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
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
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
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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.