(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Russia (officially, the Russian Federation) is the world's largest country. It extends over two continents, Europe and Asia. It stretches from the Gulf of Finland (part of the Baltic Sea) in the west to the Bering Strait (separating the Arctic and Pacific oceans) in the east. This is a distance of more than 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers). In all, it contains more than one-tenth of the world's land surface.

The history of Russia dates back more than one thousand years. In the A.D. 800's and 900's, Vikings from Scandinavia ruled over a Slavic people then known as the Rus. Tatars were a Mongol people from the east. They conquered the Rus in the 1200's and ruled until Ivan III, the grand duke of Moscow, defeated them in 1462. Ivan became the sole ruler over central Russia. He began the first dynasty of Russian imperial rulers. In 1613, the Russian aristocracy elected Michael Romanov czar (or emperor). This began a second dynasty that lasted for three hundred years.

Under the Romanovs, the Russian Empire more than tripled in size. It expanded to the south, east, and west. The czars were impressed by the wealthy and sophisticated nations of western Europe. They tried to copy western ways. But Russia's entry into the modern industrial age was hindered by its medieval labor system. Russian peasants, called serfs, remained bound in a state of servitude to the landowners.

The Romanov Dynasty remained in power until 1917. That year the empire was swept away by a people's revolution. It established the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, more commonly known as the Soviet Union, or U.S.S.R. Russia, the largest of the republics, formed the core of the Soviet Union. It contained about half its population. Communists ruled the country until the union collapsed in 1991. Since that time, Russia has struggled to overturn the effects of the failed Communist system. It is attempting to build a democratic government and capitalist economy.


About 80 percent of Russia's population is made up of ethnic Russians, who are descended from East Slavs. Slavs probably first appeared in Europe about 2,000 years ago. They later divided into western and southern as well as eastern branches.

East Slavs form a majority. But Russia also has a number of non-Slavic minorities. The second largest ethnic group includes peoples of Turkic origins. Examples are the Tatars, the Chuvash, and several smaller groups in Siberia. People in the third largest group, the Finno-Ugric, are concentrated along the border with Finland, in the eastern plains and Ural Mountains, and in northern Siberia.


All Russians speak Russian as their primary language. Russian belongs to the East Slavic group of languages, a branch of the larger Indo-European family of languages. Tatar, Chuvash, and other languages are spoken within distinct ethnic groups.

The Russian language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is also used by other East Slavs and some South Slavs. The Cyrillic alphabet is based on Greek letters with a few additions to convey Slavic sounds. It was probably developed in the 800's by a student of St. Cyril, a Byzantine missionary after whom it is named.


Religion was officially banned during the years of Soviet rule. But Russians historically have belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Today about 40 percent of ethnic Russians consider themselves orthodox Christians.

Most Tatars and other minority peoples in the Russian Federation are Muslims. Russia also has a significant number of Jews, although large numbers have immigrated to Israel and the United States. Russia also has a relatively small number of Buddhists among the Mongols of the lower Volga River (the Kalmyks) and in the vicinity of Lake Baikal (the Buriats). A small Baptist denomination is the only sizable Protestant group. There are, in addition, even smaller groups of evangelicals. Among them are Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses.


In Russia, education is mandatory between the ages of 6 and 17. Almost everybody over the age of 15 can read and write. Schooling from the first grade through college is free. However, only a small percentage of the best students are able to pass the entrance examinations required to gain admission to a university. Of the approximately 40 universities in Russia, Moscow State University in Moscow is the largest.

Under the Soviet system, schools were noted for their difficult curriculum. Students excelled in the sciences, mathematics, foreign languages, physical education, and the arts. But the downfall of Communism and the collapse of the Russian economy dramatically affected education. Today schools are underfunded and suffer from a lack of basic materials. Often the government has difficulty paying the teachers' salaries.

Libraries and Museums

Nearly every town or village in Russia has a public library. The country has two national libraries. They are the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg and the Russian State Library in Moscow. The largest library in Siberia is the Tomsk State University Library.

