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Did You Know?

Russia on the World Stage in 2008

Issue 6, November 2008

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Modern Russia

  • Russia is the world’s largest country.  It spans seven million square miles and eleven time zones.  Stretching from Europe across Asia to the Pacific Ocean, Russia is comprised of 89 internal administrative regions which include 21 internal republics and dozens of different ethnic groups. 


  • After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russia led the Soviet Union as the dominant member of fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics.  It remained part of the Soviet Union until the USSR's dissolution in 1991 when Russia renounced Communism and again became an independent country.
  • In the early 1990’s, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin enacted a series of political and economic reforms.  Although these reforms corrected some of the most egregious policies of the Soviet system, Russia today practices highly managed forms of democracy and capitalism.  It is no longer considered “free” by most international monitoring agencies due to extensive consolidation of power in the Kremlin and failure to observe and protect basic civil and human liberties.  Corruption is a major problem, mostly originating in the central government.
  • Orthodox Christianity is the religion most practiced in Russia, although Judaism and Islam, among other faiths, are allowed.  Russia considers Muslim extremists living in restive internal regions, such as Chechnya, to be a grave threat to security.
  • Russia’s climate is cold and not highly conducive to agriculture – only 7% of its vast land is arable, and much of it is uninhabitable.  Yet, Russia is extraordinarily well-endowed with natural resources including natural gas, petroleum, minerals, and timber.  
  • Russia’s main industry is energy.  It is the primary source and/or main transit route for most natural gas en route to Europe.  It supplies petroleum and liquefied natural gas to consumers worldwide through its lucrative, partly state owned energy monopolies.
  • Russia’s economy has been booming in recent years due to increased demand for energy and high energy prices.  Moscow ranks among the most expensive cities in the world in which to live, along with London and New York, and is home to the most billionaires in the world.  After a full economic collapse in 1998, Russia now ranks 9th in GDP/PPP worldwide.
  • Despite its size, Russia ranks only 11th in the world in population.  It is currently experiencing a demographic crisis, with declining fertility, rising morbidity and mortality rates, and rising emigration.  It has one of the world’s highest HIV/AIDS infection rates per capita.
  • Vladimir Putin has been in power in Russia since 1999, serving first as Prime Minister, then as a two-term President, and now as Prime Minister again.  Putin’s former deputy and protégé Dmitry Medvedev is the current President of Russia, although many argue Putin’s power remains undiminished.  

Russia Beyond Its Borders

  • Russia has the most neighbors of any country in the world at thirteen, bordering many of its former fellow Soviet republics and satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  It also shares a long border with China.
  • Russia has complicated relations with countries throughout the former Soviet sphere of influence.  Many of its former republics and satellites have aligned with the West; many have joined or are seeking to join NATO and/or the European Union.  Others have autocratic governments that are friendly with Russia.  They are all, however, linked to Russia through its vast energy pipeline network and through a Diaspora of 100 million ethnic Russians living outside Russia proper.  Many of these neighbors in what is known as Russia’s “near abroad” contain ethnic enclaves that desire independence or absorption by Russia; this includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the Crimea in Ukraine, and Transnistria in Moldova.
  • Russia’s primary geographical and geopolitical disadvantage is that the country is virtually landlocked, with very limited access to warm water ports.  The search for outlets to the sea has been a defining feature of Russian history, dominating relations with its numerous neighbors.  In fact, Russia’s Black Sea navy is located in Sevastopol in neighboring Ukraine.
  • Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the USSR’s former Cold War rivals in the West helped Russia to consolidate control of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal.  Russia has been party to numerous nuclear and conventional force disarmament treaties with the US and other nations. Currently, many of these agreements are close to expiration and/or dismantlement.  
  • Russia fought a long war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, against what now is known as the Taliban. It has since been supportive of the NATO-led effort there, providing NATO access to Russian airspace and Russian-affiliated military bases.  Russia also maintains relations with Iran and North Korea; many consider these relations potentially critical to Western efforts to halt nuclear weapons programs in these “rogue states.”
  • In August 2008, Russian troops decisively defeated the forces of Georgia, a US ally and former USSR republic, in a two day war fought in the two Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  These provinces are home to separatist ethnic Russian populations.

Next:  Understanding the Headlines