Russia is the largest country in the world, covering two continents and 11 time zones.
When Peter the Great ruled the country during the 17th and 18th centuries, Russian men were forced to shave off
their beards or pay a beard tax.
Because of a Russian tradition, if someone steps on your toes accidentally, you have to step on theirs as well, or
you’ll get in a fight.
Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to travel in space.
It’s unlucky in Russia to shake hands through a doorway.
St. Petersburg was built on top of a marsh, so more than three hundred bridges had to be made.
Nerpas, which live in Lake Baikal, are one of just a few kinds of freshwater seals in the world.
Russia is important to the world’s energy supply because it has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, the
second largest coal reserves, and the eighth largest oil reserves.
Russia is known for its Siberian tigers. The largest cats in the world, these endangered tigers are native to the
forests of eastern Russia and can grow up to 10 feet (3 m) long, not counting their tail!
Russia has long been a world-renowned center for art and culture. St. Petersburg alone is home to more than two
thousand libraries and two hundred museums.
Red stands for bravery, blue for nobility, and white for purity. This flag wasn’t used
when Russia was part of the Soviet Union; instead, it dates back to the time of Peter
The double-headed eagle, the state symbol of Russia, represents the European and
Asian parts of the country.
Land and Climate
Area (sq. mi.): 6,601,668
Area (sq. km.): 17,098,242
Because Russia is the biggest country in the world, its land and climate are very
diverse. Russia is almost twice the size of the United States. It also neighbors more
countries than any other country in the world and contains 12 seas within its borders.
Western Russia is covered with forests and northern Russia by tundra (frozen ground
where not much can grow). Dry grasslands without trees cover the southern plains, or
steppe. The Ural Mountains are some of the oldest mountains in the world, and they
divide Russia into a European region and an Asian region. Siberia covers
three-quarters of Russia and is mainly pine forests called taigas. Some of the world’s
longest rivers are found in Siberia, along with Lake Baikal—the deepest lake in the
world. Lake Ladoga, in northwestern Russia, is the largest lake in Europe, at 136 miles
(219 km) long. During summer in the south, it gets hotter than 100°F (38°C), but in the winter in the
north it has reached -100°F (-73°C)! Winter lasts from November to March, except in
Siberia, where winter can last up to nine months.
Only one out of four Russians live in the countryside. Everyone else lives in a city, the
biggest of which is Moscow, the capital, with a population of more than 11 million. Most
Russians (around 80 percent) are descendants of the Slavs who settled there
thousands of years ago. But there are more than one hundred different ethnic groups,
including Tartars, Ukrainians, and Bashkirs.
Russians use what’s called the Cyrillic alphabet. It has 33 letters, and while some of
them look familiar, they are pronounced differently, and some look more like letters
from the Greek alphabet. Almost everyone in Russia speaks Russian, but many of the
different ethnic groups speak their own languages at home. For example, Chuvashes
speak Chuvash, and Udmurts speak Udmurt.
Can You Say It in Russian?
Accurate statistical information about religion in Russia is difficult to find. But Christianity is the country’s main religion.
Between 15 and 20 percent of Russians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Between 10 and 15 percent of
Russians are Muslim. Small groups of Buddhists practice in the country. After the October Revolution (1917), the
Communists discouraged all religious worship. But since the late 1980s, the government has begun to allow greater
religious freedom. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church has quickly regained influence. Churches other than the
Russian Orthodox Church are allowed to function if they register with the government. Many Russians still do not
belong to any church.
