All countries are unique, but Russia—particularly contemporary Russia— is undoubtedly sui generis. Underscoring this point, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described the country as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Putting aside such biased declarations, this text aims to explore contemporary Russia in all its forms. In the past three decades, Russia has seen some of the most dramatic political, social, and economic changes in world history. In 1985, Russia constituted the core of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one of only two superpowers in the world. By the mid-1990s, Russia had become a weak, some would argue failing, state with an economy smaller than that of South Korea. However, the new millennium has been kind, restoring Russia to the status of world power, filling the state coffers with petrodollars, and reversing a slide into anarchy. This transformation has been costly, both in economic and psychological terms. While Russia remains the world’s largest state in terms of geography, the “loss” of the union republics that accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet Union proved to be a powerful blow to the psyche of the Russian nation. In 2005, Vladimir Putin—the second president of the Russian Federation—described the collapse of the Soviet empire as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” referring simultaneously to territorial losses and the socioeconomic suffering wrought by the demise of the Soviet Union. In addition to the loss of roughly one-quarter of Soviet lands and one-third of the country’s population, the new Russian Federation had to grapple with 25 million ethnic Russians who were stranded in sometimes hostile states in the “near abroad,” that is, the non-Russian post-Soviet republics. Despite possessing the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, the Russian military languished in the new era, unable to adjust to the demands of a post–Cold War world and plagued by lack of funds. Most embarrassingly, Russia’s new armed forces proved unable to decisively win a war with the small breakaway republic of Chechnya. Following the first Chechen War (1994–1996), Russia’s international status plummeted as evidence of mass atrocities and rampant corruption in the military surfaced.
   With much of the world community coming to view Russia as an oversized banana republic, it was not surprising that the United States, the European Union (EU), Turkey, China, and Iran expanded their influence into areas historically associated with Moscow. Recognizing the weakness of the central government, Russia’s regions, especially the ethnic republics, wrested increasing authority from the Kremlin. Some, such as Tatarstan, even went as far as issuing their own passports and conducting relations with foreign governments.
   Economically, the situation was no better. Beginning with the last Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic restructuring (perestroika), Russia saw a drop in living standards in the late 1980s. Conditions continued to worsen in the 1990s under the first democratically elected president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin. Privatization was conducted in a murky environment dictated by extended networks of economic elites and the old Soviet nomenklatura. While consumer goods lined the once-barren shelves of Russia’s shops, the average Russian fell victim to the excruciating effects of “shock therapy.” Personal savings evaporated overnight, entire industries disappeared, and large numbers of the population were in danger of losing their homes and livelihoods. Within the space of a few years, one of the most egalitarian societies on the face of the planet was afflicted with a massive wealth gap. Women in particular suffered during the first decade after independence, as unemployment, alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, and crime rates soared. Popular resentment of Western-style reforms quickly translated into a conservative revival of Russian Orthodoxy, Soviet nostalgia, and ultranationalism.
   Vladimir Putin’s rapid ascent to power quickly reversed a number of Yeltsin-era trends. While economic recovery was already under way when the former KGB agent took the reins in early 2000, he was able to steer the country away from financial collapse. His “strong hand,” particularly in the early stages of the second Chechen War, won him the respect of older Russians, as well as the new elite who were confounded by the country’s sociopolitical chaos. Under Putin, state coffers brimmed over with oil and natural gas profits, the middle class began to grow, improvements were made in the health-care and education systems, and Russia resumed its position as a major player in international affairs.
   There was a price to pay, however, for this “New Russia.” Terrorism, virtually unknown in the late Soviet era, became commonplace by the end of Putin’s first year in office, and by 2005, Russia became one of the most terror-prone countries on earth. With the backing of the masses, Putin muzzled the press, arrested business tycoons, hobbled the country’s nascent civil society, and suffocated the political party system. Despite the election of a new president, Dmitry Medvyedev, in 2008, Putin’s shadow still looms large, as do those of the so-called siloviki, that is, members of the secret police, armed forces, and other “power ministries.”
   As Russia grapples with the effects of the most recent global recession, it is clear that the boom period of the early and mid-2000s is now a memory, but even with recent contractions in the economy, the country’s largest corporations are now household names around the world. Investments in the health-care and social security systems are producing dividends, and a sizable middle class is finally being established. As Russians look forward to the third decade of post-Soviet independence, there are other reasons for optimism. With a new military footprint that includes dominance in the Arctic Ocean, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, Russia’s status as a world power is once again unquestioned. Russia’s quick victory against Georgia in the 2008 South Ossetian War boldly underscored this point.
   Dominating the Eurasian supercontinent, the Russian Federation (Rossiiskaia federatsiia) is the world’s largest country, occupying 13 percent of the earth’s surface. Nearly twice the size of the United States, Russia’s land mass is 16,377,742 square kilometers, and its water area is 720,500 square kilometers. It is situated between the Arctic Ocean, the northern Pacific Ocean, inner Eurasia, and Central Europe. Russia’s continental land mass lies between the latitudes 77°44' N and 41°11'N and the longitudes 27°20' E and 169°38' W. Russia is over 8,000 kilometers wide, and from the northern reaches of Franz Josef Land to the country’s southern border it is more than 3,500 kilometers long. The country sits astride the Ural Mountains, the historic divide between the European and Asian continents. The range is equally important in Russian geography, dividing European Russia, Russia’s most populous and industrialized region, from Siberia. In the southern reaches of European Russia, the North Caucasus represents a separate historical and geographic zone. Siberia, in turn, gives way to the Russian Far East, a region with an entirely different climate from the harsh continental clime of Russia’s vast interior. The country’s last geographic area, the Far North, stretches from Lapland to Alaska.
