A Brief History of Russia


Russia is the world’s largest country and its physical territory spans nearly half of the northern hemisphere, stretching from Europe to Asia. Its landscape ranges from Arctic deserts to tundra, forests, and the Volga River valley. It is home to a large number of different ethnic groups and a wide variety of religions and cultures. The majority of the population lives in a fertile region around Moscow and St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), and most major cities are picturesque, historically important cultural centres. In addition to Russians, the country’s citizens include members of more than 120 other ethnic groups. The language spoken by most people is Russian, although a significant number speak other languages and follow various religious traditions.

The constitution provides for a semi-presidential system with a president and parliament. The federal government has greater authority than its 85 provincial subjects and territorial units, which are called republics, krais, autonomous districts, and autonomies. All entities are subject to uniform federal laws and have two representatives in the national parliament. The Federation has its own Supreme Court and a single independent arbitration court. The President of the Russian Federation has the highest political office and the greatest executive powers, while the Prime Minister has the second most power. Other powerful positions are filled by the governor of each oblast, the president and vice-president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the heads of federal banks and other institutions.

In the 20th century, the country saw dramatic changes in politics and economy. After a period of instability, Czar Nicholas II issued the Emancipation Reform, abolishing serfdom and allowing peasants to purchase their own land. He modernized the military and promoted Western European culture, helping Russia become a global power. His successor, Peter the Great, founded a new capital in St. Petersburg and expanded the Russian navy. He also sold Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the United States and gilded many of its cathedral domes.

On Dec. 25, 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as prime minister and is replaced by Boris Yeltsin, who is named president of the Russian Federation. In the first decade of his rule, he lifts Communist-imposed price controls and begins economic reforms. The nation takes part in the nuclear arms race with the United States and the rest of the world, but later signs the START II treaty pledging to cut nuclear weapons.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia fought wars to prevent some of its former territories from becoming independent nations. In particular, it ruled the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where a separatist movement led to years of violent warfare that ended with a peace deal. Since then, the government has refused to allow separatists in other regions to establish their own republics and has resisted calls for independence by those within its borders. In addition, the government has been accused of a widespread campaign of corruption and human rights abuses.