Russia Facts

Tadashi

Tadashi

21 Jun 2021

Russia facts, Red Square with Moscow Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral

Russia is a colossus of a nation, stretching across the entire north of the Eurasian supercontinent. It’s also one of the oldest nations in the world, with a history going back a thousand years. Describing Russia as a colossus of a nation is definitely not an understatement, did you know that the country is so big, it has over a total of 11 time zones?

Not only is this country huge in terms of landmass, it is also very, very rich. Russia is the world’s largest source of natural gas, and produces 21.30 percent of the world’s total natural gas production.

Should there be another World War in the future, Russia is armed and ready for any eventuality—the country possesses the world’s biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Plus, it has the world’s biggest forest reserves, second only to the Amazon rainforest in terms of oxygen production. Within these forests lie 266 mammal and 780 bird species. How amazing is that?

When it comes to science and technology, do you know that we should thank the Russian scientists who are responsible for many of the technological advancements made in the last 20 years? Such as, Dimitry Medeleev who invented the periodic table of elements. Also, Russian engineer and physicist Alexander Stepanovich created the radio receiver. Another brilliant Russian man is Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, who created the first-ever electrical microscope. These are just a few examples of Russians’ many contributions to science and technology.

Scroll down to learn more about this northern giant through our collection of 80 Russia facts.

  1. Russia makes up the world’s largest country, with an area of an estimated 17.13 million km².
  2. The country is so big, it has over a total of 11 time zones.
  3. Russia is bordered by more countries than any other country in the world, 16 countries share its long land border.
  4. An estimated 80% of Russia’s population of 147 million live in the west of the country.
  5. Forests cover about 50% of Russia’s land.
  1. The Eastern Slavs first appeared in Europe between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD.
  2. The Kievan Rus’, Russia’s oldest predecessor, arose in the 9th Century.
  3. In the 10th century, missionaries from the Eastern Roman Empire converted the Kievan Rus’ to Orthodox Christianity.
  4. The Kievan Rus’ collapsed in the 13th century, but in the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Moscow arose as a major power.
  5. The Grand Duchy of Moscow finally gave way to the powerful Russian Empire in the 18th century.
  6. In the wake of World War 1, the Russian Empire collapsed in favor of the Soviet Union.
  7. After winning World War 2, the Soviet Union became a global superpower, competing with the USA for global dominance in the decades-long Cold War.
  8. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 led to the rise of the modern Russian Federation.
  9. The Russian Federation faced and overcame a constitutional crisis in 1993.
  10. From 1993 to the present, Russia’s new constitution has the country under a federal, semi-parliamentary form of government.
  1. While smaller than the old Soviet Union, the modern Russian Federation remains a global superpower.
  2. In particular, Russia still possesses the world’s biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons.
  3. Russia also leads the world in the production of natural gas. It also exports large amounts of oil.
  4. With a total GDP of $4.14 trillion, Russia has the 6th highest GDP in the world.
  5. They also have 1 of 5 permanent seats on the United Nations (UN) Security Council.
Table of Contents

There’s a story behind the word Russia.

The root word goes back to the Kievan Rus’, the medieval nation of the Eastern Slavs. In particular, they called their nation,” Russkaya Zemlya,” which literally means Land of Rus. This later led to the Byzantine Greek word Rosia, which the Eastern Roman Empire used to call the Kievan Rus. Rosia later evolved into the modern Rossiya, translated into English as Russia.

Russians have two ways of calling themselves.

First, we have russkiye, which properly refers only to ethnic Russians. Then we have rossiyane, which means Russian citizen, used to refer to all Russians regardless of ethnicity.

The size of Russia has led to a varied climate.

Uniformities do exist, though, thanks to Russia’s geography. In particular, the mountainous lands of Southern Russia block warm air coming from the Indian Ocean. At the same time, the flat plains of Northern and Western Russia leave the country open to cold air from the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

Both Siberia and a have a subarctic climate, while South Western Russia enjoys a subtropical climate. A subtropical climate is characterized by hot and humid summers, and cool to mild winters. Meanwhile, the Arctic coast naturally has a polar climate, while the Caspian coast and parts of Southern Siberia have a semi-arid climate.

In general, Russia has long summers and winters with extremes of hot and cold. Between those two seasons, the country has short springs and summers with more moderate temperatures.

