The territory that makes up the Russian Federation was gradually conquered by the Russian Empire as the country expanded from its political core around Moscow/St. Petersburg during the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. By the end of the eighteenth century, Czarina Catherine the Great had expanded Russia to include the area that is now Ukraine (the north side of the Black Sea), the northern Caucasus Mountains, and Alaska (which Russia later sold to the United States). During the next century, the Russian Empire expanded eastward into Central Asia (what is now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the other Central Asian republics), southward into the rest of the Caucasus region, and westward into Poland and Finland. In the twentieth century, when the Russian Empire disintegrated and was replaced by the Soviet Union (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR), the central government continued to expand and strengthen its control of the vast area from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean.

Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were imperial powers. In other words, these governments ruled a large variety of ethnic groups in distant places: people who spoke many languages, worshiped different gods in different ways, had various skin and hair colors, and who did not consider themselves to be Russian. Although the British and some other European powers had an arguably more difficult task of ruling empires that were widely scattered around the world, Russia had the largest empire in terms of territory. Ruling this diverse, immense empire was an incredible challenge.

The czars ruled this empire with Russification and the sword. Russification refers to the attempt to minimize cultural differences and turn all Russian subjects into Russians, or at least to make them as Russian as possible. As they were all subject to the Russian czars, people were taught the Russian language and were encouraged to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Russification was not very successful, and the farther people were from Moscow, the less likely they were to be Russified. When the Soviets took over the Russian Empire, millions of Muslims still lived in Central Asia, on the Crimean peninsula of southern Ukraine, in the Caucasus Mountains, and elsewhere.

The Soviets took a different tack when it came to taming the diversity of the empire. Instead of emphasizing unity under the Russian czar, the Russian language, and the Russian Orthodox religion, the Soviets decided to organize—and thus try to control—the diversity of ethnic groups found in the Soviet Union. They chose some of the major groups (Uzbek, Kazakh, and so forth) and established Soviet Socialist Republics that corresponded to these major groups. Thus they created the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (Uzbek SSR), the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakh SSR), the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR), and a different republic for each of fourteen ethnic groups, plus the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. About eighty-five other ethnic groups were not given their own republics, although some of them were allocated regions within the Russian Republic. In theory, each of the Soviet Socialist Republics was an independent state choosing to ally with the Soviet Union. In practice, of course, these republics were part of a totalitarian, centrally ruled state with far fewer autonomous rights than states in the United States.

The creation of these republics strengthened particular ethnic/national identities and weakened others. There had not been a fully developed Uzbek national identity before the formation of the Uzbek SSR. The same was true for the Kazakh SSR, the Turkmen SSR, and others. Although people in a particular area might have spoken the same language, they did not think of themselves as belonging to a nation of fellow Uzbeks, Kazakhs, or Turkmen until they were put into one by the Soviet rulers. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, these Soviet Socialist Republics were able to declare their independence from Russia, and the national identities fostered during the Soviet era came to fruition.


At the same time that the Soviets were organizing minority ethnic groups into republics, they were also sending ethnic Russians to live in non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union. Some were sent by force – such as Russians who were sent to prison camps in Siberia and stayed in the area after they were eventually freed. Other Russians were sent around the empire to work in factories, power plants, and other industries, or they were sent to help administer the government. By sending Russians to the far reaches of the Soviet Union, the Russian government hoped to consolidate its control over the various republics and to dilute the strength of the minority ethnicities. This policy also had unintended consequences: when the Soviet Union collapsed after 1991 and the various republics became independent countries, they each had to deal with sizable Russian minorities. For example, at the time of its independence, nearly as many ethnic Russians lived in Kazakhstan (38 percent) as ethnic Kazakhs (40 percent). In the twenty years since then, many Russians moved to Russia from the former Soviet republics. In 2010, Kazakhstan’s population was only about 24 percent ethnic Russian.


The Russian Federation was created with eighty-three federal subjects: two autonomous federal cities; forty-six provinces (oblasts) and nine territories (krais) that function in the same way and are the most common type of federal unit; twenty-one republics; four autonomous districts (okrugs); and one autonomous oblast. Moscow and St. Petersburg are the two federal cities that function as their own units. The oblasts and krais each have a governor appointed by the central government and a locally elected legislature. The governorship was an elected position in the 1990s, but President Vladimir Putin changed the structure to strengthen the power of the central state. The republics, designed to be home to certain ethnic minorities, are allowed to have their own constitutions and governments and to select an official language that will be used besides Russian, but they are not considered independent countries with the right to secession. The autonomous districts were also formed for ethnic minorities and are administered either by the central state or by the province or territory in which they are located. The only autonomous oblast was created in the 1930s to be a home for Jews in the Russian Far East, but only about 1 percent of the population remains Jewish today.

