Understanding Russia


Russia is a country of world-class cities and the famed Red Square; vast, remote territories and Arctic tundra; enormous grain farms and secluded mountain communities; and a complex history of monarchy and totalitarianism. It is also a country that continues to grapple with the implications of its turbulent post-Soviet past and the rise of the oligarchs.

In terms of the Russian language, its alphabet is unique among languages of the European family (the Cyrillic alphabet is related to but distinct from Latin) and its pronunciation and vocabulary vary widely from region to region. The official language is Standard Russian, a member of the Slavonic group of languages that includes Ukrainian, Belorussian and Czech. The majority of the population speak Russian, although there are significant regional differences in pronunciation and vocabulary.

The political structure of the country is a federal semi-presidential republic, with 85 “federal subjects” (territorial units) that are equal in terms of their rights and privileges within the Federation. Important decisions are made by the Federation president, while lesser powers are vested in the parliament. The Federation’s external borders are defined by the Ural Mountains, with the Pacific Ocean creating part of its eastern boundary and the Bering Strait separating it from North America.

Russia is the largest country in the world by physical area, and its massive expanse exhibits a wide variety of natural environments. Type D (continental) climates dominate most of the landmass, with arid regions such as Siberia and the Arctic north known for long hot summers and frigid, harsh winters. The central plateau is covered in forests of pine, birch and aspen. The western frontier is bordered by the Black Sea, while the southern fringe stretches to the Caucasus and into Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.

Understanding Russia requires more than just an academic approach, however. It’s best to immerse yourself in the culture as much as possible. For example, if you’re moving to Russia, consider hiring a tutor or enrolling in a language course in person or online. Studying alone with a book or CD-ROM can be effective as well, but the fastest way to learn Russian is immersion – living day-to-day with a native speaker.

Reading is a good place to start, with Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin and Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace as must-reads. For more recent Russian history, try Robert Service’s Penguin History of Modern Russia or Orlando Figes’ Natasha Dances and Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress. For a more lurid pulp history-melodrama, see Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.