Russia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Russia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Russia, an independent country officially known as the Russian Federation (in Russian, Rossiyskaya Federatsiya). By far the world’s largest country, Russia is almost twice the size of the next largest country, Canada. Russia sprawls across eastern Europe and northern Asia. It possesses mineral resources unmatched by any other country. Four-fifths of the people live in the European part of Russia, west of the Ural Mountains. The capital, Moscow, is an administrative, commercial, industrial, and cultural hub in the heart of European Russia.

In the 14th and 15th centuries a powerful Russian state began to grow around Moscow. Russia emerged as a great world power during the reign of Peter the Great, who built Saint Petersburg as Russia’s new “window on the West” and moved the seat of government there in 1712. The massive Russian Empire reached its greatest size in 1914, before World War I. Moscow regained its capital status after the Russian Revolution of 1917, when militant socialists called Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian monarchy. In 1922 they founded the world’s first communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union). Russia was the largest and most powerful Soviet republic.

The USSR had a totalitarian political system in which Communist Party leaders held political and economic power. The state owned all companies and land, and the government controlled most aspects of the economy. After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Russia began transforming itself into a more democratic society with an economy based on market mechanisms and principles. For many Russians the transformation brought a severe decline in standard of living. At the same time, Russia became more integrated with the global economy and benefited from improved relations with the countries of the European Union as well as its neighbors in Asia.


Russia’s expansive border measures more than 20,100 km (12,500 mi), abutting a great number of countries and bodies of water. On the north Russia is bounded by extensions of the Arctic Ocean: the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi seas. On the east the country is bounded by the Pacific Ocean and several of its extensions: the Bering Strait (which separates Russia from Alaska), the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan (East Sea). In the extreme southeast Russia touches the northeastern tip of North Korea. On the south it is bounded by China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Black Sea. On the southwest it is bounded by Ukraine, and on the west by Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, the Gulf of Finland, and Finland. In the extreme northwest, Russia is bounded by Norway. Lithuania and Poland border Kaliningrad, a Russian oblast (region) on the Baltic Sea that is isolated from the main part of Russia.

In both total area and geographic extent Russia is the largest country in the world. With an area of 17,075,400 sq km (6,592,800 sq mi), Russia constitutes more than one-ninth of the world’s land area. From north to south Russia extends more than 4,000 km (2,400 mi) from Arctic islands in the Barents Sea to the southern border along the Caucasus Mountains. From the coast of the Baltic Sea to Big Diomede Island (Ratmanov Island) in the Bering Strait, Russia’s maximum east-west extent is almost 10,000 km (6,200 mi), a distance encompassing 11 time zones and spanning nearly half the circumference of the Earth. Russia stretches across parts of two continents, Europe and Asia, with the Ural Mountains and Ural River marking the boundary between them.

Russia contains complex geologic structures and surface formations. Very simply, however, the landmass consists of vast plains in the west and north, and a discontinuous belt of mountains and plateaus in the south and east. The upland and mountainous regions include most of Siberia and extend to the Pacific.

Russia’s Natural Regions

Russia can be divided into several broad geographic regions. From west to east they are the Great European Plain; the Ural Mountains; the mountain systems and ranges along much of Russia’s southern border; and the lowlands and uplands of Siberia, including the West Siberian Plain, the Central Siberian Plateau, and the mountain ranges of northeastern Siberia.

Great European Plain

Most of European Russia is part of a rolling plain that arcs across the continent into Russia, where it widens and has an average elevation of about 200 m (about 600 ft). Over millions of years the actions of streams, winds, and glaciers have deposited nearly horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks onto the plain. In some places, these same actions have eroded the softer sedimentary rocks, leaving the hard igneous and metamorphic layers exposed at the surface. The topography is generally rough in these areas of outcropping.

Some surface features owe their origins to glaciation. Among these features are several areas of glacial deposits, such as the Valday Hills, which lie between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. As the glaciers retreated during the last glacial age, which ended about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, a series of semicircular hills formed at the terminus, or edge, of the glacier. This area, known as a terminal moraine, runs east from the border with Belarus, then north of Moscow to the Arctic coast. For the most part, however, the relief of the Great European Plain is only modest. Much of the northern part of European Russia is very flat and poorly drained, with many swamps and lakes. By contrast, the southern part of European Russia contains rich soils that support most of the region’s agriculture.

Ural Mountains

The Great European Plain terminates in the east at the Ural Mountains, an old, worn-down series of mountain ranges with an average elevation of about 600 m (about 2,000 ft). The highest elevation in the Urals is the crest of Gora Narodnaya (1,894 m/6,214 ft). Despite their modest heights, the Urals are important for a wide variety of mineral deposits, including mineral fuels, iron ore, nonferrous metals, and nonmetallic minerals.

Southern Mountain Systems

The Caucasus Mountains, located between the Black and Caspian seas, comprise two major folded mountain chains divided along their entire extent by lowlands. The northern Greater Caucasus (Bol’shoy Kavkaz) form part of Russia’s southwestern border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. Geologically complex, the mountain system is composed of granite and other crystalline rocks, with some volcanic formations. The Greater Caucasus reach a maximum elevation of 5,642 m (18,510 ft) at El’brus, an extinct volcano that is the highest peak in Europe, as well as Russia’s highest point. Other mountain ranges extend along much of the southern border of central and eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean. Among them are the Altay, Sayan, Yablonovyy, and Stanovoy ranges, which merge with the far eastern mountain ranges. All the southern mountain ranges contain valuable mineral resources.

West Siberian Plain

Between the Urals and the Yenisey River lies the West Siberian Plain, vast lowlands that make up perhaps the largest area of level land in the world. At its widest, the region spans about 1,800 km (about 1,100 mi), and it stretches from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the steppes of Central Asia in the south. The lowlands are extremely flat and poorly drained, with many marshes, swamps, and peat bogs. The northern and central parts contain important oil and natural gas deposits.

Central Siberian Plateau

East of the Yenisey the land rises to form a rolling plateau that stretches to the Lena River. Elevations here average 500 to 700 m (1,600 to 2,300 ft). Throughout the region rivers have eroded the surface and in some places have formed deep canyons. The geologic structure of the plateau is complex; a basement of igneous and metamorphic rocks is topped in many places by thick sedimentary rocks and volcanic lava. The plateau is thought to contain significant deposits of black coal.

Far Eastern Russia

East of the Lena River the topography consists of a series of mountains and basins. Peaks in the higher ranges, such as the Verkhoyansk, Cherskiy, and Kolyma, reach maximum elevations of about 2,300 to 3,200 m (about 7,500 to 10,500 ft). Farther east the mountains are even higher and steeper, and volcanic activity is prevalent. On the Kamchatka Peninsula are 120 volcanoes, including 23 that are active. The highest cone, Klyuchevskaya Sopka, reaches an elevation of 4,750 m (15,584 ft). The mountains continue offshore to form the Kuril Islands, which contain about 100 volcanoes, including 30 that are active.

Islands in Russia

Russia’s principal islands lie in the Arctic and Pacific oceans and their extensions. Farthest north, in the Arctic Ocean, is Franz Josef Land, an archipelago consisting of about 100 small islands. The other main Arctic islands, from west to east, include the two islands of Novaya Zemlya, Vaygach Island, the group of islands called Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, and Wrangel Island. Between these major islands lie numerous small islands and island chains. In the Pacific Ocean are the Kuril Islands, which extend southwest in an arc from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the main islands of Japan. The Pacific also includes the large Sakhalin Island, which separates the seas of Okhotsk and Japan.

Rivers and Lakes of Russia

Russia’s longest rivers are all located in Siberia. The Ob’ and Irtysh rivers form Russia’s largest river system, which is also the largest in Asia and the fourth largest in the world. Together, these rivers flow 5,410 km (3,362 mi) north from western China through western Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. Several tributaries of the Ob’, including the Irtysh, flow through neighboring Kazakhstan. The Amur and its headwaters, the Onon and the Shilka, form Russia’s second longest system, with a total length of 4,416 km (2,744 mi). The Onon flows northeast from Mongolia into southern Siberia, where it joins the Ingoda to form the Shilka, which continues in a northeasterly direction. At the border with China the Shilka joins the Argun to form the Amur, which continues along the border for about 1,600 km (about 1,000 mi) before heading north to the Pacific Ocean.

Among individual rivers, the Lena River is longest; it flows 4,400 km (2,700 mi) north through Siberia to the Arctic Ocean from its source near Lake Baikal. The next longest individual rivers are the Irtysh and the Ob’. The Volga River, located in European Russia, is the country’s fourth longest river and the longest river in Europe. Together with its two main tributaries, the Kama and Oka rivers, it drains a large eastern portion of the Great European Plain southeast to the Caspian Sea. The fifth longest river, the Yenisey, flows north from Mongolia through central Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. Its main tributary is the Angara River, which flows from Lake Baikal, Russia’s largest freshwater lake. The Yenisey River carries more water than any other stream system in the country. In size of flow, it is followed by the Lena, Ob’ Amur, and Volga rivers. All the other rivers have much smaller flows.

Many other streams and rivers are significant because they serve as transportation routes or power sources in densely populated areas, or because their waters are used for irrigation. Notable among these is the Don River, which lies in the southern portion of European Russia and drains south to the Sea of Azov. On the northern portion of the Great European Plain, the Daugava (Western Dvina) and Narva rivers flow north and west to the Baltic Sea; the Pechora, Northern Dvina, Mezen’ and Onega rivers flow to the Barents Sea and the White Sea. The Terek and Kuban’ rivers originate in the Greater Caucasus and are important for irrigation purposes. The Terek descends steeply from the mountains before flowing east to the Caspian Sea, while the Kuban’ flows west to the Sea of Azov.

During the Soviet period the government was active in building large dams for electric power, irrigation, flood control, and navigational purposes. On some rivers a series of huge reservoirs have transformed the drainage basins. The most extensive dam construction has taken place on the Volga-Kama system and the Don River on the Great European Plain, and on the upper portions of the Yenisey-Angara system and Ob’-Irtysh system in Siberia.

Many natural lakes occur in Russia, particularly in the glaciated northwestern portion of the country. The Caspian Sea, on Russia’s southern border, is the world’s largest lake in terms of surface area. Although called a sea, it is actually a salt lake that occupies a land depression. Rivers drain into the Caspian, but the deep basin does not fill with water and overflow to the sea. Water escapes only through evaporation; over a period of time the salts that are left behind accumulate in the water, making it salty. Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, has the largest surface area of any lake entirely within Russia, and it is the largest in the world in terms of volume; it is estimated to contain one-fifth of Earth’s fresh surface water. With a maximum depth of 1,637 m (5,371 ft), Lake Baikal is also the world’s deepest freshwater lake. Russia’s next two largest lakes in terms of surface area are Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. Located in northwestern Russia, these freshwater lakes are the two largest lakes in Europe.

Russia’s Coastline

Russia has the longest continuous coastline of any country in the world. Its coastline stretches 37,653 km (23,396 mi), mostly along the Arctic and Pacific oceans; other coasts lie along the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the south. Because the majority of its coast lies in waters that are frozen for many months of the year, Russia has few year-round oceanic outlets. Despite these limitations, Russian shipping and fishing takes place on all the seas.

Plant Life of Russia

The broad zones of natural vegetation and soils correspond closely to the country’s climate zones. Summers are too cool for trees in the far north, where tundra vegetation of mosses, lichens, and low shrubs grows instead. Permafrost, or permanently frozen subsoil, is found throughout this region. The ground is frozen to great depths, and even in summer only a shallow surface layer thaws. There is a polar desert zone on several Arctic islands to the north of the tundra zone; the vegetation in this zone consists of a limited number of moss and lichen groupings scattered in patches.

Russia’s forests, located mostly in Siberia, cover more than two-fifths of the country’s total territory, and account for nearly one-fourth of the world’s total forested area. The forest zone has two distinct areas: a large, mainly coniferous forest, or taiga, lies in the north, and a much smaller area of mixed forest lies in the south.

The taiga occupies two-fifths of European Russia and extends across the Urals to cover much of Siberia. Much of the taiga also has permafrost. This vast zone is made up primarily of coniferous trees, but birch, poplar, aspen, willow, and other deciduous trees add to the diversity of the forest in some places. The taiga contains the world’s largest coniferous forest, representing about one-third of the world’s softwood timber. In the extreme northwestern part of the European region, the taiga is dominated by a variety of pines, although significant numbers of fir, birch, and other trees are also present. Eastward to the western slopes of the Urals, pines are still common, but firs predominate. Some regions, however, have stands of trees that are made up almost exclusively of birch. The taiga of the West Siberian Plain consists primarily of various species of pine, but birch is dominant along the southern fringes of the forest. Larch, a deciduous conifer, becomes dominant throughout much of the Central Siberian Plateau and the mountains of eastern Siberia.

Throughout the taiga zone, trees are generally small and widely spaced. Large areas are devoid of trees, particularly where the soil is poorly drained. In these areas marsh grasses and bushes form the vegetative cover. The taiga contains infertile, acidic soils known as ultisols, or podzols.

A mixed forest, containing both coniferous and broad-leaved deciduous trees, occupies the central portion of the Great European Plain between Saint Petersburg and the Ukrainian border. The mixed forest is dominated by coniferous evergreen trees in the north and broad-leaved trees in the south. The principal broad-leaved species are oak, beech, maple, and hornbeam. A similar forest of somewhat different species prevails along the middle Amur River valley and south along the Ussuri River valley. Gray-brown soils are found in the mixed forest zone. Less infertile than the soils of the taiga, these soils can be kept quite productive with proper farming methods and heavy fertilization.

To the south, the mixed forest transitions through a narrow zone of forest-steppe and then passes into the zone of a true steppe. The natural vegetation of a forest-steppe is grassland with scattered groves of trees. However, much of Russia’s forest-steppe has been cleared of its original cover and is now under cultivation. The forest-steppe zone averages about 150 km (about 95 mi) wide and stretches east across the middle Volga Valley and southern Ural Mountains into the southern portions of the West Siberian Plain. Isolated areas of this zone can be found in the southern basins between the mountains of eastern Siberia.

The natural vegetation of a true steppe consists of a mixture of grasses with only a few stunted trees in sheltered valleys. Like the forest-steppe, Russia’s steppe is now mostly under cultivation. It includes the area northwest of the Greater Caucasus and a strip of land that extends east across the southern Volga Valley, the southern Urals, and parts of western Siberia.

Both the forest-steppe and the steppe have fertile soils and together form a region known as the chernozem, or black-earth, belt; this is the agricultural heartland of Russia. Soils in the chernozem belt are high in humus content and have a balance of minerals that is suitable for most crops. The forest-steppe has a better moisture supply than the steppe during the growing season, and consequently it is the best agricultural area of Russia. The chestnut and brown soils of the southern steppe are not as rich in humus as the chernozems to the north, but they are high in mineral content and can be productive with adequate moisture.

Animal Life of Russia

Animals are abundant and varied throughout Russia. The tundra, which spans the Arctic and northern Pacific coasts and encompasses Russia’s offshore Arctic islands, is home to polar bears, seals, walruses, arctic foxes, lemmings, reindeer, and arctic hares. Birdlife includes white partridges, snowy owls, gulls, and loons. Geese, swans, and ducks migrate into the region during summer, a time when huge swarms of mosquitoes, gnats, and other insects emerge.

South of the tundra, the taiga is a habitat for moose, brown bears, lynx, sables, and a variety of forest birds, including owls and nightingales. Swamps in this zone have been stocked with muskrats from Canada. Muskrats and squirrels are the main source of pelts trapped in the wild. The broad-leaved forests of the Great European and West Siberian plains contain boars, deer, wolves, foxes, and minks. There are also a variety of birds, snakes, lizards, and tortoises.

The forests in the southern part of far eastern Russia are known for the Siberian tiger—the largest cat in the world—as well as leopards, bears, and deer. The steppe primarily contains rodents such as marmots and hamsters, but there are also a few species of hoofed animals, including antelope. The main beasts of prey are steppe polecats and Tatar foxes. Bird life includes cranes and eagles. The Caucasus region is particularly abundant in wildlife, including mountain goats, chamois, Caucasian deer, wild boars, porcupines, leopards, hyenas, jackals, squirrels, and bears. There is also a variety of game fowl, including black grouses, turkey hens, and stone partridges. Reptiles and amphibians are also numerous in the Caucasus region.

Many animal species are threatened or endangered, including the snow leopard and the Siberian tiger. A great number of threatened or endangered species are found in far eastern Russia, including Chinese egrets, red-crowned cranes, and Nordmann’s greenshanks.

Russia’s Natural Resources

Russia contains the greatest reserves of mineral resources of any country in the world. Although minerals are abundant, many are in remote areas with extreme climate conditions, which makes them expensive to extract.

Russia is especially rich in mineral fuels. The country may hold as much as one-half of the world’s potential coal reserves and may hold larger reserves of petroleum than any other nation. Coal deposits are scattered widely throughout the country; by far the largest fields lie in central and eastern Siberia, but the most developed fields are in western Siberia, the northeastern European region, the area around Moscow, and the Urals. The major petroleum deposits are in western Siberia and the Volga-Urals region. Smaller deposits are found in many other parts of the country. The principal natural gas deposits, of which Russia holds about 40 percent of the world’s reserves, are along Siberia’s Arctic coast, in the North Caucasus region, and in northwestern Russia. The primary iron ore deposits are found south of Moscow, near the Ukrainian border in an area known as the Kursk Magnetic Anomaly; in this area, vast deposits of iron ore have caused a deviation in the Earth’s magnetic field. Smaller iron ore deposits are scattered throughout the country. The Urals contain minor deposits of manganese. Other important iron alloys—such as nickel, tungsten, cobalt, and molybdenum—occur in adequate or even abundant quantities.

Russia is also well endowed with most of the nonferrous metals. The aluminum ores Russia does have are found primarily in the Urals, northwestern European Russia, and south central Siberia. Copper, on the other hand, is abundant: Reserves are found in the Urals, the Noril’sk area near the mouth of the Yenisey River in eastern Siberia, and the Kola Peninsula. A large deposit east of Lake Baikal became commercially exploitable when the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railroad was completed in 1989.

Lead and zinc ores are abundant in the North Caucasus, far eastern Russia, and the western edge of the Kuznetsk Basin in southern Siberia. These ores are commonly found with copper, gold, silver, and a variety of rare metals. Russia has some of the world’s largest gold reserves, primarily in Siberia and the Urals. There are mercury deposits in the far northeastern part of Russia. Large asbestos deposits exist in the central and southern Urals and in south central Siberia.

Raw materials for the manufacture of chemicals are also abundant. These include potassium and magnesium salt deposits in the Kama River district of the western Urals. Some of the world’s largest deposits of apatite (a mineral from which phosphate is derived) are in the central Kola Peninsula; other types of phosphate ores are found in other parts of the country. Common rock salt is found in the southwestern Urals and southwest of Lake Baikal. Surface deposits of salt are derived from salt lakes along the lower Volga Valley. Sulfur is found in the Urals and the middle Volga Valley. High-grade limestone, used for the production of cement, is found in many parts of the country, but particularly near Belgorod near the border with Ukraine, and in the Zhiguli Hills area of the middle Volga Valley.

