Frontline World

Moscow - Rich in Russia, October 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Rich in Russia"

The Oligarchs

Money, Power and Politics

Examining the Young and the Restless

Government, Population, Economy

Life in Russia Today and the Transition to Capitalism




Images of Russian landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

General Background

General Background

Russia is the world's largest country in terms of area -- nearly twice the size of the United States.

Located in Northern Asia, bordering the Arctic Ocean between Europe and the North Pacific Ocean, the country spans 11 time zones. The region of Russia that is west of the Ural Mountains is considered part of Europe.

Russia's landmass contains all the major vegetation zones of the world except a tropical rain forest. The country has nine major mountain ranges and the largest and deepest freshwater reservoir in the world.

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Russia declared its sovereignty in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, when 16 independent republics were created.

Russia's communist history dates back to 1917, when the Bolsheviks revolted against a 300-year-old dynasty. The Communist Party, under Vladimir Lenin, seized power soon after, forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin strengthened Russian dominance of the Soviet Union during his reign (1928-1953), but his brutal purges killed tens of millions of people, And the Soviet economy and society largely stagnated in the decades following Stalin's rule. Then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991) introduced his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to modernize the philosophies of the Communist Party.

Today, Russia is a federation, with executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. President Vladimir Putin has served the country since December 1999 (and is up for reelection in March 2004 for another four-year term).

Russia's State Duma, its lower chamber of parliament, has 450 seats, 225 of which are elected by proportional representation with party lists competing in Russia as a whole. The other 225 are elected from single-member districts. Russia's next State Duma elections are scheduled for December 2003.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has the largest representation among party list seats in the Duma -- it holds about 25 percent of the Duma seats.

The Russian military has been engaged for eight years in conflict over the sovereignty of Chechnya, located in the small mountainous region on Russia's southern border. Thousands of civilian Chechens have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in what has been called "Russia's dirty war."

The Cold War arms race left Russia maintaining the world's largest nuclear arsenal. As a result, the country also has one of the world's most serious weapons-proliferation problems, with nearly 60 percent of Russia's weapon-usable material not secure by international standards.

Radioactive and chemical contamination plague many regions of the country, including Chelyabinsk, once home to the Soviet Union's Mayak atomic weapons complex, now considered to be one of the most contaminated places on Earth. Russia's lead emissions are about 50 times greater than in all of the European Union.

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Nearly 145 million people live in Russia, but the country's population is decreasing and aging. After a decade of low birth rates, Russia's population decline in the 1990s was greater than that of any other nation.

The country's national language is Russian; Slavs account for the majority of the population.

Russia has one of the world's highest literacy rates: 99.6 percent.

The Russian Orthodox Church is dominant in the country. Islam, Catholicism and Judaism are practiced by a small percentage of Russians. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was flooded with a number of new religions, which were objects of persecution under Communist rule.

Russians' average life expectancy of 68 years hasn't kept pace with the country's economic progress. In 2001, Russia's per-capita gross domestic product jumped an estimated 6 percent, but life expectancy for men slipped by half a year.

Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are increasing in Russia at alarming rates, especially among younger Russians. The country's tuberculosis mortality index is the highest in Europe.

Russian medical officials estimate that some 40 percent of deaths would be preventable with a proper health-care system. Russia spends less than 4 percent of its gross domestic product on health -- less than half the average of other developed nations.

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Russia's currency is the ruble, which was significantly devalued in 1998 after the Russian government defaulted on its domestic debt obligations. The currency's value has since stabilized.

In 2002, Russia's gross domestic product grew by 4.3 percent, surpassing average growth rates in the United States, France, Britain, Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan.

Russia's official estimates put nearly 31 million Russians, or more than 20 percent of the population, at an income level of less than $50 a month. The United Nations Development Programme reports that the situation is worse than the government estimate and that actually about half the country is living in poverty.

Last year, Russia's State Statistics Committee reported that 40 million Russians suffer from undernourishment on a regular basis.

A small class of the super-rich is growing in Russia. Seventeen of the country's wealthiest men were ranked this year on the Forbes billionaire list, up from 10 on last year's list. Eight shareholder groups control 85 percent of Russia's leading privatized companies and assets.

With the recent crackdown on Russia's oligarchy, cash is increasingly leaving Russia. Nearly $8 billion left the country during the third quarter of 2003 alone, compared with capital flight in the first quarter of just $100 million.

The international watchdog group Transparency International ranks Russia 88th out of 133 countries on its corruption perception index. The Deputy Speaker of the State Duma estimates that Russian businessmen spend an average of $8 billion a year on bribes.

Russia is the world's largest exporter of natural gas and the world's second-largest oil exporter (Saudi Arabia is number one).

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Sources: CIA World Factbook; Energy Information Administration; United Nations Development Program; The Atlantic Monthly; BusinessWeek Online; The U.S. Library of Congress, Country Studies;  National Threat Initiative; The New York Times Magazine; United States Consulate General, Vladivostok, Russia; Forbes Magazine;   Transparency International; Rosbalt; and Moscow Times.