Russia's president is determined to modernize this vast country but is also crushing its democracy
Russia, which is officially the Russian Federation, is by far the world's largest country, spanning two continents—more than 10,000 kilometres across. Russia's territory is huge and diverse but can be considered as a series of regions west to east. First, to the west are the rolling plains and uplands of the European plain, through which flow major rivers including the Don and the Volga. These plains terminate in the east at the Ural mountains, which, running north to south, form a dividing line between Europe and Asia.
Beyond the Urals lies the vastness of the West Siberian plain, a mostly featureless and often marshy landscape that stretches east to the Yenisey River. This leads on to the Central Siberian Plateau and then to Russia's Far East, which ends in a number of mountain ranges before reaching the Pacific coast. Russia's climate is often harsh, with bitterly cold winters and short summers, especially in the north and east.
The majority of people, more than four-fifths, are ethnic Russians, but the country also has over 70 other nationalities, of which the largest are Tartars, Ukrainians, and Chuvash. The ethnic spectrum corresponds to some extent to the country's complex administrative structure. Russia has 89 different administrative units, including 21 ‘minority’ republics, such as Tatarstan, Chechnya, and Karelia. However, these account for only around 20% of the total population, and even they have majority Russian populations.
Russia's people have endured a series of shocks since the demise of communism. Living standards have fallen. In 2008, 19% lived below the official poverty line. There has also been a steep increase in inequality. By 2007 officially the top 20% of the population got 47% of national income, but given the extent of tax evasion they probably got much more.
Bribes for health and education
Russians have also suffered a fall in health standards. Between 1989 and 2005, Russia's death rate rose steeply and life expectancy for men dropped from 65 years to 59, though for women the drop was less steep—74 to 72. This has been ascribed to a combination of stresses and uncertainties that have contributed to heart problems, strokes, and alcoholism. The decline in the health system will also have played a part. Russia still has enough doctors, but they often work in poorly equipped hospitals and anyone who needs urgent treatment has to bribe the staff. Around one million Russians are thought to be HIV-positive.
The education system too has come under strain. School attendance is compulsory and free, but standards have fallen because of low investment. Given the rising demand for qualifications, in practice around half of students now pay their own fees along with bribes required for university entrance.
In the first half of the 20th century Russia, as the core of the Soviet Union, had made striking economic progress—particularly in heavy industry. But by the 1980s its centrally planned economy was unable to produce the goods evident in the rest of the world. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia from 1992 undertook radical reforms—privatizing industries, liberalizing prices, and reducing tariffs.