The People of Russia

The largest country in the world by area, Russia is a vast and varied place. Most Russians are ethnically Russian, but about 120 other nationalities inhabit the country, speaking many languages and following disparate religious and cultural traditions. The country is densely populated in its European portion, especially around Moscow and St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). Siberia is comparatively sparsely inhabited.

Although a large percentage of the population lives in cities, rural life is still strong, with many Russians holding a love for all things outdoors and a willingness to work hard. A number of Russians are also highly educated, and the nation is one of the fastest-growing in the world in terms of its science and technology industries.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Russia became known as a “Window on the West” under czar Peter the Great’s efforts to modernize the nation through the adoption of Western European styles, habits and culture. He established his capital in St. Petersburg, which he designed to mirror the style of the royal courts of Western Europe—to the point where it used French as its preferred court language.

But the Romanov dynasty was not as well-suited to reform as Peter was, and attempts by the privileged classes to address the poor condition of the underclasses invariably resulted in political crises that ended in rebellion and repression. The last of the czars, Alexander II, was assassinated in 1881, and subsequent dynasty members were even less willing to reform.

After the revolution that toppled the dynasty and founded the Soviet Union, the nation experienced decades of brutal civil war between reds and whites and a series of terrible famines. In the end, Lenin used the Red Army, a massive internal security apparatus and other state resources to kill or exile millions of his political opponents, enforce strict Communist orthodoxy, collectivize the land for farming and create giant state-owned enterprises.

Today, Russians are a diverse and patriotic people with a love of their country and its rich history. They take pride in their beautiful ballets and operas, their storied literature and the achievements of their scientists, engineers and inventors. In the 20th century, a host of famous composers were born in the nation, including Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Most visitors require a visa, and getting one can be difficult for holders of U.S. and Canadian passports. Check with your embassy or consulate to find out what their requirements are. Some embassies and consulates allow applicants to apply by mail, others require applications in person, and some may demand a letter of invitation or other documentation. It’s best to contact the embassy or consulate before your trip to avoid any surprises.