Russia’s Climate

In general, Russia’s climate is similar to that of Canada, although winters are even colder and there are greater temperature extremes in many places. Much of the land lies north of the 50th parallel of latitude and far from the moderating influences of the oceans. Most of the country has a harsh continental climate with only two season: long, cold winters and short, relatively cool summers. The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below.

During winter, an intensely cold high-pressure system covers most of the land, especially Siberia. This time of year, winds prevail from the south and southwest, but high mountains in the south prevent warmer air from reaching into Russia. Large areas of the country experience snow cover for half the year, with permafrost all year. In northern regions, especially from Moscow northward, featureless, overcast skies are so frequent, particularly during winter, that Russians have named the phenomenon pasmurno, meaning “dull, dreary weather.” During December, for instance, Moscow averages 23 days with overcast skies.

In summer, winds blow predominantly from the northwest, bringing low-pressure systems from the North Atlantic Ocean. Most of Russia lies in a zone of westerly weather patterns, and the primary marine influence comes from the Atlantic. However, by the time Atlantic air reaches Russia it has crossed the entire western part of Europe and undergone considerable modification. During summer, warm Atlantic air may push east well into central Siberia. This is the principal moisture-bearing air mass to reach inland, and it brings summer rainfall important to croplands. The far eastern region of Russia is an exception, receiving the Pacific monsoon during middle and late summer.

Most of the country has only light to modest precipitation, the majority of which comes in winter. Across the Great European Plain, average annual precipitation decreases from more than 800 mm (32 in) in western Russia to less than 400 mm (16 in) along the Caspian Sea coast. Throughout Siberia, annual precipitation generally ranges from 500 to 800 mm (20 to 32 in), with precipitation amounts generally less than 300 mm (12 in) in northeastern Siberia. At higher elevations annual totals may reach 1,000 mm (40 in) or more, but in interior basins precipitation may total less than 300 mm (12 in).

Climate Zones

Russia encompasses a number of distinct climate zones, which generally extend across the country in east-west belts. A polar desert climate exists on several of the Arctic islands, such as the northernmost portions of Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya. Along the Arctic coast a tundra climate prevails and extends south in the far eastern region on upper mountain slopes for 100 km (60 mi) or more. To the south of this zone is a broad belt of subarctic climate that extends south to the city of Saint Petersburg and broadens east of the Urals to envelop almost all of Siberia.

Most of European Russia has a more temperate continental climate. This belt is widest in the west. It stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, then tapers eastward to include a narrow strip of the southern West Siberian Plain; it is also found in the extreme southeastern portion of Russia.

A broad belt of drier steppe climate with cold winters begins along the Black Sea coast and extends northeast across the North Caucasian Plain, the lower Volga Valley, the southern Urals, and southwestern Siberia. It continues eastward in isolated mountain basins along the extreme fringes of Siberia.


The coldest winter temperatures occur in eastern Siberia, while air from the Atlantic Ocean tempers conditions somewhat in the west. Verkhoyansk in the northeast is often called the “cold pole of the north.” During January, temperatures there average -51°C (-59°F), and they have reached a low of -68°C (-90°F) in February. The same conditions that make for cold temperatures during winter—isolation from the sea and narrow valleys between mountains—produce air stagnation in Verkhoyansk in summer. Furthermore, because the city is so far north, it experiences nearly continuous daylight hours in summer. During July temperatures in Verkhoyansk average 13°C (56°F) and have reached as high as 37°C (98°F). The city has an absolute temperature range (the difference between the coldest and hottest recorded temperatures) of 105°C (188°F), by far the greatest temperature range on Earth.

Temperatures in Moscow, which lies in the continental climate zone, range from -13° to -6°C (9° to 21°F) in January and from 13° to 24°C (56° to 75°F) in July. Temperatures in Vladivostok, in the southern part of far eastern Russia, range from -17° to -9°C (1° to 16°F) in January and from 15° to 20°C (59° to 69°F) in July.

Environmental Issues in Russia

Land and water resources experienced severe degradation during the Soviet period. Some areas were degraded beyond repair, including the Kuznetsk Basin on the Tom’ River in southern Siberia, the industrial belt along the southern portion of the Ural Mountains, and the lower Volga River.

By-products of nuclear weapons production caused permanent damage near Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk in southern Siberia, and near Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains. Fallout from the 1986 explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl’ nuclear power plant affected Russia primarily in Bryansk Oblast (see Chernobyl’ Accident). Less well-known than the Chernobyl’ disaster were accidents at the Mayak nuclear weapons production plant near Chelyabinsk in 1949, 1957, and 1967, which together released significantly higher emissions than Chernobyl’. The Soviet military tested nuclear weapons on the islands of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean, which was their second testing site after Semipalatinsk (now Semey), Kazakhstan. Nuclear reactors and wastes were dumped into the Barents and Kara seas of the far north, and in far eastern Siberia. Dumping of nuclear wastes in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) continued until 1993. The disposal of nuclear submarines and nuclear waste has been a problematic issue. Although a number of nuclear submarines were decommissioned, many remained docked at Russian ports as a result of a lack of money and facilities for storing nuclear wastes.

Airborne pollutants have caused damage to vegetation in many areas of Russia. Copper, cobalt, and nickel smelters emit huge amounts of sulfur dioxide in the northern Siberian city of Noril’sk and on the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia. Winds spread these contaminants across northern Europe, where the pollutants have caused widespread destruction of Scandinavian forests. They have also affected large areas of forests in the Kuznetsk Basin and the southern Urals.

Chemical fertilizers and airborne pollutants have contaminated some agricultural areas. Soil resources have also been adversely affected by mismanagement. Broad areas of land in southern Russia suffer from erosion. Wind erosion has affected the more arid parts of the North Caucasus, lower Volga River basin, and western Siberia.

Pollutants released into rivers have accumulated in lakes and seas with limited water exchange, including the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea. Inadequate or nonexistent wastewater treatment contributes to the degradation of rivers and lakes.

Many hydroelectric dams were built during Soviet times on Russia’s major rivers. The dams significantly reduce the volume of water that the rivers carry, so the rivers retain even more of the pollutants that are discharged into their waters. In addition, many of the dams were not constructed with properly functioning fish ladders, preventing many fish from reaching their spawning grounds. As a result, populations of sturgeon and other fish were greatly reduced.

Forests in more accessible parts of Russia suffer from deforestation caused by extensive logging. The rate of deforestation has increased in the Ussuri region in extreme far eastern Russia because of the activities of foreign logging operations. Some large stands of undisturbed forests are protected in Russia’s extensive network of national reserves and parks. Adequate funding for park rangers and other personnel is lacking, however, and poaching (illegal hunting) of endangered animals such as the Siberian tiger has increased as a result.

Russia produces a significant portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to the greenhouse effect that causes global warming. In 2004 the government of Russia ratified the Kyōto Protocol, an international treaty that calls for industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. For the treaty to go into effect, it had to be ratified by at least 55 countries and by enough industrialized nations to account for at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Russia’s decision to enforce the treaty paved the way for it to go into effect in 2005.


Russia’s total population in 2009 was estimated at 140,041,250, making the country less populous than China, India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil. Unlike these other countries, however, Russia’s total population has been in steady decline since the early 1990s. The country’s total population is projected to decrease to 128,180,396 by 2025 and to 109,187,353 by 2050.

Russia’s population decline is primarily due to a negative rate of natural population increase, whereby the number of deaths exceeds the number of births. In 2009 the birth rate was 11.1 per 1,000 people, while the death rate was 16.1 per 1,000.

Russia is the only major industrialized country in which demographic indices are worse than in earlier years, largely because illnesses have increased as the quality and availability of health care have declined. Russia has the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate of the industrialized countries. Life expectancy for men is especially low, at only 59 years, and for women it is 73 years (2009). The infant mortality rate is 10.6 deaths per 1,000 births (2009).

Population Distribution of Russia

The overall population density of Russia is 8 persons per sq km (21 per sq mi), but the population is unevenly distributed across the country. The population density of a particular area generally reflects the land’s agricultural potential, with localized population centers occurring at mining and industrial centers. Most of the country’s people are concentrated in European Russia in the so-called fertile triangle, which has its base along the western border between the Baltic and Black seas and tapers eastward across the southern Urals into southwestern Siberia.

The heaviest population densities are in sprawling urbanized areas such as Moscow Oblast. Throughout much of rural European Russia, the population density averages about 25 persons per sq km (65 per sq mi). However, more than one-third of the country’s territory has a population density of fewer than 1 person per sq km (3 per sq mi). This includes part of northern European Russia and huge areas of Siberia.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, many urban settlements in Russia declined in population. On the other hand, several towns and cities increased dramatically in size, especially those associated with oil and natural gas production in western Siberia and the Volga-Urals regions. In European Russia many agricultural villages were left without a younger generation, which went to large cities in search of employment. The population in several towns in the North Caucasus area also increased rapidly as a result of the inflow of refugees from war-torn Chechnya.

Russia experienced substantial eastward migration before 1917 and after World War II ended in 1945, especially to southern and far eastern Siberia. Such migration was strongly encouraged by the Soviet government, which had begun building new industrial centers east of the Ural Mountains after the war. More recently, this migration reversed, with many Russian citizens leaving northern Siberia and far eastern Russia for European Russia. Also during the Soviet period, thousands of ethnic Russians migrated to other Soviet republics. This trend began to reverse in the mid-1970s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the return of ethnic Russians to the Russian Federation in even larger numbers. Southwestern Russia (from the North Caucasus to southwestern Siberia), Moscow, and Saint Petersburg have been the main destinations for immigrants. Foreign nationals, such as Chinese, have immigrated to far eastern Russia and large cities in European Russia in comparatively small numbers. Immigration was not enough to offset the country’s overall decline in population.

Principal Cities of Russia

Russia developed a large urban population during the Soviet period, despite government attempts to limit the populations of major urban centers. Today, 73 percent of Russia’s population lives in urban areas. More than ten cities, most in European Russia, have more than 1 million inhabitants. The largest city by far is Moscow, the capital. The next largest city is Saint Petersburg, a leading port and major industrial center situated on the Gulf of Finland; it served as the national capital from 1712 to 1918. Other major cities include Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia; Nizhniy Novgorod, the largest city on the Volga River and a major automotive and shipbuilding center; Yekaterinburg, the largest city in the Urals; and Samara, a commercial center of the middle Volga region and the primary refining center for the Volga-Urals oil fields.

Other large cities include Omsk, western Siberia’s chief petrochemical center; Chelyabinsk, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains; Kazan’, capital of the republic of Tatarstan, located along the middle course of the Volga River; and Perm’, a major industrial center in the Kama River region to the west of the Urals. Ufa is an important petrochemical center in the southern Urals, and Rostov-na-Donu is a commercial, industrial, and transportation center in southern European Russia on the lower stretch of the Don River. Volgograd, a center of machinery production and other industrial activity, lies on the lower course of the Volga River.

Ethnic Groups

Russia has one of the widest varieties of ethnic groups in the world, but ethnic Russians form the vast majority, or about 80 percent, of the population. The non-Russian population constitutes just under 20 percent of the total, with the largest minority, the Tatars, making up only about 4 percent. Ukrainians and Chuvash are the only other minorities constituting more than 1 percent of the population. Other minorities include Belarusians, Germans, Bashkirs, and Jews (considered an ethnic group in Russia). Although the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was originally created for the Jewish people of the Soviet Union, it has never been a major area of Jewish settlement; emigration in the post-Soviet area has caused its Jewish population to become even smaller.


The Russian language is the country’s official language and it is the most commonly spoken in business, government, and education. Ethnic Russians speak their native tongue almost exclusively. At the time of the 1989 census only 4.1 percent of ethnic Russians in the Soviet Union could speak one of the country’s other languages, while people belonging to most other ethnic groups were bilingual. More than 100 languages are spoken in Russia. Some of the ethnic republics have declared official regional languages, but millions of non-Russians have adopted Russian as their mother tongue. The Soviet government helped many smaller ethnic groups develop their own alphabets and vocabularies. The USSR’s educational policies ensured widespread use of the Russian language, however. See also Slavic Languages; Altaic Languages; Caucasian Languages; Finno-Ugric Languages; Uralic Languages.


During most of the Soviet era religious expression was strictly discouraged and the Communist Party controlled religious institutions. In the late 1980s, however, the government began to ease its restrictions on religion, and a 1990 law granted Russians far more religious freedom. Following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, religious following increased and there was a resurgence of traditional religions, particularly Orthodox Christianity (see Orthodox Church).

The ancestors of today’s Russians adopted Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century. It is now the country’s primary religion. The Russian Orthodox Church is widely respected by both believers and nonbelievers as a symbol of Russian heritage and culture. The state officially observes Orthodox holidays, and many politicians attend major church festivals. The church is divided, however, on its role in post-Soviet society. Conflict also exists between an anti-Semitic, highly nationalistic faction within the church and another faction that advocates a more tolerant, ecumenical approach to worldly affairs.

Muslims form the second largest religious group in Russia. They are concentrated mostly in the ethnic republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the middle Volga region, and in the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Alania (North Ossetia), Kabardino-Balkaria, and Dagestan. There are also relatively small populations of Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Buddhists. Jews and Christians are dispersed throughout the country. Buddhists live chiefly in the republics of Buryatia and Tuva on the Russian border with Mongolia and in Kalmykia on the northwest shore of the Caspian Sea.

Despite the reemergence of traditional religions, most Russians do not adhere strictly to a single belief. Instead, they combine traditional faiths with other alternative beliefs. Witchcraft and astrology are popular, especially among young people. Russians have also turned to numerous new beliefs, sects, and religious denominations. Foreign missionaries and other proselytizers have introduced a wide variety of religious beliefs and New Age philosophies (see New Age Movement).

The growing popularity of foreign religions prompted concern among Russian lawmakers. In 1997 the government revised the 1990 religious freedom law to categorize religions into those that were part of Russia’s historical development and those that were not. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism were identified as Russia’s only traditional religions. The law limits the activities of organizations that represent any other religious faith. These organizations must register annually with the government for a period of 15 years before they attain the higher status. During this time they cannot publish, distribute, or teach religious material, although they can engage in charitable activities.

Education in Russia

Education in Russia advanced significantly during the Soviet period. In 1918 the Soviet government instituted free, compulsory schooling, which enabled most Russians to receive a good basic education. As a result, Russia has an extremely high literacy rate. More than 99 percent of the population over age 15 is literate.

History of Education

During most of the Soviet period, the Soviet government tightly controlled the educational system. Schools emphasized skill building and indoctrination with communist ideology, and teachers were expected not only to educate students but also to shape their personalities to the communist ideal. Placement of teachers was controlled centrally, with new teachers assigned to teaching positions based on regional needs. All schools followed a national curriculum. Outside the schools, students were exhorted to join youth organizations sanctioned by the Communist Party. Public education was free at the elementary and secondary levels. Tuition for preschool and postsecondary institutions was nominal if it was charged at all. Private schools were prohibited. Various educational reforms were implemented during the Soviet period, most notably in the final years of the USSR. Beginning in 1985 the national curriculum was revised to allow for greater flexibility of studies under the glasnost (“openness”) policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1992 Russia adopted a new education law that legalized private schools and homeschooling. This law also gave educators the right to choose their own textbooks and to determine other aspects of instruction. The responsibility to mold students to a prescribed moral and civic ideal has been largely removed from the sphere of schools.

Russia inherited a well-developed, comprehensive system of education from the Soviet period. However, rather than a network of many small or medium-sized schools, the Soviet government had developed a smaller number of very large facilities. These were inadequate to meet Russia’s education needs, and due to lack of space many students attended schools in shifts. The physical condition of school buildings, already poor during the late Soviet period, further deteriorated for lack of funding. Schools became increasingly reliant on local support from public and private sponsors, and many schools specialized to attract sponsors or meet the needs of existing sponsors.

Structure of Education in Russia

Free, compulsory education begins at age 6, when children enter primary school for an intensive course of study from grades one to four. Intermediate education begins with grade five and continues through grade nine. Children can then enter upper-level schools or vocational-technical programs, which include on-the-job training. The majority of students are instructed in the Russian language. Other non-Russian languages are taught to various degrees, usually only for the first few years of instruction.

Undergraduate training in higher educational institutions generally involves a four- or five-year course of study, after which students may enroll in a one- to three-year program of graduate training. Graduate students who successfully complete their courses of study, comprehensive examinations, and the defense of their dissertations receive candidate of science degrees, which are roughly equivalent to doctoral degrees in the United States. A higher degree, the doctor of sciences, is awarded to established scholars who have made outstanding contributions to their disciplines.

Higher Education in Russia

After 1991 the system of higher education underwent considerable change. Private schools, some operated by religious organizations, opened in large numbers. Public institutions of higher education, once heavily supported by the state, had to cover a much larger share of their operating costs. In order to attract support from potential sponsors, regional authorities upgraded more than 100 teacher-training colleges to universities or academies, which are more prestigious. As a result, new teacher-training institutes were created to ensure that Russia trains an adequate number of future educators.

The most prominent Russian universities are Moscow State University, Saint Petersburg State University, Kazan’ State University, and Novosibirsk State University. Other important universities are located in Rostov-na-Donu, Nizhniy Novgorod, Tomsk, Vladivostok, and Voronezh. In addition to universities and institutes, Russia has one of the world’s foremost organizations devoted to scholarly research, the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Social Structure

During the Soviet period, Communist Party members were granted special privileges. A system of separate stores, cars, hotels, and resorts was reserved for the political elite. For most people, however, the difference in income and access to material goods was relatively small. Private ownership of businesses and capital (goods or monies from which future income can be derived) was illegal, so income in addition to one’s wage from the state was extremely rare and social differentiation was slight. The richest 10 percent of the population earned only four times more than the poorest 10 percent. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the distinctions between social classes have become much more pronounced.

Privatization of property and businesses has been primarily in the hands of a select few. Many government and Communist Party officials have used their political power to control the privatization process and to gain shares of companies. Some people became rich through fraudulent investment opportunities. Organized crime leaders profited through extortion, drug smuggling, and other illegal activities. However, many Russians also became wealthy through innovation, invention, and other entrepreneurial activities.

The wealthy, known as the New Rich or New Russians, often live quite extravagantly. At the other extreme are those living in poverty, including many of the elderly, who tend to live on fixed incomes such as state pensions. The remainder of Russians have incomes that place them between these extremes and are considered middle class. Many middle-class Russians benefited in the early 1990s from the privatization of housing, which allowed them to purchase their apartments at a price far below market value. Consequently, they can spend a larger portion of their incomes on food and other goods than those who rent housing. The middle class is mostly confined to large cities, such as Moscow. In many rural areas there are few people in the middle class, and the contrasts between incomes are far greater.

Way of Life

The lifestyle of Russians depends to a great degree on their income levels. For Russia’s poor, life is a daily grind of survival and many people spend hours each day selling their belongings or other goods on the street. The lifestyles of wealthier people have become Westernized to a very high degree; American-style products and pastimes are popular, especially in large cities. Watching television and videotapes is a popular form of entertainment. Russian television now includes Western-style programs, such as game shows and soap operas. Reading is extremely popular, as it was during the Soviet period, but the types of literature read have changed considerably. Russian classics have lost ground to detective novels, pulp fiction, science fiction, and romance novels. Western sports that were officially discouraged during the Soviet period, such as tennis, have made noticeable inroads, especially among the upper classes. Traditional games and sports, such as chess and soccer, are also still popular. Concerts by Western music groups have become commonplace in Moscow and other large cities, and many Russian pop groups emulate Western styles, although a few groups incorporate traditional Russian musical elements.