Russia has a rich biodiversity.

Russia has the world’s biggest forest reserves, second only to the Amazon rainforest when it comes to oxygen production. Imagine that! So much so, that many people describe Russia as the lungs of Europe. Russia also has 266 mammal species alone, and another 780 bird species. In all, 415 animal species enjoy government protection in Russia.

The Kremlin lies at the heart of Russia.

The Kremlin stands in Moscow, the Russian capital, where the Russian President uses the Kremlin as both his official residence and office.

Historically, the modern Russian state grew outwards from Moscow starting in the 13th century. In those centuries, the Kremlin became the center of power in Moscow even as the city became the center of Russia. Even after the Tsars moved to Saint Petersburg in the 18th century, the Kremlin kept its symbolic power.

The Tsars held their coronation ceremonies in the Kremlin and maintained residences there. And with the rise of the Soviet Union, Russia’s leadership returned to the Kremlin and has remained there ever since. This has even led to the Kremlin becoming synonymous with the Russian government. This parallels how the White House has become synonymous with the US government.

Moscow Kremlin
Image from Adobe Stock

Moscow’s Kremlin isn’t the only Kremlin in Russia.

Kremlin actually means ‘fortress inside a city’ in Russian, and generally refers to any castle or fortress standing inside a city. Other famous Kremlins include the Novgorod Kremlin, the Suzdal Kremlin, and the Kazan Kremlin. However, given its location in Moscow and historic significance, the Kremlin typically refers to the Moscow Kremlin.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral remains as one of Russia’s most iconic buildings.

When people hear the word Russia, they tend to start thinking of churches with colorful towers topped by onion domes. And while onion domes make up a common architectural design in Russia, no other church counts as iconic as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. So much so, that along with the Kremlin and Moscow’s Red Square, the cathedral has held a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site since 1990.

Russia Facts, Saint Basil’s Cathedral
Photo by opsa from Pixabay

The cathedral has a very long proper name.

Its full name is the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, which makes for quite a mouthful. Even the usual name of Saint Basil’s Cathedral actually counts as a contraction too, of the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed. Some people even contract it further, to just Pokrovsky Cathedral.

Tetris came from Russia.

Alexey Pajitnov from the Soviet Academy of Sciences first came up with the concept in 1979. Officially, he had the job of testing new hardware, but he also wanted to find a way for computers to make people happy. This led him to the idea of video games, and finally, recreating a pentomino puzzle game from his childhood.

During development, he changed the game pieces from pentominoes to tetrominoes. He then came up with the name from the latter, Tetris. A Hungarian company first began selling the game in 1986, and its popularity only snowballed from there.

Today, Tetris not only remains one of the oldest video games in history but also one of the most popular. It has sold over 200 million copies worldwide, available on over 65 different platforms. This has earned it a place in Guinness’s Book of World Records, for the most ported video game ever.

The coldest city on Earth lies in Russia.

Yakutsk holds this distinction, with an average temperature of −8.8 degrees Celsius. This comes from the fact that the city lies only 450 km south of the Arctic Circle. The constant low temperature also means the ground remains permanently frozen, what scientists call constant permafrost. This also gives the city the distinction of the world’s largest city standing on constant permafrost. Despite the harsh environment, an estimated 300,000 people live in the city, which doubles as the capital for Russia’s Sakha Republic.

Russia has the world’s longest railway.

Specifically, the Trans-Siberian Railway, running for an estimated 9000 km from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east. Branch lines link the railway’s eastern portion to neighboring countries, such as China, Mongolia, and North Korea.

It also remains the primary way to move large and heavy cargo across the vast Russian countryside. An estimated 200,000 containers move on the railway every year, carrying up to 60 million tons of cargo. Trains move at an average of 900 km per day, allowing them to traverse the railway in only 12 days. This also makes the Trans-Siberian Railway one of the busiest in the world.

Russia has its variant of golf.

Well, it’s an unofficial variant of golf, developing as a trend among Russians with time and money to spend. They call it helicopter golf, with the plays literally piloting a helicopter while using a stick to push golf balls along the ground. Otherwise, the game follows the normal rules for golf but also uses bigger equipment. The balls for helicopter golf, for example, measure up to a full meter across. The sticks used to push them along also have similar sizes and weigh up to 10 kg.

Russians have their fair share of superstitions.