Russia contains several of the world's finest museums. Moscow alone has approximately 100 of them. Fine examples are the State Museums of the Moscow Kremlin and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts at Moscow University. Notable institutions in other cities include the Nizhniy Novgorod Art Museum and the Novosibirsk Art Gallery. The latter is renowned for its collection of Russian icons. The State Hermitage Museum is located in St. Petersburg. It is one of the largest and most famous art museums in the world.

Way of Life

The great majority of Russians are city dwellers. City people, for the most part, live in apartments. The typical Russian family has two wage earners--the husband and wife--and one or two children. Often, one or more grandparents may also live with the family. Although luxuries are few, most homes have television sets and electric appliances.

About one-quarter of the population lives in villages scattered across the vast area of the countryside. Most of the villages were established as collective, or state, farms during the Communist era. Almost all villagers have electricity but many lack running water. Water must be drawn from wells, often at some distance away.

Food and Drink

For Russians in the countryside, black bread and cabbage soup are staple foods. In the cities, bread, kasha (made from buckwheat), and sausage are commonly eaten. Other favorite dishes include borscht (a soup made from beets or other vegetables), beef Stroganoff (made with sour cream), bliny (stuffed pancakes), and golubtsy (meat wrapped in cabbage leaves).

Caviar is probably the country's most famous and expensive gourmet delicacy. It is enjoyed when available and affordable. The best is obtained from the roe (eggs) of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea.

Russians also drink tea and vodka. Mineral water is preferred to tap water. Soft drinks have become increasingly popular.

Sports and Recreation

Soccer (Europeans call it football) is the most popular team sport in Russia, as in many other countries. Soccer is followed in popularity by basketball, volleyball, and hockey. Lapta is a popular bat-and-ball game similar to baseball. It has been played for a long time and is mentioned in old Russian literature.

Russians also enjoy spectator sports, such as boxing, wrestling, skiing, ice-skating, swimming, and gymnastics. In past years, the government provided financial support for a wide variety of sports teams in international competitions.


Russia's enormous landmass is bounded on two sides by oceans--the Arctic on the north and the Pacific on the east. Its neighboring countries are North Korea, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan on the south; Azerbaijan and Georgia on the southwest; Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the west; and Finland and Norway on the northwest.

The Arctic north extends from Norway to the Bering Strait. It consists of tundra, much of which is permafrost, or permanently frozen land. Just below the tundra and stretching across the country, barely interrupted by the modest-sized Ural Mountains, is the wide belt of forest known as the taiga. South of the taiga is an extensive region of steppe, or plains. These plains contain some of the country's most fertile soil. The steppe reaches as far south as the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains and extends, more narrowly, east of the Urals. There it merges into the semi-desert regions of Central Asia.

Land Regions

Russia's landscape is marked by broad plains, rugged plateaus, and towering mountain ranges. The western half of the country includes two vast plains. They are the Russian (or European) Plain and the West Siberian Plain. The Russian Plain is separated from the West Siberian Plain by the Ural Mountains. They form part of the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. In the east, the land rises to the Central Siberian Plateau and the uplands and mountains of East Siberia.

The Asian part of Russia is many times larger in area than European Russia. But it is much more sparsely populated, because of its harsher climate and less fertile soil.

The Russian Plain.

 The great Russian (or European) Plain is Russia's westernmost region. Watered by the Volga and Northern Dvina rivers and their tributaries, the plain extends as far east as the Ural Mountains. The Russian Plain is Russia's heartland. It contains its most fertile lands and supports the largest population.

The country's highest peaks lie within this region. They are mainly in the Caucasus Mountains along Russia's southern border between the Black and the Caspian seas. With an elevation of 18,510 feet (5,642 meters), Mount Elbrus, in the Caucasus Range, is the highest mountain peak in Europe.

The Ural Mountains.