Many urban Russians spend weekends at their dacha (summerhouse) in the countryside. The average dacha is only a simple shack and sits on a very small plot of land. Some dachas of the New Rich are multistoried dwellings with swimming pools and other expensive amenities. Most dachniki (dacha owners) have kitchen gardens on their summer plots, where they grow vegetables and fruits to supplement their diets.

Russians generally eat three meals a day. The morning meal, called zavtrak, typically includes buckwheat pancakes or kasha, porridge served with sour cream and cheese, although some Russians eat only bread and tea for breakfast. Dinner, or obed, is served in the afternoon and is the main meal of the day. It often begins with soup, such as borshch (also spelled borscht), which is made from beets and served with sour cream. It may also begin with zakuski—appetizers such as salted fish, cold meats, hard-boiled eggs, and caviar. The main course is typically made with beef, pork, or chicken. Popular dishes include pelmeni, a meat- or vegetable-filled pasta accompanied by sour cream, and bifstroganov, cubed or sliced beef in a sour cream sauce over noodles. Uzhin is the evening meal, which usually consists only of tea and zakuski, although restaurants serve larger meals. In addition to tea, coffee and seltzer are popular beverages, and vodka and beer are extremely popular alcoholic drinks.

Restaurants, which were once known for their poor service and food, have increased in number and variety. Ethnic foods from around the world are available in most large cities; Mexican and Chinese foods are especially widespread. Dining out is frequently a multicourse, full-evening affair, and many restaurants feature live music and dancing.

Travel is very popular for those who can afford it. During the Soviet period the government strictly controlled travel, limiting destinations primarily to Eastern European states and other communist countries. Now Turkey and Cyprus are popular destinations among the middle class, while more distant destinations have become popular among wealthy people, some of whom spend extended periods of time abroad.

Social Issues

The economic and social changes that have occurred since 1991 have especially impacted women and children. Marriage has declined and the divorce rate has risen, resulting in an increased number of single mothers. Women are expected to do almost all the housework, even if they also work a full-time job outside the home. Women’s employment is concentrated in lower-paying jobs, and unemployment is higher among women than among men. Throughout Russia, the number of homeless, unemployed, and underemployed people increased dramatically following the Soviet period.

Various social ills that did not exist or were very minor during Soviet times are a significant problem in contemporary Russia. Illegal drug use has risen substantially because of a lack of enforcement and increased drug availability. Drug use is increasing most rapidly among the young. The amount of alcohol consumption has also increased. Alcohol poisoning is a leading cause of death, especially from homemade or diluted industrial sources. This problem is a significant factor in Russia’s comparatively low life expectancy age, especially for men.

Drug use is accelerating the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), because the virus that causes AIDS, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), is transmitted chiefly by intravenous drug users who share syringe needles. The incidence of several other infectious diseases has also increased in recent years. Tuberculosis (TB) and other treatable diseases have spread as a result of incomplete treatment of patients and a lack of recognition of the symptoms of the disease among those infected. Venereal diseases have also spread rapidly. On the positive side, the government has conducted successful campaigns against diphtheria and poliomyelitis.

Social Services in Russia

In the early 1990s the Russian federal government decentralized the social safety net, giving control over health care and other social welfare programs to local governments. In 1993 the government instituted a new system of compulsory health insurance to replace the universal, state-funded health-care system inherited from the Soviet period. The program is supposed to be funded by a combination of employer and municipal support. However, budgetary difficulties and corruption at all levels caused the system to be underfunded. Nonworking citizens suffered the most from this shortfall, since their health benefits are supported solely by municipal contributions.

Some benefits are part of a traditional labor compensation package. Family, maternity, and unemployment benefits are available, and pensions are nominally guaranteed to women and men who have worked a minimum period of time and meet the age requirements. However, pensions failed to keep pace with dramatic increases in the cost of living following the breakup of the Soviet Union.


History of Russian Arts

In 988 Vladimir I (see Vladimir, Saint), ruler of Rus (the ancient state that was the ancestor of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus), married a Byzantine princess and converted from paganism to the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. The introduction of Christianity into Rus spurred the development of the country’s fine arts. For 600 years, imported Christian forms dominated Russian painting, music, architecture, and literature. Russian artists, however, applied their unique vision and dramatically altered the imported forms. Especially in painting, the blending of foreign influences with native genius produced some of the world’s most beautiful icons. In the early 15th century Andrey Rublyov, the greatest of Moscow’s artists, painted icons that surpassed those of his Byzantine collaborators in quality and brilliance.

Foreign invasions during the Time of Troubles (1598-1613) and the Westernizing policies of Peter the Great around the turn of the 18th century exposed Russia’s artists to new secular influences. As a result, the focus of the Russian artistic experience shifted to Western Europe. Art forms that had been forbidden by the medieval Russian Orthodox Church—such as portraiture, instrumental music, and dramatic productions—entered the mainstream of the nation’s cultural life. By the mid-18th century Russians were producing ballets, operas, chamber music, baroque architecture, and novels.

As they had done with Byzantine influences in the Middle Ages (in Russia, 9th century to early 16th century), the Russians borrowed art forms from the West, assimilated them, and raised them to unique levels of brilliance and achievement. Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital founded by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, provided dramatic evidence of this process. The city became Russia’s “window on the West.” Buildings that followed the style of 18th-century Saint Petersburg architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli and his 19th-century successor Carlo Rossi spread across the Russian Empire. By 1850 the art and architecture of Saint Petersburg had become the model that all of Russia tried to follow. The new vision blended all the artistic influences of Russia’s past and present with those of ancient Greece and Rome.

In the 19th century the Russian genius for blending foreign and native art forms produced the romantic poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin; the realist novels of Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Leo Tolstoy; and the brilliant operas and ballets of Mikhail Glinka, Aleksandr Borodin, Peter Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky. Under the directorship of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, the Moscow Art Theater performed the bittersweet plays of Anton Chekhov and the realist works of Maksim Gorky, including his best-known play, The Lower Depths (1902; translated 1912).

The 20th century ushered in the beginnings of an avant-garde movement. From 1900 to 1917 Russia’s arts included the symbolist poetry of Aleksandr Blok, Andrey Bely, and Zinaida Gippius; the revolutionary musical scores of Aleksandr Scriabin and Igor Stravinsky; the height of the so-called neo-primitivism period in the paintings of Natalia Goncharova, Wassily Kandinsky, and Mikhail Larionov; and the stunning ballet productions of Sergey Diaghilev featuring dancers Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Ida Rubinstein.

The revolutionary creations of Russia’s avant-garde, especially the constructivist designs of Vladimir Tatlin and Konstantin Melnikov (see Constructivism), continued during the first years of the Soviet era. However, these soon withered under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s rigid dictates. For many years the Soviet government used the stale precepts of socialist realism to censor the arts, including the poetry of Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Boris Pasternak; the novels and plays of Mikhail Bulgakov; and the musical compositions of Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev.

From the 1930s to the 1970s various artists challenged the restraints of socialist realism, including such independent literary giants as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak; composers Sergey Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich; poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Joseph Brodsky; theatrical director Yury Lyubimov; and filmmakers Sergey Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Andrey Tarkovsky. Others, such as novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, saw no other way but to make peace with the system that demanded conformity above all else. Some artists, including poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergey Yesenin, committed suicide.

In the 1980s émigré artists who had fled the Soviet Union and dissident artists who had remained in Russia began to influence what would become the cultural mainstream of post-Soviet Russia. The works of many artists became widely available in Russia only in the 1980s, including the émigré paintings of Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky; the novels of Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, Boris Pasternak, and Mikhail Bulgakov; the nonconformist poetry of Anna Akhmatova; and the modernist sculpture of Ernst Neizvestny.

The Soviet leadership had considered the works of Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Brodsky, and many others so subversive that people who read them could be sent to the labor camps, or Gulags. These and other works are now widely available in Russia. Solzhenitsyn, who was driven from the USSR in 1974, returned to live in Russia in 1994. Russian artists have struggled to blend their artistic heritage with the modern foreign influences to which they were denied access for so long.

Russia’s Cultural Institutions

During the Soviet period it was institutions more than individuals that shaped the arts in Russia. Consequently, museums, libraries, and theaters played a major part in the country’s artistic life. They continue to be important in post-Soviet Russia. The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow rank among the greatest museums in the world. Other institutions, such as the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, also have important collections.

Russia’s major theaters date from imperial times and continue to thrive. The most important theaters are in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Moscow is the home of the Bolshoi Theater, which is the home of the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Moscow Art Theater. The Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theater, home of the Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet, and the Pushkin Dramatic Theater are in Saint Petersburg.

Of the thousands of libraries in Russia, the largest is the Russian State Library (formerly the Lenin Library). It contains more than 30 million volumes in more than 250 languages, one of the largest collections in the world. Nearly as large is the collection of the Russian National Library (formerly the M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin Library) in Saint Petersburg.


The Soviet Union had a planned socialist economy, in which the central government controlled everything from production targets and prices to distribution. The Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe had planned economies as well. After the breakup of the USSR, Russian reformers were confronted with the daunting task of building a modern capitalist economy while simultaneously striving to create a democratic state based on effective laws and reliable administrative structures. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 disrupted the close economic relations Russia had previously enjoyed with neighboring communist states and other Soviet republics. Political turmoil and uncertainty inside the Russian government also contributed to the country’s economic woes. Compared with most of the former planned economies of Eastern Europe, Russia experienced a severe and protracted drop in officially reported economic output.

In 1992 the new Russian government led by President Boris Yeltsin launched a comprehensive program to create a market economy. In the mid-1990s, after several years of runaway inflation, the economy began to stabilize. Inflation fell to manageable levels and the exchange rate of the Russian currency (the ruble) stabilized. Nonetheless, severe structural imbalances persisted, and the introduction of market competition continued to encounter stiff resistance from the ranks of conservative politicians and industrial managers. Many unprofitable state-owned enterprises remained open, in part by simply not paying employees, suppliers, and taxes. Federal and regional governments allowed tax arrears to accumulate, even while government spending continued to outpace revenue generation. Meanwhile, a new class of well-connected business tycoons, commonly known as “oligarchs,” exploited the reform process to promote their own narrow interests. Their manipulation of the privatization of industry and the banking sector contributed to the country’s budget deficits and the spread of corruption.

In late 1997 the national economy began to feel the effects of an international financial crisis in Asia, and the following August Russia experienced its own financial crisis. Alarmed by the Asian meltdown and the growing imbalances in Russia’s public finances, many foreign investors withdrew from the Russian market. The flight of foreign capital forced Russia’s Central Bank to devalue the ruble and to default on foreign and domestic debts. The crisis rocked the Russian stock market and plunged the living standards of ordinary Russians to new lows.

In the longer run, however, the crisis laid the basis for the first period of economic growth since the end of the USSR. By making Russian exports cheaper in foreign markets, the devaluation of the ruble strengthened the competitive position of Russian manufacturers engaged in foreign trade. By making foreign imports more expensive in Russia, the devaluation also strengthened the competitive position of manufacturers in the domestic market. The domestic market had been flooded with foreign goods during the first years of the reform and was crucial to the renewal of Russian manufacturing. In addition, Russia benefited from a sharp rise of oil prices on the world market that allowed it to accumulate foreign-currency reserves and increase government revenues. The election of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president in 2000 provided a further important ingredient. Putin was strongly committed to economic growth and was determined to reestablish order after the economic chaos of Yeltsin’s final years in power.

All of these factors combined to bring an impressive economic recovery that exceeded the expectations of most Western economists. Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew an average of 6.7 percent annually from 1999 to 2003. Public finances also improved dramatically. From 1996 through 1999 the government’s annual budget deficit averaged 6 percent of GDP, but from 2000 through 2003 the government budget generated a surplus averaging 2 percent of GDP.

However, it remains unclear whether Russia can sustain a high rate of economic growth over the long term. Skeptics have emphasized the country’s heavy reliance on oil exports and its vulnerability to oil price swings. They have also pointed to signs of mounting government hostility toward private business and the persistence of corruption. On the other hand, the government has sought to address the problem of long-term sustainability. In addition to strengthening the fiscal system, it set up a stabilization fund in 2004 to save revenue generated during periods of high oil prices as a cushion against lean periods of low prices. How effective these measures will be in practice remains to be seen.

According to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), Russia’s GDP in 2007 totaled $1,290.1 billion. Services, including the banking sector, accounted for 57 percent of the GDP. Industry, which includes manufacturing, mining, electricity generation, and construction, accounted for 39 percent, and the agricultural sector, including forestry and fishing, contributed 5 percent. Adjusting official data to take account of the peculiarities of Russian energy prices, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that the service sector generates about 46 percent and industry about 41 percent of GDP.

Economic Reform in Russia

Under the Soviet system of central planning established in the late 1920s, basic decisions concerning the relative priority of various economic sectors, the location of new enterprises, and investment in capital equipment were made for more than six decades without regard to the true economic costs. This long-standing misallocation of resources was built into the physical structure of Russia’s post-Soviet economy. In addition, the Soviet regime had geared the economy to meet the requirements of a massive military establishment, and this exceptional level of militarization created a bigger drag on economic reform in Russia than in most other post-communist countries. Although Soviet central economic planning produced high rates of industrial growth for many years, the pace of economic growth began to slip in the 1960s and dropped sharply in the late 1970s. Restoration of Soviet economic dynamism was one of the main goals of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he came to power in the mid-1980s. However, Gorbachev soon became preoccupied with introducing radical political reforms and sweeping changes in Soviet foreign policy. He lacked a coherent plan for reforming the economy, and his economic initiatives deepened the economic crisis.

Shock Therapy

Boris Yeltsin, who became president of Russia in 1991, made economic reform his top priority. The leading reformers under Yeltsin championed a policy of rapid economic reform sometimes known as “shock therapy.” Shock therapy was an attempt to achieve four objectives at the same time: (1) liberalization, or the abolition of government control over economic activities such as production, price setting, and distribution; (2) financial stabilization, or the imposition of deep cuts in government spending and firm limits on the growth of the national money supply; (3) privatization, or the transfer of most government-owned enterprises to the ownership of individuals and private companies; and (4) internationalization, or the opening of the economy to foreign trade and investment.

Proclaimed with great fanfare by President Yeltsin in early 1992, shock therapy proved exceedingly difficult to implement under the conditions that existed in Russia at the time of the Soviet breakup. Russia’s annual budget deficit equaled as much as 25 percent of its GDP. Its foreign currency reserves had been exhausted, and its economic relations with other former communist countries had been severely disrupted. Russia’s debt burden was staggering, as it had inherited all of the USSR’s foreign debts with virtually no international reserves. In the mid-1990s the government began to fund its deficits by borrowing in private capital markets at very high rates of interest. Russia also borrowed heavily from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help cushion the economic transition.

Yeltsin’s economic program quickly became the object of intense political struggles inside the executive branch, the parliament, and society at large. The pace of reform generally fluctuated according to shifts in the balance of power between the advocates and opponents of shock therapy inside the government. Analysts disagree about whether the dismal economic record of the 1990s should be blamed on the introduction of shock therapy or on poor implementation of the policy. In any case, an outright reversal of market-oriented reforms is highly unlikely. The 1998 crisis, which some analysts thought might trigger such a reversal, actually tended to discredit the half-measures and compromises under Yeltsin and demonstrated the need to push the reforms further. By the late 1990s it was clear that Russia had gone too far down the reform path to return to the planned economy of the Soviet period.

Monetary Policies and Inflation

Until the mid-1990s the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) undercut the reform program. Hampered by a lack of modern banking expertise and led by a chairperson who opposed shock therapy, the CBR extended vast credits to inefficient enterprises, as well as to other former Soviet republics, and presided over a rapid expansion of the money supply. This fueled runaway inflation, which reached an annual rate of more than 1,350 percent for 1992 and 875 percent for 1993. By 1995, however, Yeltsin’s strengthened political position in relation to the parliament, a frightening plunge of the Russian currency’s value in foreign exchange markets, and the installation of a new CBR chairman led to more restrictive budgetary and monetary policies that produced substantial improvements. Price stabilization was finally achieved in 1997, when Russia’s consumer price inflation slowed to 15 percent. This hard-won achievement was put at risk by the 1998 financial crisis, which caused the inflation rate to spike to 85 percent the next year, but the rate was once again reduced to a tolerable level by the early 2000s.

The Fall in Output and the Shadow Economy

The transition to a market economy initially caused a severe drop in Russia’s national output, but the true extent was difficult to measure. The statistical system inherited from the Soviet period was geared to monitoring output in the state sector and was therefore poorly suited to tracking the economic activities of private enterprises. Moreover, the socialist system rewarded enterprise directors for meeting high production targets (often resulting in the exaggeration of output), while the burdensome post-Soviet tax system gave companies a strong motive to understate their production—or even to conceal it entirely in the ‘shadow’ economy—in order to evade taxes.

According to government reports, by 1994 GDP fell to about half of 1989 output. This was a steeper decline than capitalist countries experienced during the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, output produced for the shadow economy was not counted in the GDP figure, and some economists estimated that the hidden output amounted to an additional 25 percent of what was officially reported. Furthermore, other economic indicators, such as figures on energy consumption, did not fall as sharply as the official GDP. This convinced many economists that the actual decline in GDP was less massive than the one reported—perhaps one-third, rather than one-half, of GDP.


In addition to encouraging the start-up of new private businesses, the Yeltsin government instituted a huge privatization program designed to transfer control of state-owned enterprises and other facilities into the hands of private individuals and groups. Russian officials consider an enterprise privatized when 65 percent of its shares are no longer owned by the state. Although this still leaves a large economic role for the government, the organizational change has been far-reaching.

In the first wave of privatization, controlling packets of shares in large and medium-size enterprises were typically sold to the employees and managers of these enterprises at low prices. On average, an additional 20 percent of the enterprise shares were allocated through auctions based on privatization vouchers. The government provided these vouchers at a negligible charge to all Russian citizens, who then used them to bid in voucher-only auctions for enterprise shares or sold them to other people.

The first wave of privatization proceeded rapidly; enterprises employing more than 80 percent of the industrial workforce had been privatized by mid-1994. A second privatization wave, designed to bolster government revenues through cash sales of especially lucrative state enterprises, was carried out in the mid-1990s. Privatization of small-scale state enterprises has gone farthest; at least 90 percent of retail trade, public catering, and consumer services are now privately owned. On the other hand, the creation of brand new small businesses in the private sector has been severely impeded by fears of unpredictable state regulation and arbitrary taxation. Small businesses account for at least one-half of employment in the most successful post-communist economies of Central Europe, but for no more than one-fifth of employment in Russia.

The economic significance of privatization sparked disagreement among outside observers. Mass privatization gave enterprise directors and many workers a stake in dismantling the socialist system and building a market economy. However, the massive transfer of ownership did not suddenly improve how enterprises were managed. Privatization put effective control of a large proportion of the enterprises in the hands of insiders—both managers and employees—but inside managers were frequently reluctant to restructure their enterprises. Slashing employment risked provoking the workers, who commonly owned more shares of the enterprise than the managers. For similar reasons, managers hesitated to involve outside investors, fearing that the investors’ strategy for increasing the efficiency of an enterprise might include firing its current management. Enterprise restructuring was also hampered by a shortage of investment capital, the reliance of many enterprises on supply relationships and informal government ties carried over from the Soviet period, and the absence of a serious threat of bankruptcy.

