Identification. "Rus" may derive from the name of a tribe that gained political ascendancy in Kiev and other Slavic towns and lent its name to the language, culture, and state. Some scholars believe this to have been a Varangian (Viking) clan from Scandinavia, and others hold that it was a Slavic tribe. Some historians believe that "Rus" derives from an ancient name for the Volga River.
People ethnically identified as Russians have been politically and culturally dominant in a vast area for five hundred years of tsarist and Soviet imperial expansion. However, despite repression of their cultural autonomy, minority cultures have survived within the Russian Federation; including the peoples of the North Caucasus, numerous indigenous groups in Siberia, the Tatars in the Volga region, and the East Slavic Ukrainians and Belorusians. The last three groups are widely dispersed throughout the federation. All but the youngest citizens share a Soviet cultural experience, since under Communist Party rule the state shaped and controlled daily life and social practice. Much of that experience is being rejected by Russians and non-Russians who are reclaiming or reinventing their ethnic or traditional pasts; many communities are asserting a specific local identity in terms of language and culture. There is a broad cultural continuity throughout the federation and among the millions of Russians in the newly independent republics of Central Asia, the Baltic region, and the Caucasus.
Location and Geography. In addition to being the largest, the Russian Federation is one of the world's northernmost countries. It encompasses 6,592,658 square miles (17,075,000 square kilometers), from its borders with Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine on the west to the Bering Strait in the far northeast and from its borders with Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north.
European Russia, the most densely populated, urbanized, and industrialized region, lies between the Ukraine-Belarus border and the Ural Mountains. Seventy-eight percent of the population lives in this area. Two large industrial cities are located above the Arctic Circle: Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula and Norilsk in Siberia.
The great plains are divided by six ecological bands. In the northeast, above the Arctic Circle, lies a huge expanse of frigid, occasionally marshy tundra, a nearly unpopulated region where much of the land is permanently frozen and little grows but moss and shrubs. Below that is the taiga, a vast expanse of coniferous forest, which gradually blends with a band of mixed coniferous and deciduous forest to cover half the country. The capital, Moscow, is in the center of this region, where much agriculture has been located despite the thin, poor soil. A line of mixed forest and prairie with more arable soil characterizes the central areas, followed by Russia's "breadbasket," the black earth belt that constitutes less than a tenth of the national territory. Below that, the relatively arid steppe, with grasslands and semidesert and desert regions, runs along the northern edge of the Caucasus Mountains and north of the Caspian Sea beyond the Volga River basin into Central Asia.
The climate of much of European Russia is continental, with long, cold winters and short, hot summers. In the northern areas, winter days are dark and long; in the summer, the days are long and the sun barely sets. With the exception of the black earth belt, Russia has fairly poor soil, a short growing season, low precipitation, and large arid steppe regions unfit for agriculture except with extensive irrigation. These factors limit agricultural production and account for the frequency of crop failures; what is produced requires substantial labor. The
huge forests provide for foraging, hunting, and logging.
Many great rivers transect the country, such as the Dvina, Don, Oka, and Volga in the European heartland and the Ob, Yenisei, and Lena in Siberia; most of these rivers are linked by subsidiary waterways. Until the advent of railways and roads, the rivers were the only efficient way to travel, and they remain a significant form of transport for people and materials. Limited access to year-round seaports has always been a military and commercial problem. A lack of natural borders has meant vulnerability to invasion, a danger offset by the size of the country and its harsh, long winters.
These environmental factors have affected the demographic profile and shaped cultural, social, and political institutions, influencing colonizing projects, settlement patterns, household configurations, village politics, agricultural systems, and military technologies. Bold defiance of these natural limitations include Peter the Great's founding of Saint Petersburg on northern swamplands in 1703, and the twentieth-century plan to reverse the northerly flow of some of Siberia's rivers to facilitate the movement of natural resources. Equally important is the ability of rural and urban dwellers to survive challenging conditions of land, climate, and politics. Tens of millions of families depend on food they grow for themselves.
Demography. In July 1999, the population was estimated at 146,393,000, a decline of more than two million since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The current figure includes several million immigrants and refugees from newly independent former Soviet republics. Since 1991, a stark drop in the birthrate has combined with a dramatic rise in the mortality rate. Average life expectancy for both men and women has declined since the 1980s.