 The Ural Mountains, along with the Caucasus Range in the southwest, are the traditional boundaries between Europe and Asia. The mountains are densely forested and rich in mineral resources. The highest peak among them is Mount Narodnaya. It rises 6,214 feet (1,894 meters).

Historically, the relatively low Urals were not a useful natural barrier against invasion from the east. Nomadic peoples from Asia crossed into Russia in its early centuries. They included the war-like Mongols.

The West Siberian Plain.

 East of the Urals, the West Siberian Plain continues as far as the Yenisey River. This region was formed by glacial deposits from the last Ice Age. It is forested and swampy.

The Central Siberian Plateau.

 Rising 2,000 feet (610 meters) or more above sea level, the Central Siberian Plateau covers the vast region between the Yenisey and Lena rivers.

The East Siberian Uplands.

 Farther east are the mountains of the East Siberian Uplands and the varied terrain of the Pacific coastal region. The largest ranges in this region are the Kamchatka, Kolyma, and Chukotskoye Nagor'ye.

Rivers and Lakes

Russia has an extensive network of rivers. The Volga is the longest river in Europe. It flows 2,293 miles (3,689 kilometers) across the Russian Plain, south to the Caspian Sea. The Dnieper is Europe's third longest river. It rises in Russia and flows south into Ukraine. Other major rivers in western Russia include the Don, Oka, and Sukhona. Several others flow north into the Arctic Ocean. These include the Northern Dvina and Pechora in Europe and the Ob', Yenisey, and Lena in Asia. The Amur River forms part of the border with China. It flows into the Pacific.

The two largest lakes in Europe, Ladoga and Onega, lie within Russia, not far from St. Petersburg. The magnificent Lake Baikal in Russian Asia is the world's deepest lake. It is estimated to contain one-fifth of all the fresh water on the planet. But it is threatened with pollution. Russia borders on the Caspian Sea (actually a salt lake), the world's largest inland body of water, situated just east of the Caucasus, on the boundary between Europe and Asia.


Russia's climate ranges from the frozen north to a small subtropical area in the south. The average monthly temperature in the tundra is 50°F (10°C) or less, and for at least eight months of the year it is below freezing. Precipitation (rain and snow) is usually less than 16 inches (410 millimeters) per year. The taiga may even be colder. Temperatures fall to –90°F (–68°C) at Verkhoyansk in Siberia, the coldest spot on Earth outside of Antarctica. Precipitation there varies from 8 to 20 inches (200 to 500 millimeters) a year.

In the steppe region around Moscow, agriculture is possible. But the temperature remains below freezing for much of the year.

Natural Resources

The precise extent of Russia's vast underground mineral deposits is still unknown. But in petroleum reserves alone, Russia ranks at least second to the Persian Gulf region. Most of its petroleum and natural gas are found in western Siberia. It is carried by pipeline westward to Europe and eastward to the Pacific coast. Russia also has huge deposits of coal and iron ore. Gold, bauxite (aluminum ore), and many other metals have long been mined or are known to be present in the lands east of the Urals. Russia has the largest forest reserves of any country. The swift-flowing Siberian rivers are a primary source of hydroelectric power.

Russia has a great variety of animal life. In the north are found polar bears, seals, musk oxen, and reindeer. The taiga supports elk and small fur-bearing animals, such as sable and ermine. Farther south are wolves, foxes, beavers, otters, and deer as well as small brown bears. Siberian tigers, found along the Pacific coast, are protected.


For most of the 1900's Russia's economy was controlled by the state. Under communism, the state owned and controlled the country's economic resources. These included companies, land, and natural resources. Government agencies decided what goods would be produced, how much they would cost, and who could obtain them. Economic policies favored the growth of industry and helped transform Russia from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

In 1991, Russia's economy fell along with that of the Soviet Union. The Russian currency, the Ruble, lost its value. Certain goods were scarce; inflation rose; and living standards fell. Millions of Russians suffered severe hardships, including job losses and food shortages.