For starters, some Russians believe rubbing a dog’s paw with your left hand will give you good luck. Another superstition involves a sculpture of Tsar Peter the Great at his Peterhof Palace. People make a wish while trying to toss a coin into a very small gap in the sculpture’s boot, with the wish coming true if the coin successfully gets inside.

An old Russian superstition claims that the first person to enter a new house will die. This led them to send a cat in first, on the basis that a cat’s nine lives would protect it. However, if the cat refused to go inside the house, the Russians would simply tear it down and build a new one.

Russia has one of the world’s biggest museums.

Catherine the Great founded the Hermitage in the 18th century, and today possesses a collection of over three million items. Spanning six connected buildings, the museum’s artworks alone makes the Hermitage the second-biggest art museum in the world.

In fact, the Hermitage’s collection proves so big the museum can’t even show them all at the same time. Instead, the museum cycles its collection through various exhibits based on relevant themes. One such theme involves numismatics or the study and collection of coins and other forms of money. The Hermitage’s collection of items related to that theme alone makes up an estimated one million items.

Russia Facts, The Hermitage
Photo by Florstein from Wikipedia

The Mongols destroyed the Kievan Rus’ in the 13th century.

The Kievan Rus was actually already falling apart at the time, with the Mongols just delivering the killing blow. In 1223, the Mongols, led by Jebe and Subutai, defeated the Slavic armies at the Battle of the Kalka River.

Batu Khan launched a full-scale invasion in 1237, captured Kiev in 1240, and completed their conquest in 1242. By then, fully half of the Kievan Rus’ people had died, butchered when the Mongols took their cities. Based on the city of Sarai on the Volga River, the Mongols’ Golden Horde forced the remaining Slavic princes to submit and pay tribute to the Great Khan all the way in Mongolia.

The Muscovites began pushing the Mongols back in the 14th century.

The Golden Horde’s power weakened over the course of the century, especially after a civil war in 1359 that lasted until 1370. This led the Grand Duchy of Moscow to begin defying the Mongols, or as they called them, the Tartars.

After beating back advances in the west from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Muscovites became increasingly confident in their power. This led to the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, which ended in a crushing defeat for the Golden Horde. Over the following decades, Moscow grew even more powerful, as shown by their annexations of other principalities such as Tver and Novgorod.

Ivan the Great completed Moscow’s rise to dominance in the 15th century.

Also called Ivan III of the Rurik Dynasty, he finished off the once-mighty Golden Horde, and brought the north and east of Eastern Slavic territory under Moscow’s control. In recognition of this fact, he adopted a new title: Grand Duke of All Russias.

It was also from Ivan the Great that the idea of the Third Rome arose in Russia.

According to this idea, the First Rome was Rome itself, the capital of the ancient Roman Empire which fell to the Germanic barbarians in the 5th Century AD. The second Rome was Constantinople, founded by Constantine the Great in the 3rd Century AD. It served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire until the Ottoman Turks took it in 1453.

However, Ivan the Great had married Sophia Palaiologina, niece to the last Eastern Roman Emperor, Constantine XI. He also adopted the Imperial, double-headed eagle as his own symbol after the Fall of Constantinople.

Together with his marriage to the last Roman Princess, this led to the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome, succeeding Constantinople just as it had succeeded Rome. And by extension, so too did Russia succeed the Eastern Roman Empire which had succeeded the ancient Roman Empire.

Ivan the Terrible became the first Tsar of Russia in the 16th century.

The name is actually a mistranslation, as the original Russian adjective is actually synonymous with great. It’s just that the harshness of Ivan has led western sources to prefer terrible over great. As for the word Tsar, it evolved from the Latin name Caesar, also used as a synonym for Emperor in the Roman Empire.

Russia Facts, Ivan the Terrible
Photo by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov from Wikipedia

Ivan IV crowned himself as Tsar after his grandfather Ivan the Great, who called himself Grand Duke of All Russias. By crowning himself as Tsar, Ivan IV claimed the absolute power the old Roman Emperors had over his domains. He also appropriated the religious authority of the old Roman Emperors. Just as they had not submitted to the spiritual power of the Pope, so too would the Tsar of Russia stand above the Church and under God Himself.

Ivan the Terrible fought many wars during his reign.