This population decline is expected to worsen in the next decade. It is largely the result of the economic and social upheavals of the postsocialist period, which have impoverished the population and caused a decay of social services. Growing unemployment, long-term nonpayment of wages and pensions, paid wages that are below the poverty line, unsafe working and road conditions, the spread of infectious diseases, and the impoverishment of public health care systems have caused stress, depression, family breakdown, and rising rates of alcoholism, suicide, homicide, and domestic violence. Circulatory diseases, accidents, and suicides attributable to alcohol abuse are the leading causes of death among men. Malnutrition, disease, industrial pollution, poor health care, and reliance on abortion for birth control have reduced fertility rates and increased maternal and infant mortality.
In 1999, Russians accounted for 81 percent of the population and were the dominant ethnic group in all but a few regions. Other major ethnic nationalities are Tatars (4 percent), Ukrainians (3 percent), Chuvash (1 percent), Bashkir (1 percent), Belarussian (1 percent), and Mordovians (1 percent). Dozens of other ethnic nationalities make up the remaining 8 percent. There has been a significant rate of intermarriage between ethnic populations.
Until the twentieth century, the population grew steadily. The population of Rus' in the twelfth century is estimated at seven million. By 1796, Russia had a population of thirty-six million, to which territorial annexation had contributed greatly. In the 1850s, the population was sixty-seven million. The abolition of serfdom, accompanied by urbanization, industrialization, and internal migration in the second half of the nineteenth century, led to significant population growth, and by 1897 the population was 125 million. By 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, the population had grown to 170 million. Famines, largely caused by civil war and the Soviet collectivization of agriculture, decimated the rural population in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1941, the population was around two hundred million. World War II caused the deaths of more than twenty million Soviet citizens. After the 1940s, population growth was slowed by the gender disparity and devastation of infrastructure caused by war.
Linguistic Affiliation. Russian is one of three East Slavic languages of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is the most widely spoken Slavic language, with 1.39 million people speaking it as their native language and tens of millions more using it as a second language. Many people in non-Russian ethnic groups speak Russian as their native or only language, partly as a result of tsarist and Soviet campaigns to suppress minority languages. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened the way for linguistic revival movements in many ethnic communities.
There are three major dialects (northern, southern, and central), but they are mutually intelligible. Russian has been influenced by other languages, particularly Greek (Byzantine Christian) in the Kievan period, French in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and English in the twentieth.
The Cyrillic alphabet was brought to Kievan Rus' along with Christianity in the tenth and eleventh centuries by the followers of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, who invented the first Slavic alphabet, Glagolitic, in the ninth century. Along with Old Russian, Church Slavonic was the primary literary language until the early eighteenth century, when it was reformed as part of Peter the Great's westernization and secularization campaigns. Many important texts were written in Church Slavonic and the more vernacular Old Russian, including historical chronicles, epic poems, folklore, and liturgical and legal works.
Symbolism. A popular visual symbol is Moscow's Saint Basil's cathedral with its colorful cupolas. Images of Saint Basil's and those of hundreds of other churches and cathedrals are key symbols of the country's long Orthodox history. Calendars, posters, and postcards with images of Orthodox churches are common in apartments and offices.
Bread symbolizes key aspects of the national self-image. It is the mark of hospitality, as in khlebsol ("bread-salt"), the ancient custom of welcoming a visitor with a round loaf with a salt cellar on top. This tradition can be observed at political and diplomatic events when a host receives an important guest. In broader terms, bread is the symbol of life; in times of hardship it is the primary food, and being "without bread" signals starvation. Other foods are also important symbols: black caviar, which signifies luxury and plenty as well as the bounty of the rivers and seas; mushrooms and berries, the gifts of the forest and dacha; bliny , pancakes served before Lent; the potato, staple of the diet; and vodka, a symbol of camaraderie and communication.
Forest plants, creatures, and objects are widely used in symbolic ways. The white birch conjures the romance of the countryside; the wolf, bear, and fox are ubiquitous in folktales and modern cartoons; and the peasant hut izba signifies the cozy world of the past. Inside the izba are three other cultural symbols: the plump clay or tiled stove; the samovar, and the Orthodox icon in its corner shrine. While most people live in urban apartments images of traditional life still have great power and meaning.