   Not surprising given its size, Russia possesses more international borders than any other country, more than 20,000 kilometers in total. Moving counterclockwise from the northeast of the country, they are as follows: Norway (196 kilometers); Finland (1,313 kilometers); Estonia (290 kilometers); Latvia (292 kilometers); Lithuania (227 kilometers); Poland (432 kilometers); Belarus (959 kilometers); Ukraine (1,576 kilometers); Georgia (723 kilometers); Azerbaijan (284 kilometers); Kazakhstan (6,846 kilometers); China (3,645 kilometers); Mongolia (3,441 kilometers); and North Korea (17 kilometers). There is also a maritime border with the United States between the Bering and Chukchi seas. With 37,653 kilometers of coastline, the country is washed by a number of the world’s most important bodies of water. Clockwise from the northeast, these include the White Sea, the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Sea, the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan (East Sea), the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and the Baltic Sea. Lake Baykal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, is located in Russia. The country’s major rivers include the Volga, Don, Ob, Irtysh, Yenisey, Lena, and Amur. Russia’s major islands and island chains include Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island, the Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin. Important peninsulas include the Kola, Taymyr, Yamal, Kamchatka, and Chukchi. Russia’s climatic zones include tundra, found mostly north of the Arctic Circle; taiga, stretching across northern European Russia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East; temperate broadleaf forests and steppeforests, found mostly in European Russia and along the southern rim of Asiatic Russia; semiarid steppe, which dominates extreme southern European Russia; and mountainous biomes, which characterize the Caucasus, Urals, Altay, Sayan, and other ranges. The highest point is Mount Elbrus (5,633 m), while the lowest is the Caspian Sea (–28 m). Russia’s climate, though largely continental in nature, is characterized by extremes. The country has hot summers with long, snowy winters. Autumn and spring are rather brief with dramatic bouts of rain. Temperatures range from 35°C to –60°C, with Moscow having an average annual temperature of 5.4°C. Average annual rainfall differs based on region: the East European Plain sees 500 millimeters per year, while the arid southern zones and the tundra get less than 20 millimeters annually; the Russian Far East receives significant precipitation and is part of the world’s monsoon belt. The inhospitable climate makes provision of energy and foodstuffs difficult in the Far North and much of Siberia.
   Despite being a major agricultural producer, less than 10 percent of Russia’s land is arable (neither the taiga nor the tundra is amenable to crops). In southern European Russia, chernozem and other fertile soils are common. Combined with ample sunshine, this allows for the cultivation of grains, potatoes, legumes, and vegetables. Russia’s citrus, tobacco, and other warm-weather crops are produced in a relatively compact area in and around the North Caucasus. Animal husbandry, particularly reindeer herding, remains a traditional occupation in the boreal zones of the country. Birch, oak, and aspen are the most common trees in the north, while pine, spruce, fir, and cedar exist farther south. The steppe is dominated by vast tracts of grass, punctuated by copses of birch trees near water sources.
   Owing to its vast geography and low population density (particularly east of the Urals), the country’s fauna is extremely diverse. In the Far North, a wide variety of Arctic animals and cold-water fish can be found. In the taiga and broad-leafed forests, reindeer, elk, lynx, sable, boars, deer, and mink exist in sizable numbers, as do various species of birds. Both Lake Baykal and the Caspian are home to several unique species, including the Nerpa freshwater seal and the Beluga sturgeon, respectively. Russia’s access to seas, lakes, and large rivers affords it one of the world’s largest fishing industries.
   Russia commands the largest share of the world’s natural resources, including valuable commodities such as oil, natural gas, uranium, iron ore, aluminum, gold, silver, diamonds, and other precious metals. On the other hand, due to Soviet-era industrialization, strip mining, and depredatory land use policies, Russia is one of the world’s most polluted countries. Major issues include air pollution from heavy industry, power generation, and transportation; agricultural pollution and soil erosion; deforestation; radioactive contamination; and toxic waste. Moscow and St. Petersburg dominate Russia’s economic geography, while there are dozens of other large cities across the country, including Voronezh, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Volgograd, Saratov, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Ufa, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok. Most of the population is concentrated in the European core, particularly the so-called chernozem zone, where agriculture and industry meet. There are also population centers along the 9,200-kilometer Trans-Siberian Railway, which stretches from Moscow to the Korean Peninsula. The vast majority of Russia, however, has a population density of less than one person/per square kilometer, and migration patterns suggest that this statistic will only decrease in the coming decades. Severe poverty afflicts certain areas of the North Caucasus, the Far North, and much of the Russian Far East.
