Although Russia has been a nation for more than a millennium, it has had only two stable periods as an independent state—the last of which ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Today, it’s a democratically run federal republic with legislative and judicial branches plus an expansive presidential office.
The country’s unique combination of natural and human resources has shaped its storied history. It’s a massive and varied land, with vast plains and soaring mountains. The Caucasus, a mountain range that includes Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, is in the south; the Ural Mountains separates Russia from Asia in the north; and volcanoes spew fire on Kamchatka in the east.
In the Middle Ages, Kiev and Moscow grew into powerful principalities atop mercantile trade routes. Ivan the Terrible consolidated Russia’s borders by conquering the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia. He also initiated the long Livonian War for Baltic trade access and reshaped his country’s multiethnic, multicultural population through converting peasants to Orthodox Christianity.
Under Czar Peter the Great (ruled 1689–1725), Russia began to modernize and become a more absolutist state. He modeled the government on the latest Western models, forming a nine-member senate that served as the supreme council of the state. He also instituted a new system of military service for nobles and reorganized the rural economy to increase agricultural productivity and tax revenue.
As the 19th century wore on, Russian expansionism contributed to the outbreak of World War I with Germany; and after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, Bolshevik revolutionaries reorganized the remnants of the Empire into Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The country’s long civil war and ensuing famine of the early 1920s ended when Lenin and his followers defeated the provisional government led by White Army generals.
Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, is a former KGB officer who has been in power since 2008. The country continues to be highly secretive, but it does have a strong domestic media that skewers its critics.
A friendly and helpful people, the Russians are generally well-mannered, and they will not leave you in the lurch even if you don’t speak their language. However, learning some basic phrases will help you get by and impress locals with your politeness.
The country is renowned for its food and drink, with the best dishes coming from the heartland in the west of the country and the far-flung corners of Siberia in the east. The most famous culinary delicacies include borscht, blinis, and kutchik, among many others.