Everyday conversation is filled with metaphors summarizing a highly complex view of shared cultural identity. Russians talk of soul dusha to refer to an internal spiritual domain that is the intersection point of heart, mind, and culture. True communion depends on an opening up of souls that is accomplished through shared suffering or joy. Communal feasting and drinking also can help open up the soul. Soul is said to be one of the metaphysical mechanisms that unite Russians into a "people" narod. Stemming from ancient Slavic words for clan, kin, and birth, and meaning "citizens of a nation," "ethnic group," or simply a "crowd of people," narod is used to refer to the composite identity and experience of the people through history. It often is invoked by politicians hoping to align themselves with the population. Leaders of the Soviet Union, trying to unite ethnic groups under a single multinational identity, ritualistically employed the term "Soviet people" ( sovietskii narod ). People still speak in terms of belonging by "blood"; a person is seen to have Russian blood, Jewish blood, Armenian blood, or a mixture of ethnic bloods. Nationalist discourse uses this concept to stress the purity of one's own people and disparage those with "foreign" blood.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the calendar of national holidays was altered. The compulsory celebration of the Great October Revolution (7 November) was diminished in scale, although it is still officially marked. The Day of Victory (9 May), the Soviet capture of Berlin that ended World War II, still provokes strong feelings. Cemeteries, parks, and public places are filled every year with people gathering to memorialize the war, and the media celebrate the heroism of the Soviet peoples. Even though these tributes are tempered by revisionist history, a core of patriotic feeling remains. A new political holiday is Russian Independence Day (12 June), marking the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991. New Year's Eve is the most widely observed holiday. The observance of Christmas and Easter and other Orthodox holidays has grown since the end of the Soviet repression of religious observance.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation. The area now called Russia has always been multicultural. The Eastern Slavic tribes, the ancestors of modern Russians, traditionally are thought to have originated in the Vistula River valley in what is now Poland and to have migrated eastward in the seventh to the ninth centuries. Other evidence suggests that Eastern Slavic pastoral peoples were widespread in the central and eastern portions of the plain that stretches across the northern half of the Eurasian continent a thousand years earlier, coexisting with Finnic and Lithuanian tribes to the north and enduring recurring waves of conquest.
For more than a millennium, people sharing cultural traits, social structures, and religious beliefs have occupied present-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belorusia. Eastern Slavic society was culturally distinct and highly developed in terms of agriculture, technology, commerce, and governance by the tenth century. By the eleventh century a huge expanse had come under the nominal rule of the Kievan princes; at that time, the city-state of Kiev on the Dniepr River in present-day Ukraine was rivaled in size and splendor only by Novgorod far to the north. Prince Vladimir I, who ruled Kievan Rus' from 980 until 1015, brought Byzantine (Orthodox) Christianity to Kiev in 988 and sponsored the widespread baptism of the peoples of Rus'. A gradual process of the melding of pre-Christian practices with those of Orthodoxy consolidated the population under one political and cultural system. An intricate written code of customary law, the Pravda Russkaia, was in place by the eleventh century.
Wars after the death of Prince Yaroslavl the Wise in 1054 caused the gradual disintegration of Kievan Rus' until 1240, when Kiev fell under the domination of the Mongol Empire. The fall of Kievan Rus' and the political fragmentation that followed divided the Eastern Slavs into three distinct cultural-linguistic groups: Ukrainian, Belorusian, and Russian. The Mongols destroyed many cities and towns, and created a complex administrative system to exact tribute from its peoples and princes; Mongol control lasted until the late fifteenth century, although with less impact after 1380. The political power and territorial control of Muscovy expanded greatly under the four-decade reign of Ivan III, who died in 1505 after routing the Mongol armies. From that time on, the Russian state developed and expanded, with Moscow at its center. Ivan IV (the Terrible) was the first to crown himself tsar in 1546. He ruled in an increasingly arbitrary and absolutist fashion, brutalizing the aristocratic boyars in a decade-long period of terror known as the oprichnina. The century's end brought the "Time of Troubles"—fifteen years of political instability and civil and class strife that resulted in widespread impoverishment and famine, enserfment of the peasantry, and waves of migration of peasants to the edges of Russian territory.