In recent years this situation has begun to change. Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that enterprises are now being seriously restructured on a much larger scale. For example, wealthy energy and raw-materials producers have begun to form large conglomerates by acquiring other firms. The causes of this trend include the shakeup caused by the 1998 financial crisis, the willingness of wealthy firms to use their new financial clout to leverage major reorganizations, and the adoption of a bankruptcy law that has raised the economic stakes for struggling enterprises. In some cases, the restructuring process may make firms more efficient. In other cases, it may lead to the formation of inefficient monopolies.

Economic Policies Under Putin

Vladimir Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin as president, believed the economy could flourish only if the disorder of the previous decade was overcome by rebuilding the authority of the state. Indifferent to the fate of democracy, Putin concentrated on strengthening the state’s administrative capacity and reforming the laws affecting economic activity. His approach combined an authoritarian political style with a determination to make free markets function more effectively. In the run-up to his reelection in 2004, Putin revealed a heightened determination to expand state power and subordinate the business oligarchs to state goals. The attack on Yukos, Russia’s largest and most efficient private oil company, reflected this determination. Yukos chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other Yukos officials were arrested on charges of tax evasion, and the company’s most valuable assets were sold off at bargain-basement prices. The decision to expand state intervention in the economy in this fashion threatened to undermine free markets rather than improve them. It posed the question of whether Putin’s state-dominated version of capitalism could produce a sustained economic recovery over the long term.

Currency, Banking, and Taxes

The basic unit of currency in Russia is the ruble, consisting of 100 kopeks. The role of currency in the Russian economy has become more important since the breakup of the USSR. In a free-market system, banks and investors have a profit incentive to lend or invest their money in ways that will put it to the most productive use. Likewise, firms have a profit incentive to allocate their money to produce goods and services the public wants, using the most efficient means of production. The governments of free-market countries influence their economies mainly through decisions about the amount of government spending and the size of the money supply.

Under the Soviet system, money lacked the significance that it has in market economies. The Soviet government directed the production and distribution of goods and services through administrative plans, which set detailed targets defined largely in terms of physical units of output. The success of enterprises depended on fulfilling those administrative plans, not on earning profits in a competitive market. In the USSR money was primarily a medium of accounting rather than a measure of market value, and it had little real effect on the operation of the economy.

Similarly, the Soviet government sought to limit the impact of money and markets on the USSR’s international economic relations. It prohibited circulation of the ruble abroad, set an artificially high exchange rate relative to foreign currencies, and, whenever possible, compelled foreigners doing business in the USSR to exchange their currency for rubles at the artificial rate. When Gorbachev introduced economic reforms as part of perestroika (“restructuring”) in the late 1980s, neglect of monetary and budget issues was one of the main reasons the economic initiatives failed.

Banking Reforms

To create a market economy in Russia, the Yeltsin government had to build a completely new system of money, banking, and finance. In the banking sector, the government attempted to transform the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) into a Western-style central bank and encouraged the development of a second tier of commercial banks. Under a typical two-tiered system, the government’s central bank regulates the national money supply and the lending policies of commercial banks in order to protect the value of the currency and the soundness of the financial system; the commercial banks in turn lend to business enterprises and other borrowers.

During the turbulent changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous commercial banks were spun off from the huge, specialized state banks that were part of the old planning system. Meanwhile, hundreds of much smaller banks were established after the Soviet government legalized the creation of banking cooperatives in 1988. The cooperatives became vehicles through which state enterprise managers and other officials fraudulently converted the assets of state organizations into their own property.

Early in the reform period the CBR fostered the growth of commercial banks by lending them money at an interest rate far below the rate of inflation. Commercial banks could then lend this money to others at exceptionally lucrative rates; consequently, the number of commercial banks soared to about 2,600 by mid-1995. Many of these banks were frail, however, and within two years the CBR introduced more rational monetary policies that forced about one-third of them to close. Many more small banks were forced out of business during the 1998 financial crisis.

Under President Yeltsin, little progress was made toward creating an effective commercial banking sector. The volume of commercial lending relative to the size of the national economy was extremely low compared with advanced industrial countries. Many ordinary Russians distrusted the government and were reluctant to make deposits in banks, preferring to keep their savings in U.S. currency or inflation-proof goods. Many banks were burdened with bad loans and lacked the experience to assess the creditworthiness of prospective borrowers. The problem was compounded by weak legal protection of banks against delinquent borrowers. As a result, many banks avoided making long-term private-sector loans that could boost investment and productivity.

The situation improved substantially under President Putin. The government adopted a system of depositor insurance that encourages savings by protecting depositors against bank failures. In recent years, commercial banks have attracted substantially more deposits, and their level of useful business lending has increased dramatically in comparison with the minuscule level in the late 1990s. On the other hand, according to some estimates, Russians still keep more than $40 billion worth of currency “under the mattress” because they distrust banks. This currency, much of it in U.S. dollars, is not being deposited and therefore cannot be lent for productive purposes.

In addition, the banking sector continues to be dominated by large state-owned banks such as Sberbank, which accounts for more than a quarter of all banking assets and more than two-thirds of all household deposits. The central government sometimes offers these state-owned banks special favors, and regional governments often interfere in the operations of local commercial banks. The creation of a genuinely effective banking sector will require more competition and more even-handed government regulation of banking activities.

Currency and Exchange Rates

As part of its reform campaign, the Yeltsin government introduced a new ruble banknote to replace the Soviet ruble in 1993. It also declared that Soviet rubles would no longer be accepted as payment for Russian exports. This sudden change, which left most other former Soviet republics holding large quantities of the old rubles, separated Russia’s monetary system from the monetary systems of these other countries and gave the Russian government the capacity to control the size of the national money supply. In 1998 Russia redenominated the ruble to simplify financial dealings and introduced new banknotes that were worth 1,000 times as much as the old banknotes.

The government also introduced major exchange-rate reforms. In 1992 it made the ruble freely convertible on transactions involving foreign trade in goods and services. From the artificial rate of 1.7 rubles per U.S.$1 maintained by the Soviet government in 1991, the value of the ruble plummeted to 415 per U.S.$1 at the end of 1992 and 5,000 per U.S.$1 by the spring of 1995. In response, the CBR inaugurated a policy of maintaining an exchange rate that was allowed to fluctuate only within a certain specified range, or “corridor.” This policy helped stabilize the ruble’s purchasing power in foreign markets and made participation in foreign trade and commerce less risky for Russian and foreign organizations. The 1998 financial crisis forced the government to abandon the exchange-rate corridor and introduce a floating exchange rate determined by currency markets. The ruble’s value subsequently fell relative to the U.S. dollar but nowhere near as drastically as before 1995. The average exchange rate in 2007 was 25.60 rubles per U.S.$1.

Tax Reform

Reform of Russia’s tax system proved to be one of the most difficult challenges. In the 1990s the government budget was plagued by an increase in unpaid taxes and outright tax evasion. As a result, the federal government’s revenues declined, heightening the risk that federal budget deficits would balloon. As a stopgap measure, the government sold short-term treasury bills to raise additional money. However, the cost of servicing the treasury bills itself became a huge burden on the budget, due to the very high interest the government was required to pay. By 1996 the interest payments accounted for about 30 percent of federal expenditures. In 1997 government reformers mounted an aggressive campaign to pass a new tax code intended to streamline the tax system, but the effort failed.

The 1998 financial crisis put the issue of tax reform back on the political agenda, and significant reforms were finally enacted after Putin became president. The reforms were designed to reduce the opportunities for official corruption and win more voluntary compliance from taxpayers. They included the establishment of a flat, universal income tax of 13 percent, a reduction of the tax rate on corporate profits, and simplification of the tax system by eliminating the turnover tax and several other taxes.


Russia’s workforce totaled 75,837,444 people in 2007. Employment opportunities have changed radically as a result of the economic transition. Industry, for example, employed about 40 percent of the workforce in 1990, but only 30 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the number of people employed in services increased rapidly. By 2005 this sector employed 60 percent of the workforce.

One of the Soviet system’s strengths was its commitment to mass education, and the population’s high level of education and skill has often been cited as a positive factor for Russia’s economic future. However, the 1990s fiscal crisis did serious damage to the educational system, leading to doubts about the system’s ability to contribute to economic revitalization.

Demographers have warned that Russia may encounter serious labor shortages due to low birth rates and a likely rise in mortality rates caused by the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and other diseases. In the 1990s immigration compensated for most of the natural decrease in the number of Russian citizens. However, the flow of immigrants, especially ethnic Russians moving to Russia from other former Soviet republics, has since diminished sharply.


Virtually unknown during the Soviet period, unemployment became a serious problem in the early 1990s. Estimates indicate that the national unemployment rate peaked at about 13 percent in 1999. The real level may have been considerably higher, because some employees who were counted as full-time workers actually worked only part time or not at all; even individuals who were not receiving wages often preferred to remain on the official rolls in order to obtain work benefits such as housing subsidies and social insurance. By 2007 the official unemployment rate declined to 6.1 percent, although some regions had much higher levels of joblessness.

Incomes and Inequality

Overall, living standards were hit hard by the transition to a market economy. The cost of living soared as the government removed price controls, and inflation made basic necessities unaffordable for many people. Those most vulnerable to the effects of inflation were the least protected against it. Employers frequently delayed paying wages, increasing the hardship. However, real incomes did not decline as much as reported wages because some workers earned unreported income in second jobs or in the shadow economy, or they underreported income to reduce their tax burden. Nonetheless, for many people the negative effect of the reforms was severe. In 2000 the real value of wages finally started to catch up to the rising cost of living. By 2003 real wages were, on average, almost 30 percent above the level on the eve of the 1998 financial crisis. However, about a fifth of the population still had a living standard below the officially defined poverty line.

Market reforms have caused a tremendous increase in economic inequality. The impoverishment of workers at the bottom of the economic pyramid contrasts with the growth of a new class of people who have amassed extraordinary wealth. These tycoons have become rich by exploiting both legitimate business opportunities and the opportunities for graft and corruption presented by the economic transition. In the mid-1990s the decision to privatize major state-owned enterprises in the absence of clear legal procedures allowed persons with inside connections to acquire controlling stakes in some of Russia’s most lucrative enterprises by paying a small fraction of their true market value. Due to the spread of this kind of “crony capitalism,” large parts of the oil, gas, metals, and financial sectors fell under the control of a small number of individuals. During the 1990s these individuals started to wield formidable political power through contributions to electoral campaigns, control of media outlets, and bribery.

Labor Unions

The large Soviet-style labor unions survived the dissolution of the USSR with their leadership, organizational structure, and material resources intact. The unions retained several important prerogatives, including control over social security funds and the right to veto management proposals to lay off workers. The labor unions led numerous strikes in the early 1990s—especially over the issue of unpaid wages. However, they were reluctant to confront the government and corporate management over a broader set of issues such as depressed wage levels and working conditions, and they generated little real political power. For instance, the government’s 2004 decision to replace in-kind welfare benefits such as utilities and urban transportation with small monetary payments provoked widespread public demonstrations, but the labor unions played only a marginal role in these protests.

As enterprises have been privatized and restructured, union membership has fallen, especially in retail trade, banking and finance, and general business services. Most unions are organized by company and amalgamated in regional and national federations. The largest umbrella organization of this kind is the Federation of Independent Trade Unions. Combined, Russia’s unions claim a total membership of about 40 million workers.


Soviet planners assigned top priority to heavy industries such as machine building, metalworking, and mining because they regarded these sectors as the key to industrial growth and military power. Russia inherited about 60 percent of Soviet production facilities. Today, the Russian economy is dominated by large industrial enterprises, and manufacturing remains strongly skewed toward heavy industries. Small and medium-sized enterprises are growing but remain badly underdeveloped by international standards.

Russia’s manufacturing capacity is located principally in western Russia and the Ural Mountains region. Extractive industries, such as mining and oil and gas production, are more widely dispersed, with major facilities located in Siberia. Other than industrial centers such as Tomsk and Novosibirsk in Siberia, the eastern regions of Russia remain largely unindustrialized, having traditionally served as a base for the extraction of raw materials and the production of energy. The processing industries are concentrated in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Nizhniy Novgorod. These larger cities have managed the economic transition relatively well, as they have been able to diversify and modernize their industries.

Smaller industrial centers have fared far worse. Under Soviet planning, one massive enterprise or a group of enterprises from the same industrial sector often formed the basis for the entire local economy of a city or region. The smaller industrial centers were therefore particularly susceptible to the uncertainty introduced by a market economy, as the markets for their products could no longer be guaranteed. This pattern of regional industrial specialization produced huge regional differences in the depth of the economic contraction during the 1990s.

Russia’s manufacturing enterprises produce many types of goods. The machine building sector makes a wide range of products, from computers and precision tools to railroad locomotives, automobiles, agricultural machinery, space vehicles, and military weapons. The metallurgical industry produces a number of specialty steels and nonferrous metals, and the chemical sector produces an array of industrial chemicals and chemical fertilizers. Some of these manufacturing branches, such as the aerospace industry and certain types of defense production, are technologically advanced, but the overall level of technology in the manufacturing sector is far below the levels of other highly industrialized countries. The technological level of manufacturing processes and products is particularly low in the light-industry sector (which produces consumer goods such as footwear, clothing, and textiles).


Mining is a major sector of the Russian economy and provides a sizable share of the country’s exports. Russia is a leading producer of nickel and aluminum. Nickel ores are extracted primarily in eastern Siberia, although significant deposits are also located in the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk. Aluminum bauxite deposits are located mainly in the Urals and northwest European Russia near Saint Petersburg; other deposits are found in western and eastern Siberia.

Russia ranks among the world’s top five producers of gold, silver, and diamonds. Gold is mined in the Urals, western Siberia, and the Lena River valley of eastern Siberia. Most diamonds are extracted in the republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in northeastern Siberia, and nearly all the output is exported. Silver is mined in the far eastern region, and as a coproduct at gold mines in the Urals and western Siberia.

Russia is also among the top five producers of lead, copper, and uranium ores. Lead is mined in European Russia and western Siberia, copper in the southern Urals, and uranium in eastern Siberia. Russia is also an important producer of iron and zinc ores. Most iron extraction takes place in the Kursk region of western Russia, while zinc is mined in Siberia.


Russia leads the world in reserves of natural gas. It ranks second in reserves of coal, and eighth in reserves of oil. Coal accounted for most Soviet energy production until the late 1950s, when a gradual shift to oil and gas began. Today, Russia is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and the second largest exporter of oil. Because Soviet economic planners built an economy that ignored the real cost of energy use, Russia is also the world’s third-largest energy consumer even though its GDP is small by Western standards. Steam-driven power plants fueled primarily by natural gas supply 66 percent of the country’s electricity. Hydroelectric power plants and nuclear power plants provide most of the remainder.

The energy sector is essential to Russia’s long-term economic recovery. After dropping sharply in the 1990s, oil production expanded dramatically. In the early 2000s increased oil and gas production accounted for about 50 percent of the country’s total industrial growth. Oil and gas were the leading earners of foreign exchange, accounting for approximately half of total Russian exports. Private oil companies led the surge in oil production. To continue rapid growth in the future, the oil industry would need to speed up exploration activities and develop new oil fields. In the long run, natural gas has the potential to become even more important to Russia’s economic prosperity than oil.

Russia’s principal oil and gas fields lie in western Siberia, which accounts for about two-thirds of total oil production and more than four-fifths of total gas production. Fields in the Volga-Urals region account for about one-quarter of total oil production and less than one-tenth of gas output. Key regions of coal production include western Siberia, which produces about three-quarters of the country’s coal, and the Kuznetsk Basin in the Volga-Urals region. Most coal output is mined in Siberian fields along the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Important hydroelectric power plants are located on the major rivers of European Russia, notably the Volga and the Don, although the largest plants are on the great rivers of Siberia, particularly the Yenisey and the Angara. The opening in 2003 of a hydroelectric power station on the Bureya River, in the far eastern Amur Oblast of Russia, ensured reliable power supplies to a region that had been prone to power shortages. Electricity is also generated by 31 nuclear power plants, which are located primarily in European Russia. See also Waterpower; Nuclear Energy.


Despite Russia’s huge size and extraordinary natural resources, it has a shortage of agricultural land. Only 7.4 percent of its territory is cultivated. Most of this farmland lies in the so-called fertile triangle. The base of the triangle extends along the country’s western border from the Baltic to the Black seas, and its two sides taper eastward to the southern Ural Mountains, where it becomes a narrow strip of land extending across the southwestern fringes of Siberia. East of the Altay Mountains, agriculture is found only in isolated mountain basins along the southern edge of Siberia. Without human modification, areas outside the fertile triangle are unsuitable for crops. The country’s major grain crops are wheat, barley, oats, and rye. Other important crops are potatoes, sugar beets, and sunflower seeds.

State-owned farms and collective farms became an influential lobby in the late Soviet period, and after the Soviet breakup they resisted any significant privatization of the farm sector. Russia inherited about 26,000 such farms, which on average employed about 400 workers each. Many of these huge farms were nominally reorganized as producers’ cooperatives, which are collectively owned and operated by groups of farmers who share in the profits. However, parliament refused to adopt a new land code that would permit farmland to be bought and sold like other forms of property or used as collateral for loans, and most genuinely private farming ventures were blocked. Changes in relative prices made fertilizer and agricultural machines too expensive for some farms, and the sector was also plagued by bad weather. From 1989 to 1999 total agricultural output shrank by about 45 percent. Subsequently, the sector underwent a significant revival. From 1999 through 2002, for example, output grew by an average of about 10 percent per year. In 2002 parliament adopted a law that legalized the buying and selling of agricultural land by Russian citizens. Costly government subsidies to the sector were reduced substantially.


Russia is a major producer of lumber and wood products. The principal commercial hardwood tree is birch. The primary areas of timber production are northwestern European Russia, the central Ural Mountains, southern Siberia in the vicinity of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and southeastern Siberia. During the Soviet era the most accessible and valuable stands of timber in European Russia were heavily harvested. Because of the lack of adequate forest management, these stands were depleted, and less valuable tree species have become dominant in many areas that were once prime forestland. As a result, logging ventures moved eastward into Siberia. Major unexploited forests remain in less accessible areas of Siberia and northern European Russia.

Russian timber production was particularly disrupted by the collapse of markets in Eastern Europe and the other former Soviet republics. The industry, especially its Siberian component, was also depressed by the sharp increases in domestic transportation costs that followed the liberalization of prices in the early 1990s. As a result of these factors, the industry contributed only a small percentage of the country’s total exports.


Russia’s fishing industry is one of the largest in the world. Despite a steep fall in output after 1990, the industry still ranked highly in world fish production. Historically, Russian fishing was concentrated on bordering seas and inland lakes and rivers, but in the Soviet period a major effort was made to expand the industry’s reach. Soviet fleets began to operate in most areas of the world’s oceans, and inland fish farming was developed in ponds and rural irrigation reservoirs.

