World's Most Controversial Destinations
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Why go: Rich in museums and culture, Russia is an eye-opener for Americans raised on Cold War propaganda. Check out Moscow's Red Square, the Bolshoi Ballet, and Moscow Circus, then catch an overnight train to St. Petersburg to see the Hermitage Museum, Peterhof Palace, and the Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Kirov Ballet. Russia has freewheeling nightclubs, designer boutiques, and over-the-top luxury hotels including the Grand Hotel & Spa Rodina in Sochi, near Vladimir Putin's Black Sea summer house (www.grandhotelrodina.ru). Moscow is the epicenter for the country's new luxury fixation. Even if you don't eat there, take a peak at Turandot, an Asian fusion restaurant housed in a $50 million pastiche of a gilt Baroque palace (Tel: 7-495-739-0011).
Why not go: According to Amnesty International and other observers, torture, including beating and electric shock, is used in police custody throughout the country to force confessions; underpaid judges are vulnerable to corruption; and ineffectual investigations of complaints result in state impunity for human-rights violations. While the Chechen war has ended and Russia is spending money on Chechen capital Grozny, the Russian and local pro-Kremlin governments reportedly abduct and torture pro-separatist opponents. (Chechen rebels also conduct politically motivated "disappearances.") Throughout the Russian federation, independent news outlets have been stifled, and journalists are intimidated, and in some cases murdered, after criticizing the state.
Experts say: Russian officials, including prime minister and former president Vladimir Putin, accuse the West of double standards and of ignoring abuses in Europe and the United States. Everyone acknowledges that Russia is still evolving politically, socially, and economically and has already moved a long way from the worst days of Soviet rule.
If you go: Condé Nast Traveler's "Iconic Itineraries" article on Moscow and St. Petersburg has tips on getting into closed museums and palaces and hiring a good guide. Western embassies advise that travel to Chechnya and its North Caucasus neighbor is dangerous.