The USSR and the Russian Federation

The Russian Empire was built by the czars over a few hundred years. However, the economic and political systems of the Russian Empire were not sustainable in the modern era. The vast majority of the population were poor, and most were landless peasant farmers – and in a place with short growing seasons, farming was not an easy path to riches. Political decisions were made by a very small elite group. At the dawn of the twentieth century, one hundred years after the Industrial Revolution swept through Great Britain and Western Europe, Russia remained an agricultural country and had not yet begun large-scale industrialization. Outside of the aristocracy, few supported the status quo in Russia, and there was a widespread desire for a new political system and government.

However, no one could agree on what a new government would look like. In the aftermath of the First World War, a civil war erupted in Russia. During these turbulent times, the last czar, Nicholas II, was forced from office, and he and his family were executed. The most powerful group battling for control of Russia was a Communist group called the Bolsheviks, which meant the “larger group.” Other groups, including the “smaller group,” the Mensheviks, lost the civil war. The Bolshevik leader was Vladimir Lenin, and in 1917 he and his supporters embarked on a quest to turn Russia into a Communist state.

The capital city was moved back to Moscow from St. Petersburg, where it had been since the time of Czar Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. St. Petersburg’s name was changed to Petrograd and then Leningrad in honor of Vladimir Lenin, as the atheist Soviets did not want any references to Christian saints. The entire territory of the Russian Empire was turned into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Russian people traded a monarchy for a Marxist totalitarian state (see the explanation of Marxism in Section 3.2.1 “Marxist-Leninist Central Planning”).

The Soviet Union lasted from 1922 to 1991. Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who took over after Lenin, was incapacitated in 1922 (and died in 1924). He was a ruthless leader who murdered his way to power and killed or exiled anyone who got in his way. Stalin is famous for initiating economic plans that helped move Russia from a poor, agrarian state to a large, industrial superpower. He pushed for rapid industrialization, the eradication of family farms instead of large communal farms, the end of personal ownership of land or businesses, and the dramatic weakening of organized religion. All these changes came at a high price. During his reign of terror, an estimated thirty million people lost their lives. The forced collectivization of agriculture brought about a devastating famine in 1932–33, in which between six and eight million people starved to death or were killed outright, many of them in Ukraine. Stalin led periodic purges of his perceived political enemies. The largest of these is known as the Great Purge. At that time (1936–38), about one million so-called enemies of the state were executed. More people lost their lives under Stalin than in all the concentration camps of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The full extent of Stalin’s purges of his people may never be fully known. Stalin’s rule ended in 1953, when he reportedly died of natural causes. However, some historians believe he was poisoned by his close associates.

Marxist-Leninist Central Planning

The Soviet Union espoused the philosophies of Karl Marx, a nineteenth-century German theorist. Marx wrote that all political and economic life could be understood as a struggle between the various classes in society. People who adhere to Marx’s philosophy are called Marxists, and the Soviet version of Marxism is called Marxism-Leninism. In Marxist thought, capitalism is an oppressive economic system in which the working class (the proletariat) is oppressed by the bourgeoisie (the wealthy middle class). Marxists believe that the proletariat should revolt, rise up against the bourgeoisie, take the property away from the rich, and give it to the government to control it for the benefit of the ordinary people. Ultimately, a pure Communist system would result, with no social or economic classes, no private property, no rich people, and no poor people. In real life, governments that adopt these ideas practice socialism and are said to be socialist.

As a socialist state, the Soviet Union did not include open markets. The Soviet Union was a command economy, in which economic decisions were made by the state and not left to the market to decide. During the Soviet era, for example, industrial production was planned by the central government. The government would decide what would be produced, where it would be produced, the quantity produced, the number of workers who would produce it, where the raw materials would come from, and how the final product would be distributed. By mobilizing the entire country to work toward common goals, the USSR was able to achieve the rapid industrialization that it so desired. However, the Soviets underestimated the power and efficiency of free-enterprise capitalism, and their socialist system was undermined by waste, fraud, and corruption.

