Russia is a large country that crosses the boundary between Europe and Asia. It has abundant natural resources, continental and arctic climates, mountains, plains, and massive river systems.
Russia’s vast size has made it challenging to govern, both for the Russian Empire and for the Soviet Union. Each government dealt with the size and cultural diversity in different ways.
Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were empires—that is, they were large countries in which Russian political control dominated the many peoples of various cultures and ethnicities within its boundaries.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded through a violent rebellion and civil war. It was ruled by the Bolshevik party, a socialist group led by Vladimir Lenin. The second leader of the USSR, Josef Stalin, was renowned for the millions of people that he killed as he consolidated his power and sought economic growth for his country.
The USSR was a command economy, in which economic decisions were made by the central state. Economic objectives of the early leaders included rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization.
The Soviet economy was ultimately corrupt and inefficient—two factors that, along with other problems, led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1991. The reforms of the final Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, were not enough to prevent its collapse.
The early post-Soviet years were ones of rapid privatization, immense wealth for a small few, economic hardship for most, and the disappearance of the social safety net.
Since 1999, Russian presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have strengthened Russia’s economy and consolidated the power of the central state.
Most Russians live in the western part of the country near Moscow, and other large population centers are also located in the country’s European core. There are a few industrial cities in the Eastern Frontier region, but most of Russia east of the Urals is a vast wilderness.
Southern Russia—the Caucasus Mountain region—is the portion of the country that has caused the most unrest for Moscow. Non-Russian groups such as the Chechens would like to be independent, but Russia has engaged in warfare to prevent them from seceding.
The countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were once part of the USSR but are now independent states. They are south of the Russian border, in the southern Caucasus Mountains. These countries are not without their challenges, as they are influenced both by Russia and by the Middle East to their south. They are home to large components of Muslims and Christians and a variety of ethnic groups. While Armenia is the poorest of the three countries, Georgia and Azerbaijan have some wealth from petroleum exports.