General information Russia
Russia has an area of 6.56 million square miles. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is still the largest country in the world. It takes up 11% of the world’s total land area, almost as much as the United States and Canada combined. It extends across both Europe and Asia, stretching for 7,000 miles from Europe in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the East. It is so large that it spans eleven time zones. When people in Moscow go to bed, people in Vladivostok, situated on the east coast, are just waking up. A flight from Moscow to Vladivostok takes 10 hours.
Russia is split into two unequal parts by the Ural Mountains. Most of Russia’s population live in the smaller half to the west of the mountain range, where the most fertile farmland can be found as well as the most important Russian industries. The larger region to the east of the Urals is generally referred to as Siberia. Although Siberia is the same size as the United States, it has just a tenth of the American population. Most people are discouraged by the harsh weather conditions which hinder the region’s development. Although it is rich in natural resources, the area remains little more than a wilderness of thick forests intersected by countless rivers. For the majority of the year, Siberia is covered in ice.
Russia’s immense size means that the country has many different climate systems and landscapes. Most of the country is flat with the exception of the mountainous regions in the Caucasus (east of the Black Sea) and in eastern Siberia. Russia has four different types of landscape. Along the northern border and mostly inside the Arctic Circle you can find the Tundra. This is a treeless, windy wilderness which endures immensely cold winters. Apart from moss and lichen, very little grows here. South of the Tundra we find the Taiga, a broad stretch of land filled with conifer tress which spans the whole of central Russia. The most common trees are larches, pines, firs and spruces. The needles which fall from the trees make the ground very acidic and therefore unfarmable. Just as in the Tundra, much of the ground is permafrost, and the ground is frozen to a depth of over half a mile in some areas. The top layer melts in summer, creating mosquito-infested marshland. South of the Taiga you find the Steppes, a narrow strip of grassland. The fertile black ground here, known as Chernozem, is excellent for agriculture. Further south of the Steppes, the landscape consists mainly of desert. This sandy ground allows little to grow, unless the ground is flooded by the River Wolga.
The majority of Russia is closer to the North Pole than the equator, so it mostly has a very cold climate with much snow and rivers and lakes which are frozen for months at a time. In the north of Siberia, the temperature can drop as low as -70°C, making it the coldest place in the world. Western Russia has shorter, less harsh winters in which temperatures rarely drop any lower than -15°C.
Russia has a history which stretches back over a thousand years. It begins with the period of Russian sovereigns centred in Kiev. Bloody civil wars between various Russian rulers weakened the area. The Tatar-Mongols overran the country in 1237 and ruled the Russian people for 240 years, although they maintained some autonomy. Moscow played a central role in the unification of the Russian countries into one state and the overthrow of the hated Mongols rulers. With the forming of the united Russian state at the end of the 15th century, Moscow became the most important political, economical and commercial centre of the new country. It also later became the centre of Russian culture. Amazing literary works were created, and painting and sculpture blossomed. This saw the printing of the first Russian books in 1564, which in turn encouraged the development of higher education, resulting in the founding of the Slav-Greek-Latin Academy in the 17th century.
The extensive Russian Empire was ruled by the Romanov tsars from 1613 until 1917. The Russian people have united on several occasions to defend Moscow from invasion, as Moscow is seen as the heart of Russia. They liberated the city from Polish invaders in 1612 and drove out the foreign invaders. The city also played a major role in the 1812 war against Napoleon. In the battle of Borodini, the French troops were dealt a blow from which they could not recover. Since this time, no foreign invading force has ever set foot in Moscow. In 1712, Peter the Great gave capital city status to St. Petersburg, which he had ordered built. However, Moscow remained the centre of Russian life and culture in the eyes of the people. Moscow remained immune to the westernisation which St. Petersburg received, maintaining its pure, genuine Russian spirit. After the Russian Revolution which began in St. Petersburg, Moscow was reappointed as capital in 1918, but now of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, enormous changes have taken place and Moscow has been touched by this influence. A large amount of the city was renovated in 1997 in honour of the country’s 850th anniversary.
