local branch of the Federal Migration Service; hotels do this automatically, but if you are staying in private accommodation, the host must attend to the formalities.
You can circumvent all the visa rules, while still seeing plenty of Russia's most beautiful city, by signing up for a Baltic cruise that includes a night stop in St Petersburg. You may leave the ship without a visa so long as you sign up for an "organised excursion", which can be as cheap and simple as a bus ride to Nevsky Prospekt in the city centre and an instruction to be back in six hours (though if you miss this deadline and make your own way back to the cruise port, no one should be too upset). An alternative: sign up for the two-day "Complete St Petersburg" package offered by excursion specialist, DenRus ( denrus.ru), price US$325 (£215).
FCO travel advice
A range of threats to travellers are listed in the latest warning from the Foreign Office ( fco.gov.uk) issued this week, including "unconfirmed reports of a terrorist threat against Western embassies, including the British Embassy, in Moscow. The British Embassy is open as normal but you should be especially vigilant around these sites."