The largest country on Earth, Russia has forbidding forested mountains, vast Arctic expanses, and fertile river valleys. Yet it also is endowed with abundant natural resources, including large reserves of oil, gas, and precious metals, that have made the nation one of the world’s wealthiest. These riches have not translated into prosperity for most Russians, who have suffered from years of political and economic instability.
The nation’s revolving door of rulers has accentuated this discontent. The famine and devastation of World War I led to mass protests and the overthrow of the ROMANOV Dynasty in 1917. The brutal rule of Iosif STALIN strengthened communist control and led to the formation of the USSR, a global superpower that battled the United States during the Cold War (1947-1991).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia emerged as an independent sovereign state with a market economy. Vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and timber have helped the nation to recover from the financial turmoil of the 1990s. Nevertheless, poverty rates have remained high, as privatization of industry and the emergence of a new class of wealthy oligarchs has shifted wealth from the government to private hands. The ruble has lost value and older people have watched their life savings disappear.
Despite these economic problems, Russia has reasserted itself as a global power through its foreign policy and military strength. Its annexation of Crimea and armed intervention in Syria have sparked the biggest East-West showdown since the Cold War. Domestically, President Vladimir Putin has presided over a steady shift from democracy and cooperation with the West to more nationalist and authoritarian politics.
Having been invaded by Mongol hordes for 300 years and having faced near-successful invasions by both Napoleon and Hitler, many Russians suffer from a deep sense of insecurity. Their fear of being conquered from the outside is reflected in their aggressive antipathy towards NATO, which they see as an existential threat.
The majority of the nation’s population lives in the western European portion of Russia, which contains the capital city of Moscow. Other major cities include St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) and the Ural Mountains region. The Russian Far East and Siberia contain fewer residents but are rich in natural resources, particularly coal and timber. Environmental issues plague these areas, as well as the core region surrounding Moscow, which with its industrial activity and large urban expanses introduces sewage and chemicals into rivers and lakes. Its air quality is also poor because of heavy automobile use. There are eight time zones in Russia, and its icy northern climate makes travel difficult except by train. The vast wilderness of Siberia is a magnet for adventurers and naturalists. The nation has a long history of folk music, ballet, and theater, as well as a vibrant art and poetry scene. Russians speak several languages and follow a wide variety of religious and secular traditions. In addition to ethnic Russians, more than 120 other nationalities live in Russia.