The most successful ones he fought against the Tartar remnants, such as Kazan and Astrakhan, along the Volga River. He also fought and conquered the Siberian Khanate in Southwestern Siberia. This marked the beginning of Russia as not just a Slavic or even European nation, but as a multiethnic and Eurasian nation.

In the west, though, the Poles, Lithuanians, and Swedes managed to keep the Russians from the Baltic Sea. The Crimeans and Ottomans also managed to invade Russia, though, a Russian victory in 1572 at the Battle of Molodi ended their invasion. A series of fortresses built across Southern Russia also limited the options future invaders would have.

Russia fell into hard times after Ivan the Terrible’s death.

In particular, the early death of Ivan’s son Feodor I marked the end of the ancient Rurik Dynasty. Together with a 2-year long famine, this led to what Russian historians call the Time of Troubles.

Civil war, the rise and fall of various pretenders, and foreign invasions marked this period of Russian history. The Poles and Lithuanians even managed to capture Moscow, until they retreated in 1612 before Prince Dmitry Pozharsky.

The rise of the Romanov Dynasty in the 17th century marked a Russian renewal.

Michael Romanov claimed the Imperial Throne based on how he was related to Anastasia Romanovna, mother of Tsar Feodor I, and Michael’s grand-aunt. Zemsky Sobor, Russia’s Parliament at the time, recognized his claim over those of the Polish and Swedish royal families. Michael I’s coronation saw peace made with both Poland and Sweden and the return of his father, Feodor Romanov, from exile. Feodor led the Russian government until his death in 1633, with the Tsar content to defer to his decisions.

Cossacks greatly contributed to Russia’s expansion in the 17th century.

The Cossacks came from self-governed, semi-militaristic communities in the steppes that banded together for protection. Steppes are dry grassy areas. They grow in temperate climates, and are located between the tropics and polar regions.

In service to the Tsar, the Cossacks led the way to the Russian conquest of the rest of Siberia, beginning in the reign of Michael I. They also fought for the Tsar against the Poles in Ukraine, with the east of the region falling under Russian control in the 1650s.

In an ironic twists, in the 1670s a group of Cossacks along the Don River rose up against the Russian Empire. The Tsar’s armies crushed them in the end.

Russia finally became a world power under Peter the Great in the 18th century.

Starting with the Great Northern War, Sweden’s defeat finally allowed the Russians access to the Baltic Sea. It also forced Europe’s other nations to take Russia seriously. Even the Tsar, for all their claims to Imperial power, was just another Oriental despot to Europeans.

But Sweden’s defeat, when at the time it was one of Europe’s most powerful nations, changed all that. Russia had become a power to respect, and the Tsar became a ruler equal to the other kings and emperors of Europe.

Peter the Great launched many reforms in Russia during his reign.

For starters, Peter the Great reorganized Russia into eight governorates led by appointed governors, staffed with professional civil servants. He also abolished the old boyar nobility in favor of a new, western type of system called the Table of Ranks. The Table of Ranks covered not just nobles, but also civil servants and military officers.

Peter the Great also introduced a new tax system and adopted protectionist policies to protect local handicrafts and businesses from foreign competition. Finally, he formed a governing senate, as well as new government departments called colleges to oversee the Russian bureaucracy.

These reforms successfully centralized Russia, with many public institutions of both the modern Russian Federation, and even the former Soviet Union, dating back to Peter the Great’s reforms.

He also founded the city of St. Petersburg.

Peter built the city on land taken from Sweden during the Great Northern War, which Peter the Great planned to become Russia’s window to the west. Those plans hinged not just on the city sitting on the shores of the Baltic Sea, but also the fact that St. Petersburg enjoyed ice-free waters all year round.

At the time, though, Peter’s hopes seemed doomed to failure, as the ground proved marshy and a breeding ground for pests. Peter responded by having serfs dig down to the bedrock, and then lay down the foundations for the new city. Tens of thousands died to achieve his dream, but just six years after work began, the Tsar proclaimed St. Petersburg the new Russian capital in 1712.

Russia under Tsarina Elizabeth joined the Seven Years War.

Russia had actually managed to occupy East Prussia, and had also captured Berlin. But in what historians call the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, Tsarina Elizabeth died. Her successor Peter III supported the Prussians over his aunt’s Austrian sympathies and signed a peace with Prussia that saw both countries return to pre-war borders.

Catherine the Great further expanded Russia’s borders during her reign.

