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All About Russia

Russia is the world's largest country in area.  It is almost twice as big as Canada, the second largest country.  From 1922 until 1991, Russia was the biggest republic in the Soviet Union, the most powerful Communist country in the world.  The Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.  After the breakup, Russia began to set up a new political, legal, and economic system.

Russia extends from the Arctic Ocean south to the Black Sea and from the Baltic Sea east to the Pacific Ocean.  It covers much of the continents of Europe and Asia.  Moscow is the capital and largest city of Russia.  St. Petersburg, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, is Russia's chief seaport.

Most of Russia's people are ethnic Russians--that is, descendants of an early Slavic people called the Russians.  More than 100 minority nationalities also live in Russia.  Approximately three-fourths of the people make their homes in urban areas.  Russian cities have better schools and health-care facilities than the rural areas do.  However, the cities suffer from such urban problems as overcrowding, a housing shortage, crime, and environmental pollution.

Russia has abundant natural resources, including vast deposits of petroleum, natural gas, coal, and iron ore.  However, many of these reserves lie far from settled areas.  Russia's harsh, cold climate makes it difficult to take advantage of many of the country's valuable resources.

Russia traces its history back to a state that emerged in Europe among the East Slavs during the 800's.  Over time, large amounts of territory and many different peoples came under Russian rule.  For hundreds of years, czars (emperors) and empresses ruled Russia.  They had almost complete control over most aspects of Russian life.  Under these rulers, the country's economic development lagged behind the rapid industrial progress that began in Western Europe in the 1700's.  Most of the people were poor, uneducated peasants.

Russia made many great contributions to the arts during the 1800's.  Such authors as Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy wrote masterpieces of literature.  Russian composers, including Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, created music of lasting greatness.  Russians also made valuable artistic contributions in the fields of architecture, ballet, and painting.

Opposition to the czars' absolute power increased during the late 1800's and the early 1900's.  Revolutionaries overthrew the Russian government in 1917.  The next year, Russia became the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (R.S.F.S.R.).  In 1922, the R.S.F.S.R. and three other republics established a new nation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), also known as the Soviet Union.  The R.S.F.S.R. became the largest and most influential republic of the Soviet Union, which included 15 republics by 1956.  In 1991, Communist rule in the Soviet Union collapsed, and the country broke apart.  Russia and most of the other republics formed a new, loose federation called the Commonwealth of Independent States.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia entered a transitional period.  The Communist leaders of the Soviet Union had controlled all aspects of the country's economy and government.  Russia's new national government worked to move the country from a state-controlled economy to one based on private enterprise.  The government also began to establish new political and legal systems in Russia.
Way of life

The government of the Soviet Union controlled many aspects of life in the country.  It exerted great influence over religion, education, and the arts.  The independence of Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union brought greater freedom and triggered many other changes in the lives of the people.

City life.  About three-fourths of Russia's people live in urban areas.  Approximately 35 cities in Russia have populations over 500,000.  Two of Russia's cities--Moscow and St. Petersburg--each have more than 4 million inhabitants.

Russian cities are crowded.  Beginning in the 1930's, large numbers of people migrated from the countryside to urban areas.  During World War II (1939-1945), bombs destroyed many houses and other buildings.  These circumstances combined to create a housing shortage in Russian cities that continues to this day.  Millions of city dwellers live in small apartments in high-rise buildings.  The scarcity of housing forces some families to share kitchen and toilet facilities.  Single-family houses are common in small towns and on the outskirts of large cities.  Some of these houses still lack indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences.

Shortages of food, services, and manufactured goods have been common features of city life in Russia.  The shortages were widespread in 1992, when the government lifted price controls.  Since then, goods have become available, but they are often too expensive for most people to afford.  Russian cities also face such urban problems as crime and environmental pollution.

Rural life.  About one-fourth of the Russian population lives in rural areas.  Single-family housing is common in these areas, but the Soviet government built many city-style apartment buildings.  In the most remote areas of Russia, some homes lack gas, plumbing, running water, and electricity.  In addition, the quality of education, health care, and cultural life is lower than in the cities.  However, rural life is undergoing change.  Rural stores, for example, have a wider selection of goods available than they once offered.

When Russia was part of the Soviet Union, most rural people worked on huge farms run by the government.  After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia began to break up these farms.  New laws allow people to withdraw from the government farms and set up private farms.

Clothing.  Most people in the Soviet Union wore plain clothing.  Stores offered little variety in styles, and most people had a limited number of outfits.  In the 1970's, consumers began to demand greater variety.  They preferred to buy imported clothing whenever it was available.  As a result, Soviet clothing manufacturers began to pay more attention to style and quality.  But clothing remained expensive and sometimes scarce, and Russia's harsh winter continued to affect styles.  Stylish clothing made in Russia and in other parts of the world has become available, but it is expensive.

Traditional Russian clothing consists of colorfully embroidered shirts and blouses, embroidered headwear, and shoes woven from bast, a tough fiber from the bark of certain trees.  Rural dwellers wore these costumes on special occasions, such as weddings and holidays.  However, the traditional costume is rarely worn today.

Food and drink.  The Russian diet is hearty.  Russians eat bread at virtually every meal.  Beef, chicken, pork, and fish are popular main dishes.  The most commonly eaten vegetables include beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, radishes, and tomatoes.  Russians are fond of soups and dairy products, and they consume large quantities of sugar.  Frying remains a widespread method of preparing food.