   Russia consists of 83 administrative units (known as federal subjects); most of these are remnants of the Soviet administrative structure. Each subject of the federation belongs to one of the following categories: ethnic republic, oblast, krai, autonomous oblast, autonomous okrug, or federal city. While these entities possess equal representation in the upper house of the Russian parliament, they differ in the amount of autonomy they possess. Ethnic republics enjoy the highest level of autonomy, followed by autonomous okrugs. Krais and oblasts (the latter being the most common type of subject) have roughly the same level of autonomy, and are differentiated primarily by historical factors. Ethnic republics are nominally autonomous, with a constitution, president, and parliament. Each serves as an ethnic homeland for at least one ethnic population (e.g., Tatars are in the titular nation of Tatarstan). The republics of the Russian Federation—listed in order of population from largest to smallest—are as follows: Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Dagestan, Udmurtiya, Chuvashiya, Chechnya, Komi, Buryatiya, Sakha (Yakutiya), Kabardino-Balkariya, Mordoviya, Mari El, Kareliya, North Ossetiya-Alaniya, Khakasiya, Ingushetiya, Adygeya, Karachay-Cherkessiya, Tuva (Tyva), Kalmykiya, and Altay (Gorno-Altay). The autonomous okrugs are Chukotka, Khantiya-Mansiya, Nenetsiya, and Yamaliya. As is the case with the aforementioned republics, autonomous okrugs serve as ethnic homelands for a national minority. There are 46 oblasts (regions): Amur, Arkhangelsk, Astrakhan, Belgorod, Bryansk, Chelyabinsk, Irkutsk, Ivanovo, Kaliningrad, Kaluga, Kemerovo, Kirov, Kostroma, Kurgan, Kursk, Leningrad, Lipetsk, Magadan, Moscow, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Orenburg, Oryol, Penza, Pskov, Rostov, Ryazan, Sakhalin, Samara, Saratov, Smolensk, Sverdlovsk, Tambov, Tomsk, Tula, Tver, Tyumen, Ulyanovsk, Vladimir, Volgograd, Vologda, Voronezh, and Yaroslavl. With a few exceptions, these take the name of the largest city in the oblast. Russia has nine krais (provinces): Altay, Kamchatka, Khabarovsk, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Perm, Primorsky, Stavropol, and Zabaykalsky (formerly Chita Oblast). There is one autonomous oblast: the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (also known as Birobijan). Last, there are two federal cities that function as separate regions: Moscow and St. Petersburg.
   According to a 2009 estimate, the population of Russia is 140,041,247, making it the ninth most populous country in the world. The population growth rate is one of the worst in the world at –0.46 percent, with only 11.1 births and 16.1 deaths per 1,000 residents. The median age is 38.4, and the country is aging rapidly. Since 1991, the country has seen its population drop by 5 million. Demographic challenges related to low levels of fertility (1.4 children born per woman) and shrinking life spans (59 years for males and 73 years for females) suggest that the Russian population will shrink to 100 million in the coming decades. However, Russia is one the world’s most popular destinations for migrants (second only to the United States). More than 8 percent of the national population is foreign born, and Russia—as a receiving country— accounts for 6.5 percent of the world’s immigrant population. If current levels of immigration are maintained, this will somewhat offset the decline in the country’s total population. Emigration, a major issue after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has stabilized, and no longer poses a major threat to the country’s demography.
   Like other European countries, Russia is highly urbanized, with three-quarters of the population living in cities. Despite this, Russia has one of the world’s lowest population densities at 8.3 persons/per square kilometer. The country’s sparsely peopled provinces, however, contrast sharply with the situation around the densely populated cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Literacy is nearly universal (99.6 percent), and Russians have a school life expectancy of 14 years; both figures are comparable to statistics in northern Europe, despite dramatically lower spending on education in Russia.
   In terms of the country’s ethnic makeup, Russians are a clear majority at 80 percent, though this number is decreasing over time due to lower fertility rates among ethnic Russians when compared to the country’s 175 ethnic and national minorities. The second-largest group is the Tatars, who make up nearly 4 percent of the population, followed by Ukrainians (2.04 percent), Bashkirs (1.16 percent), Chuvash (1.14 percent), Chechens (0.94 percent), Armenians (0.78 percent), and Mordvins (0.58 percent). The other major nationalities—listed in decreasing order of population—include Avars, Belarusians, Kazakhs, Udmurts, Azeris, Mari, ethnic Germans, Kabardins, Ossetians, Dargins, Buryats, Sakha, Kumyks, Ingush, Lezgins, Komi, Tuvans, Jews, Georgians, Karachay, Gypsies, Kalmyks, Moldovans, Laks, Koreans, Adyghe, Komi, Tabasarans, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Balkars, Greeks, Karelians, Turks, Nogays, Khakas, Poles, Altays, Lithuanians, Nenets, Evenks, Chinese, Finns, Turkmens, Bulgarians, Kyrgyz, Rutuls, Khanty, Latvians, Aguls, Estonians, Vietnamese, Kurds, Evens, Mansi, and Chukchi.
