Facts about Russia: An Introduction

facts about russiaBridging the continents of Europe and Asia, Russia is a country with a long history. Due to its large size – both in terms of geographic size and population – it abounds with different people and cultures. The following facts about Russia may teach you something new, or prepare you for travels!

Russia’s Prime Minister – and thus its head of government – is Dmitry Medvedev. The current President – and thus the head of state – is Vladimir Putin. He was previously President from 2000-2008. He was Prime Minister from 1999-2000 and again in 2008-2012.

Name Origins

Rus was the name of a medieval state populated by Slavic peoples. The Rus people themselves were possibly descended from Swedish Vikings; they founded this nation near Kiev around 900 CE. Western nations knew it as Ruthenia. The name carried through and Russia – “the land of the Rus people” – persists to this day. Its official governmental name now is the Russian Federation. In the Russian language, the name is said as Rossiya, or “ross SEE ya.”

Size and Geography

Russia is the largest country on earth. A quick indication of its size is the fact that it spans across nine time zones! (Before a daylight savings rule change, it used to be 11 time zones.) Russia has an area 6.5 million square miles – an area that actually exceeds that of the micro-planet Pluto. One eighth of the inhabited land of Earth consists of Russian territory. Russia shares borders with countries in Nordic Europe – Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Russia also has borders with countries in Eastern Europe and the Near East: Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan. Russia, in the east, shares land borders with Asian countries: China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and North Korea. Russia also shares water borders with Canada and the United States, as well as Japan.

The United States border is at the Bering Strait, in Alaska. At the closest point, the two countries are only about 50 miles apart. (However, the International Date Line runs through the middle of the strait, meaning that they are separated by many hours on the clock!) The USA bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. The over 600,000 square miles of territory were purchased for just $7.2 million at the time.

Another indication of Russia’s massive size is the fact that it possesses nearly 20% of the world’s forests. Nearly one half of the evergreen forests on the planet are in Russia. Large swaths of northern Russia consist of taiga forest, which is the largest type of forest on Earth. Taiga is made of evergreen coniferous trees growing in a subarctic zone. The taiga spans the globe between the tundra of the north and the warmer steppes.

In terms of latitude and longitude, Russia spans the globe from 41 degrees north to 82 degrees north, and from 19 degrees east to 169 degrees east.

Cities of Russia

Nearly three-quarters of Russia’s population lives in towns and cities. These cities are primarily concentrated in the European continental area of the country.

Moscow is the largest city in Russia, and its current capital. In Russian, the name is pronounced “Moskva.” Moscow was first mentioned in a written letter from the year 1147. It covers an area of 386 square miles, and it is the northernmost city in the world with over 10 million residents. With 11,503,501 residents, Moscow is second only to Istanbul in size among the cities of Europe. If one considers only the city itself – and not the surrounding metropolitan area – it is the sixth largest city in the world. Situated on the Moskva River, Moscow is the largest inland city in the world. It was the host to the Summer Olympic games in 1980.

St. Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city. It has a population of nearly five million people; it is the northernmost city of its size. It sits on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland, and had been a small Swedish outpost. The city was founded by the tsar (or emperor) Peter the Great on May 27, 1703. Seeking a port for Russia, Peter conquered the settlement there and decreed that a city would be built. Conscripted peasants – tens of thousands of whom died – did build a city. It became Russia’s capital in 1712, and remained so almost continuously until the Russian Revolution of 1917. During the Soviet era, the city was called Leningrad. It is considered the cultural capital of Russia. St. Petersburg is home to The Hermitage, a significant art museum, amongst other institutions of theatre, art, and dance.

Novosibirsk is the largest city in Asian Russia, and the third largest city in the country with a population of 1.5 million. It sits on both banks of the Ob River. The city was founded in 1893, with the construction of a bridge across the river as part of the Trans Siberian Railway. Its rapid growth over the years has earned it the nickname “The Chicago of Siberia.” It is home to several universities, theatres, and cinemas – as well as a popular zoo.

Other cities in Russia include Yekatarinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Kazan, Perm, Ufa, Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd – all of which have populations of over one million people.

The Russian Language

The only official language of the entire nation is Russian.  Of course, considering its size and diversity, nearly 100 other languages are spoken throughout the country. Some of these lesser languages, spoken locally, include Abaza, Kumyk, and Nogai.