More than half of the Russian catch is taken from the Pacific Ocean and its marginal seas, including the Bering Sea. Vladivostok is the largest fishing port and fish-processing center of the far eastern region; many smaller fishing ports are scattered along the mainland coast as well as on Sakhalin Island. The Sea of Okhotsk is one of the richest fishing grounds, known especially for its salmon and for Kamchatka crab. Other species taken in the Pacific include herring, flounder, smelt, mackerel, and cod, as well as marine mammals such as walrus and seal.

About a quarter of the total catch comes from the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Much of the Atlantic fishing fleet is based at ports on the Baltic Sea, particularly Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg. Murmansk and Arkhangel’sk are the most important fishing ports on the western Arctic coast. The principal commercial species taken in the Baltic Sea is herring. The main species taken from the Atlantic are cod, herring, and mackerel.

Inland fishing also contributes to the total catch. A majority of the inland catch comes from the saltwater Azov, Black, and Caspian seas; the remainder comes from freshwater lakes and rivers. The principal inland fishing ports include Taganrog on the Sea of Azov and Astrakhan’ on the Volga River near the Caspian.


Because Soviet economic planners defined economic progress in terms of physical production, they severely neglected the development of many services. Trends since the early 1990s have begun to reduce this imbalance. The services sector has been the fastest-growing part of the Russian economy. The overall prices of services have increased about twice as fast as the prices of goods. Employment in business-related services such as advertising, accounting, finance, and insurance has grown sharply, and could make a significant contribution to GDP growth in the future.

On the other hand, many services that are heavily dependent on government funding experienced declines after the collapse of the Soviet system. Employment in scientific research, for example, plunged about 45 percent by the mid-1990s, while employment in transportation and communications declined about 9 percent. Employment in health and education grew slightly, but government funding for these activities was cut severely. The resulting deterioration of public education and public health care has imposed major social costs, and it has sharpened the inequalities between the rich and the poor.


Post-Soviet Russia has numerous attractions that draw foreign visitors. Primary cultural attractions include the former imperial retreats near Saint Petersburg, the Old Town of Novgorod, the Golden Ring of medieval towns surrounding Moscow, and many museums, galleries, theaters, and architectural points of interest in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Resorts on the Black Sea are popular with both foreign and domestic tourists, as are cruises along the Volga River. Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world and the home of many unique animal and plant species, draws numerous visitors each year.

Foreign travel to Russia plunged after the collapse of the USSR but rebounded sharply in the mid-1990s. The number of foreign visitors was 20.2 million in 2006. Despite the construction of Western-owned hotels in major cities, the infrastructure of the tourist industry remains underdeveloped, and this is likely to prevent the expansion of foreign tourism to the levels enjoyed by some Western countries. Nevertheless, the present volume of tourism is a significant source of foreign exchange.


Russia’s transportation network has been shaped by the country’s vast size and its Soviet history. Soviet planners were preoccupied with expanding heavy industry, so the Soviet government considered transportation a necessary but less productive economic activity. It therefore designed transportation facilities to move large amounts of goods and people at low cost and generally sacrificed consumer convenience. The transportation system is densest in European Russia, where industry and population are concentrated. Overall, however, Russia’s transportation system is much less dense than those of most advanced industrial states.

Railroads dominate the system. Russia’s extensive public rail network includes 84,000 km (52,000 mi) of track. The railroads carry the bulk of the country’s total freight. The heaviest freight traffic on a single rail line occurs on the western Siberian section of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which extends from Moscow to the eastern port of Vladivostok and is the primary land route connecting western and eastern Russia. This high-traffic railroad is supplemented by the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), which extends north of the Trans-Siberian Railroad across eastern Siberia to the Pacific coast. Railroads still account for nearly half of all passenger travel, although buses have begun carrying an increased share of commuter passengers and airplanes have absorbed a large proportion of long-distance travel.

The Soviet government neglected automotive transportation because of the high cost of constructing and maintaining roads and because of the high operating cost of moving goods by truck. Today, trucking still accounts for only a small percentage of freight shipments. With about 537,000 km (333,856 mi) of public and private roads, Russia ranks sixth internationally in terms of the size of its road system, even though it is by far the largest country in the world. Although automobile ownership has increased, by 2000 there were still only 140 vehicles for every 1,000 inhabitants. Only 67 percent of the roads are paved, and only about 60 percent of rural villages can be reached by a paved road.

Airline travel is the preferred means of domestic and international travel for those who can afford it. Aeroflot-Russian Airlines is the largest airline. During the Soviet period Aeroflot was completely state-owned and was the exclusive provider of domestic civilian air transportation. In 1992 it became a joint-stock company, with the government retaining 51 percent of its shares. Aeroflot no longer has a monopoly, and Russia’s airline industry is now open to competition from both domestic and foreign companies.

In some regions of Russia, inland waterways are a major means of transportation. The most important waterway is the Volga River, which carries more than half of Russia’s river traffic. Moscow is connected to the Volga system through the Moscow Canal, which runs north to the Volga River. In remote areas of Siberia rivers are often the only means of transportation available. However, most Siberian rivers flow north to the Arctic Ocean, thus limiting their utility in a region where east-west links are required. The eastward-flowing Amur River is the chief navigable river of the far eastern region.

Russia’s merchant navy is an important transportation link with many foreign countries. The principal civilian seaports in Russia include Novorossiysk on the Black Sea; Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea; Nakhodka, Vostochnyy, Vladivostok, and Vanino on the Pacific coast; and Murmansk and Arkhangel’sk on the Arctic coast. The Russian fleet is one of the world’s largest merchant navies.

Foreign Trade and Investment

Russia’s foreign-trade approach and trade patterns have changed dramatically since the collapse of communism. After the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the USSR conducted most of its foreign trade with other communist countries and tried to make the bloc of communist countries in Eastern Europe and Asia economically independent of the West. Beginning in the 1960s the Soviet leadership sought more Western technology and grain to compensate for the shortcomings of the USSR’s planned economy, but in the 1980s the other members of the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) still accounted for almost two-thirds of Soviet foreign trade. Like other Soviet economic activities, foreign trade was centrally planned and administered.

Since the USSR’s collapse, Russia has sought to integrate into the global economy. The Russian government began implementing reforms in trade laws and practices in the mid-1990s as part of its quest to gain membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). It abolished export quotas and export licenses, as well as export duties on certain key goods. Direct government management of foreign trade persisted only in the realm of arms exports and defense-related equipment. Russia’s pursuit of WTO membership received a major international boost in 2004 when Russia secured a promise of support for its entry from the European Union (EU), its biggest trading partner, although it must still reach similar agreements with countries outside the EU. Domestically, WTO accession faces resistance from certain business groups, such as automobile manufacturers, which fear that WTO membership will expose them to new competition from abroad.

For most years since the early 1990s, Russia has maintained a positive balance of trade. A country’s balance of trade reflects its trade with the outside world in both goods and services. In 2007 the total value of Russian exports was $355 billion, while the cost of imports was $245 billion. In proportional terms, Russia has recently maintained one of the largest trade surpluses in the world.

Foreign investment in Russia has been concentrated primarily in the purchase of government treasury bills and bonds, as well as shares on the Russian stock exchange. Foreign direct investment (FDI)—that is, foreign ownership and management of companies in Russia—remains quite limited. Foreign bidders were generally excluded from the first phases of enterprise privatization, and in some sectors, such as banking and energy, ceilings continue to limit the proportion of foreign ownership to a small percentage of the total shares. The ambivalent attitude of the Russian government and the reservations of foreign investors have combined to keep per capita FDI at a fraction of the level in the most prosperous post-communist economies.

Perhaps even more significant than the small inflow of foreign direct investment has been the shortage of domestic investment in Russia. Throughout the 1990s the rate of domestic investment was extraordinarily low. A large volume of domestic capital left Russia in the form of “capital flight.” Many Russian investors put their money in low-yielding offshore accounts instead of in Russian businesses for a number of reasons, including insecure property rights, political uncertainty, and stifling taxes. Capital flight peaked at 13 percent of GDP in 1998 but then decreased. In 2003 net capital flows reportedly turned in Russia’s favor for the first time since the onset of the economic transition, and this change was accompanied by sharp increases in the overall level of investment in the economy. However, the overall rate of investment remains modest in relation to Russia’s needs and the standards of other high-growth economies.

Mass Media

In the mid-1980s the freedom of the Soviet mass media from government control grew dramatically as a result of reforms instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev. His campaign for glasnost (openness) encouraged public discussion of politically sensitive issues. The lifting of government censorship allowed reformist ideas to be printed and broadcast openly for the first time since the 1920s. Consequently, there was an enormous upsurge in the circulation of reformist journals and newspapers, as well as in the viewership of reform-minded television broadcasts. However, these positive changes did not prepare the media to operate in the turbulent environment created by the breakup of the USSR.

The introduction of shock therapy caused severe economic problems for the media. As government subsidies were slashed and inflation drove up publishing costs, many newspapers and periodicals lost legions of readers soured by skyrocketing subscription and newsstand prices. In theory, these publications could tap new revenues by selling advertising, but most enterprises were too hard-pressed to advertise. As a result, many newspapers launched in the 1980s were forced to close. Russia’s newspaper readers still enjoyed considerably more choice than they did during Soviet times. Intellectuals and many professionals continue to rely on the major national newspapers, which were published in Moscow and set up new Web sites in both Russian and English; however, the countrywide circulation of these newspapers declined dramatically.

As a news medium the press was gradually eclipsed by television, which has become far more popular, has far wider reach, and attracts heavier investment. State-owned or influenced television networks have the largest audience. In radio, traditional state-run networks compete with music-based commercial stations.

In the mid-1990s Russia’s new business elite began to exert growing influence over the mass media. Two new television networks were founded as private companies, and 49 percent of shares in one state network were sold to private investors. In each case, the network soon came under the strong influence of a powerful banker-entrepreneur, and critics charged that these ambitious entrepreneurs were improperly shaping the content of public broadcasts. Likewise, by 1997 many print media were owned, at least in part, by bank-led financial-industrial groups, and a few high-profile cases demonstrated the capacity of these conglomerates to override editors’ preferences on especially sensitive topics, particularly those concerning charges of business misdeeds. The economic pressures unleashed by shock therapy also contributed to the spread of corruption among rank and file journalists, who sometimes accepted bribes from outsiders in exchange for favorable news coverage.

The issue of media control assumed growing importance under President Putin, who took steps to curb the political influence of the business elite. Under Putin government control of the media increased substantially. In 2001 government pressure forced one media magnate to sell the Independent Television (NTV) channel to Gazprom, the mostly state-owned gas monopoly. Meanwhile, two privately owned newspapers were shut down after their owner, another powerful businessman, was charged with money laundering (disguising the origins of illegally acquired money by passing it through a legitimate business or bank account). In January 2002 the government ordered the closure of a small independent television channel, TV6. It was replaced by TVS, which remained Russia’s only privately owned national network until June 2003, when the authorities shut it down, officially for financial reasons. The international media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders said the action threatened the diversity and freedom of news coverage in Russia.


The Russian Federation became an independent state in December 1991 as a result of the collapse of the USSR. During the communist era the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was the largest of the USSR’s 15 republics. The present Russian Federation occupies the same territory as the former RSFSR. Since independence, Russia has adopted a new constitution and system of government.

Russia is a federal and presidential republic governed under a constitution that took effect in 1993, replacing the 1978 constitution of the RSFSR. The central government is composed of three independent branches: the executive (the president and prime minister), legislative (the Federal Assembly), and judicial. The government is responsible to the president, and the executive branch is considerably more powerful than the other two branches. The constitution is largely the creation of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who dominated Russian politics from independence until his retirement from politics in 1999. Yeltsin was elected the RSFSR’s first president by popular vote in June 1991, and he retained this position in Russia after the Soviet Union dissolved later that year.

To some extent presidential decrees can take the place of laws, thereby evading legislative scrutiny. Furthermore, the legislature has only limited rights to investigate government activity. Nevertheless, the legislature can reject the budget, draft legislation, publicize government errors and malpractice, and, at the price of its own dissolution and new parliamentary elections, bring down the government by repeated votes of no confidence.

The Constitution: Origins and Development

During the Soviet period, power was concentrated in Communist Party institutions and was highly centralized. Federal institutions, located in Moscow, were much more powerful than the regional institutions of the 15 republics. Although Russians dominated the central party and government institutions, the RSFSR’s own institutions were even weaker and less autonomous than those of the other 14 republics. Unlike the other Soviet republics, Russia did not have its own separate Communist Party, security police (KGB), or Academy of Sciences for most of the communist era. Although Russia did have its own government (Council of Ministers) and legislature (Supreme Soviet), these institutions did not exercise their full constitutional powers.

The RSFSR’s 1978 constitution only became significant when the Soviet Union collapsed. The constitution gave the legislative branch supremacy over the executive branch. However, the legislators’ lack of political experience made government extremely difficult. As a result, increasing power was granted to the newly established state presidency, sometimes on a temporary basis. In 1992 and 1993, when President Yeltsin and the legislature clashed over policy, the absence of clear and realistic constitutional demarcation between executive and legislative power became a major problem.

A new constitution, ratified by referendum in December 1993, solved this difficulty. Although it greatly increased the power of the presidency, it also established basic democratic guidelines, such as fixed terms of office, electoral procedures, and universal suffrage for all citizens aged 18 or older. In principle, the constitution also guarantees civil rights and the rule of law. Yeltsin’s opponents regarded the constitution as illegitimate, and they disputed whether a majority of voters had in fact endorsed it in the referendum. After a few years, however, hostility to the constitution decreased somewhat.


Power is concentrated in the executive branch, which is headed by a president. He or she is directly elected by the people to a four-year term and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. The president serves as the commander in chief of the armed forces and chairs the Security Council, which is the central decision-making body for matters of defense. With the defense minister, the president has control over Russia’s nuclear weapons. The president appoints the prime minister, who is second in command. The appointment is subject to ratification by the State Duma, the lower house of parliament; if the State Duma rejects the candidate for prime minister three times, the president can dissolve the legislature and call for new elections. The president has the right to dissolve the legislature under certain other conditions as well. In the event of the president’s death or permanent incapacitation, the prime minister temporarily takes on the president’s duties, but new presidential elections must be held within three months.


The Federal Assembly is Russia’s bicameral national legislature. It is composed of an upper house, called the Federation Council, and a lower house, the State Duma. The Federation Council has 168 members, who are appointed by the executive and legislative bodies of each of the administrative units that make up the Russian Federation.

The State Duma has 450 members. Voters elect half of the Duma members by casting a vote for a specific party listed on the ballot; these 225 seats are divided among the qualifying parties by proportional representation. The other 225 Duma members are elected individually from electoral districts throughout the country. Each of Russia’s 83 constituent units has at least one electoral district; some densely populated units have more than one. Legislators are elected to four-year terms.


The highest judicial body is the Constitutional Court, composed of 19 judges who are appointed by the president and approved by the Council of the Federation. The Constitutional Court’s mandate is to rule on the constitutionality of legislative and executive actions. In the early 1990s the Constitutional Court tried unsuccessfully to mediate the conflict between the legislature and the president. With the adoption of the 1993 constitution, the Constitutional Court’s powers were reduced and its membership was changed.

Below the Constitutional Court are the Supreme Court and the Supreme Arbitration Court. The Supreme Court rules on civil, criminal, and administrative law, and the Supreme Arbitration Court handles economic suits. As with the Constitutional Court, judges for these high courts are appointed by the president and approved by the upper house of the legislature. The 1978 constitution had established life terms for judges, but the 1993 constitution changed appointments of high court judges to 12-year terms. By law, all judges in Russia are independent and cannot be removed from office. Although the judiciary has been freed from the direct political control that existed in the communist era, it remains financially weak. They are also very vulnerable to threats and pressures from the criminal world and from officials who are in league with organized crime.

Political Parties

Beginning in the late 1980s Russia changed from a single-party, totalitarian state led by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to a chaotic, factious, multiparty democracy. Hundreds of political groups, factions, movements, and parties emerged, spanning a wide political spectrum. Russia’s political parties can be divided into five general categories: communist, Russian nationalist, reformist, centrist, and special interest parties. The parties range in size from a few members to more than half a million members. Some of the smaller political groups have lasted only a brief time. Alliances between groups are generally unstable, and coalitions shift frequently. Individual personalities influence political formations to a large degree, and the political agendas of many parties are vague and poorly documented. The CPSU was replaced by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which continued to be a political force in the legislature. Centrist parties, notably United Russia, have risen in prominence in recent years.

Local Government

Russia is divided into 83 administrative units: 21 nominally autonomous republics, 9 territories known as krays, 4 autonomous national areas called okrugs, 46 regions known as oblasts, 1 autonomous oblast, and the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which have federal status.

The 21 republics are Adygea, Alania (North Ossetia), Altay, Bashkortostan, Buryatia, Chechnya, Chuvashia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Karelia, Khakassia, Komi, Mari El, Mordovia, Sakha (Yakutia), Tatarstan, Tuva, and Udmurtia. They vary considerably in size: The republic of Sakha has a total area of more than 3 million sq km (1 million sq mi), while Ingushetia, the smallest unit (excluding Moscow and Saint Petersburg), has an area of only about 4,300 sq km (about 1,660 sq mi).

The republics, okrugs, and autonomous oblast are direct successors to ethnic units established during the Soviet period, with the exception of Chechnya and Ingushetia, which previously had been a single unit, the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic. The Soviet government established the ethnic units to appease indigenous, non-Russian nationalities, but political and economic factors caused migration into and out of the regions. Russians now make up the majority of the population in most areas.

The 1993 constitution grants the republics a greater degree of autonomy than the other administrative areas. The republics have special rights, such as the right to adopt their own anthems, flags, and limited constitutions. In general, republics pay fewer taxes to the central government, which has caused great indignation among the leaders of the oblasts and krays. All of the republics and some of the other administrative units have separate treaties with the central government. Therefore, the extent to which an administrative unit controls its own economic resources, receives subsidies, and retains locally raised taxes differs from area to area. Political and economic realities also influence an area’s relationship with the federal government. Powerful regional leaders are sometimes able to secure favorable deals from the central government. Regions that have important economic resources also sometimes receive special treatment. Moscow, for example, has frequently secured exemption from rules that the federal government has imposed on other regions.

In general, the power of administrative area leaders increased greatly after the collapse of the USSR. By late 1997 all local chief executive officers were democratically elected and therefore had independent sources of power and legitimacy. Furthermore, because they served as their area representatives in the Federation Council, all had a direct role in the central government. They also controlled considerable wealth and resources in alliance with local economic interests.

However, in 2000 President Vladimir Putin introduced significant changes to regional governance that strengthened the power of the central government. Through a presidential decree, Putin created seven federal okrugs and divided Russia’s administrative units among them. Each federal okrug is headed by an appointed presidential envoy who is responsible for overseeing local regions’ compliance with federal legislation and for determining their eligibility for federal funds. The regional governors are now answerable to the presidential envoys, most of whom are senior officers of the security services or the military.

The relationship between the central government and the administrative units remains a source of conflict and uncertainty. Until this relationship is stabilized and clarified, it will be impossible to establish an effective fiscal and legal system that is uniform throughout Russia. This makes economic recovery difficult. On the other hand, the threat that the ethnically based republics might secede and cause the Russian Federation to disintegrate has decreased since 1991. Only Chechnya insisted on independence, and in the early 2000s it lay in ruins under military occupation after a devastating war with the central government. In 2009 Russian officials announced that counterterrorism operations in Chechnya had ceased, and local Chechnyan officals said peace and security had been restored.