   While the Russian language is the dominant medium of communication in education, media, literature, public life, and the economy of the Russian Federation (97 percent of all Russian citizens are fluent in Russian), the country is home to millions of speakers of Tatar, Chechen, and Bashkir, as well as dozens of languages spoken nowhere else in the world. In the ethnic republics and autonomous okrugs, local languages enjoy government support. Linguistic diversity is particularly high in the Volga-Ural region, the Far North, and the North Caucasus. The languages of Russia can be grouped into the following five categories: Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Polish); Finno-Ugric (Karelian, Mari, Udmurt, Erzya, Moksha, Nenets, Komi, Khanty, and Mansi); Turkic (Tatar, Bashkir, Karachay-Balkar, Nogay, Altay, Sakha, Tuvan, Khakas, and Chuvash); Mongolic (Kalmyk and Buryat); and Caucasian (Adyghe, Kabardian, Chechen, Ingush, and the languages of Dagestan). Other languages include Ossetic, Yiddish, Romany, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Armenian.
   Since the collapse of Communism and the end of restrictions on religious practice, identification with the country’s four principal faiths—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—has increased sharply. Animism and shamanism have also seen a revival, particularly among the indigenous peoples of the Far North and the Russian Far East. Other forms of religion have also flourished, particularly neoPaganism and certain denominations of Protestantism. However, due to the Soviet legacy of state-sponsored atheism, Russia continues to have one of the world’s lowest levels of religious identification and extremely low attendance rates at houses of worship.
   Religious affiliation is typically determined by ethnicity. Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians)—as well as Ossetians, Armenians, and Georgians—are predominantly affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church or other Eastern Orthodox churches. Tatars, Bashkirs, and the various peoples of the North Caucasus are traditionally Muslims, though a certain percentage of these populations has embraced Christianity. Jews, who are considered an ethnic population in Russia, have returned to their ancestral faith in large numbers since 1991 (though many of the most religious have quit the country for Israel and the United States). Last, the Kalmyks and Buryats, along with other small ethnic groups in the Russian Far East, practice Buddhism, though often in a syncretic manner, mixing the faith with other systems of belief.
   Tsarist and Soviet Periods (before 1985) While this volume does not attempt to cover Russian history prior to the late Soviet period in detail, a few words on Russia before the introduction of perestroika are in order. Varangians from Scandinavia established the first Russian state, Kievan Rus, in the 9th century around the modern-day capital of Ukraine. The Viking rulers later intermarried with their Slav subjects, and adopted Orthodox Christianity. Kievan Rus fell to the Mongol conquerors in the 1200s. A new vassal state, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, formed in the 14th century, ultimately threw off the so-called Tatar Yoke. Ivan IV, known as “the Terrible” in Western accounts, assumed the title of “Tsar of All the Russias” in 1547 as he built Muscovy into a major regional power.
   Over the next hundred years, bands of Cossacks loyal to the tsar would lay claim to a huge swath of territory stretching from the Don River to the Pacific Ocean. In the early 1600s, the Romanov family assumed the throne of Russia, which was turned into an empire under Peter the Great (1682–1725). In the ensuing centuries, Russian expansion knew no limits as Poland, western Ukraine, the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and new Pacific territories were added, including Alaska. Once a rather compact and homogenous state, by the mid-19th century Russia had become a far-flung multinational empire peopled by a panoply of ethnic groups, speaking hundreds of languages and confessing dozens of faiths.
   While Western European states embraced the Enlightenment and instituted economic and social reforms in the 19th century, tsarist Russia emerged as the model of autocracy, liberating its serfs only in 1861. Economic and social reform at the end of the 19th century could not satisfy demand for political change. From 1905 to 1917, Russia experienced three revolutions. While the first failed, the February Revolution of 1917 forced the abdication of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and saw attempts at the introduction of liberal democracy. The Provisional Government, however, decided to continue the country’s participation as belligerent in World War I (1914–1918), thus sealing its fate. In the autumn of 1917, Vladimir Lenin led a second uprising, and instituted rule by the local soviets or “councils.”
   Within a year, Lenin’s new government had swept away any semblance of democracy and replaced it with a dictatorship of the proletariat administered by the Bolshevik Party. For more than four years, a civil war raged across the country, pitting the Bolsheviks (“Reds”) against their foes, collectively called the “Whites,” and foreign armies that had invaded the country to put down the socialist revolution. In 1922, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious and christened their state the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
   In the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924, a grand struggle for control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union broke out. Joseph Stalin, initially a minor figure in the party, ultimately consolidated power and forced his primary opponent, Leon Trotsky, into exile. During his reign, which lasted until 1953, Stalin industrialized the Soviet Union, executed hundreds of thousands, purged millions from their jobs and positions of power, and created a cult of personality without compare.
   The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II (1939–1945) and the country’s detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 solidified Stalin’s position as equal—and arguably superior—to that of Lenin in the minds of many Soviet citizens. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev attempted to attenuate the evils of Stalinism at home, while expanding the Cold War with the United States abroad. In 1964, he was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev, who led the USSR at the height of its power. Buoyed by high oil prices, the Kremlin saw its influence abroad swell, while at home corruption, stagnation, and apathy eroded the foundation of the entire Soviet system. Following Brezhnev’s death, leadership passed to Yury Andropov (1982–1984) and then Konstantin Chernenko (1984–1985); neither premier made a major impact on the direction of Soviet history.
   The Gorbachev Era (1985-1991)
   On 11 March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). At 54, he was significantly younger than his predecessor, Chernenko, who had come to power while in his eighties. From the onset, Gorbachev embraced acceleration of the sluggish Soviet economy. In order to wrench the system out of self-perpetuating stagnation, he pursued a policy of restructuring combined with transparency. The twin policies of perestroika and glasnost became the hallmarks of his six-year reign as head of the Communist Party.