Working with Prussia and Austria, Catherine oversaw the Partitions of Poland that divided Poland and Lithuania between the three countries. She also fought several wars against the Ottoman Empire, securing Russia’s Black Sea coast and bringing the Crimeans down. And in a series of wars with Persia, Catherine also managed to bring modern Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan into the Russian Empire.

Napoleon invaded Russia in the 19th century.

This proved disastrous for Napoleon, as while he could defeat the Russian armies in battle, he couldn’t conquer Russia itself. Even capturing Moscow won him nothing, as soon, the harsh Russian winter destroyed most of his army. As Napoleon retreated from Russia, the Russians along with the Prussians, Austrians, and the British crushed the French at the Battle of Leipzig. This broke the French Empire, with the Allied armies marching all the way to Paris and forcing Napoleon’s abdication and exile to Elba.

Russia Facts, Napoleon in Burning Moscow
Photo by Альбрехт Адам from Wikipedia

Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War marked the limit of Russian expansion into Europe.

The war started over France and Russia’s attempts to take advantage of the Ottoman Empire’s weakness. France sought to gain control over Middle Eastern territories, and the Russians in Eastern Europe.

Eventually, both Britain and France decided to support the Ottoman Empire, leading to the outbreak of war in 1853. Russia made quick advances into what is now Romania and Bulgaria, while the Ottomans struggled to invade Armenia. However, the British and the French managed to force a Russian retreat from the Balkans, but attempts to push north proved unsuccessful. This led to a Franco-British attack on Sevastopol in the Crimea, which fell after 11 bloody months. Elsewhere, indecisive battles erupted across the Baltic and White Seas, as well as in the North Pacific. Eventually, the Allies and the Russians made peace in 1856, as the war grew unpopular in their nations.

Alexander II of Russia ended serfdom in 1861.

He did so as part of a series of reforms meant to modernize Russia, as part of a general reaction to the Crimean War. Defeat in war had led Russia’s elites to realize the backwardness of their country, and the need to adapt to changing times.

The end of serfdom had mixed results, however, starting with the rise of an independent judiciary, free press, and expanded local governments. At the same time, serfs lacking money and lands of their own found themselves becoming tenant farmers for rich landowners. In a bitter example of Russia facts, not much had changed in the end.

Left-wing movements began to stir in Russia during the late-19th century.

Here’s a foreboding example of Russia Facts. Russia industrialized quickly in those decades, with mining and metallurgical industries in particular booming. However, Russia had neither minimum wage nor eight-hour workdays, with the rapidly-growing working class having to work for less than a living wage.

Child labor was also very common, and labor unions weren’t only unrecognized but outright illegal. This made for fertile ground for socialist and communist movements to recruit from, leading to the rise of left-wing parties like the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.

Russia lost humiliatingly to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905.

The war erupted over competing Russian and Japanese ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. At its beginning, no one expected the Japanese to last long, as the rest of the world saw them as just another upstart Oriental country.

In contrast, Russia was not only a giant nation but also a white, western country, which counted for everything in the Age of Colonialism. To the shock of the world, Japan won battle after battle, culminating in the Battle of Tsushima. The Russian Baltic Fleet, which had sailed around the world after the early destruction of the Russian Pacific Fleet, met its end before the Imperial Japanese Navy.

In the end, Japan gained Korea as a protectorate, annexed the Liaodong Peninsula, and gained economic rights over Southern Manchuria. Russia found itself forced to settle for only economic rights over Northern Manchuria, and to divide Sakhalin Island with Japan.

Russia’s loss to Japan forced Tsar Nicholas II to introduce some reforms.

The Tsar had hoped that victory against Japan would improve his failing reputation among his subjects. Instead, defeat caused anger and resentment against the corrupt and inefficient government to explode. Strikes erupted in the cities, while in the countryside, peasants agitated against the central government.

Worse, elements of the Russian Army mutinied over the failures of the Russian High Command. This forced Tsar Nicholas II to give ground, where he’d previously stood fast for autocratic rule. An elected parliament, the Duma, was finally formed, and a constitution adopted.

WWI quickly became a complete disaster for Russia.

Russia entered World War 1 with the goal of breaking the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and linking up with the Slavic nations of the Balkans, such as Serbia. But while they had a good start, the war quickly turned disastrous, as German reinforcements arrived at the west. The Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes from 1914 to 1915 caused the Russian invasion of Germany to simply collapse.