Since 1991, Russia's economy has been undergoing a difficult transition. It is moving from a planned economy controlled by the state to a market economy based on private ownership. In 1998, Russia suffered a severe financial crisis. Thereafter, its economy picked up and has since shown strong, steady growth. The recovery up was in part the result of reforms in banking, labor, and private property rules, followed by rising oil prices. As the economy picked up, poverty declined. But nearly 20 percent of Russian people still live in poverty. That means they earn or consume less than they need to achieve adequate levels of nutrition, shelter, and other necessities.


Nearly 60 percent of Russia's GDP is generated by its service industries. (GDP is the total market value of all goods and services produced in a country, usually in one year.) The main private sector services are in wholesale and retail trade, banking and insurance, and transportation and communication. Public services include education and health care. Tourism contributes to a variety of service industries.


Over 35 percent of Russia's GDP comes from its manufacturing industries. In addition to industries based on natural resources, such as oil, Russia manufactures metals, food products, and transport equipment.


Agriculture contributes just over 5 percent to GDP. In the north, there is livestock raising. In the southern and western areas farmers concentrate on growing grains. These include rye, barley, oats, and wheat. The most notable commercial crops are sugar beets, sunflower seeds, and vegetables. Cattle are raised for beef and dairy products.


Russia satisfies over half of its energy needs from natural gas. It also uses oil and coal and, to a much lesser extent, nuclear and hydroelectric power. The government plans to expand Russia's nuclear and hydroelectric capacity to free up oil and natural gas for sale abroad.


Russia's proven oil reserves are estimated at 60 billion barrels, most of which are located in western Siberia. The country is one of the world's largest producers of natural gas. Gazprom, Russia's state-run natural gas monopoly, produces nearly 90 percent of Russia's natural gas. Russia has the world's second largest recoverable coal reserves; the United States has the largest. Most of Russia's domestic coal production comes from private producers.


Exports of oil, natural gas, metals, and timber are very important to Russia's economy. Its imports include machinery and equipment, consumer goods, medicines, and meat.


Russia has an extensive railway network. But it is increasingly in need of repair. It includes the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the world's longest continuous railroad. The Trans-Siberian runs between Moscow and the Pacific coast port of Vladivostok. Nearly half of all freight is carried by truck, in spite of the generally poor condition of highways. About one-third is transported by railroad and the rest by water and pipeline.

Ships provide transportation on inland and international waters. Russia has an enormous coastline. But much of it remains icebound for many months of the year. It is of limited use for shipping. The only seaport with year-round ice-free access to the open ocean is Murmansk. It is near the border with Norway. Other northern ports are kept open only with icebreakers.


Russia has many television broadcast and radio stations. Newspapers include Izvestia, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, and the English-language daily The Moscow Times. There are some 26 million Internet users.

Major Cities


 which dates from the 1100's, was the capital of the Grand Principality of Muscovy for centuries before the Russian Empire was founded in 1721. It became the capital of the Soviet Union in 1918 and of the Russian Federation in 1991. The city was burned during a French invasion of Russia in 1812. But much of it was preserved, and Moscow still contains many monuments and treasures from the time of the czars.

St. Petersburg

 was built on a marsh by Czar Peter the Great, beginning in 1703. It served as the Russian capital from 1712 to 1918. In 1924 it was renamed Leningrad, after the Communist leader V. I. Lenin. But its original name was restored in 1991. It remains to a considerable extent the beautiful city it was in the 1700's, complete with the canals that inspired its nickname, Venice of the North.

Nizhniy Novgorod,

 formerly known as Gorki, is one of Russia's most important industrial cities. It was founded in 1221 on the south bank of the Volga River about 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of Moscow.


 is a major industrial center in Russian Asia. It prospered as a terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Situated on the Ob' River, it is a major producer of steel and mining equipment.


 or Ekaterinburg, is another major mining center along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was founded as a fortress in 1721 and named for Empress Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. Czar Nicholas II and his family were held there as prisoners and executed in 1918.


 was once known as Stalingrad. It is an industrial center and the eastern terminus along the Volga-Don Canal. Founded as a Russian fort in 1589, it was the site in 1942 of one of the most crucial battles against the Germans during World War II.

