Russia and Its People
Russia is a huge, complex,
and extraordinarily interesting place. Straddling Europe and Asia, it is neither European nor Asian in outlook and
culture. And although Russia,
as the Soviet Union, shared the super power spotlight with the United States throughout much of the twentieth
century, it is very different from America. Russians themselves are
today struggling with their sense of identity, a conflict that has
characterized the past three centuries of Russian history. Russia is no
longer an imperial power, as it was since the time of Peter the Great. Russia is no
longer communist, as it was from 1918 to 1991. Russia is no longer an absolutist
dictatorship, as it was under the tsars and the communists, but it is not yet
fully democratic either. What then is Russia?
Physically, the Russian
Federation is the largest country in the world, even
after the breakup of the Soviet Union in
1991. It occupies about 6.6 million square miles of territory, nearly twice
the size of the United
States. From east to west, the country
stretches over 5,000 miles and occupies eleven time zones. Cities in the
Russian Far East such as Khabarovsk and
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk are closer to San Francisco
than they are to Moscow.
has a long coastline on the Pacific, but there are few ports and only a small
population in this vast region. In the north Russia
borders the Arctic Ocean; on the south, China,
and Kazakh stan form its boundaries. To the west the former Baltic republics
( Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia),
Ukraine, and Belarus separate Russia
from the rest of Europe. Russia relinquished much of its access to the
Black Sea to Ukraine after
the breakup of the USSR.
The fragmentation of the Soviet Union has left Russia geographically more
isolated, smaller, and somewhat more landlocked.
The former Soviet Union
had a population of nearly 290 million, and was the third largest country in
the world. Today, the Russian Federation's
population is just under 147 million, placing it no larger than sixth in the
world, after China, India, the United
and Brazil ( Nigeria, which has not conducted a census in
forty years, may well have a larger population than Russia too).
Over 80 percent of Russia's
population is concentrated in the western quarter of the country; only 25
million live in the vast expanses of Siberia
and the Russian Far East. As one might expect, most of the roads, railways,
and air routes are concentrated in the populous areas of western Russia. Siberia is extremely rich in natural resources--oil,
natural gas, gold, diamonds, furs, and timber-but much of this wealth is
virtually inaccessible or very costly to extract due to the weak
is ethnically more homogeneous than imperial Russia
and the former Soviet Union had been. Just
before the collapse the Soviet Union's
population was barely 51 percent ethnic Russian. The Russian Federation
is about 82 percent Russian. The next largest group is the Tatars, a Moslem
Turkic people concentrated along the Volga some 400 miles east of Moscow. Tatars are the
descendants of the Mongols who conquered the Russian lands in the thirteenth
century. They comprise just under 4 percent of Russia's population. Ukrainians,
Slavic cousins of the Russians, make up another 3 percent of the population.
A mix of Turkic and Caucasian peoples, together with Germans, Jews,
Belorussians, and small Siberian tribes, make up the remaining 12 percent. On
the whole, relations among the various ethnic groups are good, but Chechens
are disliked for their purported mafia connections, and anti-Semitic
outbursts by Russian nationalists are common. Siberian peoples are treated
much like Native Americans in the United States and suffer from the
same maladies--unemployment, marginalization, and alcoholism.
Russia as a whole lies
much further north than does the United States;
in this sense it is more comparable to Canada. Although Russia has
much good agricultural land, its northern position means that growing seasons
are short and the weather is cold; consequently, many crops do not do well.
Some of the best cropland was located in Ukraine
these areas were lost after the breakup.
Typical Russian crops include winter wheat, rye, sugar beets, and potatoes.
Soviet policies severely damaged agriculture, and this sector of the economy
has not recovered in the post-communist period. In 1998 imports constituted
nearly half of all food consumed in Russia.
Much of Russia is flat, and the absence
of natural barriers is often cited to account for the historical Russian
preoccupation with secure borders. The Ural Mountains, running north to
south, separate European Russia from Siberia and the Far
East. The Urals are geologically old and not very high--they
might be compared to the Appalachian Mountains in the United States.
West of the Urals is the large European Russian plain. Directly eastward is
the central Siberian plain, followed by the higher Siberian plateau. Much of
this area is covered with forest; bear, elk, and deer are common, and a few
Siberian tigers have survived. The northern sixth of Russia is
ecologically fragile arctic tundra. A large area of northern Russia is
permafrost--the ground below a few meters in depth is perpetually frozen.
During the summer the top layer becomes swampy, making construction difficult
and costly, and causing buildings to list drunkenly. Russia's huge
land mass makes its climate vary. Some areas of the south can be quite hot in
the summer, while north-central Russia is brutally cold in the
winter. Temperatures in Moscow often drop to
-40° Fahrenheit; in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk temperatures can reach -90°!
The Russian Far East is ruggedly
mountainous, and on the Kamchatka peninsula there are active volcanoes and hot springs. Russian
geography is also distinguished by the huge rivers that flow northward,
emptying into the Arctic Ocean--the Lena, Ob,
and Enesei. The mighty Volga meanders through much of western Russia, and in the Far East the Amur River forms a long stretch of the Russo-Chinese
border. Traditionally, Russian rivers have provided a wealth of fish,
including the huge sturgeon (some of these grow to 2,000 pounds!), which
yield the world's best caviar. Sadly, pollution has ruined much of the
Russian fishing industry. Russia
is also home to many inland lakes and seas, including magnificent Lake Baikal,
the largest body of fresh water in the world. During the Soviet era
courageous writers and intellectuals lobbied hard against cellulose plants
operating on Baikal's shores; they did manage to spare the "blue heart
of Siberia" from serious ecological
Overall, Russia is an urban nation, with
about 70 percent of the population living in cities. Moscow, the capital, is, at 9 million, the
largest and most dynamic city. Close to three-fourths of Western investment
has been concentrated in the capital alone, and it shows. A drab and boring
place in Soviet times, Moscow
now boasts exotic restaurants and nightclubs, posh (and exorbitantly
expensive) hotels, refurbished roads, traffic jams, and a bustling economy.
Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who is also one of Russia's
new millionaires, touts Moscow's
success as evidence of his suitability for higher office. St.
under the Soviets) is the second city, at about 4 million. Its network of
canals and bridges, stately Italian architecture, and green parks make Petersburg a favorite
tourist destination and a source of great pride for its Russian inhabitants.
The fabulous collection of artwork in the Hermitage museum, the former Winter Palace
of the tsars, is by itself worth a trip to Russia.
Most other Russian cities, unfortunately,
are rather bleak settings where old Soviet industries limp along and the new
market economy has yet to take off. Water and gas supplies are often sporadic
in the concrete high-rise blocks of apartment buildings that date to the
Khrushchev era. Factory workers, railway employees, and teachers often are
owed months of back wages; they teach English, engage in small-scale trade,
or find some other way to get by. There are a few success stories. Nizhnii
Novgorod, an ancient city east of Moscow,
developed a reputation as Russia's
Silicon Valley under the innovative
leadership of its youthful governor, Boris Nemtsov. President Yeltsin later
tapped him to be a financial advisor. But many cities are heavily polluted,
such as those in southern Russia
and northern Siberia, or they are dominated by mafia gangs and authoritarian
governors, like the port city of Vladivostok
in the Russian Far East.
Life in the Russian countryside was and
still is far removed from the relatively cultured existence of the major
cities. Russian villages are far poorer than the cities. Some rural Russian
homes still do not have indoor plumbing, and there are few if any cultural
amenities in the villages. The countryside is backward; picturesque (but
inefficient) horse-drawn carts are common. Agricultural production was
mechanized under the Soviets, and peasants were forced onto huge collective
and state farms, many of which still are operating today. But productivity is
low and there are few opportunities for young people in the country. As a
result, they leave for the cities in droves. This migration occurred on a
large scale even with the residency restrictions of the Soviet period (urban
residents had to have a propiska,
or residence permit); now the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of
movement, and there is no way to keep them down on the farm.
Russians are a highly literate, well-educated
people. When the Soviet government took power in 1917, about 55 percent of
the population was illiterate. Now literacy stands at about 97 percent, and
Russian students routinely outperform Americans in math and the natural
sciences. Under the Soviet regime all schools were operated by the state. In
the postcommunist period, education has come to resemble that in the West,
with private and religious schools supplementing state education. The new
Russian elite often send their children abroad to expensive boarding schools
and universities in France,
Switzerland, or the United States.
Young, entrepreneurial Russians quickly master English or German, languages
needed in the international business world.
The communist authorities clearly failed in
their attempts to eradicate religion. Recent years have witnessed the
resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy, the state church of the tsars. Church
buildings have been restored, and services are packed with believers of all
ages. About four-fifths of the population are nominally Russian Orthodox;
about 9 percent-mostly Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, and other peoples of the Caucasus Mountains--are Moslems; and about 3 percent
are Jewish. There are also large numbers of Baptists, some Catholics and
Buddhists, and a smattering of fringe religions like Hare Krishnas and
members of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult. Many government functions are now
sanctioned by the presence of Russian Orthodox priests, as in pre-communist
times, leading civil libertarians to worry about the reestablishment of an
official state religion.
For centuries, Russia's government was a
centralized, absolutist monarchy headed by the tsar (after the Roman caesars)
and organized on principles of rank and privilege. In the Soviet period, a
more pervasive dictatorship was organized through the Communist Party.
Vladimir Lenin established the Soviet system and laid the foundations for a
totalitarian dictatorship, which his successor Joseph Stalin developed into
one of the most thoroughly repressive governments known to history.
Subsequent leaders of the Communist Party-- Nikita Khrushchev ( 19531964) and
Leonid Brezhnev ( 1964- 1982)--tempered the most oppressive aspects of
Stalinism, but preserved the basics of the Party-state system. Mikhail
Gorbachev ( 1985- 1991), the first Soviet leader to undertake serious reform,
set in motion a series of events that brought about the collapse of the USSR,
leaving fifteen newly independent states in its place.
The present Russian government is a mixed
presidential-parliamentary system, patterned after the French government. It
is federal, with political authority divided between Moscow and eighty-nine regional gov-
ernments. According to the 1993 Constitution, the President, since 1991 Boris
Yeltsin, is elected for a maximum of two four-year terms. The Russian
President has sweeping powers in foreign policy and domestic politics. He
appoints the Prime Minister, who is largely responsible for running the
economy. Except for a brief hiatus, the Prime Minister from December 1992 to August
1998 was Viktor Chernomyrdin, a former top executive of the gas industry. In
August 1998 Yeltsin appointed his Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, to this
powerful office. The President also appoints his Cabinet, a National Security
Council, and one-third of the justices to a nineteen-member Constitutional
Court, which has the power of judicial review. Only a few of the President's
nominees, including the Prime Minister, are subject to approval by the
Parliament. The Russian Parliament, like the United States Congress, has the
power to impeach the President. In the late 1990s communist and nationalist
members of Parliament frequently proposed impeachment motions against
President Yeltsin, often on frivolous grounds.
Russia's legislature, the
Federal Assembly, is divided into two chambers: the larger and more
significant lower house, the Duma (450 deputies), and a smaller (178 member)
Federal Council. Duma deputies must stand for election every four years. Half
are elected from districts, and half are elected by party list, in a type of
proportional representation system very similar to Germany's. The Duma has been
controlled by parties vigorously critical of the Yeltsin administration; in
1993 this competition drew blood as the President used tanks to shell rebels
in the Russian White House (the white marble edifice on the banks of the Moscow River) into submission. Members of the
upper house are chosen by and represent the eighty-nine territorial units of
the Russian Federation.
There are two from each ethnic republic or region--one representative from
each regional legislature, and one from each regional executive. In this
sense, the Federal Council embodies a principle of representation similar to
that of the United States Senate.
Russians are very suspicious of and cynical
about their government. Years of broken promises under communism and by Boris
Yeltsin's postcommunist government have engendered skepticism about all
things political. Russians read the many daily or weekly newspapers and watch
the state and private television stations, but they believe little of what
they hear. Rumor networks supplemented the censored press under communism,
and Russians today are willing to give more credence to a neighbor's gossip
than to a reporter's story. And with good reason. Russian newspapers and
magazines are owned by rival corporate moguls who routinely distort the truth
to serve their political or economic interests. And government officials,
including President Yeltsin, have not been distinguished by their regard for
either consistency or accuracy.
The Russian economy also provides grounds
for cynicism, and even despair. The country continues to suffer the pains of
the transition from a centrally planned to a market economy. Russia in the
1990s has experienced hyperinflation, unemployment and underemployment,
capital flight, and growing income inequality. A burdensome and irrational
tax system leads most businesses to keep two sets of books, forcing the
government to operate on a deficit. Most wealthy entrepreneurs have
connections to the criminal mafia, which consists of hundreds of heavily
armed gangs, and the great majority of Russian businesses pay protection
money. Once a relatively safe place, Russia now has one of the highest
murder rates in the world--32 per 100,000 population. Robbery, rape, and
assault have also ballooned in recent years.
In public, Russians can often seem abrupt
and unfriendly, like New Yorkers. In actuality, Russians are extraordinarily hospitable,
taking time out of a busy schedule to escort guests around town or inviting
them home for a lavish feast. Many Russians are sports enthusiasts. Soccer is
the most popular professional sport, and Russia has generally taken more
than its share of medals in Olympic gymnastics, weightlifting, and track. For
recreation, skiing, skating, hiking, and chess are popular, as are trips to
the forest to gather mushrooms. City dwellers often have a dacha, or country
home, where they can escape the crowded and noisy urban life and tend their
vegetable or flower gardens. Occasionally a luxurious second home, more
likely just a tiny cottage, the dacha provides a welcome summer getaway from
the city's pollution and crowds.
As in most countries, men in Russia occupy
more privileged positions than do women. Russia
is sexist, more so than the United States,
but much less so than Japan.
The Soviet government did at least educate women, ensure they received equal
pay for equal work, and mandate certain percentages of women in public
positions. But men monopolized the higher-paying and more prestigious jobs.
Moreover, men generally refused to do the shopping or housework, so women had
a double burden of holding down full-time jobs while taking care of the
family. Now women make up 70 percent of the unemployed; they were the first
fired during the economic reform process. Businesses blatantly favor
attractive young women for secretarial positions. Prostitution, underground
during the Soviet era, has soared. A women's movement has emerged in Russia, but
it is fairly small and not particularly radical by Western standards.
One current, which
political scientist Norma Noonan has called "Russofeminism,"
endorses the Soviet traditional role for women as mothers and workers.
Artistic and cultural life in Russia, especially in the big cities of Moscow and St.
Petersburg, is exceptional. The Soviet regime
supported traditional forms of culture--ballet, opera, symphonies,
museums--as long as they promoted socialist values. Of course, the
authorities frowned on the more avant-garde pursuits, such as jazz and rock
music, postmodernist theater, and abstract art. Now that cultural repression
has ceased, Russians are free to experiment. But Russia's young writers and
artists are more interested in making money than in being creative. Movie
theaters and video stores, for example, are stocked with gangster films and
pornography. Cheap detective and romance novels fill the bookstores. Talented
painters produce schlock for the tourist markets. Happily, there are still Russia's magnificent museums: the Hermitage
collection, which rivals New York's
Metropolitan or the British Museum; Moscow's Pushkin Museum,
with its excellent Impressionist exhibit; and the Russian
Museum in St. Petersburg. After years of renovation,
the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow
reopened in 1996. Financed by one of Russia's great nineteenth-century
merchants, the Tretyakov boasts a superb collection of native Russian icons
and paintings by such masters as Andrei Rublev and Ilya Repin.
Russia's present, like its
past, is troubled, violent, and utterly fascinating. It is only beginning to
emerge from long decades of brutal repression and is experiencing great
difficulty building a viable and respected democracy. Russia's
political and economic leadership has frequently behaved irresponsibly,
enriching itself with only minimal regard for the welfare of the people. And
yet the country has tremendous unrealized potential. Russia
encompasses the world's largest reserves of natural resources, and Russians
are one of the most highly educated and most creative people anywhere. Russia is not
a captive of its history, as some suggest, doomed to reenact its
authoritarian past. With some responsible leadership, and a little luck, Russia could become
an affluent democracy. It would be a distinctly Russian democracy, however,
quite unlike those in the West. This brief survey should help us understand,
and appreciate, Russia's
distinctiveness, its absorbing past, and its turbulent present.
E. ZIEGLER is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisville. He is the author of Foreign Policy and East Asia ( 1993), Environmental Policy in the USSR ( 1987), and dozens of scholarly
articles and book chapters.