Thousands of years ago, tribal people known as Slavs live in the area
The Cyrillic alphabet is invented
Prince Vladimir makes Christianity the state religion
Moscow is founded
The Mongols take over and rule for 240 years, destroying all of the
main cities except Novgorod and Pskov
Slavs defeat the Mongols and gain independence
Ivan the Terrible becomes czar
Cossacks begin conquering Siberia
Michael Romanov becomes czar, ushering in the Romanov dynasty,
which rules Russia until the 1917 revolution
St. Petersburg is founded
Catherine the Great ends the Pugachev Rebellion
Napoleon invades Russia
Russian troops defeat the French
The Crimean War takes place
Alexander II ends serfdom
Russia fights in World War I alongside Britain and France
Lenin’s Communists take over; Nicholas II and his family are murdered
Civil war rages between the Red Army and the anti-Communist White
Russians, who are helped by Britain, France, and the United States
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is created
Germany invades the Soviet Union; more than 25 million Soviets are
killed over the course of World War II
Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, is launched into orbit
The USSR dissolves
The Communists try to take over; Boris Yeltsin fights for democracy
(government by the people); Russians approve a new constitution
Russian troops invade Chechnya to put down a separatist movement
(a movement seeking independence for Chechnya), leading to years of
Vladimir Putin is elected president of Russia
Russia and the United States agree to reduce the number of nuclear
weapons they have down to two thousand each over the next 10 years;
Chechen rebels take 800 hostages in a Moscow theater; about 120
hostages and most of the rebels are killed when Russian forces
attempt a rescue
More than 350 people are killed after Chechen separatists (people
fighting to make Chechnya independent of Russia) attack a school in
Dmitri Medvedev is elected president; Vladimir Putin takes over as
In response to the global financial crisis, Parliament adopts measures
to help rescue Russian banks
Thirty-nine people are killed and more than 60 injured in two suicide
bomb attacks on the Moscow Metro
Despite continuing street protests, Vladimir Putin wins a third term as
The government passes a law banning smoking in public places,
including restaurants and children's playgrounds
Slavs and Mongols
For thousands of years, warrior tribes fought each other for control of what we now call
Russia. Some of them were so fierce and destructive that their names still are
associated with death: the Huns, the Visigoths, and Genghis Khan’s Mongols. The
Slavs settled in Russia in the 6th century. They farmed, fished, and traded with cities all
over Europe and Asia. In the 13th century, the powerful Mongols rose to power in
central Asia. Under their leader, Genghis Khan, the Mongols invaded. They destroyed
cities and took many riches for their own. The Slavs and Mongols battled for 240 years.
The Slavs finally defeated the Mongols in 1480 and regained control of the country.
Ivan the Terrible established Russia’s independence and became the first czar (ruler) of
Russia. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great (who was actually
German!) expanded Russian territory until it was a great empire. During their reigns, the
Russian empire stretched from Warsaw in the west to Vladivostok in the east.
Nicholas II and Lenin
The czars and czarinas (rulers) created a mighty Russian empire, but most people lived
as serfs. Serfs were like slaves who had to work on farms without getting paid. They
were treated badly and could be bought and sold. They were not allowed to marry
without permission from their landowner, and they were required to serve in the military
for life whenever their country needed them. The serfs eventually began to revolt. After
many bloody battles, serfdom was abolished, and the peasants became free citizens
with some rights. Around the same time, unions were established to protect the rights of
workers. In 1903, the Communist Party was founded. Czar Nicholas II abdicated (gave
up being czar) in 1917. Later, he and his whole family were murdered by
Vladimir Lenin and the Communists fought their way to power. Lenin outlawed all other
political parties. A civil war broke out between Lenin's Red Army and the White Army,
who supported the monarchy. The war lasted until 1922, when Lenin triumphed.
Creation of the Soviet Union
In 1922, Lenin’s Communists created a country called the Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics (USSR). Lenin and Joseph Stalin forced many farmers to move to cities and
work in factories. Using communist ideas, the government told everyone where to work,
where to live, and what to do. Any books or movies that disagreed with or criticized
Stalin were banned (outlawed). Millions of citizens died in prison camps and from
starvation. Neighboring countries were forced to become part of the union, including
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Leading up to World War II, Stalin tried to avoid conflict with Germany by signing a
secret pact (agreement) with Hitler in 1939. But Germany invaded the Soviet Union in
1941. With the help of Great Britain and the United States, the Red Army was able to
force German forces out of Russia in 1944. World War II took more than 25 million
The Cold War
The governments of the USSR and the United States often disagreed, and they taught
their citizens to fear each other. For a long time, the world was caught in the Cold War,
a time of tension and mistrust between major powers, stopping short of actual violence.
A long stretch of barbed wire fencing and lookout towers known as the “iron curtain”
was built separating Eastern and Western Europe. The USSR and the United States
never fought directly, but they helped other countries fight each other. Both countries
built large numbers of nuclear weapons. Everyone was afraid of nuclear war.
Good-bye to Communism
When Mikhail Gorbachev became the president in 1986, he began to give people more
freedom. He set many political prisoners free, and he also tried to improve the way the
government and economy worked. But his reforms scared other Communists who were
in positions of power, and they tried to take over the government. Boris Yeltsin, who
was then Gorbachev’s prime minister, helped stop the takeover. He later became
Russia's first freely elected president. The USSR broke apart into many different
countries in 1991, and Russia became independent.
The new government tried to overhaul communism and begin reforms such as
transferring property from the government to individual people. At the same time, the
government cut funding to major welfare programs and sharply raised taxes. These
policies ended up being too much too fast. The economy collapsed, and many
Russians were plunged into unemployment and poverty. Street gangs and organized
crime also rose.
In 1994, a violent war broke out in the southern region of Chechnya. Tens of thousands
of people died in the conflict before Russia finally granted Chechnya an informal
independence. Violence broke out again in 1997, and President Putin responded by
crushing the rebellion. Russian troops remain in Chechnya. Russians today struggle to
get jobs, end corruption, and find stability.