The USSR was a military superpower with a massive nuclear arsenal and millions of troops; in the 1980s the armed forces had more than 5 million members. Immediately after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the armed forces came under the military command of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an organization comprising most of the former Soviet republics. In May 1992 Russia created its own military structure in response to the formation of separate armies by several CIS states, notably Ukraine. The CIS military command continued to function for another year, although its power was greatly reduced. It was finally abolished in June 1993 and most of its functions were transferred to the Russian military command. Under the new Russian military structure, an executive body known as the Security Council formulates defense policy. The Russian president appoints and dismisses members of the council and dominates its proceedings.

In 2006 Russia had 1,027,000 troops in the army, navy, air force, air defense force, and strategic rocket force (which controls the country’s nuclear weapons). Paramilitary forces, including border troops, numbered an additional 220,000. However, Russia’s conventional forces were generally unprepared for combat. The disastrous performance of the army during the 1995 and 1996 campaign in Chechnya revealed immense deficiencies in command, logistics, training, and morale.

According to Russian law, men 18 years of age and older must serve two years in the armed forces, but massive exemptions and evasion greatly reduce the recruitment pool. There has been considerable debate about shifting to an all-volunteer force, which in theory would be more efficient and less unpopular. Volunteer forces are usually more expensive, however, because better pay and conditions are needed to entice people to join. Russia’s budgetary constraints make the creation of volunteer armed forces unthinkable in the near future. The defense establishment is beset by a host of problems, including grossly inadequate revenues, corruption, recruitment shortfalls, inadequate housing, and aging equipment.

Since the collapse of the USSR all nuclear weapons of the former Soviet forces have been concentrated in Russia. Some have been destroyed, but most remain intact. The USSR had established agreements with Western nations to limit armaments, and Russia inherited both the START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which was signed in 1991, and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreements. The START II treaty, an additional agreement between the United States and Russia to significantly reduce nuclear arms, was signed in 1993 but was never ratified by Russia. In 2002 the two countries agreed to a new arms-reduction treaty requiring both to reduce their nuclear-weapons arsenals by two-thirds over a period of ten years. In the early and mid-1990s there was significant decline in the export of Russian arms and military advisers to developing countries, but arms exports had begun to rise by the late 1990s. The increase reflected a desire for commercial gain, however, rather than a strategy to gain political influence in support of a global struggle against the United States, as had been the case during the Soviet period.

State Security

In Soviet times the KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti; Russian for “State Security Committee”) and its predecessors were large and powerful organizations. The KGB’s role included intelligence work abroad, counterespionage, and the repression of domestic dissent. The KGB also provided the top Soviet leadership with information about public moods and international developments that could not be gained from the USSR’s censored press. KGB officers were members of the Soviet elite and were often very intelligent and well educated. In 1991 public outcry erupted after the agency participated in a failed coup, and President Yeltsin subsequently split the agency into five bodies. The main heirs to the KGB are the FSB (Federal Security Services), which concentrates on domestic affairs, and the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), which inherited the KGB’s foreign agents and activities. Although the major successor agencies are still large bodies with pervasive influence, Russians are now far freer to express their opinions and engage in independent political activity than they were under the KGB in the Soviet Union.

International Organizations

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia assumed the USSR’s place in the United Nations (UN). Consequently, Russia also gained a permanent position on the United Nations Security Council, the UN organ responsible for maintaining international peace and security. Also in 1991 Russia became a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which includes most of the former Soviet republics. The Russians initially hoped that the CIS would coordinate shared military, foreign policy, and economic goals of member states, but by the mid-1990s the republics had abandoned the common currency and the CIS had abolished its joint military command. Russia is also a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); Partnership for Peace, a program intended to strengthen relations between member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and central and Eastern European countries; and the Council of Europe (CE). Russia became a limited partner in NATO in May 2002 under a landmark accord allowing the country to help set joint policy on a limited range of issues, such as nonproliferation and counterterrorism. Although it widened Russia’s role in NATO affairs, the accord stopped short of giving Russia a veto over NATO decisions or a vote in the expansion of the military alliance’s membership; nor did it include Russia in NATO’s collective defense pact.

Foreign Policy

After World War II (1939-1945) the Cold War dominated Soviet foreign policy. All issues were seen from the perspective of a global ideological and political struggle with the United States and its allies. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, who led the country from 1985 to 1991, the USSR sought to end the Cold War. Relations with the West improved dramatically.

After independence in 1991 Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev and President Boris Yeltsin at first maintained a strongly pro-American foreign policy. Yeltsin and Kozyrev initially had a relaxed attitude toward the eastward expansion of NATO, which had been the main military alliance of Western nations during the Cold War.

Domestic pressure prompted a foreign policy shift. In particular, strong support for the ultranationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the December 1993 parliamentary elections convinced the government that the public demanded a more nationalistic, less pro-Western approach to foreign policy. As a result, Russia resumed sales of arms and civil nuclear technology to developing countries, including Iran, which elicited disapproval from the United States. More importantly, Russia began expressing loud support for Russians in the “near abroad” (as Russians call the outlying areas of the former USSR) and strong opposition to NATO expansion, and was at odds with NATO countries over how to resolve the ethnic turmoil in the former Yugoslavia. NATO’s support for Muslims and Croats drew disapproval from Russia, which had historical ties to the competing ethnic Serbs.

Much of this shift in policy was more a question of rhetoric than one of practice, however. By 1997 Russia’s support for Russian-speaking secessionists in the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova had become more moderate. The Russian government never encouraged Russian secessionists in Crimea; their strength in 1993 and 1994 threatened both political stability in Ukraine and Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In 1997 Russia signed a friendship treaty with Ukraine, settling the long-standing dispute over the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and confirming its recognition of Ukraine’s postindependence borders.

There were multiple reasons for Russia’s restraint. The country was conscious of its economic and military weakness, and it was also aware of the potential for conflict within the former USSR if national borders were challenged or ethnic conflicts encouraged. Furthermore, Yeltsin recognized that Russia needed to integrate itself into the world economy and Western-dominated institutions, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), if it was to regain economic prosperity and effective global influence. Russia’s long-running dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands also reduced the country’s room to maneuver in international affairs.

In 1999 Russia’s relations with Western nations suddenly worsened as NATO admitted the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, thus expanding into central and eastern Europe, and also attacked Yugoslavia to compel the Yugoslav government to halt military operations against Albanian separatists in that country’s Kosovo province. Russia denounced NATO as aggressive and expansionist and drew closer to China. However, Russian policymakers understood their own country’s weakness and its need to attract Western investment. The government’s rhetoric at times reflected the increasingly nationalist mood in Russian society, but its foreign policy remained cautious.

Russia’s leaders were, in fact, anxious to maintain good relations with the Western powers. President Vladimir Putin pursued a foreign policy of closer cooperation with the West. Following terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001, Russia became a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism (see September 11 Attacks). In May 2002 Russia and the United States reached their first arms-reduction treaty in more than a decade. Also that month, Russia became a limited partner in NATO. In November 2002 Russia did not object when NATO announced a further expansion to include several more nations in Eastern Europe, among them the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

However, Russia was critical of the United States over its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Russia joined with Germany and France in the United Nations (UN) Security Council in proposing that UN weapons inspectors be given more time to search for alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It refused to join the invasion force that the United States and Britain assembled. See also U.S.-Iraq War.


In the 14th and 15th centuries a powerful Russian state began to grow around Moscow. It gradually expanded west and southwest toward the Dnieper River, north to the Arctic Ocean, and east to the Ural Mountains. By the 18th century Russia had gained full control over a number of major rivers, giving it access to the Baltic and Black seas. These conquests had a huge impact on the country’s trade and economic development. The Russian Empire continued to grow. At its greatest extent, in 1914 before World War I (1914-1918), the empire included more than 20 million sq km (8 million sq mi), nearly one-sixth of the land area of the Earth.

The empire’s heartland centered on Moscow and was the original homeland of the Great Russians, the chief ethnic component of the Russian Empire. To the east of the empire lay Siberia, which by 1914 had an overwhelmingly Russian population. The western borderlands were home to Ukrainians and Belarusians; the empire considered these Orthodox Slavs to be merely branches of the Russian people who spoke somewhat strange, regional dialects. In the northwest were Finland and the Baltic provinces (now Latvia and Estonia); their Protestant populations were very different from the Russians, both culturally and linguistically. Most of Poland, along with Lithuania, was acquired in the late 18th century. The South Caucasus, with its partly Muslim population, was absorbed in the early 19th century; most of Central Asia, almost entirely Muslim, was absorbed a generation later.

The Russian Empire fell in 1917. Most of its territory was inherited by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union), a communist state that existed until 1991. When the USSR collapsed, the Russian Federation became its principal successor state.

The Territorial Zones

Russian history has been strongly influenced by the country’s natural environment. European Russia’s relatively flat terrain and dense network of navigable rivers facilitated communications, economic development, and political unity across the region.

The frozen swamplands and dense forests of northern European Russia were unsuitable for agriculture, as they are today; however, fur pelts from the region’s enormous animal population were important Russian exports that were crucial to the state treasury until the 18th century. All the medieval Russian settlements were located in a central zone of European Russia, an area with thick forests and some agricultural land. Most of the area had relatively poor soils. Therefore, this zone could not sustain a very large population until industrial development began in the 19th and 20th centuries. The region’s forests offered security to the neighboring agricultural settlements, which were periodically raided by the tribes of fierce nomadic horsemen that dominated the vast grasslands to the south.

For more than 1,000 years before 1600 these warring horsemen were more formidable soldiers than the armies of the settled agricultural communities were. It was only with the creation of a modern, disciplined army, equipped with muskets and artillery, that the Russians were able to turn the tables on the nomads. With the new army, Russians colonized the steppe and united the entire vast plain between the Baltic and Black seas. Russia’s modern identity as a powerful military state with a large population did not emerge until this process was completed in the 18th century. Indeed, even as late as the mid-18th century Russia’s population was smaller than that of France.

Origins of the Russian People

During the pre-Christian era the vast territory that became Russia was sparsely inhabited by tribal peoples, many of whom were described by ancient Greek and Roman writers. The largely unknown north, a region of extensive forests, was inhabited by tribes later known collectively as Slavs. These Slavs were the ancestors of the modern Russian people. Far more important to the ancient Greeks and Romans were southern peoples in Scythia, an indeterminate region that included the greater part of southeastern Europe and Central Asia. Portions of this region were occupied by a succession of horse-riding nomadic peoples, including, chronologically, the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians. In these early times, Greek traders and colonists established many trading posts and settlements, particularly along the north coast of the Black Sea and in Crimea.

Large stretches of open plain facilitated the immigration of outside peoples. Such migrations resulted in successive invasions, the establishment of settlements, and the assimilation of people who spoke different languages. Thus, in the early centuries of the Christian era, Germanic Goths displaced the Asian peoples of Scythia and established an Ostrogothic (eastern Goth) kingdom on the Black Sea. In the 4th century nomadic Huns invaded from Asia and conquered the Ostrogoths. The Huns held the territory constituting present-day Ukraine and most of present-day Moldova until their defeat in Western Europe in the mid-5th century. Later came the Mongolian Avars, followed by the nomadic Asian Magyars, and then the Turkic Khazars, who remained influential until about the mid-10th century.

Meanwhile, during this long period of successive invasions, the Slavic tribes in the area northeast of the Carpathian Mountains had begun a series of migratory movements. As these migrations took place, the western tribes in the region eventually evolved as the Moravians, Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks; the southern tribes as the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and a Slavic people who were conquered by but soon assimilated the Turkic Bulgars; and the eastern tribes as a people who later gave rise to the modern Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. The East Slavs became renowned traders. The systems of rivers and waterways extending through the territory from the Valday Hills facilitated the establishment of Slav trading posts, notably the cities of Kyiv (Kiev), which is the present-day capital of Ukraine, and Novgorod, directly north of Kyiv. Along these waterways the Slavs transported goods between the Baltic and Black seas.

The House of Ryurik

In the 9th century Scandinavian Vikings invaded and settled a number of regions in northern Europe, from Russia in the east to Ireland in the west. From these eastward-moving Scandinavians, called Varangians or Rus, came the name Rossiya, or Russia, meaning “land of the Rus.” (Scholars debate the origin of the word Rus, which also may have been derived from ruotsi, the Finnish name for the Swedes, or from Rukhs-As, the name of an Alanic tribe in southern Russia.)

Scandinavian princes from the house of Ryurik organized the East Slavs into a single state. According to tradition recorded in the Primary Chronicle, the chief East Slavic source of much of early Russian history, internal dissension and feuds among the East Slavs around Novgorod became so violent that the people voluntarily chose a Scandinavian chief, Ryurik, to rule over them in AD 862. In fact, Ryurik is a semimythical figure and his precise relationship with subsequent princely rulers of Rus is debated.

Vladimir the Great: Conversion to Orthodoxy

In 882 Kyiv and Novgorod were united as the state of Kievan Rus under a single ruler from the house of Ryurik. The East Slavs were pagans who worshiped the Earth’s natural forces. By the early 10th century, however, Kievan Rus had established close commercial and cultural ties with the Byzantine Empire, the center of Orthodox Christianity. In 980 Vladimir I (whose name is spelled Volodymyr in Ukrainian) became ruler; eight years later he converted to Orthodox Christianity and made Orthodoxy (see Orthodox Church) the official religion of Kievan Rus. The Slavic church had considerable autonomy, and services were held in a Slavic liturgical language known as Old Church Slavonic rather than in the Greek language of the Byzantine Empire. In matters of doctrine, however, the church obeyed the rulings of the patriarch of Constantinople in the Byzantine capital. Monasteries and churches were built in Byzantine style, and Byzantine culture became the predominant influence in fields such as art, architecture, and music. Vladimir’s choice of Orthodox Christianity, rather than the Latin church (Roman Catholicism) or Islam, had an important influence on the future of Russia. Orthodoxy played a crucial role in shaping the values and the separate identity of the East Slavs. As Christians, they belonged unequivocally to Europe rather than to one of the other great regional civilizations of the world. As Orthodox, particularly after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, they were powerful but peripheral members of the European Christian community.

Yaroslav the Wise

Kievan Rus achieved its greatest power and splendor under Yaroslav the Wise in the 11th century. Yaroslav made Kyiv a great city and built magnificent buildings, including the notable Cathedral of Saint Sophia (also known as the Hagia Sophia of Kyiv). Yaroslav did much to develop Rus education and culture. He also compiled the first Russian law code, the so-called Russkaya Pravda (Russian Justice).

The Decline of Kievan Rus

After Yaroslav’s death in 1054, Kievan Rus declined. The state’s prosperity was highly dependent on its control of the major trade routes between northern Europe and the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East. In the 11th and 12th centuries the Turkic Polovtsy (Cuman) tribe conquered and dominated the southeastern steppe, threatening the Kievan Rus trade routes. Matters worsened after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople (present-day İstanbul) in 1204. The huge but sparsely populated lands between the Baltic and Black seas were difficult to hold together as a single state. Furthermore, because Kievan Rus territories were divided among a ruler’s heirs, political power became fragmented and constant battles ensued between the various branches of the princely house.

Yaroslav’s grandson, Vladimir II Monomakh, made the final attempt to unite Kievan Rus, but after his death in 1125 the fragmentation continued. Other Kievan Rus principalities challenged Kyiv’s supremacy, particularly Galicia and Volhynia to the west; Chernigov, Novgorod-Severskiy, and Vladimir-Suzdal’ to the northwest; Polotsk and Smolensk to the north; and Novgorod, by far the largest, in the far north.

Novgorod rose to a dominant position as a flourishing commercial state. In the 13th century the city became the site of a major factory of the Hanseatic League, a commercial confederation of European city-states. Kyiv also lost its importance as the great national and cultural center as Suzdal’, Vladimir, and ultimately Moscow, surpassed it. The East Slavic lands became a loose federation of small principalities, held together by common language, religion, traditions, and customs. Although ruled by members of the house of Ryurik, these principalities were often at war with one another. Plundering along the frontiers also caused difficulties. In the west the Poles, Lithuanians, and Teutonic Knights encroached on East Slavic territory; the Polovtsy repeatedly raided the south. While all these posed significant threats to Kievan Rus, in the 13th century an even greater danger came from East Asia.

The Mongol Invasion

In 1223 the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan invaded the southeast. The Polovtsy sent for help from the Russian princes, who came to their aid against this common, greater foe. In the Battle of the Kalka River (now Kal’mius River), the Polovtsy-Russian coalition was routed. After his victory, however, the Mongol khan recalled his armies to Asia and they retreated as rapidly as they had come. For 14 years, the Mongols made no move in the direction of Russia. Then, in 1237, Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu Khan led an army back to eastern Russia. On their northward march, Batu’s forces captured and destroyed most of the major cities in the Vladimir-Suzdal’ region.

The difficult terrain of the forests and swamps south of Novgorod halted the Mongol sweep, and Batu Khan was forced to change the direction of his march, moving to the southwest. Kyiv desperately tried to defend itself, but the city was destroyed by Batu’s army in 1240. The invaders came to be generally known in Russia as the Tatars, after the Turkic-speaking people who comprised a prominent part of the Mongol forces. The Mongols ravaged Poland and Hungary and progressed as far east as Moravia. In 1242 Batu established his capital at Sarai on the lower Volga (near modern Volgograd) and founded the khanate known as the Golden Horde, which was virtually independent of the Mongol Empire.

Ethnic Changes

In addition to the havoc it created in Russia at the time, the Mongol invasion had a long-term influence on later Russian history. Mongol rule increased Russia’s isolation from Europe, and Tatar customs, laws, and government also had an influence on Russia. During the Mongol era the East Slavs evolved into three distinct groups. One group, culturally influenced by the Poles and Lithuanians, eventually became known as White Russians, or Belorussians (Belarusians). A second group, formed of the Slavic population from Kyiv and adjacent areas, became known as Little Russians (Malorussians) and later as Ukrainians. Those who lived in the northeast became known as the Great Russians.

Tribute to the Khanate

Although the Mongols did not attack Novgorod, northwestern Russia was menaced by invaders from the west during the same time period. The Swedes descended from the Baltic and sought to penetrate the territories of Novgorod. In 1240 a Swedish army landed on the banks of the Neva River, and Prince Alexander of Novgorod led a Russian army to meet them. The prince so completely defeated the Swedes that he became known as Alexander Nevsky, meaning “Alexander of the Neva.” Two years later the Teutonic Knights, a religious military order of Germans, advanced from the west. Alexander led his troops to meet the Germans, crossing the frozen Lake Peipus, and routed them. Faced with continuing danger in the west and unwilling to risk Tatar invasion from the south, Alexander adopted a policy of loyal submission to the Golden Horde and conciliation with the khan. In accordance with Tatar wishes, Alexander journeyed to Sarai to secure permission to rule from the khan. The Tatars made Alexander ruler of Kyiv, Vladimir, and Novgorod. Most of the other Russian princes followed Alexander’s example, paying tribute and considering themselves vassals of the khan.