Another main economic feature of the Soviet Union was collectivized agriculture. The Soviet leaders did not want individual, capitalist farmers to become rich and threaten their economic system. Nor did they want thousands of small, inefficient farms when the country was perpetually unable to feed itself. Instead, they decided to streamline agricultural production into large farm factories. All the farmland in each area was consolidated into a government-owned joint operation. Some collective farms were run by the state, while others were run by private cooperatives. During the transition period to collective farming, individual farmers were forced to give up their land, animals, farm equipment, and farm buildings and donate them to the collective farm in their area. The state also demanded a high percentage of the crops produced. At times, the government collected the entire harvest, not even allowing seed crops to be held for the following season. This brought about widespread famine in 1932–33. Collectivized agriculture remained the norm in the Soviet Union until the country’s dissolution in 1991 and even afterward in some areas.

The Cold War

From the end of World War II in 1945 until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet Union and the United States competed in the global community for the control of labor, resources, and world power. Each side attracted allies, and most countries were on the side of either the United States or the Soviet Union; very few remained neutral. This era, known as the Cold War, did not involve direct military armed conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, but it transformed the world into a political chessboard, with each side wanting to block the other side from gaining ground. Whenever the Soviets would enter into an alliance with a particular country, the United States was right there to try to counter the move. Wars, armed conflicts, sabotage, spying, and covert activities were the methods of the Cold War. Both sides stockpiled as much deadly weaponry as possible, including nuclear warheads and missiles. They also competed in the race to put people in outer space.

The Cold War led to wars fought in Vietnam, Korea, Grenada, Afghanistan, Angola, and the Middle East, with the Soviet Union funding one side and the United States supplying the other. Secret wars or guerilla wars with secret agents and political assassinations were fought in Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Mozambique, Laos, Cambodia, and a host of other third-world countries. The Cold War divided the world into two main camps, each with a high number of nuclear weapons. Eastern Europe was sectioned off by the Iron Curtain, and the Berlin Wall divided the city of Berlin, Germany. These physical barriers divided the communist countries of Eastern Europe with the capitalist democracies of Western Europe. Germany itself was divided into two separate countries, as explained in Chapter 2 on Europe.

Various Soviet dictators came to power and died in office before the end of the Cold War. The last Soviet leader was Mikhail Gorbachev, who assumed power in 1985. The US president at the time was Ronald Reagan. During the 1980s, the United States was outspending the Soviets militarily, and its economy was growing at a much faster rate than that of the USSR. At the same time, the Soviets were engaged in a costly war in Afghanistan, and their economy was faltering and in danger of collapse. Gorbachev realized that reforms had to be implemented to modernize the Soviet system: political life needed to be more open so that people would feel ownership of the country, and the economy needed to be restructured. Gorbachev implemented perestroika (restructuring of the economy with market-like reforms) and glasnost (openness and transparency of all government activities). The restructuring exposed fundamental problems in the economy, and by 1990 the Soviet economy was in worse shape than ever before.

The end came in 1991: the Soviet Union collapsed when fourteen of the Soviet republics broke away and declared their independence. At this point, the Soviet state was too weak to prevent it. All the republics, including Russia itself (now called the Russian Federation), became independent countries. The only territories that did not achieve independence were the smaller republics and autonomous regions that existed within the Russian Federation’s boundaries. The Iron Curtain melted away seemingly overnight, and people were free to travel to and from the former Communist countries. The old Russian flag flew over the Kremlin – the seat of the Russian government – for the first time since Czar Nicholas II had been in power seventy-three years earlier. The Communist era of the Soviet Union and the Cold War were over.

The post-Soviet transition was filled with political, economic, and social turmoil. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the new Russian Federation, ushered in a series of economic reforms that privatized state-owned enterprises. Russian leaders tried to reverse socialism rapidly through what they called “shock therapy,” which they knew would be painful but hoped would be brief. These reforms created a new class of capitalist entrepreneurs.

Wealth, once controlled by the political elite, was now being shifted to the business elite, a pattern found in most capitalist countries. Many ordinary workers faced unemployment for the first time as the new owners of various companies trimmed unnecessary staff. Private ownership forced housing costs to skyrocket, and while families were generally allowed to keep the homes they already lived in, purchasing houses or condominiums became out of reach for many people. The value of the ruble, Russia’s currency, declined rapidly, and older people watched as their life savings evaporated overnight. Western goods were more easily accessible, and all kinds of consumer products became much more widely available than they were during the Soviet era. Bread lines and empty store shelves became distant memories as the former Communist state shifted over to a type of capitalist democracy. Yeltsin became increasingly less popular as citizens became dissatisfied with corruption and the high social costs of the post-Soviet transition. He resigned in 1999 and was replaced by Vladimir Putin.