German and Austro-Hungarian attacks forced the Russian Army to retreat again in the summer of 1915. The Russians finally counterattacked in 1916, helped by the Romanian entry into the war. The Russians gained ground against Austria-Hungary, but the Romanians found themselves crushed by the German Army, instead.

Twin revolutions broke out in 1917.

The first took place in February, hence its historic name-the February Revolution. It erupted as a result of public resentment against wartime shortages of food. Resentment against Tsarina Alexandra’s misrule of the country also contributed to the revolution, with the Tsar spending his time commanding the armies on the frontlines.

Days of strikes and riots finally forced the formation of a Provisional Government, and the Tsar’s abdication, ending the monarchy in favor of a republic. To the public’s horror, the new government decided to continue the war, thanks to pressure from the British and the French, who used Russia’s debts against the government. This, together with another series of defeats, led to the October Revolution.

The Russian Revolution ultimately gave birth to the Soviet Union.

The radical Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, used the public’s opposition to the war to support the overthrow of the Provisional Government. They then negotiated a peace treaty with the Germans, which cost Russia plenty of territory in the west. This included today’s Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Finland.

However, an end to the war gave the Bolsheviks, now called the Soviets after the small, Communist councils in urban areas, massive popularity. The republicans, who called themselves the Whites, fought back, which lead to the Russian Civil War.

The Allies supported the Whites, but this only served to make them look like foreign puppets. This ultimately led to a Communist victory in 1922, an incident that made the world accept the reality of the Soviet Union’s existence. By then, the Soviets had also reclaimed Belarus and Ukraine.

The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin became an industrial powerhouse.

Lenin died in 1924, and after a brief but bloody power struggle in the Communist Party, Joseph Stalin took over the Soviet leadership. In a series of five-year plans, Stalin worked to turn the Soviet Union into an industrial power, and he succeeded.

Between 1928 and 1937, iron and steel production alone rose from an estimated 10 million tons per year, to 46 million tons per year. Production of heavy machinery rose from 3,000 machines per year to an estimated 250,000 machines per year.

Stalin also became infamous for his harsh policies against dissent.

The gulags are the most infamous of them all, where political criminals found themselves exiled into Siberia. Ironically, the gulags only continued a policy started by the Tsars centuries ago, of exiling criminals into Siberia. The prisoners also more often than not ended up working as slave labor in the prison camps.

Stalin also purged the Communist Party, the general public, and the military. Anyone suspected of personal disloyalty, or criticized official government policy, found themselves arrested. Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, tortured prisoners to confess to crimes they never committed. If they got lucky, they ended up executed. If not, they went to Siberia. And in Ukraine, Stalin deliberately caused a famine in the 1930s, aimed at stamping out Ukrainian nationalism. Called the Holodomor, it killed an estimated 4 million people, and which modern historians consider an act of genocide.

Russia Facts, Holodomor-starved Peasants
Photo by Alexander Wienerberger from Wikipedia

The Soviets cooperated with Nazi Germany at the start of WWII.

Based on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Germany and the Soviet Union worked together to divide Poland between them in 1939. Germany also looked the other way when the Soviets stationed troops in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in that same year. When the Soviets annexed both countries in 1940, the Germans also looked away. They did the same during the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union.

Such an arrangement stunned the democracies, considering the hatred the Fascists and Communists had for each other. No one expected such an alliance to ever happen, though, once it did, they all expected it would not last for long.

The Germans eventually invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

They did so in June, as part of Operation Barbarossa, with the goal of taking all Soviet territory up to the Ural Mountains. Stalin had expected a German invasion, but didn’t think the Germans would invade until after they’d defeated the British. That, despite all intelligence pointing to an invasion in June. Together with the crippled state of the Soviet officer corps because of Stalin’s purges, it led to disaster for the Red Army.

In a matter of months, the Germans quickly took the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine. Only when Stalin finally allowed his generals to operate freely did the Red Army finally start winning, such as during the Battle of Moscow in December. They did so again at Stalingrad in 1942, and then at Kursk in 1943.

After Kursk, the Soviets steadily pushed the Soviets back, practically obliterating the German Army in 1944’s Operation Bagration.

Germany’s invasion led to millions of deaths in the Soviet Union.