   Within a year of taking office, Gorbachev ran into serious difficulties. His antialcoholism campaign, though well intentioned, drained state coffers and triggered a rise in alcohol-related deaths from homemade spirits (samogon). The continuing decline in world oil prices (down 70 percent since 1980) and the strain placed on the Soviet economy by the Soviet-Afghan War exacerbated an already difficult situation. Furthermore, American President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive spending on defense was putting pressure on the Soviet military to follow suit. The political fallout from the 1986 nuclear power plant explosion at Chernobyl triggered a crisis between the “old thinkers” within the party, who were set on preserving the status quo, and Gorbachev and his allies. Gorbachev ultimately prevailed and pushed forward on further reforms. However, the growing black market—a response to the shortage of goods—and spiraling inflation prevented the USSR from achieving its goals in the short term. In 1987, Gorbachev began a campaign to win over the Soviet people.
   His support for limited democratization within the Communist Party earned him enemies on the right, as well as criticism from those who felt he was moving too slow (including the future President Boris Yeltsin). By 1988, Gorbachev was able to introduce private ownership of small firms, creating the basis for an embryonic market economy. In order to protect the progress made up to this point, Gorbachev began to strip the Communist Party of its exclusive control of the political system.
   During the same period, Gorbachev reoriented Soviet foreign policy. Assisted by his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze (1985–1990), a staunch reformer, Gorbachev redefined the Soviet Union’s relations with its historic enemies—particularly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries of Europe and the United States—while reducing the Kremlin’s control of the Eastern Bloc. His new orientation promoted respect for human and minority rights, as well as the creation of a “common European home” that included the USSR.
   Through a series of groundbreaking initiatives, the USSR also agreed to reduce its nuclear arsenal and conventional weapons, though Gorbachev’s goal of a nuclear weapons–free world has not yet been attained. Recognizing the futility of continuing the war in Afghanistan, Moscow also began withdrawing troops, with the last soldier leaving the country in 1989. That same year saw the radical transformation of politics across Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Soviet satellites. True to his word, Gorbachev allowed events to play out across the region, with local Communist parties being ousted from power one by one.
   At home, the policy of glasnost was reaping unintended consequences. Freer flows of information and the publication of long-suppressed material, previously only available in samizdat (self-published) form, shed light on a host of issues, including the gulag system, the Great Purges (1936–1938), Stalin’s pact with Adolf Hitler, and the deportation of whole nations during World War II. The media also turned its focus on contemporary problems, including alcoholism, drug abuse, environmental degradation, and corruption. In such an environment, the entire system began to buckle under the pressure.
   Chronic shortages of goods and growing discontent created a volatile political situation in Russia proper, while minority nationalism in the non-Russian republics was pulling at the country’s seams. The situation was especially acute in the Baltic States, where the new liberalism had resulted in the rise of stridently anti-Russian elites within the political system; glasnost’s uncovering of Stalin’s crimes against the Baltic peoples only fueled the fire. Pro-independence movements were gaining ground elsewhere as well, including Georgia, Armenia, and Ukraine. In the southern Caucasus, ethnic violence erupted between Armenians and Azeris over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In Uzbekistan, a pogrom of Meskhetian Turks forced their evacuation, further suggesting that the Kremlin’s hold on power in the regions was disintegrating. In early 1990, Moldova saw the trends of ethnic strife and the struggle for independence merge, as the republic’s titular majority embraced unification with neighboring Romania while its Slavic population established their own republic to escape the danger of “Romanianization.” After briefly tacking back on his reform agenda, Gorbachev surged forward once again and assumed a title: president of the Soviet Union. Reflecting this shift, the Communist Party formally renounced its monopoly on power on 7 February 1990. However, Gorbachev quickly found himself outflanked by the former Communist Boris Yeltsin, who became chair of the Russian Supreme Soviet in May 1990. While Gorbachev struggled to keep a lid on the independence movements, Yeltsin mastered the winds of nationalism and populism. Unable to mollify Lithuanian nationalists, Gorbachev used force against the tiny Baltic republic in January 1991. The subsequent bloodshed brought on international condemnation and weakened Gorbachev’s position vis-àvis Yeltsin. The crisis in Vilnius did little to discourage independence movements elsewhere, serving rather to enflame tensions. Hoping to preserve the Soviet Union, Gorbachev introduced plans for a new union of socialist republics. On 17 March 1991, Soviet citizens strongly backed preservation of the union in a modified form (although the Baltic States, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova boycotted the referendum). In June, Boris Yeltsin won Russia’s first genuine democratic election, becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic; he handily defeated the Gorbachev-backed Communist Party candidate Nikolay Ryzhkov.
   As summer set in, plans for the new entity moved at a rapid pace. However, the signing of the new union treaty never occurred. On the day before it was to be made law, Communist Party hard-liners and members of the KGB attempted to take control of the government. Gorbachev, vacationing at his dacha in Crimea, was held hostage during the crisis. Out of sight, he was quickly upstaged by Yeltsin, who turned the situation to his advantage and rallied the masses against the putschists. Ironically, the attempted coup produced exactly what it intended to avoid, the breakup of the USSR.
   In the following months, Gorbachev was eclipsed by Yeltsin. Demonstrating his independent power base, Yeltsin recognized the independence of the Baltic States, thus beginning the dissolution of the USSR. In early December, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met outside Minsk where they signed the Belavezha Accords, effectively seceding from the Soviet Union and establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Over the next two weeks, the remaining republics abandoned the Soviet Union in favor of independence and membership in the CIS. Gorbachev, recognizing the end of his tenure, resigned as president on 24 December 1991. The following day, the Soviet Union passed out of existence.
   The Yeltsin Era (1992-1999)
   Russia entered 1992 as an independent state, while the USSR failed to survive long enough to witness its 70th anniversary. As president of the newly independent Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin saw economic reform as his first priority, widening and deepening the experiment begun under Gorbachev. Under the influence of Western economists, Yeltsin and his team of young reformers pursued a “shock therapy” model for the Russian economy.
   With Prime Minister Yegor Gaydar at the helm, Russia introduced neoliberal reforms, slashed price subsidies, stripped down the welfare and health-care systems, and allowed the ruble to float. In order to promote the emergence of a market economy, the Yeltsin administration aggressively pursued privatization. In its first stage, this process employed a scheme whereby vouchers were issued to Russian citizens. The goal was to transfer the state’s wealth to the people, but the actual result was the consolidation of ownership by existing managers, former Soviet nomenklatura, and well-connected entrepreneurs with access to capital. During this period, Russian organized crime infiltrated the economy and industry, even at the highest levels. Liberalization of the economy brought hardship to most Russians as inflation skyrocketed and factories closed; the precipitous drop in defense spending hit the workforce particularly hard.
   Backed by growing discontent among certain segments of the populace, conservative parliamentarians moved against Yeltsin in 1993. The dispute, commonly referred to as the Constitutional Crisis, escalated quickly when members of the Congress of People’s Deputies recognized Yeltsin’s Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoy as the country’s executive. After a tense standoff, Yeltsin ordered military action against the opposition members. The army shelled parliament, where the opposition was holed up, before storming the building and arresting the ringleaders. The two branches of parliament, the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies, were subsequently abolished. Shortly thereafter, the new constitution was passed. The legislature was also reconstituted as the Federal Assembly of Russia, divided between the upper house, known as the Federation Council, and the lower house, or State Duma. The radical Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), led by the colorful Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Gennady Zyuganov’s newly formed Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) dominated the Duma when the new parliament was seated. From 1994 onward, Yeltsin grappled with the forces of Soviet nostalgia and ultranationalism, both of which were growing as the pain of transition became more apparent.
   After independence, Russia faced numerous challenges as it crafted an entirely new foreign policy. As the largest and most populous postSoviet state, Russia naturally assumed the USSR’s permanent seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council. With the assistance of the United States, all nuclear weapons on former Soviet soil were transferred to Russia as well. With the Cold War over, Russia expanded its relations with historic enemies such as Turkey, Japan, and South Korea. Under the influence of Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev (1990–1996), Moscow pursued an Atlanticist foreign policy, hoping to bind Russia to Western Europe and North America. During the first years of independence, Russia increased cooperation with the EU and NATO in its bid to become a “normal European country.”
   Embracing the former Soviet republics as equals proved more difficult. Conversely, economic domination and geopolitical manipulation often defined Russia’s relations with the Newly Independent States. A flurry of separatist conflicts (Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia), as well as civil wars in Georgia and Tajikistan, allowed Russia to deploy peacekeepers from 1991 onward; these troops proved to be a handy mechanism for exerting influence over the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Kremlin also used the presence of 25 million ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet republics as a lever of power, particularly in the Baltic States. Subsidized oil and natural gas, as well as a suite of CIS-related initiatives, allowed the Kremlin to wield extensive political control over the post-Soviet region, despite American, Chinese, and European attempts to displace the Russians. Besides the economy and foreign affairs, Yeltsin also had to deal with the prickly question of federalism. On 31 March 1993, the Kremlin adopted a series of agreements to address the concerns of regional elites and the country’s national minorities. The new dynamic weakened the power of the federal government and provided significant economic, cultural, and legislative autonomy to Russia’s administrative units. Moscow retained control of currency, finance and banking, communications, justice, and space exploration, while sharing responsibility for the environment, historic preservation, education, and key areas of the national economy. The ethnic republics, in particular, gained substantive control of their own affairs, while the oblasts received less independence, thus creating a system of asymmetrical federalism. Despite such dramatic devolution of power to the periphery, Tatarstan and the self-declared Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya refused to sign the new agreement, precipitating friction between Moscow and both regions. As he moved toward his reelection campaign, Yeltsin’s advisors prompted the president to launch a war in Chechnya to reincorporate the breakaway republic into the federation. Despite promises from top military brass, the first Chechen War proved to be neither short nor popular, and dragged the economy down further. It also exposed Russia— particularly the North Caucasus and surrounding hinterlands—to terrorist attacks, hostage taking, radical Islam, and arms trafficking. The Budyonnovsk hospital crisis of June 1995 epitomized the widening effects of the conflict, as Shamil Basayev and his fellow Chechen rebels took more than 1,500 civilians hostage, resulting in the deaths of 129 people.