Many Russian dishes are popular around the world.  They include blinis (thin pancakes served with smoked salmon or other fillings and sour cream) and beef Stroganoff (beef strips cooked with onions and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce).  Other favorite dishes include borscht (beet soup) and piroshki (baked or fried dumplings filled with meat and cabbage).

Typical breakfast foods in Russia include eggs, porridge, sausages, cheese, bread, butter, and jam.  Most of the people eat their main meal at midday.  It consists of a salad or appetizer; soup; meat or fish with potatoes or kasha (cooked buckwheat); and dessert, such as stewed fruit or pastries.  In the evening, most Russians eat a light supper.

Russians drink large quantities of tea.  Many people enjoy coffee, but it is expensive.  Kvass, a beerlike beverage made from fermented black bread, is especially popular in summer.  Russians also enjoy soft drinks, juices, and mineral water.

Vodka is Russia's trademark alcoholic beverage.  Russians also drink wine, champagne, cognac, beer, and other alcoholic beverages.  Alcohol abuse has been and remains a major social problem in Russia.

Health care in the Soviet Union was free.  The Russian government remains committed to meeting the basic health-care needs of its people.  An insurance program to finance health care was introduced in 1993.  A private health-care sector is also rapidly emerging.  Russia has many doctors, nurses, and health-care facilities.  However, low government spending on health care, shortages of medicines and equipment, low wages for health-care providers, and bureaucracy continue to create problems.  Conditions in rural areas are worse than in the cities.

Recreation.  Russians enjoy watching television, reading, playing chess, seeing motion pictures and plays, visiting museums, walking, and taking part in sports.  The government actively promotes athletic activities, especially team sports.  Soccer is the most popular participant and spectator sport in Russia.  Other popular sports include gymnastics, basketball, and such winter sports as hockey, ice skating, and skiing.  Tennis is growing in popularity.

Russia has many athletic clubs, stadiums, recreational centers, and other sporting facilities.  Schools provide physical education at all levels.  There are also special sports camps and clubs for children and adults.

The people of Russia are avid nature lovers, and they enjoy spending time in the countryside.  Many Russians have country cottages called dachas.  There, they garden, hike, bicycle, swim, fish, gather mushrooms, and take part in other outdoor activities.

The majority of Russia's people vacation in the summer.  Popular destinations include resort areas along the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Volga River, and in Siberia.  However, price increases and ethnic unrest have made vacationing away from home less appealing.

Religion.  The Soviet Union was hostile to religion.  But religion played an important role in the lives of many of the country's people.  In the late 1980's, religious toleration began to increase dramatically.  Churches recovered property seized by the Soviet government.  Thousands of new parishes opened.  Church attendance shot up.  Sunday schools opened across the country, and churches took part in charity work.  Publication of religious literature resumed, and new seminaries opened.  The celebration of Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7 was made a national holiday.

The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest religious denomination.  Other important religious groups include Muslims; Baptists, Pentecostalists, and other Protestant denominations; Roman Catholics; and Jews.

Education.  The Soviet government controlled education and considered it a major vehicle of social advancement.  As a result, almost all Russians can read and write.  Today, public education in Russia remains free for all citizens.  New private schools are also opening.  The Soviet government had banned such schools.

Russian educators are changing the school curriculum to better prepare students for the new economy.  They are working to remove the influence of Communist Party ideology.  Educators are also trying to better satisfy the interests of the large number of Russia's nationality groups.

All children attend school for 11 years, from age 6 to 17.  Elementary education includes nine primary and intermediate grades.  When pupils finish ninth grade, they may choose to complete their schooling by enrolling in a secondary school or vocational school.  The secondary schools emphasize science and mathematics.  They also teach language, literature, history, social sciences, and physical education.  English is the most widely taught foreign language.  The vocational schools prepare young people for careers as technicians or in various branches of industry and agriculture.

Starting with the intermediate grades, pupils must pass annual exams to advance to the next grade.  Students who pass a national examination upon the completion of secondary school receive a certificate, and those who score well also receive a gold or silver medal.  Schools use a number grading scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest.

Many gifted children attend special schools.  These schools stress individual subjects such as mathematics or physics, languages, or the arts.  Russia also has schools for children with physical or learning disabilities.

Students must pass an entrance exam to be admitted to a university or institute of higher education.  Russia has about 550 institutions of higher education equivalent to colleges and universities, with about 21/2 million students.  Moscow State University, the largest university in Russia, has 28,000 students.

Museums and libraries.  The people of Russia spend more time in museums than do the people of the United States or most European countries.  Russia has more than 660 museums.  The State Historical Museum in Moscow is the country's chief historical museum.  Several museums deal with the Russian Revolution.  They include the Central Museum of the Revolution, which is located in Moscow.  The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has one of the largest art collections in the world.

Russia has about 62,000 libraries.  Most towns and large villages have a public library.  There are also libraries specializing in particular subjects and libraries run by factories, schools, labor unions, and professional and civic organizations.  The Russian State Library in Moscow is the largest library in Russia.  Other major libraries in Moscow include the All-Russian State Library of Foreign Literature, INION (Institute of Scholarly Information for the Social Sciences of the Academy of Sciences), the State Historical Library, and the Gorki Library at Moscow State University.  St. Petersburg is home to the Saltykov-Shchedrin State Library and the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences.