Russia: A Country Overview

An overview of all aspects of Russia, including its geography, population, history and economy…

Geography

Russia covers an area of more than 17 million square kilometres. It covers nine time zones and has borders with Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, North Korea, Norway, Poland and Ukraine, as well as the North Pacific Ocean in the east at the Bering Strait, and the Arctic Ocean to the north.

The country is characterised by the Russian steppe – arid plains in the south and east. There are also densely forested areas in the north, as well as several mountain ranges in the south, including the Urals and the Caucasus, which is home to Mt Elbrus, Russia’s highest peak at 5,642m.

Russia has more than 100,000 rivers, while Lake Baikal contains 20 percent of the world’s freshwater.

History

The nation of Russia was officially formed in 1991 after the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Union. After a history stretching from the mediaeval state of Rus, which was inhabited by Vikings and Slavic warriors in the early ninth century, Russia built the third-largest empire in history, peaking in the early 1900s. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, 15 republics formed the USSR in 1922. The Russian Federation accounted for half of the Soviet Union’s population and dominated its politics and history.

Efforts by the last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, to bring in new policies of “glasnost” (openness and freedom) and “perestroika” (restructuring) caused Russia’s economy to collapse, as the turmoil created by the switch from state to private ownership of many large organisations led to a 50 percent fall in the nation’s output and gross domestic product. Under the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, the country experienced conflict in Chechnya, as well as a significant drop in living standards.

After Yeltsin resigned in 1999, Vladimir Putin became president in 2000. High prices for the country’s plentiful resources of oil and gas, and increasing demand from Russian consumers, have since helped the economy grow to become the ninth largest in the world.

Politics and Government

Russia, or the Russian Federation, is a democratic federative republic with a presidential government. The head of state is the president (also the supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces), who is elected every six years. Since 2012, the position has been held by Vladimir Putin, who is serving a record third term. The outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, is now prime minister, the second-highest position in the Russian government.

There are two houses in the Russian parliament: the State Duma, with 450 members voted in by proportional representation serving four-year terms; and the Federation Council, which is made up of 166 members appointed by officials in the federal areas.

The Russian Federation is made up of 83 federal entities:

  • Forty-six regions or provinces
  • Twenty-one republics
  • Nine territories
  • Four autonomous areas
  • Two cities of federal importance (Moscow and St Petersburg)
  • One autonomous region (the Jewish Autonomous Region)
  • For a map of Russia showing the federal entities in each area, including some historical background: Click here

Economy

Russia has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become market led, with large foreign reserves and low debts. Oil, gas, coal, timber and minerals account for more than 80 percent of the country’s exports. Other major industries include manufacturing connected with the mining of minerals, metals and chemicals, as well as agriculture and electricity.

The capital city of Moscow plays a disproportionately large part in the national economy, and is the centre of the job market for expatriates. Russia is one of the most attractive places in the world for western expats to work due to the high-value packages on offer and low taxes. However, this is partly offset by the high cost of some aspects of living, such as housing.

Climate

Russia’s immense size means that the country has a wide range of climatic conditions. Moscow’s proximity to northern Europe gives it a humid continental climate, with warm summers and cold winters. It is far milder than areas such as Siberia, which is one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet.

The average temperature in Moscow ranges from 23°C in summer to -12°C (at night) in winter. The minimum temperature in winter can fall as low as ?-30°C, with snow falling for several months a year. Summers regularly have extended periods during which the temperature exceeds 30°C. Rainfall is relatively low, ranging from 35mm to 85mm a month and falling on average between eight and 12 days. Humidity is between 65 and 85 percent throughout the year.

  • For more information about the current weather and the typical climate for the different regions in Russia: Click here
  • For weather forecasts by region: Click here

Security

Russia regularly appears on alert lists for terrorist threats and danger to visitors, particularly in the south-west of the country in areas bordering Georgia and Azerbaijan, including the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. For most visitors to the rest of the country, however, time spent in Russia is usually free of incident.

Trouble can be found in Moscow, but if expats adhere to the usual precautions advisable for any large urban area, and are slightly more aware than they would usually be, they should be safe.

Tips include:

  • Avoid walking alone in the city at night
  • Don’t carry valuables unless necessary and don’t wear flashy jewellery or watches
  • Avoid large public events, demonstrations or gatherings where there are big groups of people
  • Take extra care if using public transport early in the morning or late in the evening, and avoid using private taxis
  • Avoid groups of young people, drunk people on the street, football fans and homeless people
  • Try to avoid getting involved with people asking for help, as it is often a scam
  • Never pick up hitch-hikers
  • Be on guard against mugging, pickpocketing and theft from cars
  • In a bar, buy your own drinks and make sure they are not left unattended, as drink-spiking incidents do occur
  • Take care in incidents with the police, as some try to exploit new residents in Russia for bribes. Bogus police scams do exist, although they are rare. Expats should insist on seeing ID and not automatically allow them access to their home or get out of their car. If in any doubt, take a note of the police officer’s ID and other details, as well as the time, date and location of the incident, as the Russian authorities are serious about eradicating such problems

Discrimination does occur against gays and lesbians, and all public displays of affection should be avoided. Racial and ethnic minorities are also in danger of discrimination or attacks. These are most common for people who look to be of African, Afro-Caribbean, southern or eastern Asian descent, or to be from the Caucasus region or the Middle East. Groups of people to watch out for include radicals or nationalists, who tend to be most active on days on which major football matches are played and around 20 April, the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birthday.

For more detailed and regularly updated information, expats should check their embassy website for advice:

The UK and US sites provide some good general advice for expats of any nationality.

Foreigners Living in Russia

More than 80 percent of the country’s 143 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians. The rest are accounted for by more than 160 ethnic groups, the largest of which are Tatars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs, Chuvashes, Chechens and Armenians.

  • For more information on Russia’s population: Click here

Expats are mostly from countries that were formerly members of the Soviet Union. Western expats account for less than one percent of the population.

The government department controlling migration and applications for foreign nationals to work and live in Russia is the Federal Migration Service (Federalnaya Migracionnaya Sluzba / ??????????? ???????????? ??????).

Tourism

Russia receives 22.7 million visitors a year (the seventh highest in Europe), more than 60 percent of whom are from former members of the Soviet Union. However, most of these arrivals are for business or personal reasons. The number of tourist visits is estimated at 2.1 million. The main source countries are Germany, the USA, China, Finland and the UK.

Russia has a rich history, and Moscow and St Petersburg, in particular, have a wealth of heritage, arts, architecture and culture that attracts tourists. However, with the economy heavily reliant on oil and gas exports, the government is sometimes criticised for investing little in tourism or not making it easier for visitors to obtain visas.

  • For more information on tourism in Russia: Click here
  • For a directory of tourist information websites: Click here
  • For the Federal Agency for Tourism’s website: Click here
  • For information on visiting Moscow: Click here

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