In 1914, Russia became entangled in the First World War, on the side of Britain, France and the United States. In 1917, Russia found itself in crisis; its people were starving and furious with the tsar and his generals for their ineptitude on the battlefield where thousands were dying each day. The Russian Revolution began in March of 1917, and workers in St. Petersburg, then the capital city, went on mass strike. Workers in other cities began to follow their lead. Troops were deployed to combat the situation but they mutinied and forced Tsar Nicholas II to vacate his post. Under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, the first communist government took power in the country.
The teachings of Karl Marx were central to the ideology. Marx believed that a country must not be divided into a rich minority who owned everything and a poor majority who worked for the rich. Instead of this, the state must own all of the land and industries so that everyone can profit from the fruits of the country’s labours. In 1922, the Russian Empire made way for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1924, Lenin died and Joseph Stalin took control of the party and the country. He became a ruthless dictator who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Every person who opposed his views was murdered or sent to concentration camps in Siberia. Tens of millions died during his reign of terror. Stalin wanted the USSR to become an important military and industrial country and ordered the construction of many large factories and iron ore and coal mines. As a result, the USSR was in a much better position at the outbreak of the Second World War than the First. When the German army invaded in 1941, it got as far as Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd). After a long, bloody battle the Germans were forced to withdraw, hotly pursued by the Red Army until the eventual fall of Berlin in 1945. Along the way, they liberated Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland from Nazi rule, and also had control of eastern Germany. However, Stalin was determined to spread the communist ideology across Europe, so he refused to leave these countries.
After the Second World War, a dividing line was drawn through Germany which became known as the ‘Iron Curtain’. The countries under Russian influence lay to the East of the Iron Curtain. These countries became collectively known as the Eastern Bloc. Once united against a common enemy, the US and USSR became fierce rivals, both convinced that their political system and industrial prowess were superior. Both sides began to invest astronomical amounts of money into weapons in an arms race to become the most powerful country in the world. This ‘Cold War’ lasted until 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR. At this time, Russia’s progress was much lesser than the other industrialised nations in the world. So much money had been spent on the arms race that there was little remaining for anything else, such as modernisation of factories or the construction of new factories. Shortages of food and supplies were prevalent in much of Russia and the Eastern Bloc. Gorbachev called a halt to the Cold War and began negotiations with the US, freeing up money to invest in industry. Gorbachev allowed free elections, resulting in the Eastern Bloc countries voting against communist governments under heavy Russian influence.
Encouraged by this, republics inside the USSR requested independence and an end to communism. The Communist Party were not pleased with this and led a coup to unseat Gorbachev in 1991 in an attempt to restore the party’s control over the USSR. The coup failed due to Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic, who convinced the army not to support the rebels. At the end of 1991, the discontented republics declared themselves independent and the USSR ceased to exist. Eleven of the former republics formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was headed by the Russian Federation. The new countries of Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia initially decided not to join this union, although Georgia did join later.
The transfer to capitalism caused many problems. Many factories which had worked well under communist rule now had to compete against modern international companies, which severely threatened their future. Many workers lost their jobs as a result of this. Aside from industry, other institutions and services had to adapt to the new capitalist system. A stock exchange was established in Moscow, with offices in other cities. New banks were founded which specialised in loans for businesses. A new national telecommunications network was installed in order to allow the businesses to communicate with each other by fax and through computers. Business schools were created to teach capitalist management. It is a little early to say, but with a little time and money Russia has the potential to become one of the leading industrialised lands in the world.
Moscow by numbers
Moscow has an area of 417 square miles, including suburbs. The city’s border is defined by a 42-mile long ring road. Moscow is situated on the Rivers Moskva and Yauza, in the centre of European Russia. The city stretches over a distance of 25 miles from north to south and 20 miles from west to east. It is the largest city in Russia and is the political, economic and cultural centre of the largest country in the world. A quarter of its 12 million inhabitants are made up of children, youths and the elderly.
