Introducing Russia

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
— Winston Churchill

Throughout the past century, Russia and the United States have been at the center of world political and economic events. In 1904–05, Russia fought Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. The president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, helped bring about peace between the two nations in 1905. From 1914 to 1918, Russia took part in World War I, which weakened the nation and led to food shortages that helped cause the Russian Revolution in 1917. This revolution eventually led to the birth of the Soviet Union—a Communist country—in 1922. Then Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 during World War II.Winning the war in 1945, and subsequent development of nuclear technology, made the Soviet Union, along with its former ally the United States, superpowers. For many years, the two superpowers competed to have more influence and better technology than the other. This contest was called the cold war. Russians launched Sputnik, the first satellite, in 1957. They sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space, in 1961. These uses of Soviet technology impressed the whole world.

In April 1986, a tragic accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine shattered the myth of Soviet scientific strength.After this event, many of the 15 republics that made up the Soviet Union began to question whether they wanted to remain in the union. This, combined with political weaknesses and a stagnant economy in the late 1980s, brought about major changes. By the early 1990s, these factors led to the breakup of the Communist bloc (nations under Soviet influence) and the emergence of free, democratic countries in central Europe.


These events caused the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In December 1991, Russia became an independent, democratic nation. It was the largest and most powerful member of a new loose confederation of the nations from the former Soviet Union, which was called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was no longer a superpower. Even so, Russia is still a powerful nation today, and it continues to play an important role in world affairs and the global economy.

Geographic location has played an important role in Russian history and culture. It has both helped and hindered the expansion and economic growth of this vast territory. Russia is located in both Europe and Asia. Its western quarter lies in Europe. Its eastern three-quarters lie in Asia.Asian Russia—past and present—has been rather remote in geographic terms. Its borders are formed by often ice-locked seas and towering mountain ranges.

Russia is the world's largest country. The Soviet Union was even larger. Size alone, however, does not equal strength. It can actually create problems. Russia is challenged to organize and control such an immense area. It must maintain transportation and communication links. It must make distant and vastly different areas part of a functioning whole.

Russia covers an area of 6.6 million square miles (17 million square kilometers). It is 82 percent larger than the United States. From east to west, the country spans 170 degrees of longitude and 11 time zones. This is the only country on which the sun is always shining somewhere. Russia stretches 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers) from the Polish border on the Baltic Sea in the west to the Bering Strait in the Pacific Ocean in the east. The distance from Severnaya Zemlya, an island in the Arctic Ocean, to the nation's southernmost point near the 45th parallel is about 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers).

With 143 million people, Russia has the world's sixthlargest population. However, there are only 21 Russians per square mile (8 per square kilometer), roughly one-third the population density of the United States.

After the revolution, the Soviet Union attempted to remold the sprawling Imperial Russian Empire. The Communist Party sought to change the nation's geographic conditions, including its economy, settlement, and linkages. Communist leaders used Marxist centralized national planning to make changes. To pull together the scattered, ethnically diverse population, they built new systems. Roads, railroads, canals, and air routes were constructed. Thousands of new cities brought people together. State and cooperative farms changed rural life. More land was cultivated.

However, many people still lacked basic services. Necessary goods were hard to get. The people came to realize that existing political and economic systems could not cope with the complex issues of modern economic life. Massive discontent ultimately broke the control of the Communist Party. Like earlier rulers, Communist Party leaders failed to overcome the problems posed by Russia's vast space and diversity. They failed to bring the many diverse cultures of the huge Soviet Union together as one nation. In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its inefficiencies.

The legacy of the Soviet past has not yet been totally erased. In the years since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has made many social, economic, and political changes. Democracy, capitalism, privatization, and market reform underlie the new post-Soviet economic scene. Today, Russia is emerging as a partner of the United States. The two countries now recognize how important they can be to one another.Western politicians, Western business interests, and the United Nations are paying a great deal of attention to Russia, a fascinating country that is taking its rightful place on today's global stage.