Twenty-first Century Russia

A Russian style of capitalism replaced the social, political, and economic system of the Communist era with a growing market economy. The export of Russia’s vast quantities of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, and timber, to Europe and the rest of the world helped the country rebound from the economic collapse of the 1990s. Russia has benefited from the recent increase in energy prices, and oil, natural gas, metals, and timber account for more than 80 percent of exports and 30 percent of government revenues. However, Russia still needs to modernize its dilapidated manufacturing base if it is to economically compete against the European Union, North America, or eastern Asia. During Vladimir Putin’s presidency (2000–2008), Russia witnessed substantial economic growth that inspired foreign investors to pump money into the Russian economy and catapulted Moscow into an investment haven and one of the wealthiest cities in the world. In 2008, Moscow claimed to have more billionaires than any other city in the world. Russia has reestablished itself as a significant player in the global economy, although much of its population still suffer from poverty and social problems.

Russia’s population grew steadily during the Soviet era, except during periods of famine or warfare, and the country underwent a rural-to-urban shift as farm workers moved to cities to labor in factories. However, when the USSR collapsed, Russia’s population began a steep decline, falling from a peak of 149 million in 1991 to about 143 million in 2005. The trend of low birth rates began during the Soviet period. The population decline occurred because birth rates always decline during periods of economic and social crisis as people delay or decide against having children, and the country experienced particularly high death rates because of alcoholism, heart disease, and the collapse of the social safety net. Any time death rates surpass birth rates, a country’s population will decline unless the difference is offset by immigration. Russia’s birth rate was also impacted by very high rates of abortion: in 1992, for example, there were 221 abortions in Russia for every 100 live births (Johnston’s Archive). Although Russia’s population has seemingly bottomed out, the only reason it is not continuing to decline is immigration from the former Soviet republics. Russia still has a negative rate of natural increase.

To put Russia’s demographic profile in context, its fertility rate was only about 1.5 in 2010, meaning that the average woman would have 1.5 children in her lifetime. This is below the 2.1 children each woman would need to have for the population to remain stable. The fertility rate in Russia is similar to that of countries in Europe (1.5) but lower than that of the United States (2.1) (Central Intelligence Agency). Life expectancy for Russian men is variously reported as sixty years up to sixty-three years, while women can expect to live seventy-three to seventy-five years. In Western Europe, life expectancies are about eighty years.

About 80 percent of Russia’s population is ethnically Russian. The next largest group is Tatar (3.8 percent), a group that traditionally has spoken the Tatar language and practiced Islam. More than 150 ethnic groups are represented in Russia, including indigenous people of the Arctic who herd reindeer for a living. Each of the nationalities of the former Soviet republics has a presence in Russia, and because of its relatively strong economy, Russia (especially Moscow) is an immigration magnet for residents of those countries. Most of these groups have their own language and cultural traditions.

The Russian Orthodox Church is the dominant religious denomination in Russia. For generations, it was the country’s official religion, and Russian people were automatically considered to be Orthodox, no matter what their personal beliefs. During the Soviet era, the government did much to weaken the church, including killing tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns and closing most churches. The state largely controlled the much smaller church that survived. Because of state-sanctioned atheism during the Soviet era, only 15 to 20 percent of Russia’s population today actively practices Orthodoxy, although a much greater number claim to be Russian Orthodox Christians. Another 15 percent of the country’s population practices Islam, especially in places such as the Caucasus region and the southern Ural Mountains, and about 2 percent practice other forms of Christianity, such as Catholicism and Protestantism (Central Intelligence Agency). Even though Orthodoxy is practiced by a minority of Russia’s population, the church has increased its influence since 1991 and often acts as an official church. A small percentage of the population are Buddhists, and various ethnic groups in Siberia and the Far East practice tribal religions and pagan rites.

The Russian Language

Like English, Russian is an Indo-European language. Russian is on the Slavic branch of the language tree, along with languages such as Polish, Ukrainian, and Serbo-Croatian. A relatively new language, it developed from a language called Old East Slavic that was spoken around 1100 CE. Medieval Russian developed in the thirteenth century, and modern literary Russian is usually traced back to the early nineteenth century. Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which was developed from Greek. The Russian language is the official language of the Russian republic. With over one hundred languages used in the country, twenty-seven of them are officially recognized in various regions within the republic.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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