Cultural Heritage

For most of Russia's early history, its culture was largely religious in nature. Russian art, in particular, was characterized by religious themes. This was especially during the Middle Ages, when the creation of icons, or religious paintings on wood, flourished. Unaccompanied vocal music was part of Eastern Orthodox worship. Russian architecture was influenced in large measure by that of the Byzantine Empire, centered at Constantinople (modern Istanbul).

Western artistic and literary forms were introduced in the 1700's. By the 1800's and early 1900's, Russian poets, novelists, playwrights and directors, painters, composers, musicians, and ballet dancers and choreographers had gained world renown.


The government of the Russian Federation is based on a constitution that was approved by popular vote in 1993. It replaced the 1978 constitution, which had been amended many times. The country is divided into 49 oblasts, or administrative divisions.

Russia's chief of state is its president. The president is elected by the people to serve a 4-year term. The prime minister serves as head of government. The Security Council reports directly to the president. The 1993 constitution strengthened the power of the president. He may appoint and dismiss the prime minister (with parliamentary approval), veto legislation, and dissolve parliament.

The legislative branch consists of a parliament called the Federal Assembly. It is made up of two houses. They are the Federation Council and the State Duma. The Federation Council has 178 deputies, two from each of the 89 republics, regions, and other administrative divisions of the Russian Federation. The State Duma has 450 members. Half of them are elected from single-member constituencies and half according to proportional representation by the various political parties.

Russia's judicial system is made up of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Superior Court. All the judges are appointed for life by the Federation Council on the recommendation of the president.


Among the earliest peoples to inhabit what is now Russia were the Cimmerians, about 1000 B.C. They were displaced about 700 B.C. by the nomadic Scythians. They left traces of their art in gold treasures that now reside in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The Scythians were in turn overwhelmed by the Sarmatians about 200 B.C. The Goths, a Germanic people, erupted into the region from the Baltic area about A.D. 200. But they were pushed westward by the Huns in A.D. 370. The Huns were followed by other invaders from Asia. The Slavs probably appeared at the beginning of the 1st century A.D., or perhaps even earlier.

Kievan Rus.

 There is a historical legend that the East Slavs invited Scandinavians, known as Varangians, to rule over them in the 700's or 800's. In 882 a Viking chieftain from the north named Oleg captured the city of Kiev (in present-day Ukraine), situated on the Dnieper River. It became the capital of the state of Kievan Rus. Under Oleg's descendants, Kievan Rus became an important power that for a time extended as far west as present-day Bulgaria. It had a flourishing trade with the Byzantine Empire as well as with western European and Asian states. About 988 or 989, Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus accepted Eastern Orthodox Christianity from the Byzantines. Two monks, Cyril and Methodius, had translated the scriptures into the Slavic tongue a century earlier. They gave the Kievan Christians their alphabet, known as Cyrillic, which was based on the Greek alphabet. The other East Slavs soon followed, and a Christian civilization of high achievement developed.

Alexander Nevsky.

 In its early history, Kievan Rus was invaded often. In 1240, Alexander, prince of Novgorod, defeated the Swedes in a famous battle on the Neva River, near St. Petersburg. Thereafter he became known as Alexander Nevsky. Then in 1242, on the winter ice of Lake Peipus, he defeated an invading Germanic army of Teutonic Knights. Three hundred years later, Nevsky was made a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. Today he is still considered a national hero.

Mongol Rule.

 Persistent wars with successive waves of nomadic peoples weakened the Kievan state. In 1240, conquerors from the Mongol Empire to the east overran its lands. For more than two centuries, the Mongols (or Tatars, as they were often called) remained the overlords of the region. Kiev itself was devastated and did not recover until years later. After the initial destruction and death produced by the conquest, however, the Mongols generally left the Slavs alone, so long as they continued to recognize the Mongols' authority.

During the period of Mongol rule, such cities as Novgorod in the northwest and Vladimir in the northeast developed in different ways. But it was Moscow, or Muscovy, first mentioned in chronicles in 1147, that emerged as the chief principality of the Russians. This was partly because the Mongols came to trust the princes of Moscow more than others. It was also because the head of the church settled there.

The Rise of Moscow.

 Moscow effectively became independent in 1450. It finally ceased to pay tribute to the Mongols in 1480, after a confrontation with Mongol troops. Grand Prince Ivan Rurik reigned as Ivan III (the Great) from 1462 to 1505. He took the title "czar" (from caesar, a title used by Roman emperors) and greatly added to Moscow's domains. Ivan IV (the Terrible) ruled from 1533 and was crowned czar in 1547. He conquered the Tatar states of Kazan', Astrakhan, and Sibir'. This opened the way for Russia to cross the continent to the Pacific Ocean. He also did much to suppress the boyars, or hereditary nobles. But by killing his eldest son in a fit of rage, he ended the dynasty, or ruling family, that had begun in the 800's.

A period of turmoil followed the death of Ivan IV's successor, Fyodor I, in 1598. Known as the Time of Troubles, it was an era of domestic strife and invasions by the Poles and Swedes. Calm returned with the election in 1613 of Michael Romanov as czar. He was the first of the Romanov dynasty, which was to rule Russia until 1917.

During the 1600's the institution of serfdom was formalized, especially by the Code of 1649. Under it, the peasants were bound by law to the land owned by absentee landlords.

The Russian Empire.

 Peter the Great became czar in 1682. He had been influenced by western European traditions as a young man. To symbolize the direction he wished his country to take, he established St. Petersburg as its new, western capital. His successes, which included military victories over Sweden, led to the proclamation of the Russian Empire in 1721. That same year, he brought the last remaining independent body in his country, the Orthodox Church, under his control.

Peter also created Russia's first institutions of higher education. He opened a network of orthodox seminaries (for training priests). He also founded the Academy of Sciences. The first Russian university was founded in Moscow in 1755.

Peter, like Ivan IV, was responsible for the death of his only surviving son. As a result, the period that followed Peter's death in 1725 was one of a quick succession of weak rulers. But after the death of Czar Peter III (a grandson of Peter the Great) in 1762, his German wife, Catherine II, emerged as a powerful monarch and the last ruler to be called the Great. Among her achievements was the conquest of a wide band of territory stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including half of Poland. She also succeeded in annexing the Crimea, the last remaining Tatar state. She sought to bring the aims of the Enlightenment, the era of intellectual change in Western Europe, to Russia. But she was only partly successful.

Invasion, Reform, and Reaction.

 During the 1800's, a number of attempts at political and social reform were made. But these were followed by reaction, or the return to the old, ultraconservative ways.

Alexander I came to the throne in 1801. He put aside consideration of constitutional reform in 1812 to deal with a French invasion of Russia, led by Napoleon I. Although Napoleon was able to occupy Moscow, the destruction of much of the city by fire forced him to retreat, during which most of his army was lost.

With Napoleon's eventual defeat in 1814-15, Alexander played an important role in settling the political affairs of Europe. He was succeeded in 1825 by his brother, Nicholas I.

In December 1825, Nicholas was alarmed by a revolt of army officers (known as the Decembrists). He attempted to suppress discontent by imposing censorship. And he formed a society of secret police. At the same time, he improved the condition of peasants on state lands. And he codified (put down in writing) Russian laws for the first time.

Alexander II, Nicholas' son, succeeded him in 1855, while Russia was engaged in the disastrous Crimean War against Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire.

Alexander II Liberates the Serfs.

