Sunday, November 12, 2017


You can’t go anywhere without hearing about Russia in the news these days. And, well, they’ve pretty much been in our news and forethoughts quite a bit over the last 100-150 years, give or take. It’s like we have a frenemy relationship with them. If our countries had Facebook pages, our relationship status would be “It’s complicated.” However, I’ve been a huge fan of Russian literature and Russian classical music for a long time and have played around with learning Russian on Duolingo but have forgotten almost all of the Cyrillic I taught myself.
Russia is named after the medieval Slavic state, Rus. There were actually other states denoting the same name. The Kievan Rus, which was one of the largest of these, were made of these medieval Rus tribes along with Swedish warriors and merchants who relocated to the area. Most other languages base their word for Russia on the root “Rus” although there are a few outliers (Finnish, Estonian – you have some explaining to do). 

As the largest country by area, Russian is one of the few countries that span two continents (Europe and Asia) and 11 time zones. Its European neighbors include Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine. It also includes the exclave Kaliningrad situated between Lithuania and Poland. Its neighbors in Asia include Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, North Korea, and a maritime border with Japan and the US. Russia also touches a number of bodies of water: Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Bearing Sea, East Siberian Sea, Kara Sea, and Barents Sea. Lake Baikal in Siberia is the deepest lake in the world. Although most of the country is known for its harsh winters, parts of its southern reaches can stay quite mild during the winters (which is why I thought Sochi was a weird decision for a Winter Olympics).

Although the Greeks and Romans visited the area since the 8th century BC, the Rus and other Slavic tribes started moving into this area around the 7th century. By the 10th century, the Kievian Rus were one of the most flourishing tribal states throughout Europe. It was around this time when they adopted Orthodox Christianity from the Byzantines. Unfortunately, they fell to the Mongols who were moving onto their turf. The Grand Duchy of Moscow emerged in its place but were still dealing with attacks from the Mongols and Tatars. In 1547, Ivan the Terrible was crowned as the first Tsar (“Caesar”). He was the one responsible for really expanding Russia’s territory. The Romanov Dynasty began in 1613. This was a time of continued uprisings and conflicts; the Cossacks, a semi-military self-governing group, rose to prominence and later aligned themselves with the Tsardom, helping the Russians explore Siberia. By the time Peter the Great (namesake of St. Petersburg) was in power, Russia was seen as a world power. Catherine the Great and Alexander I both greatly expanded Russia’s territories, and in 1820, Russian explorers first landed in Antarctica. Nicholas II, the last tsar, was made famous because his entire family was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 (the basis of the 1997 movie Anastasia). Russia entered WWI on the side of Serbia. Afterwards, it became a communist state at the influence of Vladimir Lenin. When Josef Stalin took over, he basically killed everyone who didn’t think like him and enacted an extreme form of state atheism. Although Russia tried to befriend Germany during the early part of WWII, Germany still invaded Russia and then it was on. Nikita Khrushchev tried to undo what Stalin put into place and encouraged the Russian Space Program, finally launching the Sputnik I in 1957. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to build on that, but high inflation left the economy in a rough place. In 1991, Russia broke up with itself, and 15 separate states were created. Boris Yeltsin was the first president voted in. The 1990s generally saw a period of corruption, economic instability, and lawlessness. Violent crime and criminal gangs were on the rise. Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 (although he switched positions with Dmitri Medvedev and became the PM in 2008, but then switched back in 2012). In 2014, Putin invaded Crimea and annexed it for Russia. 

Moscow is the largest city and capital of Russia. Located on the European side of the country, it has over 17 million people in its urban area. It has Ostankino Tower (the tallest skyscraper in Europe), and it’s also famous for sites such as the Kremlin (where the seat of government meets), the Red Square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and Gorky Park. Today, Moscow is a modern city with many museum, theatres, galleries, sports venues, world-class restaurants and entertainment, a center for commerce, and universities.

Russia has an upper-middle income mixed economy. They’re one of the most expensive countries to visit. And while things have become more stable over the past 15 years or so as far as unemployment rates and the average nominal salary, the middle class is slowly diminishing, feeling the effects of income inequality. Agriculturally, they are a huge producer of grains, meat, fish, and forest products. Science, technology, and space programs are also very much economic drivers in Russia.

Orthodox Christianity has been around Russia since about the 10th century. However, many people in Slavic countries have double beliefs in Orthodox Christianity and one of the indigenous beliefs. During the communist years, a Marxist-Leninist form of forced atheism dominated. There is still a significant number of atheists in Russia (including those who adhere to a spiritualism but not necessarily religious). There are also smaller number of other Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religions in Russia.

There are actually about 100 languages spoken in Russia, with Russian being the most widely-spoken and the official language. Tatar and Ukrainian come in second and third. Russian is the second-most used language on the Internet (hi, hackers!), after English. It also serves as an official language on the International Space Station. There are also 35 other languages that are official languages in various regions of the country.

Siberia has always been a fascination for me. It’s so desolate. It’s always been the epitome of harshness. “I will dump you off in Siberia and leave you there.” “It feels like Siberia in this office.” (That second one could go both ways.) And there are some weird things out there. First of all, the people are so super healthy, they go swimming in bikinis and stuff down ice-fishing holes. I guess somehow they’re immune to hypothermia. But, cool. Pretty much the whole area is nothing but permafrost. And with global warming thawing a lot of it out, it’s releasing a lot of previously trapped methane. And that’s no bueno. Oh, and then there’s the Dalkdykan River that runs red. Probably from the blood of their enemies. Or iron deposits or something. Not to mention that some of the oldest human remains have been found in Siberia, even though the remains were unlike any they’ve ever found.  [Cue X-Files theme.]

Up next: art and literature

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