St. Petersburg by numbers
St. Petersburg is the second largest Russian city, with an area of 235 square miles (556 square miles including suburbs). The city is built on around 44 islands in the Neva Delta which are linked by no less than 550 bridges. It has direct access to the Baltic Sea. The city is 37 miles long from north to south and 19 miles from east to west. It is home to around 5 million people, of which more than a fifth is retired.
The full name of the country is the Russian Federation. It is divided into republics, provinces and districts. These divisions roughly define the traditional homeland of the largest ethnic groups. The Slavs are the biggest of these groups, accounting for 82% of Russia’s population. Their mid-Europeans ancestors were the original colonists of western Russia, although they are now spread across the whole of the country. There are around 100 other ethnic groups, each with their own dialects, cultures, traditions and manners of dress. The Tatars, with a head count of 5 million, are the largest of the groups. The Aleuts, a group of mainly fishermen, are the smallest group with less than 500 people. The total population of Russia is 141 million (117 million in the European part), 54% of whom are women.
Russians are free to practise whatever religion they desire. In 1997, a law was passed which officially recognised the Russian Orthodox Church as the leading faith and also encouraged respect of other religions in Russia, namely Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.
The Russian Orthodox Church
In 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its 1,000 year anniversary. In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev baptised his people in the River Dnepr, and was later declared a saint. The church is now enjoying a period of revival after years of Communist oppression, and its following currently numbers around 50 million. The rise in church attendance is proportional to the rise of Russian nationalism, as the church is seen as an integral part of being Russian. Deserted, neglected churches throughout the country have been restored and churches and monasteries which had been converted into museums were returned to divine service. There are currently 25,000 active churches, whereas in 1988 this figure was just 7,000. In 1917 there were 50,000 churches in the country, but the rise of Lenin, who followed the Marxist belief that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’, was disastrous for religious life in Russia, and Lenin’s successor Stalin was even more anti-religious. He tried to smother the religion entirely until 1941, when he decided that religion may help to increase patriotism and help motivate the Russians in the Second World War. In 1950, Khrushchev closed 15,000 churches, and the 1970s saw the Russian government sharpen their anti-religious stance, and from 1975 onwards it became illegal to hold religious services at home. This was characteristic of the KGB’s desire to keep the whole of society under control. However, Gorbachev’s famous Perestroika reforms gave the church more breathing space and the relationship between church and state began to improve from 1985 onwards.
The Russian Orthodox Church is very traditional and the atmosphere in the churches is very formal. Priests dress authoritatively and the scent of candles and incense fills the air. Old women keep the buildings clean. The churches have no seating or images, but there is a lot of iconography. The Virgin Mary is widely worshipped. The services and texts are in a Slavic dialect, the same text used from the time that the bible was first translated into Slavic. The singing in Russian Orthodox services is particularly unique and the texts are sung without musical accompaniment; there are no organs in Russian churches. The choirs often perform their breathtaking a capella artistry during the services. They bring church music composed by people such as Piotr Tchaikovsky to life every day. The liturgical texts which are sung in the Russian Orthodox services are centuries old, most of them dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Easter is a very important religious holiday in Russian Orthodoxy, and Christmas is held on the 7th of January (the church still uses the Julian calendar which the state stopped using in 1918).
The churches are decorated with icons, mosaics and frescos (murals painted onto wet plaster). The various subjects depicted have a fixed place in the church’s traditional decoration. For example, images of the Last Supper are always painted on the west wall of the church. Every church has an iconostasis (‘icon wall’) which separates the main area of the church (the ‘ship’) from the altar. The iconostases consist of a number of rows of religious icons. The bottom row has a gateway (known as the ‘Beautiful Gates’ or ‘Holy Doors’) which are opened during the service to give worshippers a glimpse of the altar. Above the gateway there are icons of the four evangelists, to the right of the gates an icon of the patron saint of the church and to the left the Virgin Mary.
In general, the churches are open to the public, although visitors are expected to make sure they do not disturb the worshippers and also to dress appropriately. A headscarf is compulsory for women (in churches outside Moscow and St. Petersburg). Permission must be asked to take photographs in churches, and sometimes you must pay a fee to do so. Taking photographs during services is forbidden, as is taking photos of priests/monks.