 Known as the Czar Liberator, Alexander II freed the serfs. He also introduced local self-government, reformed the court system, and greatly improved the conditions of military service. However, he held back from creating a national representative government until 1881. A few hours after signing such a measure, he was assassinated by terrorists. Alexander III succeeded his murdered father. He had little sympathy for reform. He sought to suppress the growing revolutionary movement that had

The Last Czar.

 Nicholas II, the eldest son of Alexander III, came to the throne in 1894. Like his father, he was bent on maintaining absolute rule. However, the civil disturbances known as the Revolution of 1905 occurred in the wake of Russian defeats in a war with Japan. They forced Nicholas to grant an elective national assembly, called the Duma, and other civil rights. Four Dumas met from 1906 to 1917. They passed several progressive measures, including a land reform program. But Nicholas II was unable to halt the disorder that overcame the government before and during World War I (1914-18).

Russia had entered the war at its outbreak as an ally of Britain and France. It opposed the Central Powers, headed by Germany and Austria-Hungary. The war went badly for Russia. By February 1917, the government and army were near collapse. And Nicholas II was forced to abdicate (give up) the throne.


 In February 1917 (under the old calendar then in use; March under the present calendar), bread riots broke out in Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg). Two governing bodies were established in place of the monarchy. One was the Provisional Government, which was to last only until a constituent assembly could be called and a new form of government decided upon. The other was the Soviet of Workers' (and later Soldiers') Deputies. Soviets (which means "councils") soon spread to other cities.

The Provisional Government was too weak to govern effectively, although its last head, Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky, did his best. The leaders of the moderate socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who controlled the Petrograd Soviet, refused to take responsibility for governing. They believed a transitional period of government was necessary before socialism could be established in Russia.

The Bolshevik Coup.

 The Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, had no such qualms. In October 1917 (November in the new calendar), the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government. They seized power throughout the country. All other political parties were banned. A constituent assembly, elected by popular vote and strongly anti-Bolshevik, met for only one day in January 1918. But it was quickly dispersed by troops loyal to the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik Party then renamed itself the Communist Party.

The history of Russia that follows, up until 1991, is also largely the history of the Soviet Union.

Lenin's Policies.

 In 1918, the Communists under Lenin were forced to conclude a disastrous peace treaty with Germany, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Under it Russia lost much of its western territories. (The treaty was later nullified.) They also had to fight a civil war, which lasted until 1921, against anti-Communist forces, who wished to undo the October Revolution. Nicholas II and the royal family became victims of the civil war. Taken prisoner after the revolution, they were murdered by the Communists in July 1918.

Lenin at first sought to achieve socialism by taking complete control of the economy. But he soon recognized that he had acted too hastily. With the economy in ruins and the regime facing revolt, he introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. Under the NEP, peasants were allowed to farm as they pleased. Small private businesses flourished, and trade revived. In 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially founded.

The Stalin Era.

 When Lenin died in 1924, he was succeeded as Soviet leader by Joseph Stalin. Under Stalin, farms were forcibly collectivized. Industry was nationalized and many new factories built.

Collectivization of agriculture, in which individual farms were joined together, was achieved at a dreadful human cost. Poor production led to the deaths of millions of people from starvation. While heavy industry grew under state control and the strength of the armed forces increased greatly, the standard of living of the peasants and working class fell sharply.

During the 1930's, Stalin began a series of purges that led to the deaths of many old Bolsheviks. This included most of the former leadership of the Communist Party, labor leaders, and nearly all of the senior officer corps.

It is estimated that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million of his own people. Millions more were sent to labor camps. Many died there under the harsh conditions.

World War II.

 The chaos that resulted from Stalin's policies was one of the reasons for the quick successes won by the Germans, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, beginning a 21/2-year siege on Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). The attack came in spite of a nonaggression pact between the two countries, signed in August 1939. The wartime Soviet losses were enormous. At least 18 million--and possibly as many as 27 million--Russian soldiers and civilians are believed to have died.

Stalin emerged as one of the victors in the war, along with the United States and Britain. With Soviet troops controlling much of Eastern Europe at the war's end in 1945, Communist governments quickly came to power in most of the countries of the region. Because of this and other disputes, a long period of hostility, known as the Cold War, developed between the Soviet Union and its former Allies.

Stalin's Successors.

 Stalin was eventually succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev began the process of "de-Stalinization" in 1956 by revealing some of Stalin's crimes. In 1964 he was toppled from power by a group of old Stalinists, headed by Leonid Brezhnev.

Under Brezhnev, Soviet nuclear power grew to match that of the United States. And the expansion of Communism in Asia and Africa was startling.

Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Brezhnev in 1982, died in 1984. His successor, the elderly Konstantin Chernenko, survived only 13 months into his term.

The Breakup of the Soviet Union.

 An era of great change began when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985. Between 1987 and 1988 he began a limited venture into private enterprise as part of his attempt to revive the economy. He loosened the bonds of government censorship by encouraging glasnost, or openness, in the media. He allowed the people of Eastern Europe to go their own way, politically, which they proceeded to do by ending Communist regimes in their countries by democratic means.

But while widely respected abroad, at home Gorbachev lost the backing of the people by the failure of his economic policies. In August 1991 a group of hardline Communist leaders, displeased with Gorbachev's political reforms, attempted to overthrow the government. The attempted coup failed after three days. But its results were dramatic. Boris Yeltsin, president of what was then the Russian Soviet Republic, became a popular hero for leading the resistance to the coup. By December, Gorbachev had resigned as president of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Formation of the Russian Federation.

 Boris Yeltsin was elected president of Russia in June 1991. When the Soviet Union fell apart that December, Yeltsin faced a Russian Supreme Soviet that was led by opponents of his reform program. The struggle between them culminated in a political crisis in 1993. Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet and set new elections. The Supreme Soviet responded by voting to oust him as president and finally called for an armed revolt. Yeltsin sent in military units. They cleared the parliament building and arrested his chief opponents.

Yeltsin then became president of a new Russian Federation. Immediately he faced the tasks of converting the formerly Communist country to a free-market economy and developing a new foreign policy. To this was added political opposition at home, a civil war against separatists in the republic of Chechnya, and his own poor health. Still, he won re-election by a wide margin in 1996.

Recent History.

 In 1998, the nation's currency lost its value. Parliament's desperate attempts to stabilize the economy failed. This resulted in a rapid succession of prime ministers. Furthermore, in 1999 dozens of terrorist bombings in Russia, believed to be authorized by radical Islamic warlords in Chechnya, reopened the civil war. Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999. He named Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acting president. Putin was elected president in his own right by popular vote in 2000.

In 2001, Putin reaffirmed his commitment to liberal economic reforms. He signed a treaty of friendship with China. And he negotiated with the United States to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. Soon after, Russia signed a historic agreement. It pledged cooperation with NATO as a limited partner in the Western alliance. Putin also supported action against terrorists. Russia's war against Chechnya escalated after Chechen rebels seized a theater in Moscow in 2002. Approximately 120 civilian hostages died in the rescue attempt.

Putin was re-elected by a landslide in 2004. But the beginning of his second term was marked by mounting attacks by Chechen terrorists. On August 24, they claimed responsibility for bringing down two passenger jet airplanes, killing 90 people. On September 1, they seized an elementary school in Beslan. This is in the region of North Ossetia, which shares a border with Chechnya. For 62 hours they held hostage hundreds of students, parents, and teachers. They demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. The standoff came to a brutal end. More than 300 people, many of them children, were killed.

Putin cited an increased need for control and security. He announced plans to take greater control of the country's central government by eliminating democratic elections for governors and other regional leaders. He wanted to substitute them with government appointees. The State Duma approved the plan in October. That same month, the Federation Council approved the Kyoto Protocol. It is an international agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Donald W. Treadgold
Author, Twentieth Century Russia

Reviewed by Ilya Prizel
University of Pittsburgh