   Desperate for cash as the result of military spending and economic mismanagement, the government auctioned off shares of major state enterprises such as Sibneft, Yukos, and Norilsk Nickel for loans, redistributing much of the country’s mineral wealth and industry into the hands of the so-called oligarchs (Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Roman Abramovich, among others). As these tycoons amassed their fortunes, they expanded their political power.
   Going into the 1996 presidential election, Yeltsin suffered from abysmal popularity ratings. He was forced to forge an array of alliances with these oligarchs to gain access to enough capital and influence to mount a viable campaign against the Communist Party candidate Zyuganov. The skillful use of political technologies, Western-style media framing, and popular fear that the KPRF would lead the country toward civil unrest and into a new Cold War allowed Yeltsin to scrape by in the first round. After co-opting the popular military figure Aleksandr Lebed, Yeltsin decisively defeated his opponent Zyuganov in the second poll. In the wake of the presidential elections, the Russian and Chechen leadership agreed to the Khasav-Yurt Accord, bringing an end to the war in the North Caucasus. However, Yeltsin’s second term was soon marred by the 1998 ruble crisis, which wiped out many Russians’ savings and savaged the already flagging economy. Additionally, the Russian stock market plummeted and unemployment jumped. Yeltsin, whose victory in the elections had not signaled renewed popularity, capitulated to the forces of nationalism and anti-globalization to stave off impeachment.
   After failing to get his chosen appointee into the job, Yeltsin picked Yevgeny Primakov as his prime minister. Primakov, who had been foreign minister from 1996 until 1998, had already steered the country away from its pro-European stance toward closer ties with Muslim and Asian countries, particularly Iran and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As head of the government, he stridently opposed NATO action in the former Yugoslavia and expansion of the organization into the Baltic region. Recognizing Yeltsin’s weakness, Primakov positioned himself as the president’s successor despite poor personal relations between the two politicians.
   Plagued by low popularity ratings, poor health, and the looming threat of impeachment, Yeltsin began paving the way for his successor in 1999. He plucked Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, from obscurity and then placed him in one important post after another before appointing him prime minister. Growing violence in the North Caucasus, particularly Shamil Basayev’s invasion of oil-rich Dagestan, and a spate of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities, allowed the positioning of Putin as a law-and-order politico. By launching the popular second Chechen War in October, Putin guaranteed his political future. On 31 December 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly stepped down and appointed Putin as the acting president of the Russian Federation.
   The Putin Era and Beyond (2000-Present)
   Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency in debt to his patron Yeltsin. As a quid pro quo, Putin issued a decree protecting the former president and his family from corruption charges. Three months later on 26 March 2000, Putin won the presidential poll with 53 percent of the vote, becoming the second popularly elected president of the Russian Federation. For the outside world—as well as for many Russians—Putin represented a conundrum: little was known about him other than his KGB background. Most Russians greeted with enthusiasm the teetotaling judo enthusiast after years of rule by the chronically ill and infamously drunken Yeltsin. Putin promised to end Russia’s slide toward chaos (bespredel) and immediately moved to construct what he referred to as a “vertical of power.” The first step was to dismantle the federation’s convoluted system of asymmetrical federalism. The president quickly gained the right to dismiss the heads of the country’s federal subjects and began the process of bringing regional law into harmony with federal laws.
   Putin then moved against the oligarchs, demanding they avoid direct involvement in Russian politics in return for the safety of their vast fortunes. Over the next several years, a number of oligarchs would lose their fortunes or be forced into exile, including Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In order to further weaken the Yeltsin-era tycoons, Putin aided the rise of a competitive clique of pro-Kremlin magnates with close ties to the “power ministries” (the Federal Security Service [FSB], the military, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD]).
   After an initial honeymoon period, Putin faced his first and only public relations nightmare: the Kursk submarine disaster of 2000. However, he quickly recovered from the mishandled crisis, focusing the country on its “war against terror.” Spillover from the Chechen conflict continued to translate into bombings, kidnappings, and hostage taking across the country. Putin’s tough talk and liberal use of force, however, met with wide approval, as did his muzzling of the media after the Nort-Ost theater siege in 2002. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, he was also able to persuade Western governments to view Chechnya as an important node in the global Islamist terror network. This diplomatic coup followed the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s efforts to combat extremism in Central Asia. In the wake of the Beslan hostage crisis, Putin enacted his sweeping 2004–2005 electoral reforms, which gave the president the right to appoint regional governors and consolidated the political party system in the Duma. Collectively, these reforms strengthened Russia’s executive branch and expanded Putin’s personal power. While major combat operations in Chechnya wound down after the first year of fighting, the counterterrorism campaign continued. The FSB, the KGB’s successor, conducted a number of covert actions against Chechen militants, including the killings of the Saudi-born terrorist Ibn al-Khattab (2002), former President Aslan Maskhadov (2004), and Shamil Basayev (2006). Extrajudicial killings in Qatar and elsewhere, however, harmed Russian relations with certain foreign countries.
   With anti-Americanism rising on the global stage in the wake of the Iraq War (2003–present), Putin expanded ties with the French and German governments, while criticizing the unipolarity of international politics. Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol won him more kudos from Berlin and Paris. As U.S. President George W. Bush drew the ire of the world community for his unilateral actions and failure to locate the “promised” weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Putin saw his own position buttressed.