Hitler and the Nazi’s goal during the invasion aimed at getting what they called lebensraum, or living space. They planned to use land taken from the Soviet Union for German settlers, who would have large families, the core of what the Nazis called the Aryan master race.

This also meant that the people living on Soviet lands needed to die, which the Nazis planned for with mechanical efficiency. Starvation became their primary tool to achieve their goals, along with systematic killings by the Einsatzgruppen, elite teams of killers from the SS. Historians estimate between 5 to 11 million civilians died as a result of the Nazis’ efforts, with only Germany’s defeat preventing even more deaths.

As Nazi Germany collapsed, the Soviet Union also struck at Imperial Japan.

The Soviets took Berlin between April to May 1945, leading to Germany’s final surrender. The Soviets then moved troops to the Far East, and on July 26, declared war on Japan. Soviet troops invaded the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, with Japanese forces steadily forced back by overwhelming Soviet tank forces. After Japan surrendered in September, the Soviets took Southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands as spoils of victory from Japan.

Victory in WWII allowed the Soviets to claim large parts of Europe.

Virtually all of Eastern and Central Europe lay under Soviet occupation after WWII. The Soviets annexed part of East Prussia, including Konigsberg, which they renamed Kaliningrad. The rest went to Poland, which gained territory from Germany as compensation for the Soviets keeping former East Poland. Surprisingly, the Soviets respected the rise of a democratic government in Austria after the war.

In other countries, though, the Soviets installed Communist governments. This became the Communist Bloc of the Cold War, composed of countries like East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, among others, in addition to the Soviet Union. United in a military alliance called the Warsaw Pact, they competed against the USA and the Free World for global influence and power.

Nikita Khrushchev scaled back Stalin’s policies after his death.

The Soviet penal system was completely overhauled, with most political prisoners pardoned and released. Many executed criminals also received posthumous pardons. Khruschev also worked to dismantle Stalin’s cult of personality, deemphasizing his role in and contributions to Soviet society, even removing monuments and renaming buildings with Stalinist themes.

The Soviets put the first satellite and man in space, marking the start of the Space Age.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into Low Earth Orbit, the first-ever artificial satellite in human history. While the US government had known about the launch in advance, the US public did not, stunning them with the realization that the Soviets had more advanced technology than they had thought.

The Soviets followed up Sputnik 1 with additional satellite launches, but in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, with Vostok 1. Once again, the USA had fallen behind, with President Kennedy making his historic speech pledging to put an American on the Moon before the decade’s end in response to Gagarin’s historic mission to space.

The Soviet economy began to fail from the 1960s onward.

Historians consider many factors as causing the failure of the Soviet economy. One of those involved the Soviet focus on heavy industry, at the expense of the consumer industry. Another factor involved the nature of the Soviet command economy, which left it unable to adapt and had difficulty competing with the more fluid free market of the international economy.

Alexei Kosygin attempted to correct both factors, with a partial decentralization of the economy, encouraging the growth of the consumer industry. However, the conservatism of the Soviet leadership limited his ability to reform the Soviet economy.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cost the Soviet Union dearly.

In 1978, a Communist revolution broke out in Afghanistan, with the new government introducing sweeping reforms to the country. This made them unpopular with the conservative population of the countryside, as well as the country’s religious elite.

The executions of political prisoners only worsened the situation, leading to an open revolt against the Communist government in 1979. The resulting Soviet intervention led to international condemnation and economic sanctions, with the USA and other countries providing weapons to the anti-Communist rebels.

Eventually, the Soviets withdrew in 1988, having lost an estimated 14,000 men, failing to stop the anti-Communist revolt. This greatly weakened the Soviet Union’s international reputation, as the world now saw the Soviets as far from invincible.

Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Starting in 1985, Gorbachev introduced liberal policies to the Soviet Union, with glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). This, however, only allowed nationalist and separatist movements to rise and grow across the Soviet Union. The continued failures of the Soviet economy only worsened the situation.

Russia Facts, Gorbachev and Reagan
Photo by White House Photographic Collection from Wikipedia

The Soviet Union literally just fell apart at its end.

It marked the end of an era too, as we see it here at Russia Facts. In 1991, as the Soviet economy continued to fail and the political leadership proved indecisive, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all voted to leave the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev attempted to reorganize the Soviet Union, but a failed coup by Communist hardliners only weakened his position. Together with international pressure, Gorbachev eventually dissolved the Soviet Union, with Boris Yeltsin becoming President of the new Russian Federation.

