Physical geography

Location: Northern Asia (that part west of the Urals is sometimes included with Europe), bordering the Arctic Ocean, between Europe and the North Pacific Ocean. Area: total area: 17,075,200 sq km land area: 16,995,800 sq km. Comparative area: slightly more than 1.8 times the size of the US.

Terrain: broad plain with low hills west of Urals; vast coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia; uplands and mountains along southern border regions.


Ranges from steppes in the south through humid continental in much of European Russia; subarctic in Siberia to tundra climate in the polar north; winters vary from cool along Black Sea coast to frigid in Siberia; summers vary from warm in the steppes to cool along Arctic coast.

Economic geography

Russia, a vast country with a wealth of natural resources, a well-educated population, and a diverse industrial base, continues to experience formidable difficulties in moving from its old centrally planned economy to a modern market economy. The Government has made substantial strides in converting to a market economy since launching its economic reform programme in January 1992 by freeing nearly all prices, slashing defense spending, eliminating the old centralised distribution system, completing an ambitious voucher privatisation programme, establishing private financial institutions, and decentralizing foreign trade. Russia, however, has made little progress in a number of key areas that are needed to provide a solid foundation for the transition to a market economy. Financial stabilisation has remained elusive, with wide swings in monthly inflation rates.

National product: GDP - purchasing power parity - $721.2 billion (1994 estimate as extrapolated from World Bank estimate for 1992).

Industries: complete range of mining and extractive industries producing coal, oil, gas, chemicals, and metals; all forms of machine building from rolling mills to high-performance aircraft and space vehicles; ship- building; road and rail transportation equipment; communications equipment; agricultural machinery, tractors, and construction equipment; electric power generating and transmitting equipment; medical and scientific instruments; consumer durables.

Agriculture: grain, sugar beet, sunflower seeds, meat, milk, vegetables, fruits; because of its northern location does not grow citrus, cotton, tea and other warm climate products.


Population: 149,909,089 (July 1995 est.) Ethnic divisions: Russian 81.5 per cent, Tatar 3.8 per cent, Ukrainian three per cent, Chuvash 1.2 per cent, Bashkir 0.9 per cent, Byelorussian 0.8 per cent, Moldavian 0.7 per cent, other 8.1 per cent.

A brief history

The founding of Novgorod in 862 by the Viking Rurik of Jutland is traditionally taken as the birth of what became the Russian state. Rurik's successor, Oleg, became the ruler of Kiev two decades later, and in the 10th and 11th centuries Kiev became the dominant regional power until shifting trade routes left it in a commercial backwater. The merchants of Novgorod eventually declared independence from Kiev and joined the emerging Hanseatic League, a federation of city-states that controlled the Baltic and North Sea trade.

Centuries of prosperity and growth were brought to an abrupt halt in the 13th century by the Mongolian Tatars, who held sway until 1480. The 16th century witnessed the expansionist but ugly reign of Ivan the Terrible, whose incursions into the Volga region antagonised the neighbouring countries of Poland and Sweden to Russia's later cost. When the 700-year Rurikid dynasty ended with the childless Fyodor, vengeful Swedish and Polish invaders each bloodily claimed the Russian throne. The dynasty's strongest ruler was Peter the Great, who finally made Russia a major world power. He celebrated his victory over the Swedes by building a new capital city on land taken from them: St Petersburg.

At the start of the 19th century Napoleon tried and failed to conquer the country. The serfs were freed in 1861, and there was growing opposition to the repressive and autocratic tsarist rule. Peasants were angry at having to pay for land they regarded as their own, liberals advocated constitutional reform along Western European lines and terrorists managed to kill Alexander II in 1881. Many radicals fled abroad, including Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.

Under Nicholas II, defeat in the Russo-Sino War of 1904-05 led to further unrest. This Bloody Sunday led to mass strikes, mutinies and the murder of landowners and industrialists. Social Democrat activists formed workers' councils, or soviets, and a general strike in October 1905 brought the country to its knees. The tsar finally buckled and permitted the formation of the country's first parliament (duma), only to disband it when he didn't like its leftist demands.

After the First World War soviets of workers and soldiers were also formed, thus creating two alternative power bases. Both were unified in their demands for the abdication of the tsar, an action Nicholas was forced to undertake on 1 March 1917.

On 25 October, a splinter group of Social Democrats (known as Bolsheviks and led by the exiled Lenin) seized control and empowered the soviets as the ruling councils. Headed by Lenin and supported by Trotsky and the Georgian Stalin, the Soviet Government was quick to introduce change, redistributing land to those who worked it, signing an armistice with Germany, setting up a secret police force to fight any opposition (the Cheka), and creating the Red Army under the control of Trotsky. In March 1918, the Bolshevik Party was renamed the Communist Party, and the nation's capital was moved from Petrogradto Moscow. The murder of the former tsar and his family was part of a systematic program of arrests,torture and executions. Strongholds of those hostile to the communist regime had developed in the south and east of the country, their collective name, the Whites, their only source of cohesion. Three years of civil war resulted, with approximately 1.5 million citizens fleeing to exile.

After the Second World War Russia took over some Baltic territories and the Ukraine, and took over a large section of Eastern Europe politically, beginning the Cold War, ended in the late 1980s by Mikahail Gorbachev and his perestroika.


Russian Orthodox, Muslim, other.


Russian, other.


There are 11 time zones. Moscow is GMT plus two hours.


One rouble (R) = 100 kopeks.

What one should not fail to see

Moscow: Kremlin, Assumption Cathedral (the burial church of religious leaders) and Annunciation. Ivan the Great Belltower is a famous Moscow landmark, visible for 30km; Tretayakov Gallery, near Gorky Park, has the world's best collection of Russian icons and a fine collection of pre-revolutionary Russian art; Red Square; Pushkin Art Gallery; Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Lermontov's houses - now museums; Moscow Art Theatre; come to see the Bolshoi ballet.

St Petersburg: Hermitage Museum (world's largest collection), Palace Square, Winter Palace, Peter & Paul Fortress, Summer Palace, St Isaac's Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral now housing the religious museum, Admiralty Building, Menshikov Palace on Vasilevsky Island. Other areas: tour Russia's canals, go hunting or trekking in Siberia.

What to eat and drink

Blinis, caviar, vodka, borscht, regional dishes such as Siberian or Georgian.

Main holiday sports

Trekking or mountaineering in the Caucasus or the Kola Peninsula; hiking or kayaking in the forests, rivers and lakes of Karelia; bicycling.

Frontier formalities

A visa is necessary to enter Russia.