   Through a combination of economic power and geopolitics, Putin expanded Russian influence over the near abroad, especially during his second term when Uzbekistan—long suspicious of Moscow—returned to the fold following its bloody crackdown against Islamists. However, Russia experienced a weakening of its influence in portions of the post-Soviet world, particularly in Georgia and Ukraine, after their “color revolutions” in 2003 and 2004, respectively; however, Moscow maintained some level of control through natural gas exports. Reacting to what the Kremlin perceived as “Western meddling,” Russia successfully shored up the dictatorial regime in its union partner Belarus to prevent a similar outcome.
   At home, Putin’s approval ratings as president rarely dropped below 65 percent and often ran as high as 85 percent. Playing to Soviet nostalgia and the “brown” fringe of society, he touted nationalism at home and began a modest rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. A soft cult of personality, which positioned the new president as a post-Soviet celebrity, also swept the country, with Putin-themed products and songs, as well as emulations of his active, abstemious lifestyle. Putin’s “strong hand,” when combined with high oil and natural gas prices, proved irresistible to the electorate, especially given his favorable coverage in the nowpliant press.
   During his second administration, Putin became more strident in his defense of “sovereign democracy,” both in Russia and the increasingly authoritarian states of Central Asia. Russia’s weak civil society withered further, particularly after the Kremlin began funding its own youth movements and pseudo-nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), while simultaneously disrupting the activities of foreign-backed NGOs. The arrest of oligarch and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October 2004 debilitated local sources of support for grassroots organizations. Physical intimidation, increasingly restrictive regulations, the use of selective tax evasion prosecution, and a number of unsolved murders of journalists hobbled the once-free press in Russia, further weakening the social fabric of the country.
   Despite the withering of civil society and the suffocation of liberal pluralism, the people of Russia continued to support the direction in which their country was headed. This was due in no small part to the booming economy. Russia’s gross domestic product doubled during the Putin years. Industry—particularly arms manufacturing, mining, and energy—grew as did salaries, while unemployment noticeably decreased. A new middle class developed, though the wealth gap remained a problem and inflation remained a perennial issue. Further more, Russia’s so-called national champions (large enterprises such as Gazprom, Lukoil, and Norilsk Nickel) became major players in the global economy.
   In the late Putin era, Russia resumed the role of global superpower through a number of new initiatives: expansion of arms exports and diplomatic support to a number of unpopular regimes including Venezuela, Syria, and Iran; resumption of long-range bomber missions; military expansion in the Arctic Ocean in order to lay claim to valuable shipping routes and energy resources in coming decades; and joint military exercises with the PRC and other allies. The choice of Sochi as the site of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games also reinforced Russia’s return to international respectability.
   On 7 May 2008, Dmitry Medvyedev, Putin’s heir apparent, became the Russian Federation’s third popularly elected president. The following day, he appointed Putin as prime minister. Unlike Putin, who had enjoyed the benefits of high oil prices, Medvyedev was almost instantly hobbled by the global economic recession. The 2008 South Ossetian War, while popular at home, harmed the economy and sent Russian relations with the West into a deep freeze. While the economy is on the mend, as are ties to Europe and the United States, the country’s future remains uncertain, particularly given the ambiguity associated with the Medvyedev-Putin diarchy, wryly referred to in Russian political circles as the “ruling tandem.”
   Since taking office, Medvyedev has generally avoided direct confrontation with his mentor, Putin. However, the current president has strongly condemned Russia’s economic dependence on the very hydrocarbons that salvaged the country’s international standing after the debilitating 1998 ruble crisis. This position contrasts strongly with the prevailing notion under Putin that Russian power comes from its oil and natural gas.
   The most dramatic departure came when Medvyedev decried the anemic state of Russian civil society. In his criticism, he obliquely attributed the state of affairs to his predecessor’s crackdown on domestic NGOs and international agencies like the British Council and George Soros’s Open Society Institute. Medvyedev has also been more realistic about the human rights situation in his country, calling it “less than perfect.” While these comments may seem to be minor deviations from the status quo, such sentiments do signal a decision to at least slow Russia’s return to authoritarianism in the new millennium and promote a more economically advanced society in the coming decades. It is likely that Medvyedev is also seeking to build a separate power base by putting together a coalition of commercial elites who realize that good relations with the EU, Japan, and the United States are good for business. Medvyedev’s reforms remain in the developmental stage; however, it is clear that he is moving ahead with his program to improve the country’s judicial and legal system, with the aim of improving tax collection, promoting increased foreign investment, and making government officials more accountable for their actions. In his speeches, Medvyedev consistently links together the economy, the demographic situation, and democratization. He hopes to improve all three simultaneously, while also addressing instability in the North Caucasus.
   Such an agenda may prove unpalatable to Russia’s new oligarchs, that is, those members of the security services and other “power” agencies who have amassed their fortunes under Putin. If this happens, Medvyedev will certainly fail in any bid for reelection, particularly if he has to run against his old patron. Yet, Medvyedev may not disappear from the political scene entirely after the next round of presidential elections. His youthfulness, optimism, corporatist bearing, and Internet savvy provide him with a strong suite of attributes that symbolize the “new Russia,” a confident country that is sloughing off the mental shackles of a moribund ideology and moving beyond the historical wreckage of the 20th century.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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