Games and Sports
Soccer is the favorite sport and chess the favorite board game in Russia. Winter lasts
for a long time in many parts of Russia, so kids like to play hockey and go ice-skating
and cross-country skiing. Gymnastics and other Olympic sports are also popular. Many
children start playing sports or chess when they are very young.
New Year’s Day is the most popular holiday in Russia. Almost everyone decorates a
New Year tree and has a party. Grandfather Frost (like Santa Claus) leaves presents
for children to find on New Year’s Day. Another favorite holiday is Shrovetide, when
Russians celebrate the beginning of spring. Shrovetide comes a little before Easter and
lasts an entire week. People eat blini (stuffed, thin pancakes), a symbol of the ancient
sun god Yarilo. They also burn a straw figure representing winter, make a lot of noise,
dress in costumes, and play tricks on each other.
Caviar (fish eggs) is a favorite treat in Russia. Russians like sour cream and put it on
just about everything. They like it in their borsch (beet soup), on their shi (cabbage
soup), and on their blini (thin pancakes). Blini are also served with honey, jam, caviar,
or butter on top. Families usually have soup once a day. Bread is served with almost
every meal. Russians eat more than just wheat and white bread. They eat more rye
bread than any other people in the world. Russian rye bread is soft and spongy. Most
meals start with cold appetizers such as a salad of marinated tomatoes and cucumbers.
Russians enjoy spice cakes and candies for dessert, usually served with coffee or tea
sweetened with a dollop of homemade jam instead of sugar. Other traditional Russian
foods include pirozhki (a stuffed roll, eaten as “fast food”) and golubtsy (stuffed
cabbage leaves baked with tomato sauce and eaten with sour cream).
Adult Literacy: 99.6%
Russian kids go to school every day but Sunday, starting when they are about six years
old. They study subjects like math, reading, science, history, and writing. Depending on
their interests and abilities, some kids go to special schools where they can also learn
things like ballet or music. Russians consider education to be very important, but the
country’s economic problems have meant that there sometimes isn’t enough money to
improve schools, pay the teachers, or buy new textbooks.
Life as a Kid
Most Russian families live in tall apartment buildings in the city. The apartments have a
tiny bathroom, a small kitchen, a narrow hallway, a little living area, and maybe two
other rooms. Because the apartments are small, the living room might also be used as
a bedroom, or the bedrooms might also be used as offices. It’s common for one or two
kids, the mom and dad, sometimes the grandparents, and even great-grandparents to
live in the same apartment.
Most Russian families like to watch television together at night. On the weekends in the
summer, they might go to their dachas (country homes) to relax and grow fruits and
vegetables. The kids sometimes help their parents pick mushrooms to eat. In the
countryside, children can watch movies at a community recreation center, called
dvorets kultury (palace of culture). Many Russian kids like to go on walks with their
friends. They also like U.S. movies and music.
Head of State: Pres. Vladimir Putin
Head of Government: PM Dmitri Medvedev
A president runs the country with the help of his prime minister. The president has power to appoint the prime minister,
dissolve parliament, and determine foreign policy. Russia’s parliament, called the Federal Assembly, includes two
houses, a 166-seat Federation Council and the 450-seat State Duma. Different political parties often form alliances, in
which they work together to accomplish what they would like to. The voting age is 18.
Money and Economy
Currency: Russian ruble
Russia has abundant natural resources to give the country great economic potential.
Some of these include oil, natural gas, coal, and timber. However, the economy also
faces serious challenges. Many Russian factories are inefficient and outdated,
corruption is widespread, and unemployment is high. Today, many Russians struggle to
make a living and to feed their families. While the Russian currency, the ruble, is used,
people short on cash sometimes will trade one item or job for another without using
Most Russians get around by taking a bus, subway, trolley, or train. Some people own
cars, but they are not as common. When work and school get out, the buses and other
kinds of transportation get so crowded that people are squeezed into every possible
space. The subways (underground trains) are kept really clean, and some are
decorated like fancy hotel lobbies.
Russia is considered the home of some of the greatest classical ballet in the world. The
long tradition dates back to the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg in the 1740s.
Sergei Diaghilev founded the famous Ballets Russes company in 1909. The company
became famous for traveling around the world, performing in different countries and
influencing dancers and companies from across the globe. In fact, George Balanchine,
one of Diaghilev’s students, later came to America and founded the New York City
Ballet. One of the most celebrated Russian ballerinas was Anna Pavlova. She danced
with the Ballets Russes and became famous all over the world for her graceful style and
for creating the role the Dying Swan. Even in hard times, Russians have continued to
go to the ballet to experience the beauty and artistry of the dance.
Contact the Embassy of the Russian Federation, 2650 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007; phone (202)
298-5700; web site www.russianembassy.org.
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