The Growing Importance of Moscow

The town of Moscow, in the principality of Vladimir, occupied a favorable geographical position in the center of Russia and on the principal trade routes. In 1263 Alexander Nevsky gave Moscow to his youngest son, Daniel. Moscow, also known as Muscovy, was made a separate principality in 1301. Daniel was first in a line of powerful Muscovite princes, astute rulers who worked closely with the khans. As Mongol favorites they gradually extended their lands by annexing surrounding territories, retaining the city of Moscow as their capital. In 1328 the khan named Daniel’s son, Ivan I, grand prince of Muscovy. During Ivan’s reign the head of the Russian church, then called the metropolitan, moved from the town of Vladimir to Moscow. With the sanction of the church, the Muscovite grand princes began to organize a new Russian state with themselves as rulers.

Meanwhile, internal dissension rocked the Golden Horde. In the mid-14th century, a series of ineffectual rulers gained control of the khanate and the turmoil weakened their ability to collect tribute from the Russian princes. During the reign of Grand Prince Dmitry (1359-1389), Mamay Khan launched a military expedition to collect unpaid taxes. Dmitry and his army defeated Mamay’s troops in 1380 at the Battle of Kulikovo, although Mamay’s successor sacked Moscow two years later.

Not until the reign of Ivan III Vasilyevich (1462-1505), or Ivan the Great, did Muscovy throw off all control by the Golden Horde and establish itself as the dominant power in northern Russia. In 1478 Muscovy annexed Novgorod, with its huge territories and lucrative fur trade. Two years later Muscovy stopped paying tribute to the Golden Horde, which ultimately disintegrated into a number of separate, weaker khanates. Tver’, Muscovy’s traditional regional rival, was finally absorbed in 1485. After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Russian rulers began calling themselves tsars, a term Russians had previously used to describe the Byzantine emperor and the Tatar khan. However, the term tsar did not become the official title of the Russian ruler until the 16th century.

Muscovy’s increasing power and its position as the last surviving Orthodox state broadened its rulers’ horizons and ambitions. Internally, the power of the tsar grew at the expense of the boyars (Russian nobles). The great increase in the state’s territory encouraged the development of a small but effective Muscovite bureaucracy that was loyal to the tsars alone. The tsars confiscated privately held lands in the conquered principalities and gave these estates to cavalrymen who pledged continual military service in return. In the 16th century the streltsy, a regular infantry corps armed with firearms, was formed. The tsars now had an army of their own and were no longer dependent on the military forces raised by the boyars.

Ivan the Terrible

These practices continued during the reign of Ivan IV Vasilyevich, also known as Ivan the Terrible, who became grand prince of Muscovy in 1533. Ivan conquered and absorbed the Tatar khanates of Kazan’ and Astrakhan’ in the 1550s. During his reign Russia also began the conquest of Siberia, originally conducted by Yermak, a Cossack adventurer. Russia also established commercial contacts with England through the perilous White Sea trade route. Ivan IV imported foreign technical and professional experts, a practice continued by subsequent Russian monarchs. However, the tsar’s attempt to seize Livonia and establish Russian control over part of the Baltic coastline failed in the face of Polish and Swedish resistance, and also seriously overstrained Russian resources. Furthermore, Ivan IV became mentally unstable; his increasingly maniacal domestic policies resulted in the murder of part of the aristocratic elite and the devastation of a number of regions. During Ivan’s reign the Crimean Tatars began to make destructive raids into Russian territory in search of slaves, for whom there was an insatiable market in the Middle East. All of these factors worsened the acute economic crisis that Ivan IV bequeathed to his heirs upon his death in 1584.

Ivan’s son, Fyodor I, was sickly and feeble-minded, and his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, dominated the court during Fyodor’s reign. Fyodor died without an heir in 1598, and the Assembly of the Land (zemsky sobor)—a council that represented the aristocracy, chief towns, and the church—met to choose his successor. The assembly settled on Boris Godunov.

Time of Troubles

Boris Godunov never firmly established his legitimate hold on power, partly because he was suspected of murdering Dmitry Ivanovich, Fyodor’s younger brother and last male blood relative. Furthermore, Boris was unpopular among the members of the aristocracy, who resented his power, and among the peasantry, who were heavily taxed and whose mobility he had severely restricted.

The institution of serfdom (a system in which an agricultural worker is bound to the land and the landowner) had gradually begun to take hold in Russia during the 16th century. For some time the impoverished conditions of the peasants had induced many to seek refuge in the vast steppes to the south. Independent communities of people who became known as Cossacks developed and grew near the major rivers of the steppes. Some of the Cossacks were farmers, but many were also warriors. Discontent increased as a result of a severe famine that began in 1601. In 1604 False Dmitry, a pretender claiming to be Ivan IV’s son and the rightful heir to the throne, invaded Russia with Polish troops. False Dmitry’s advance on Moscow received the overwhelming support of the peasants and Cossacks in the western provinces. Boris died unexpectedly in April 1605, and in June False Dmitry took Moscow. He was a conscientious and able ruler, but he displeased the boyars, who had hoped for a revival of their power. They revolted, murdered False Dmitry, and elevated the boyar Vasily Shuysky to the throne. This move was opposed by the Cossacks and rebellious peasants, who chafed under oppressive serf laws and feared the severity of boyar rule. They rose in southern Russia and joined another pretender, the second False Dmitry, who was already advancing on Moscow. At the same time, Zygmunt III, king of Poland, invaded from the west. After a long period of fighting and intrigue, Vasily was deposed in 1610, and the throne was left vacant. Some boyars advanced the candidacy of Władysław, the son of Zygmunt, and a Polish army entered Moscow. The entire country then fell into a state of anarchy. In 1612 an army raised by Kuzma Minin and led by Prince Dmitry Mikhailovich Pozharsky drove out the Poles.

The Time of Troubles, as this turbulent period became known, was subsequently seen as proof of Russia’s need for a powerful monarchy whose legitimacy and authority were accepted by all the Russian people. In the absence of an autocratic tsar, Russia appeared doomed to anarchy and to dismemberment by powerful neighbors.

Romanov Rule

In 1613 the Assembly of the Land elected Michael Romanov tsar. Michael was the son of the patriarch of Moscow and a great-nephew of Ivan IV’s wife. The Romanov dynasty ruled Russia until 1917, when a revolution ended imperial rule in Russia.

The Pattern of Romanov Policy

During the three centuries of Romanov rule, the dominant thread was the state’s determination that Russia become and remain a great European power. Since Central and Western Europe were economically and culturally more advanced than Russia, this policy demanded great ingenuity from the rulers and even greater sacrifice and suffering from the population. The law code of 1649 effectively divided the society into ranks and occupational classes from which neither the individual nor his or her descendants could move. Previous laws prohibiting the movement of peasants from estates were extended to include movement from cities and towns. Thus, the law code froze not only social status but also residency. By the mid-18th century the state had succeeded in making Russia militarily and economically powerful, but at the cost of imposing a harsh form of serfdom and despotic rule.

In the early 19th century, French emperor Napoleon I invaded Russia and was defeated. Russia was then widely viewed, both at home and abroad, as continental Europe’s most powerful empire. Other European countries subsequently became more powerful, however, as their economies underwent the vast changes of the Industrial Revolution, which began in England and took a number of generations to spread across Europe. The Industrial Revolution did not reach Russia until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Crimean War (1853-1856), in which Russia was defeated by France and Britain, showed that industrialized countries could equip, arm, transport, and pay for much more formidable armies and fleets than largely agricultural countries such as Russia. After the war the Romanov regime was forced to rapidly modernize the economy in order to ensure the country’s security and its position among the Great Powers, which also included Austria, Britain, France, and Prussia. At the beginning of World War I in 1914, Russia’s economy was more industrialized and its people were more urbanized and literate than they had been before the Crimean War. Still, Russia was well behind Germany and Britain. In addition, rapid modernization created acute conflicts between classes and nationalities. The strains of World War I caused internal conflicts and brought down the Romanov dynasty in 1917.

The 17th Century (1613-1689)

The tsarist state in the 17th century was not very different from what it had been under the 16th-century Ryurikids. The monarch ruled in alliance with the leading aristocratic families, but his power was enhanced by the steady growth of the (still small) bureaucracy and the minor provincial landowning nobles. The tightening of serfdom and of the state’s control over the frontier Cossack communities led to a number of peasant and Cossack rebellions, of which the most famous was that of Stenka Razin in 1670.

During the reign of Michael’s son Alexis (1645-1676), Russia became involved in the struggle between Cossacks living in present-day Ukraine and that region’s Polish rulers. The Cossacks, supported by Ukrainians, revolted against the Poles, but they requested Russia’s aid to sustain their success. In 1654 Alexis extended his help in return for a Cossack pledge of loyalty, which immediately led to war between Russia and Poland. The war was settled in 1667 by a treaty that split Ukraine into two parts, divided by the Dnieper River. Poland retained the land west of the river, and Russia gained the land to the east and Kyiv. Western influences entered Russia partly through Ukraine but encountered fierce resistance, especially in the religious sphere. In the 1650s Nikon, the patriarch of Moscow, initiated a series of liturgical reforms that caused a major schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. The loss of the so-called Old Believers—those members of the church who rejected the reforms—did long-term damage to the Orthodox Church’s vitality, to its ability to remain independent of the state, and to its hold on the peasantry.

Peter I and Catherine II

The reign of Peter I (1682-1725), third son of Alexis, was a turning point in Russian history. At the end of the 17th century, Russia was a backward land that stood outside the political affairs of Europe. Superstition, distrust of foreigners, and conservatism characterized most of the society. The economy was based on primitive agriculture and the military organization was sorely out of date. Peter carried forward the Westernizing policies of his father, but in a much more radical and uncompromising manner. He remodeled the armed forces and bureaucracy along European lines, and imposed new taxes that dramatically increased the state’s revenues. He also fostered the military and metallurgical industries, whose main center became the Urals region.

Peter’s policy of territorial expansion resulted in almost constant war. He created Russia’s first navy, which took an Ottoman fortress on the Sea of Azov in 1696. Peter then turned his attention to Sweden. Early in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) between Sweden and a coalition of Russia, Poland, and Denmark, Peter conquered the northeastern coast of the Baltic Sea from Sweden, and in 1703 began building a new capital city, which he called Saint Petersburg, on the Baltic coast. The war, which officially ended with the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, established Russia as the dominant power in the Baltic region. After the war Peter took the title emperor, marking the official inauguration of the Russian Empire, and for his military accomplishments he became known as Peter the Great.

Both technological and cultural Westernization advanced quickly under Peter, but the mass of the population paid heavily for his incessant demands for soldiers and taxes. When Peter died in 1725 Russia was more respected and feared in Europe than ever before. The Russian army’s excellent performance against Prussia in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and its resounding victories over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish Wars of the 18th century resulted in Russia’s acceptance as an equal by the other leading European powers.

Under Catherine II (1762-1796), known in the West as Catherine the Great, Russia annexed 468,000 sq km (180,000 sq mi) from Poland, which disintegrated as Austria and Prussia also took Polish land. Still more significant were the gains of southern Ukrainian territories, which would become the center of Russian agriculture and heavy industry in the 19th century. Although the state’s pressure on the population relaxed somewhat after Peter’s death, serfdom continued, as did peasant resentment. In 1773 Yemelyan Pugachev led a Cossack rebellion against the monarchy that also developed into a revolt against serf owners. Romanov troops crushed the revolt in 1774, and Catherine strengthened the oppressive serf laws. She encouraged the spread of Western culture and values among the Russian elite, although as a result of the French Revolution (1789-1799), which resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy in France, she became more suspicious of public opinion in the last years of her reign. This set the pattern for much of the 19th century, which was marked by increasing conflict between the Romanov state and sections of the educated classes who demanded Western-style freedoms and rights.

Alexander I

Catherine II died in 1796 and was succeeded by her son, Paul I. His increasingly despotic and unbalanced policies prompted court nobles to conspire against him, and he was murdered in 1801. Paul’s eldest son, Alexander I, then ascended to the throne and ruled until 1825. Under Alexander, Russia achieved unprecedented prestige and glory as a result of its victory over Napoleon’s invading army in 1812 and subsequent military victories in Germany and France. Russian rule was extended to much of the South Caucasus, Finland, and further regions of Poland. After the patriotic euphoria caused by the victory over Napoleon, part of the nobility increasingly resented Alexander’s failure to live up to his reputation as a reformer. Upon Alexander’s death in 1825, a group of military officers who became known as the Decembrists launched a coup to prevent Alexander’s brother Nicholas I from ascending to the throne. The Decembrists wanted a constitutional monarchy led by Alexander’s other brother, Constantine. They sought to increase civil and political rights and to end serfdom and the brutal mistreatment of the peasantry.

Nicholas I

In the end the Decembrists were easily suppressed, but the revolt had threatened Nicholas’s life and the empire’s stability. Furthermore, Polish nationalists expelled the Russian imperial authorities from Poland in 1830, although Russian troops regained Warsaw in 1831. In 1848 a wave of nationalist revolutions swept across Europe. These events persuaded Nicholas that the threat of revolution in both Europe and Russia was real. In foreign policy Nicholas responded by entering into a conservative alliance with Austria and Prussia. This alliance was intended to ensure peace and stability among the European powers and to ensure the suppression of any revolts that might occur. In 1849 Russian troops helped the Austrian emperor repress the rebellion of his Hungarian subjects.

Domestically, Nicholas’s answer to revolution was to create a state security police, the gendarmerie, and to tighten censorship. The emperor imposed stifling controls over Russian universities and cultural life, alienating part of the younger generation from the state. Nicholas’s reign also witnessed the great growth of the bureaucracy, whose incompetence and frequent corruption were immortalized by novelist Nikolay Gogol in such works as The Inspector General (1836). Nevertheless, Nicholas’s regime did have some achievements to its credit. The quality and size of the educational system increased greatly, as did the number of cultured, public-spirited, would-be reformers among the younger generation of the bureaucracy and the landowning class. When Nicholas I’s regime was discredited by defeat in the Crimean War, these men were able to lead a program of radical reforms under the emperor’s successor, Alexander II, who reigned from 1855 to 1881.

Alexander II

The Crimean War occurred partly because of Nicholas I’s miscalculations, but also because the French and British were looking for opportunities to weaken Russia, whose position in Europe and the Middle East seemed dangerously strong. In the wake of defeat, Alexander II abolished serfdom, introduced a Western-style legal system, created elected local government institutions (zemstvos), eased censorship, and radically modernized the army and the communications system. His reforms did not, however, create stability or consensus in Russia. Both the peasants and the landowning nobles believed that the land rightfully belonged to them and were dissatisfied by the emancipation settlement that had ended serfdom. Many young upper- and middle-class Russians felt that Alexander’s reforms had not gone far enough to improve the peasant’s lot, to bring Russia up to Western levels of prosperity and freedom, or to allow Russians the right to express their political opinions and to participate in government. A terrorist movement emerged in the 1870s, and the campaign of assassination of senior officials culminated in Alexander II’s murder in 1881.

Alexander III

The increasing terrorism and social conflict in the empire’s last decades strengthened the emperors’ conviction that the empire would disintegrate into anarchy without a resolute authoritarian regime. They believed that Russia was too poor and too divided by class and ethnic differences for any form of democracy to work. In the last weeks of Alexander II’s reign, he was persuaded to introduce modest constitutional reforms that would have allowed a very limited degree of public participation in government. His son Alexander III, however, abandoned the reforms and embarked on a policy of repression when he became emperor after his father’s assassination. Alexander III curtailed the rights of the zemstvos and the universities. Civil freedoms were further infringed by emergency decrees that allowed anyone suspected of political opposition to be exiled by administrative order without recourse to the courts.


Traditionally the imperial regime had been relatively tolerant of non-Russian cultures, languages, and religions. Much of the empire’s aristocracy was of non-Russian origin, spoke French by choice, and was not Orthodox in religion. In the second half of the 19th century, and in particular under Alexander III, the regime began emphasizing its Russianness. Increasing constraints were placed on non-Russian languages and cultures. Schools began teaching exclusively in Russian, administrative bodies could use only Russian, and publication in some languages was forbidden. To a degree these limitations followed trends evident elsewhere in Europe. The policy of Russification was also a response to fears that the multiethnic empire would disintegrate unless its population was drawn more closely together in culture and language. Whatever its motives, however, the policy of Russification caused great indignation among many non-Russians. The Jews were treated especially poorly: They were forced to live in certain areas, were not permitted to enter specific professions, and sometimes fell victim to murderous attacks by local Slavic mobs (see Pogrom).

Nicholas II: The End of the Empire

Many conflicts that boiled beneath the surface during Alexander III’s reign exploded under his son, Nicholas II, who ascended to the throne in 1894. Harsh conditions in industrial factories created mass support for the revolutionary socialist movement. Furthermore, from 1855 to 1914 the rural population more than doubled, increasing pressure on the land and peasant hostility to the landowners. Non-Russians were embittered by continued Russification. Most sectors of society were united by dislike of the imperial regime and by the demand for civil and political rights. In 1904 the government blundered into an unnecessary war with Japan over spheres of control in Korea and Manchuria. Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War the following year exposed its weakness, and the opposition to the regime seized its chance.

The 1905 Revolution

In January 1905 striking workers peaceably demonstrated for reforms in Saint Petersburg. As they marched to the Winter Palace, government troops fired on them, killing and wounding hundreds. The event, known as Bloody Sunday, ignited the revolt known as the Russian Revolution of 1905. In October, faced with a general strike and hoping to restore peace and stability, Nicholas II unwillingly conceded major constitutional reform, including freedom of speech and the creation of a popularly elected assembly, or Duma. However, the unrest continued as revolutionaries demanded even greater freedoms. Terrified by the growing danger of social revolution, Russia’s property-owning elite rallied to the regime. The key to the emperor’s survival was the army’s loyalty: The army crushed a revolutionary insurrection in December and eventually restored order in the towns and countryside.

When the First Duma met from May to July 1906, its main demands were for a government responsible to a democratically elected parliament and for the expropriation of noble estates. These demands were unacceptable to the government, which dissolved the Duma. The Second Duma, elected in 1907, was even more radical than the first; it too was dissolved within a few months. Nicholas then illegally changed the electoral laws to favor the election of those with more conservative interests, such as landowners and industrialists, and the government found it much easier to deal with the Duma. Although significant reforms were achieved between 1907 and 1914, particularly land reforms advanced by Prime Minister Pyotr A. Stolypin, tension between the government and the Duma remained high.

World War I

The Russian government did not want war in 1914 but felt that the only alternative was acceptance of German domination of Europe. Upper- and middle-class Russians rallied around the regime’s war effort. Peasants and workers were much less enthusiastic. Germany was Europe’s leading military and industrial power, and Austria and the Ottoman Empire were its allies in the war. Consequently, Russia was forced to fight on three fronts and was isolated from its French and British war partners. Under these circumstances the Russian war effort was impressive. Having won a number of major battles in 1916, the army was far from defeated when the Russian Revolution of 1917 broke out in February. The home front collapsed under the strains of war, partly for economic reasons but primarily because the already existing public distrust of the regime was deepened by tales of inefficiency, corruption, and even treason in high places. Many of these tales were nonsense or grossly exaggerated, such as the belief that a semiliterate mystic, Grigory Rasputin, had great political influence within the government. What mattered, however, was that the rumors were believed.