Under Peter the Great, the Romanov tsar who ruled from 1682 to 1725, Russia began a period of imperial expansion that continued into the Soviet period. Peter attempted to modernize and westernize the country militarily, administratively, economically, and culturally, often through the use of force. His reforms changed society irrevocably, particularly through his introduction of new military and agricultural technologies, a formal educational system, a tight system of class ranking and service, and the founding of the European-style city of Saint Petersburg. Peter moved the capital from Moscow to Petersburg, where it remained until after the 1917 revolution.
After Peter's reign, Russian imperial rule expanded southward into the Crimea, southeast along the Volga River, and eastward across the Siberian forests to the Pacific Ocean. Through further expansion during the Soviet period (1917–1991), Russians achieved political and demographic dominance over a territory equal to one-sixth of the world's land surface. After 1991, Russian geopolitical power declined, but the federation remains the largest country in the world.
National Identity. Russia has had a thousand-year history of growth and contraction, political consolidation and disintegration, repression and relaxation, messianism and self-definition, and varying forms of socioeconomic interdependence with other nations. This history has had far-reaching effects on the other populations of Eurasia as well as on every aspect of the national culture.
For many centuries, the question of whether Russian culture is more "eastern" or "western" has been a burning issue. Situated at the crossroads of important cultures and civilizations in every direction, the Slavic groups and other peoples of Russia have profoundly influenced and been influenced by them all in terms of trade, technology, language, religion, politics, and the arts.
Ethnic Relations. Inter-ethnic relations are fraught with tensions spawned over centuries of Russian and Soviet colonial domination and activated in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet state. Most conflicts are multidimensional, simultaneously involving struggles for political control, rights over natural resources, migration and relocation, and the revitalization of national or ethnic cultures, religions, languages, and identities. Soviet policies—which compelled the use of the Russian language on all peoples, organized massive changes in livelihood and lifestyle for tens of millions, forcibly moved whole populations (such as Crimean Tatars and Meshketian Turks), installed ethnic Russian political elites and managers in non-Russian regions, and extracted the wealth from local production into central coffers without sufficient economic return to the peripheries—have set the stage for the conflicts of today.
Conflicts over resources are heated in parts of Siberia and the Far East. The Sakha (Yahut) are trying to claim rights to some economic benefits from the vast diamond, oil, gold, and other mineral wealth in their republic. This struggle to reap even marginal benefits from their own territories has long been blocked by Russian central control over the resource extraction industries, and by the strategic relocation of tens of thousands of Russians to Yakutia in the Soviet period. This battle over resources is associated with a growing nationalist movement. Other Siberian peoples are engaged in similar struggles over oil and gas revenues, and rights to traditional fisheries, forest products, and reindeer-grazing lands. Environmental issues play a significant role, too, as people fight to prevent or reverse the spoiling of rivers, lakes, and soils by the oil and mining industries.
Occupation of the North Caucasus has been a cause of conflict for three centuries. Russia waged devastating wars with Chechnya from the mid-1990s on, attempting to repress local independence movements, stem a pan-Islamic movement from taking hold there, and maintain access to the oil wealth of the Caspian sea. There are few signs that this conflict will be resolved peacefully, and relations are characterized by intense hatred, prejudice, and propagandizing on both sides. Roots of this conflict lie in a long history of violent repression and impoverishment in Chechnya.
Internal migration and displacement has contributed greatly to ethnic tensions and prejudice, as several million Russians have returned from newly independent states in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Baltics, feeling themselves unwanted guests in those places, or in some cases (Tajikistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) escaping civil wars. Border regions between Russia and former Soviet republics, which often contain highly mixed and intermarried Russian and non-Russian populations, present a significant problem.
In general, unflattering and insulting stereo-types of Siberian natives, Koreans, Central Asians, peoples of the Caucasus, Ukrainians, Jews, and other ethnic nationalities are widely shared among Russians and circulate unimpeded in print media.
Ivan the Great's Bell Tower in the Kremlin.
One effect of the wars in Chechnya has been constant police harassment and public suspicion of the Caucasian residents of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other cities.