A Guide to Russia

Extending halfway around the Northern Hemisphere and covering most of Eastern Europe and all of Northern Asia, Russia’s vast expanse has a wide variety of climates and landscapes. Arctic deserts give way to tundra and forest zones. A large portion of the country is covered by permafrost, making it difficult to build roads or settle the land.

During the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, the Russian Empire expanded from its political core in Moscow/St. Petersburg. The czars conquered territory to the west (including Poland and Finland), the north side of the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, Alaska, and parts of Central Asia, among other places. By the end of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great had created an imperial sphere that included all of modern Ukraine and most of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian republics.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia began a steady reorientation away from democracy and cooperation with the West towards a nationalist and authoritarian politics. In recent years, the political environment has deteriorated, and Russia has been involved in numerous conflicts with neighboring states.

The main religion in Russia is Orthodoxy. In the past, the Church was a powerful force in the country and a major part of everyday life. Although the state-sanctioned atheism of the Soviet era reduced its numbers, between 15 and 20 percent of Russians today claim to be Orthodox.

Although there are more than 300 different languages spoken in Russia, the official language is Russian. Other regional languages include Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Tatar. In addition, some ethnic minorities use their own languages, and a number of religious communities are independent from the Church.

Russia’s rich natural resources are a source of great wealth, but the extraction and processing of those resources has also caused environmental damage. The vast industrial regions surrounding Moscow introduce sewage and chemicals into Russia’s waterways, and the country is afflicted by air pollution as well.

The Russian government restricts freedom of speech and assembly, limits media independence, and jails many political activists. The disbanded human rights organization Memorial listed 488 political prisoners as of December 7, but many observers believe the actual number is three or four times greater.

Top state-controlled domestic TV channels clear their schedules for current affairs programs that spread anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western material. The internet is becoming increasingly blocked in Russia, and the country maintains extensive surveillance of its citizens.

During the Cold War, Russia was a major power that maintained an aggressive military posture and sought to establish hegemony over most of the former Soviet republics in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. After the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953, a period of relative liberalization was introduced, but this was followed by repressive rule under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, who has been president since 2000. The rise of Putin triggered a steady reorientation towards nationalism and away from democracy and cooperation with the West.