Russia suffered following the fall of Communism.

Russia’s GDP fell by an estimated 50% following the adoption of free-market economics. The switch from a command economy to a free market also saw a large portion of the country’s wealth fall into the hands of a closed group of businessmen with connections to high government officials. As the economy collapsed, social services also failed, while poverty rates skyrocketed, from 1.5% at the end of the Soviet Union, to 49% in 1993. This led to disillusionment among Russians with democracy and capitalism, as well as nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

Guided democracy developed in Russia in the 1990s.

Western analysts introduced the term after Russia adopted a new constitution in 1993. Officially, the Russian government follows a democratic model, with elected leaders. However, in practice, the government has a semi-dictatorial theme, with the public having little real say in shaping government policy.

Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 1999 marked the beginning of a Russian resurgence.

Putin’s first term in office saw economic growth of up to 7%, helped by high oil prices. The low value of the ruble also helped, as it made it easier for Russia to export goods to other countries. Putin’s leadership also saw improvements in Russia’s law and order situation, along with assertive action on the international stage.

That said, Putin has faced criticism for Human Rights abuses in Russia, as well as expanding and modernizing the Russian military. Despite said criticism, however, Putin nevertheless enjoys widespread popularity in Russia.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 sparked an international crisis.

A pro-Western coup in Ukraine, led to pro-Russian groups taking over the Crimea, and seceding in favor of joining the Russian Federation. Russia immediately moved to support the Crimean secessionists, which sparked a furious response from Ukraine and the West. International sanctions followed, but with large numbers of Russian troops present in the Crimea, the West found its ability to act directly limited for fears of starting a war.

This encouraged pro-Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine, leading to a years-long series of skirmishes between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian military that continues to this day.

Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War in 2015.

At first, the Russians simply supplied the Syrian government with weapons and ammunition. But in 2015, the Syrian government’s collapsing position led the Russians to decide to intervene directly. Their motivations didn’t just involve preventing a takeover by al-Qaeda or ISIS, but also the possibility of a pro-Western government rising in Syria should President Bashar al-Assad fall from power.

This led to widespread international condemnation, especially as Russian missile and air strikes proved rather indiscriminate, causing several civilian casualties. However, the Russian intervention proved decisive, with Bashar al-Assad’s government not only keeping power but gaining an advantage in the civil war as a result.

In 2020, Russia amended its constitution in the face of controversy.

The new constitution allowed Putin to run for another two terms of office as president. Under the old constitution, he could only run for four terms of office, something he’d already done by 2020. Critics both in Russia and abroad condemned the amendment as just a way for Putin to stay in office. However, a nationwide vote in January confirmed the amendment to the Russian constitution.

Russia’s closest allies include China and India.

Russia and China both have a Treaty of Friendship between them and have cooperated on various projects. Those include the Trans-Siberian Oil Pipeline and the Yakutia-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok Pipeline. For its part, India makes up Russia’s biggest customer for arms sales, and both nations have cooperated in developing next-generation missiles such as the BrahMos.

The Russian military practices conscription.

The law requires all males aged 18 to 27 to serve one year in any branch of the Russian military. Even after they leave, they may stay listed as reservists, with the Russian military as a whole having as many as 20 million reservists today.

Russian scientists have made many contributions to the world.

Among their contributions include the discovery of Cherenkov radiation, and the invention of lasers, masers, and even 3D holography. Igor Tamm, Andrei Sakharov, and Lev Artsimovich pioneered the practical application of nuclear fusion, with the tokamak. Nikolay Lobachevsky pioneered the study of non-Euclidean geometry, while Dmitri Mendeleev invented the modern periodic table of the elements. Those include just a few of the many Russian contributions to science and technology.

Even today Russia maintains a large space program.

Russia Facts, Soyuz TMA-2 Launch
Photo by NASA from Wikipedia

The Fall of the Soviet Union at first caused a massive slump in the Russian space program. However, they never really stopped the program, and as the Russian economy recovered, so too did the space program. Today, Russia produces the most satellites in the world, and with the end of the American Space Shuttle program, Russian Soyuz rockets make up the world’s primary means of sending men and women to and from space. How’s that for interstellar examples of Russia Facts?