Russian has largely lost its role as the official language of former Soviet republics, with the exceptions of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, which retained it as one of their official tongues. However, Russian remains as one of the six official languages of the United Nations, thanks to its prominent role in founding the organization. (Russia also serves as a permanent member of the Security Council.)

The Russian language is a Slavic language in the Indo-European family. Closely related East Slavic languages are Belarusian and Ukrainian. It is the largest native tongue in Europe, and the eighth most spoken language in the world.

Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which has 33 letters. This alphabet can seem hard to master, as it is derived from Greek letters.

It can be confusing as some letters appear deceptively like those in the Roman alphabeter. For instance, their “P” is our “R.” Likewise, their “C” is our “S.” You may know that during the Communist era, Russia was federated with other lands in the USSR – which was abbreviated as CCCP in Cyrillic letters.

The Russian Flag

The current flag of Russia is a tricolor flag. It has three equally sized horizontal stripes. The white stripe is on top, the blue stripe is in the middle, and the red stripe is on the bottom. The flag was first used in the 1700s by merchant ships as there was no official Russian flag at the time. It was formally adopted in 1896, but it was then replaced during the Soviet era. The Russian flag under Communism was a red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle in the corner. The old flag was readopted in 1993, following the dissolution of the USSR. National Flag Day is a holiday in Russia, and it is celebrated on August 22. That date commemorates the defeat of an attempted coup in 1991.

The People of Russia

Nearly 80% of Russia’s 142 million people are ethnically Russian. The remaining 20% come from a variety of ethnic groups – over 180 of them. The next largest group is the Tatars, but they tally up to just 4% of the population.

There are several more million women in the Russian population, although most of them are older. Past wars led to deaths of young men. Furthermore, Russian men have a significantly shorter life expectancy than women. The male average is just 64 years, compared to 75 for women.

41% of the population identify as belonging to the Russian Orthodox Christian church. In the 10th century, Vladimir I adopted Christianity as his religion and thus as the official religion for all of Russia. The Communist Party actively discouraged religious belief, as part of its goal of remaking society, and thus official membership dropped during the 20th century. In addition to Orthodox Christianity, there are other religions represented in the Russian population. About 6.5% of Russians identify as Muslims. 4% are unaffiliated Christians. About 1.5% belong to other Orthodox churches, such as the Armenian or Ukrainian churches. 1% belong to pagan religions. There are smaller groups of Buddhists, Protestants, Hindus, Catholics, and Jews.

The second largest group in religious identification – 25% – are non-religious but spiritual people. 13% self-identify as completely non-religious, and about 5% of Russians are “undecided” or did not identify a religious identity.

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Known in Russian as the Transsibirskaya Magistral, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway line in the world. It runs over 5700 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. Construction began in 1891; the engineers began building from both ends simultaneously. In the west, construction started at Chelyabinsk, and in the east at Vladivostok. The builders faced enormous difficulties, from waterlogged land to mountains that needed to be blown through. Still, the construction crews worked at a steady pace, laying hundreds of miles of track a day. The rail line was finished in just 12 years. (Contrast that with the American Transcontinental railroad of the 1860s. It took six years, but only ran across about 2000 miles of distance.) The journey from Moscow to Vladivostok takes six days.

Other offshoot lines were built after the original completion date. They are the Trans-Mongolian line that serves Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and Beijing, China, and the Trans-Manchurian line through China to Beijing.

The train ride is long but it is reasonably priced for the budget traveler. It also allows you to see vast areas of the country of Russia, and to appreciate the feat that building the railway was.

Miscellaneous Facts

Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume. (Lake Superior has more surface area but is shallower.) Lake Baikal reaches depths of nearly 5400 feet. At nearly 400 miles long and 50 miles wide, this means the lake contains nearly 20% of the planet’s fresh water!

Russia is home to the tallest mountain in Europe. Mount Elbrus, located in the Caucasus, is one of the famed Seven Summits. These are the tallest peaks on each continent, and a popular goal for advanced mountain climbers. Mount Elbrus is 18,510 feet tall.

The Volga River is the longest river in Europe. It stretches nearly 2300 miles, and 11 of Russia’s largest cities are located in its drainage basin.

In 2014, Russia hosted its first Winter Olympics in Sochi. Sochi is a southern Russia city that is best known as a popular summer resort. (It even has palm trees.)

Learning about Russia while learning the language, is a great way to help you learn about the Russian culture from an insiders perspective.