In February (March in the Western, or New Style, calendar) 1917 violent strikes broke out in Petrograd (as Saint Petersburg had been renamed in 1914). The Petrograd garrison mutinied and the Duma leaders took power. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, marking the end of imperial rule, and he and his family were imprisoned and later murdered. As conservative defenders of the empire had long predicted, the monarchy’s fall was quickly followed by the empire’s disintegration. Power passed first to the provisional government established by the Duma, and then, after the October Revolution of 1917 (November in the New Style calendar), to the Soviet government of the Bolsheviks (later known as communists). The tumultuous period was marked by extreme socialist revolution, civil war, and the destruction or emigration of much of the upper and middle classes. See Russian Civil War.

Communist Rule

The communists won the civil war in 1921. In 1922 they established a new state called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union), of which Russia was the largest constituent republic. For information on the history of the USSR, see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: History of the Soviet Union.

Russia Since Independence

The USSR collapsed in 1991 and Russia again became an independent nation. The newly independent country faced a time of exceptional economic and political crisis that necessitated tough decisions and painful policies. Conflict quickly erupted between Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the legislature. These battles were partly a struggle for power and the perks of office, but they also revolved around economic policy and issues of Russian nationalism and national pride.

J.1. Nationalism and Foreign Policy

The Soviet Union was a superpower and possessed a very different social and economic system from that in the West. This appealed to the pride of many Russians and helped erase a traditional sense of inferiority to the West. In 1991, quite suddenly and unexpectedly for most Russians, the USSR ceased to exist and Russia lost much of its international power and status. In the 1990s Russia was forced to ask the West for economic assistance and investment. The pro-American foreign policy of President Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, quickly found considerable opposition. The opposition increased when Russia did not receive the massive Western financial assistance that many Russians had naively expected.

American determination to incorporate many former Soviet satellite states into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) angered the Russian political elite. Because NATO’s essential purpose had been to serve as an anti-Soviet alliance, the political elite felt it was insulting when the former satellites were invited to join. They also resented being excluded from the dominant military and political bloc in Europe, which seemed intent on extending its membership right up to Russia’s borders. Under Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Russia became more critical of United States policies and began to rebuild political ties to China and some of its old allies in the Middle East. Even as Russia fostered these ties, the Russian government recognized its own weakness and its need for positive relations with the West. This knowledge prevented Russia from going too far for fear of isolating itself from Western nations. In the Soviet era international isolation and the attempt to develop a powerful self-sufficient economy had failed disastrously. Yeltsin’s regime understood this and was committed to full participation in the world economy and international trade. These things could only be achieved on the West’s terms.

J.2. The Near Abroad

Ethnic Russians were particularly sore that the collapse of the USSR left 25 million Russians living in areas that were now foreign countries. Of these 25 million, 11 million lived in Ukraine, almost 6 million in Kazakhstan, and most of the rest in other parts of Central Asia and the Baltic republics. In some areas, most notably Crimea and northern Kazakhstan, Russians made up large majorities. This created the dangerous potential for border conflicts and secessionist movements. Some conflicts erupted in the outlying areas of the former Soviet Union, particularly in the Caucasus region, Tajikistan, and Moldova. However, the Russian Federation accepted its post-Soviet borders.

In 1992 and 1993 Yeltsin’s opponents in the legislature, led by the legislature’s chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoy, denounced the government’s failure to support Russians in the “Near Abroad,” as Russians call the outlying areas of the former USSR. In particular, they demanded that Russia support the secessionist movements in the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova and in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. They condemned the refusal of the Latvian and Estonian governments to grant automatic citizenship to Russians who were permanent residents in these republics. This opposition forced Yeltsin to modify his policy somewhat. As a result Russia delayed agreement with Ukraine over arrangements for the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet (which was to be divided between Ukraine and Russia) and increased support for the Russian-speaking movement in the Trans-Dniester region. On the crucial issues, however, Yeltsin remained firm. Russian troops were withdrawn from the Baltic republics in 1993 and 1994. No encouragement was given to the Crimean secessionists, and in 1997 agreement was finally reached over the Black Sea Fleet and its base at Sevastopol’, Ukraine. The accord granted Russia a 20-year lease to a separate bay for its portion of the fleet at Sevastopol’. That same year a Russo-Ukrainian friendship treaty was signed. The underlying reason for the government’s restrained policy was its awareness that challenging the post-Soviet borders would likely lead to instability and war, which would doom chances of economic recovery and ensure international isolation. Such challenges would also be deeply unpopular with the bulk of the Russian people, whose overriding wish was for peace and prosperity, and who were exhausted by decades of forced sacrifice in the Soviet era in the name of the state’s military power and international prestige.

J.3. Internal Policy

Ethnic Russians make up a little more than four-fifths of the present population of the Russian Federation. Having just witnessed the disintegration of the USSR as a result in part of non-Russian nationalism, Russian elites were understandably fearful that similar developments could take place in non-Russian areas of their own republic. Initially these fears appeared to be substantiated by calls for far-reaching autonomy, and sometimes even full independence, from some of the non-Russians. In almost all cases, however, these demands were satisfied by concessions over regional autonomy and tax privileges. Even the initially extreme demands of the Volga Tatars (a Muslim people conquered by Russia in the mid-16th century) were resolved in 1994.

J.3.a. Chechnya

By 1994 the only region still demanding independence was Chechnya, in the northeastern Caucasus. The Chechens had a long history of bitter anti-Russian feeling. They had fought ferociously for decades in the 19th century against the Russian invasion of their territory, and they had revolted against the new Soviet regime in 1920. Accusing them of collaborating with the Germans in World War II (1939-1945), Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the entire Chechen people to Central Asia, and many lives were lost. Under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland, but their traditional anti-Russian feeling was enflamed by the treatment they had received from the Soviet regime.

When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, power in Chechnya fell into the hands of extreme Chechen nationalists, who drove out Russian garrisons and rejected any control by Moscow. In December 1994 the Russian government sent troops to Chechyna in an attempt to reassert its control there. The already demoralized and poorly trained Russian army proved incapable of suppressing determined Chechen opposition either in the Chechen capital of Groznyy or in the countryside. As humiliating defeats and growing casualties made the war more and more unpopular in Russia, Yeltsin’s government sought a way out of the conflict. In August 1996 Yeltsin’s national security adviser, Aleksandr Lebed, brokered a ceasefire agreement with Chechen leaders, and a peace treaty was formally signed in May 1997.

However, renewed conflict in 1999 rendered the peace treaty defunct. A wave of terrorist bombings struck apartment buildings in Moscow and several other Russian cities in August and September, killing more than 200 people. Russian leaders accused Chechen rebels of organizing the attacks, precipitating another full-scale military offensive to reestablish federal rule in the republic. In February 2000 Russian troops took control of Groznyy. Although Russian forces occupied most of Chechnya, the republic was not fully pacified and fighting continued. This time, the war maintained strong public support in Russia. The Russian government characterized the war as an “antiterrorist operation” against Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations.

Subsequently, Chechen insurgents staged a string of deadly suicide bomb attacks in Moscow and other cities, as well as major hostage-taking tragedies. In October 2002 Chechen militants seized a theater in Moscow, taking about 800 civilians hostage and demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Russian special forces stormed the theater after pumping an opiate-based gas into the building. All of the insurgents were killed, as were 129 hostages. In May 2004 Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in a bomb attack. The republic held a special presidential election in August to replace him. The Kremlin-backed candidate, Chechnya’s interior minister, Major General Alu Alkhanov, won the election. In September 2004 a pro-Chechen suicide battalion (including some non-Chechen militants) carried out a siege on an elementary school in Beslan, a town in the southern Russian republic of Alania (North Ossetia). The militants held more than 1,200 hostages in the school gymnasium for two days. Russian security forces then stormed the building, and in the ensuing gun battle explosives set by the hostage-takers detonated in the gymnasium. More than 330 people, mostly children, were killed, and hundreds more were injured.

The deadly hostage crises of 2002 and 2004 led to more rigorous efforts by the federal government to establish political control in Chechnya. In 2003 Chechnya officially adopted a new constitution that firmly designates it as a republic within the Russian Federation. After the 2004 school siege, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced sweeping security and political reforms, sealing borders in the Caucasus region and revealing plans to give the central government more power. He also vowed to take tougher action against domestic terrorism, including preemptive strikes against Chechen separatists.

In April 2007 Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of Akhmad Kadyrov, was sworn in as president of Chechnya. A former rebel, Ramzan had been appointed prime minister following his father’s assassination. As prime minister Ramzan was credited with rebuilding Groznyy, the Chechen capital. He was regarded as loyal to Putin but has criticized Russians for discrimination against Chechens. Human rights groups charged that Kadyrov headed a private militia that carried out torture, kidnappings, executions, and extortion. Kadyrov denied the allegations. In 2009 Russian announced that it was formally ending counterterrorism operations in Chechnya, but Russian troops were expected to remain there for some time.

J.4. Economic Crisis

In December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian economy was in a terrible state. Foreign reserves had been exhausted, impeding the country’s ability to import goods, and economic output had been in decline since the 1970s. Yeltsin’s response was to launch the so-called shock therapy program of Prime Minister Yegor Gaydar. This entailed freeing prices in order to lure goods back into the shops, removing legal barriers to private trade and manufacture, and allowing foreign imports into the Russian market to break the power of local monopolies. The immediate results of this policy included extremely high levels of inflation and the near bankruptcy of much of Russian industry. Subsequently, a program of privatization was pushed through in 1994 under Anatoly Chubais, the deputy prime minister in charge of the Ministry of Privatization. Although in most cases the existing management acquired ownership of the factories they had previously administered, large private banks emerged and began to compete for control of the economy.

By the late 1990s the economic reforms had achieved considerable successes. The old, inefficient system of centralized state planning had been dismantled and a capitalist economy was being created. Nevertheless, the process was far from complete, and the Russian population paid a very high price. Most of the industry inherited from Soviet times used out-of-date technology, employed excessive numbers of workers, and was located with no thought to distance from suppliers and markets. Managers and workers trained in the Soviet era found it difficult to adapt to capitalist imperatives of profitability, marketing, and shareholders’ power. Inflation depressed incomes and wiped out savings at a time when whole sectors of the economy, and even whole cities, were faced with the prospect of unemployment resulting from the massive closing of factories.

J.5. The Weakness of the State

Matters were made much worse by the Russian government’s inability to carry out the most basic functions of any state, namely the preservation of order and the collection of taxes. The emergence of small businesses, considered necessary for a capitalist economy, was made difficult by rampant criminal activity, corrupt officials, and arbitrary and exorbitant taxes. The tax system was so erratic and inefficient that the revenues needed to sustain the armed forces and basic welfare services were not collected. Medical services collapsed and life expectancy, particularly of males, fell dramatically. Meanwhile, a number of well-placed individuals made vast fortunes by turning assets previously owned by the state into their private property. Unable to collect revenues sufficient to fund even its most basic requirements, the state was forced to borrow more and more on domestic and international markets.

J.6. Political Scene

Russia’s political scene was unstable and conflict-ridden in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December 1992 the driving force behind the economic reforms known as shock therapy, Yegor Gaydar, was forced out of office by opposition in the legislature. His successor, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was the former head of the natural-gas industry of the Soviet Union; this increased his acceptance by key conservatives. Chernomyrdin pursued basically the same policies as Gaydar but made more concessions to powerful economic and political interests. Nevertheless, no lasting compromise could be achieved between Yeltsin and his supporters on the one hand, and the legislature on the other. In the absence of clear constitutional provisions to delineate powers and resolve conflicts between executive and legislature, the issue was settled by force in October 1993. When Yeltsin dissolved the parliament in September, armed opposition leaders and conservative deputies occupied the parliament building and refused to disband. Troops loyal to Yeltsin stormed the building and arrested the opposition leaders, leaving more than 100 dead.

Yeltsin subsequently drew up a new constitution, which was accepted by the electorate in a December 1993 referendum. Under the new constitution the president’s powers were greatly enhanced at the legislature’s expense; this enabled Yeltsin to accelerate his program of economic reform and to mount his invasion of Chechnya despite parliamentary opposition. Both the December 1993 and December 1995 elections gave Yeltsin’s opponents, the communists and the Russian nationalists, the majority of seats in the legislature. In the more crucial 1996 presidential election, however, Yeltsin defeated his communist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, a former senior Soviet bureaucrat. Yeltsin’s victory was helped by his alliance with financial interests that controlled the media. Zyuganov’s party was stronger on nostalgia for Soviet days than on realistic answers to Russia’s current problems. In choosing Yeltsin the electorate showed its continued dislike for much of the former communist era, its disbelief that old times could be restored, and its preference for the stability and continuity that Yeltsin represented.

In March 1998 Yeltsin unexpectedly dismissed Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and the rest of his cabinet. Yeltsin then appointed Sergey Kiriyenko, a young reformist with limited central government experience, as prime minister. Russia’s failing economy continued its steep decline, and in mid-1998 Yeltsin dismissed Kiriyenko and attempted to reinstate Chernomyrdin. Parliament rejected Chernomyrdin’s return as prime minister, approving Yeltsin’s compromise choice, foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, in September. Primakov acquired significant power beginning in October 1998 after a series of illnesses left Yeltsin unable to handle many of his duties. In May 1999 Yeltsin dismissed Primakov, criticizing him for failing to revive Russia’s economy. Many observers said Yeltsin objected to Primakov’s growing popularity. A week later, Russia’s parliament approved Yeltsin’s choice for Primakov’s successor, interior minister and Yeltsin loyalist Sergey Stepashin.

Stepashin did not last long. In August, Yeltsin dismissed him, along with the rest of the cabinet, and named Vladimir Putin, the head of Russia’s domestic intelligence service, as Stepashin’s replacement. Yeltsin stated that when his term ended in July 2000, he wanted Putin to succeed him as president. To some observers the selection and endorsement of Putin, a loyal Yeltsin ally, signaled an attempt by Yeltsin to ensure his succession by a friendly replacement.

Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly on December 31, 1999, and named Putin acting president. Yeltsin said he was stepping down to make room for a younger generation of political leaders. The timing of Yeltsin’s resignation, which came six months before his second term formally ended, appeared designed to boost Putin’s chances of winning an early presidential election. The decision to resign may also have been linked to Yeltsin’s poor health.

J.7. Recent Developments

J.7.a. Domestic Politics

In the presidential election held in March 2000, Putin was elected to a full term as president, winning almost 53 percent of the vote. Putin’s control over the government strengthened with the overwhelming victory of his United Russia Party in the December 2003 parliamentary elections. International election observers called the election “free but unfair” because Putin and his allies enjoyed a virtual monopoly on television coverage. Early in his term, Putin had placed independent television stations under government control.

Putin easily won reelection in March 2004 with 71 percent of the vote. His closest rival, the communist candidate, won only 14 percent of the vote. Russian voters appeared to credit Putin with transforming the Russian economy, which saw growth of at least 5 percent in the gross domestic product (GDP) in each year of Putin’s first term. International election observers and pro-democracy forces within Russia were again critical of Putin’s control over the state-run media, noting that media coverage showed a “clear bias” in favor of Putin and that other candidates had little access to the media.

Russia held parliamentary elections in late 2007. International election observers criticized the election as “unfair” due to Putin’s continued control of the media, as well as several reforms to the country’s electoral law that weakened the position of opposition parties. Changes to the electoral law included banning independents from running as candidates; increasing the minimum membership required of a party for it to be officially registered; and increasing the required percentage of votes to 7 percent (from 5 percent) for a party to gain representation. According to official election results, the pro-Putin United Russia party and its allies won nearly three-quarters of the seats in the State Duma. The Communist Party comprised the only remaining opposition in the Russian parliament. Liberal parties that had been excluded or were unable to pass the required threshold warned that Russia was on its way to again becoming a single-party, totalitarian state. However, Putin continued to enjoy widespread support, as a majority of Russians credited his strong leadership for improving the country.

A presidential election was due in March 2008. Putin, barred by the constitution from running for a third consecutive presidential term, endorsed his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, as his successor. Putin announced that he intended to become prime minister, indicating he would continue to wield considerable influence. During the presidential campaign, opposition candidates received scant attention in the state-controlled media and opposition rallies were subject to police crackdowns. Few international observers were present to monitor the election due to severe restrictions imposed on their work by the Russian government. Buoyed by Putin’s popularity and a sidelined opposition, Medvedev won a landslide victory with 70 percent of the popular vote. Putin’s term as president formally ended on May 7, and the following day the State Duma approved him as Russia’s new prime minister.

J.7.b. Foreign Relations

Putin’s rise to power paralleled that of United States president George W. Bush, who was also elected in 2000. Initially the leaders of the two former superpower rivals established relatively warm relations. Bush famously remarked after his first meeting with Putin in June 2001: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul….” By the end of their terms, however, the relations between the two countries were strained, and they began to worsen significantly in 2008 when some political observers talked openly about a renewed Cold War.

The sharpest point of contention came in early 2008 when the United States and most of the countries belonging to the European Union (EU) recognized the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, a Russian ally. Putin vigorously protested the West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and Russia’s leaders warned that if Kosovo could secede, then there was no legitimate reason why South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two secessionist-leaning regions of Georgia, where Russian troops were playing a peacekeeping role, could not also be recognized as independent. The conflict worsened in April when the Bush administration backed Georgia’s effort to become part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the old Cold War alliance formed to contest the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact bloc. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of former Warsaw Pact nations, notably Poland and the Czech Republic, had become members of NATO. However, none of these countries bordered Russia, as did Georgia. Russian political and military leaders increasingly began to believe that NATO expansion was aimed principally at encircling the Russian Federation.

Although France and Germany blocked the U.S. attempt to approve a Membership Action Plan for Georgia to become part of NATO, Russian leaders were also antagonized by a U.S. announcement in August 2008 that it would station an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system in Poland. The United States insisted that the missile defense system was targeted at Iran and meant to shield Western Europe from a possible attack by the Islamic republic. However, Russia had long been opposed to the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Russia saw the ABM systems as potential first-strike measures, in which a surprise nuclear attack could eliminate most of Russia’s nuclear weapons while a missile defense system could protect the nation launching the first strike from retaliation, thus undermining the nuclear deterrence thought to be guaranteed by the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. See also Air Defense Systems; Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

All of these developments were part of the background when Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili launched a surprise attack against separatist forces in South Ossetia in early August. The attack included an artillery barrage against the South Ossetian capital of Ts’khinvali, where Russian peacekeepers were stationed. In response Russia invaded Georgia, routing Georgian troops from South Ossetia and striking some major Georgian cities located outside South Ossetia, including the city of Gori, not far from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The fighting lasted for about a week during which both sides suffered hundreds of casualties, and thousands of Georgians and South Ossetians became refugees to escape the war zone.

Although a ceasefire was soon arranged, Russia’s invasion was condemned by the United States and the EU as an infringement on Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia responded that the United States encouraged the Georgian military offensive and was complicit in it, with Prime Minister Putin suggesting that it was part of U.S. domestic politics during a presidential election year.

In late August 2008 Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, much as it had threatened to do when the United States recognized Kosovo’s independence. Russian president Dmitri A. Medvedev argued that the people of the two regions had clearly expressed their preferences for independence in several referenda. However, Russia appeared to have few allies on the decision to invade and to support independence.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld