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Flag of Russian Federation

Full Country Name: The Russian Federation

Map of Russia
Area: 17,075,400 square kilometres (76% of former USSR)
Population: 146,000,000 (June 1999)
Capital City: Moscow
People: 82% Russians (but in all more than 100 nationalities)
Languages: Russian, other.
Religion(s): Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist.
Currency: 1 Rouble = 100 Kopeks
Major political parties: Communist party, United Russia, Liberal Democratic Party, Union of Right Forces, Yabloko Bloc.
Government: Democratic Republic.
Head of State: Vladimir Putin
Prime Minister/Premier: Mikhail Kasyanov
Foreign Minister: Igor Ivanov


Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 11 time zones. But its population, currently about 147 million, is small relative to its size. The landscape varies widely, from vast open tracts in the European heartlands and the taiga and tundra of Siberia, to mountainous terrain. The main mountain areas are in the North Caucasus (in southern Russia, between the Black and Caspian Seas), the Urals, the Altai in southern Siberia, and mountain ranges in the Far East, especially Kamchatka and Sakhalin. Agriculture is largely confined to the European regions and the southern belt of Siberia because of the latitudes involved. Further north, forestry and extraction of energy and minerals predominate.

The main communications across the country are by air, and the Trans-Siberian railway. The railway is a vital economic artery as well as a means of human communication. Most of the main cities of Siberia are linked together along it. The road system is not well developed countrywide. Russia's great rivers also play an important part in hydroelectric power generation and in transportation. The Volga flows south into the Caspian, while the Ob', Yenisei and Lena flow northwards into the Arctic Ocean. That fact led the Soviet authorities to contemplate a huge scheme to reverse the direction of flow, in order to irrigate Central Asia. The scheme was abandoned only in the 1980s, on grounds of its cost and environmental implications. The rivers are important as transport arteries, and for the generation of hydroelectric power. But in recent years the Russians have also faced increasing environmental problems, with seasonal flooding on some of the great rivers, especially the Lena in the Russian republic of Sakha-Yakutia.

Russia's population is unevenly distributed, with the vast bulk (up to 80%) based in the European areas and the Ural regions. That is partly because of inhospitable terrain in the northern regions and much of Siberia, where population density is often less than 1 person per square kilometre. But it is also a result of Russia's historical and economic development, which began in the European heartlands and spread eastwards only much later, as Siberia and the Far East were opened up and colonised.


The Russian Federation (Russia) is recognised in international law as continuing the legal personality of the former Soviet Union. Following the failed coup in August 1991, President Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day and the USSR was formally dissolved on 31 December. The EU recognised Russia the same day. Russia comprises 89 regions including 21 ethnically based republics.

Recent Political Developments

Vladimir Putin was elected President in elections held on 26 March 2000. He won in the first round, gaining over 52% of the vote. Turnout was a fairly high 68%. Putin was inaugurated as President on 7 May. He appointed Mikhail Kasyanov as Prime Minister and the economic reformers Aleksey Kudrin as Minister of Finance and German Gref in the newly formed Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, but otherwise largely kept intact the government he inherited from former President Yeltsin. A reshuffle on 27 March 2001 stamped his own mark on government by inserting Putin loyalists in key positions, including Sergei Ivanov (Defence Minister) and Boris Gryzlov (Interior Minister).

In the first year of his presidency, Putin concentrated on reasserting the control of the centre over Russia's unruly regions, which some governors had been inclined to run as personal fiefdoms. He also tried to slim down and sharpen the machinery of government and curb the influence of 'oligarchic' business interests. His aim is a single legal and economic space in Russia. With centre-region relations now on a firmer basis, and a relatively good relationship with the Duma (Parliament), Putin has pushed an ambitious programme of domestic reforms, particularly in the economic sphere, including banking reforms, tax reform, anti-money-laundering legislation, and administrative and judicial reform (perhaps the key to genuine change in Russia). Favourable economic conditions have so far ensured his continuing personal popularity and given him the confidence to press ahead. Although progress on some politically and socially contentious issues like energy sector reform and pensions has been more limited, overall this has probably been the most positive and stable period of reform in Russia's transition history.

Longer Historical Perspective

Russia's early history started with the emergence of a distinct Slavic people, the Rus' tribe, based initially around Kiev and the northern shores of the Black Sea in the ninth and tenth centuries. The great Mongol invasions from the east swept across what are now the Russian and Ukrainian heartland's in the early 13th century, reaching as far west as Kiev itself in 1240. But by the sixteenth century the situation had settled down, and the trading principality of Muscovy had emerged as the dominant player in an array of small principalities and fiefdoms. Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) was the first prince of Muscovy to style himself as Tsar (a corruption of ‘caesar'); he completed the rolling-back of the influence of the Mongol hordes. After Ivan's death, and the ensuing ‘time of troubles', the Romanov family emerged as Russia's leaders in the early 17th century. They were to dominate Russia's history for the next 300 years.

Those centuries laid down the great themes of Russian history: the quest for modernisation in the face of a more developed West; the clash between the desire to open the country up to external influences, and the will to preserve and protect Russia's unique identity, the alternating trends of reform and then reimposition of authoritarianism. Peter the Great (1682-1725) and Catherine the Great (1762-96) in their different times arguably did most to reform and modernise the country. They had a huge impact on the restructuring of Russian society as a whole in the longer term. This was also the time when the expansion of the Russian Empire itself began, southwards into the Caucasus, and eastwards into Siberia, Central Asia and the Russian Far East.

Bolshevik Revolution

By the early 20th century, in spite of all attempts at reform, the control of the Russian monarchy over nearly all aspects of life was still very strong. Discontent at all levels of Russian society - aristocratic elite, intelligentsia and the populace - was high. It was also starting to get organised, as workers' 'soviets' (councils) were formed. Radicals among the intelligentsia, led by one Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), who were inspired by European models of socialism and Marxism, harnessed this movement to give rise to the Bolshevik Party. By 1917, the Bolsheviks were strong enough to capitalise on Russia's catastrophic losses in the First World War to sweep the old order aside and take political control. The following year, the former Tsar Nikolai II and his family were shot.

The early years of Bolshevik rule were extremely turbulent, with the Civil war (in reaction to the Bolshevik seizure of power), Lenin's death in 1924, and the New Economic Policy, which relaxed strict socialist economic principles in order to consolidate the Party's power. It took Stalin until 1929 to emerge as the unquestioned new leader of the Soviet Communist Party. Once in place, he dominated it until his death in 1953, using the purges as his main instrument of control (the ‘Great Terror' lasted from 1936 to 1939, but large-scale incarcerations for political reasons continued well into the 1950s). During this period the Communist Party consolidated its hold on every aspect of life. Major campaigns were mounted, including the enforced collectivisation of agriculture (which inflicted huge losses on the population), and industrialisation was imposed at breakneck speed.

Soviet Union

As the Soviet Union emerged into the modern age, Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, made some efforts to address the worst effects of Stalin's rule, while preserving the key elements of Communist rule and the command economy. He abolished terror. But the Communist Party establishment, while not wholly rejecting Khrushchev's motives, distrusted his impetuosity. He was deposed in 1964 in a political coup, and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev presided over a period of consolidation, rather than reform. Life became less dangerous, more predictable and more comfortable for the vast bulk of the population (though the small number of those who dissented outright continued to be persecuted and imprisoned). But despite initial efforts to bring the economy up to viable levels, growth rates steadily declined and social problems grew. The Soviet Union's ability to achieve its agenda abroad also declined. By the early 1980s, when Brezhnev's health was visibly failing, the more forward-looking elements in the Party were acknowledging privately to one another (as Gorbachev later said publicly) that 'we cannot go on living like this'. Andropov might have brought in reform, but he died within 15 months of coming to office. The Party's old guard tried to stave off serious change by putting in one more of their own, Chernenko, who also died a year later. Gorbachev was elected in 1985, and set about trying to make the system work.


Mikhail Gorbachev had risen from the same Party Official background as a Party official as other leaders had done. But he was of a younger generation, a graduate (in law) and had seen a little of the outside world. He rapidly began his campaign of reforms, known as perestroika (restructuring), bringing in liberalising measures in both the economy and politics. Despite the early welcome for his approach, some measures misfired badly, most notably the anti-alcohol campaign, which created enormous public resentment. Gradually the very process of democratisation, glasnost (openness) and pluralism, which Gorbachev had unleashed, took on its own life and pace, which Gorbachev could no longer control. The institution of a new form of parliament, independent of Communist domination, tipped the scales. Demands for faster and deeper change built up; in 1990, the formation of non-communist parties was permitted for the first time. While Gorbachev was still bent on looking for ways to build a better form of socialism, the majority of the population only wanted rid of the system altogether.

Pressure was also growing among the constituent republics of the USSR for ever greater sovereignty. Boris Yeltsin, by now President of the Russian republic within the USSR, declared Russia's sovereignty in 1990. Yeltsin embarked on a battle of wills with Gorbachev, and led the campaign for a new form of relationship between the Soviet Union and its constituent republics. But the day before a treaty was due to be signed to put this into effect, in August 1991, a coup was mounted against Gorbachev by an ill-organised group of hard-line politicians, who sought to avert the destruction of the USSR. In the end, their actions only hastened it. Yeltsin initially rallied to Gorbachev's support in the famous defence of the White House (Russian parliament), and the coup was defeated. But when Gorbachev returned to Moscow from the south where he had been under house arrest, it became rapidly clear that Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, held the political initiative. The Communist Party in Russia was dissolved; and the republics of the USSR hastened to declare their independence. By the end of 1991 the dissolution of the USSR left Gorbachev with no option but to resign.


Yeltsin, having been instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union, aspired to see Russia through the transition to a democratic, market-based form of government. But there were formidable obstacles: the lack of any clear strategy for change, mounting political opposition as time went on, and his own intermittent physical weakness.

In 1993, Russia's parliament was deeply opposed to Yeltsin's attempts at radical reform. Deputies rebelled against Yeltsin's attempt to break the political stalemate by abolishing that parliament altogether. They occupied the parliament building (the ‘White House') and there were outbreaks of armed conflict in the streets. Yeltsin famously ordered tanks to fire on the White House, which broke the deadlock, but left deep political scars longer-term.

Out of that debacle a new Constitution and post-Soviet political institutions emerged, nearly two years after the collapse of the USSR itself. Yeltsin was, however; still unable to muster enough of a consensus behind his reforms, and stalemate slowly set in again. By 1996, his popularity was down to single figures. He won the Presidential election only through huge effort on the part of the Kremlin team, coupled with a determined effort among media leaders to prevent a return of the Communist party to power. But the effort of the campaign put him back in hospital for major heart surgery and he disappeared from public view for months.

His reappearance, in spring 1997, heralded yet another major new reform push, with a reshuffled Government dominated by leading reform figures. But by early 1998 his government was bogged down again by entrenched opposition and enmeshed in scandals. In summer 1998 Russia's debt mountain finally collapsed and Russia defaulted on its internal debt. A rapid turnover of Prime Ministers masked Yeltsin's increasingly desperate attempts to find a candidate he thought suitable to replace him. He installed Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister in the summer of 1999 and resigned, somewhat theatrically, on Millennium night, 31 December 1999, before the official end of his presidential term.


Elections to the State Duma, or parliament, took place in December 1999. The elections themselves were judged to be fair, although the campaign was a heated one and international observers had some concerns about media manipulation. The Communists' presence in the Duma was much reduced, down from over one-third of the seats to under one-quarter (94 seats). The Fatherland-All Russia alliance gained 45 seats, less than had been predicted. The liberal party Yabloko gained only 21 seats. Unity, the party endorsed by Putin, exceeded all expectations by coming second with 81 seats. Unity was only founded two months before the elections and had no platform but support for Putin. The reformist Union of Right Forces also gained more votes than expected and these two parties have given Putin a solid base of support in the Duma. On the 1st December 2001 Unity, Fatherland and All-Russia party merged into the All-Russian party – Unity and Fatherland. The All-Russian party forms a pro-Putin bloc, which dominates the Duma. With its votes and others, Putin can generally be assured of a majority for reformist legislation.

This is an external link BBC News Country Timeline: Russia


Russia's economy is doing better than in almost any other period of the last decade.

The economy has grown strongly - by 20% in the last three years - and is expected to have grown by 4% in 2002, over twice the OECD average. Inflation is falling and is expected to reach 14-15% this year; and real disposable incomes are rising, (by 7% so far this year). And the government has put its finances in order, running budget surpluses for the last 3 years. Russia's foreign debt - once a serious source of concern - is now below 40% of GDP.

Russia's recent success has been due to a combination of sound economic management, its rich natural resources and a favourable external environment. Russia possesses 5% of the world's oil and 33% of the world's gas, and as such has benefited enormously from high energy prices over the last 2-3 years The cheap rouble - a legacy of the 1998 financial crisis that rocked Russia - has helped Russian companies compete with imports.

However, as the Russian government recognises, the Russian economy is still too dependent on high energy prices (the energy sector represents 25% of GDP and provides around 60% of government revenues), and needs to develop other sources of economic growth. This is why the economic reform process is so crucial to Russia's future success. Under President Putin, the government has followed a tough programme of economic reform, covering tax, labour, land, business and regional reforms. But there is still more to do. The banking and financial sectors need to work better, to turn Russian savings into Russian investment. Reform of the natural monopolies (in the electricity and gas sectors, for example) is still needed. And far-reaching administrative and judicial reform will be required to remove the red tape and corruption that stifles economic growth and deters local and foreign direct investment (which totalled only $2.5bn last year, less than 1% of GDP – 15 times lower than in some Central European countries).

Reforms will not be easy. The level of vested interests is high, but the benefits are higher. Russia has many economic advantages – natural resources, a well-educated population, and scientific expertise. Assuming the government can stick with reform during 2003 in the run up to the Duma and Presidential elections (and if the oil price doesn't plummet), this looks set to be one of the most positive and stable periods in Russia's transition history.

Basic Economic Facts

GDP: US$ 310 billion (2001)
GDP per head: US$ 2,137 (2001)
Annual Growth: 4% (2002 estimate)
Inflation: 18% (2002 estimate)
Major Industries: Oil, gas, timber, metals, machinery and chemicals
Major trading partners: Germany (9%), US (7.7%), Ukraine (4.9%) and Belarus (5.4%).
Exchange rate:31.84RUB/US$ (End November 2002)
UK Exports (Jan-Dec): 898.25 (£million)
UK Imports (Jan-Dec): 2096.71 (£million)

Trade Partners UK Country Profile: Russia


Relations between the UK and Russia have been transformed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. There are frequent contacts at all levels to discuss a wide range of bilateral issues and key foreign policy issues. The State Visit by HM the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh State to Russia in October 1994 was the first ever by a reigning British Monarch. The Prime Minister has invested considerable energy in developing good relations with President Putin, and they last met at Putin's country house in October 2002. President Putin is due to pay a State Visit to the UK this summer, the first by a Russian leader since 1844.

Diplomatic Representation

UK representation in the Russian Federation
Russian Federation representation in the UK

Development Assistance: Britain – Russia Development Partnership

Development Assistance is delivered through the Britain – Russia Development Partnership, which assists in the development of a market economy and pluralist democracy in such a way that, the benefits are sustainable and are spread through all levels of society. The UK plans to spend £25m approx. for 2002-03 in assistance through the bilateral development assistance programme. The UK contributes approximately 16% of the c.124m Euro allocated to Russia under TACIS, the EU's technical assistance programme to the CIS countries.

Cultural Relations with the UK

The British Council has wide representation in Russia and takes the lead in cultural programmes and exchanges: British Council Russia.

Recent Ministerial Visits

  • February 2002 – Yevgeny Gusarov, Deputy Foreign Minister visits London
  • March 2002 – Igor Ivanov, Minister for Foreign Affairs visits London
  • March 2002 – Mikhail Shvidkoi, Culture Minister visits London
  • March 2002 – Ilya Klebanov, Minister for Industry, Science & Technology; Georgy Poltavchenko, Presidential Representative in the Central Federal District; and Yury Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow.
  • April 2002 – Duma Environment Committee visits London
  • April 2002 – Aleksei Kudrin, Deputy Prime Minister attend the Russian Economic Forum, London
  • October 2002 – Aleksey Kudrin, First Deputy Prime Minster and Finance Minister co-chaired with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the Intergovernmental Steering Committee on Trade and Investment
  • November 2002 – Valentina Matvienko, Deputy Prime Minister and Ilya Klebanov, Minister of Science, Industry and Technology attended the 'Russia Open to the World Exhibition' at the Barbican
  • November 2002 – Yuri Kalinin – Deputy Justice Minister visits London
  • February 2003 – Vyacheslav Trubnikov, 1st Deputy Foreign Minister co-chaired with the FCO Director General Defence and Intelligence the UK/Russia Joint Working Group on International Terrorism
  • March 2003 – Igor Ivanov, Foreign Minister visited London for talks with the Foreign Secretary and a brief discussion with the Prime Minister
  • March 2002 – Baroness Kennedy, Chair of the British Council visits Russia
  • April 2002 – House of Lords Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee (EU/Russia Relations), led by Lord Jopling visited Russia
  • June 2002 – Lord Sainsbury, Science Minister attends Carnegie Conference in Moscow
  • June 2002 – House of Commons Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography visited Voronezh
  • July 2002 – Geoff Hoon MP, Secretary of State for Defence visited St Petersburg
  • July 2002 – House of Commons Defence Select Committee, led by Bruce George MP visit Russia
  • September 2002 – Sir Michael Jay – PUS, FCO, visited Moscow and St Petersburg
  • October 2002 – Sir John Egan, President of the CBI; and Digby Jones, Directot-General of the CBI attend the annual UK/Russia Round Table
  • October 2002 – Prime Minster Tony Blair visited Russia for talks with President Putin
  • November – Anne McGuire MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland visited Russia
  • December 2002 – Richard Caborn MP, Minister for Sport attended the intergovernmental consultative group on anti0doping in sport, Moscow
  • December 2002 - Brian Wilson, Energy Minister, visits Moscow
  • April 2003 – Baroness Blackstone, Minister for the Arts, visits St Petersburg


Russia's international undertakings, including membership of the Council of Europe, carry with them important human rights obligations. While human rights and civic freedoms have improved dramatically since the end of the USSR, some concerns remain, which attract continuing public and parliamentary interest. These include freedom of expression and of the media; anti-Semitism; the restrictive 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association which discriminates against 'non-traditional faiths'; the cases of the Salvation Army and the Jehovah's Witnesses in Moscow; conditions in Russian prisons; the right to conscientious objection and conditions in the army; capital punishment, which, although effectively abolished by President Yeltsin, remains on the statute books; and individual cases such as that of Grigory Pasko, accused of breaching security by releasing information on the environmental impact of Russian naval nuclear installations.

We also have concerns about the government's treatment of vulnerable groups and its obligation to protect their rights. In particular, the problems with protection of the rights of vulnerable groups such as the elderly, women, children, members of ethnic or religious minorities and the disabled.

Funding projects: Capacity building for forced migrant NGO's; increasing women's participation in the political process; and disabled rights advocacy.


In the chaos that followed the August 1991 coup, Chechnya declared independence from the Soviet Union. The internal upheavals in post-Soviet Russia prevented the Russian government from reasserting its authority until 1994. A failed coup attempt in November 1994 was followed by a full-scale military intervention the following month. Fighting was intense, with high casualties. In August 1996 a statement of principles was signed by the Russian and Chechen authorities, paving the way for the withdrawal of federal forces but postponing discussion of Chechnya's status for five years.

In January 1997 Aslan Maskhadov was elected President of Chechnya and in May 1997 he signed a Peace Treaty with President Yeltsin which laid the basis for future relations and for economic reconstruction. But Maskhadov was unable to stop rising criminality and anarchy in the years that followed, and had little authority over rival field commanders, particularly those like Shamil Basayev, who were closely associated with Emir Khattab, leader of the Arab mujahideen.

With their ranks fuelled by a growing number of the disillusioned or unemployed who had turned to Islamic fundamentalism, Basayev and Khattab launched an incursion into the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan in August 1999. But they faced a hostile reception from much of the local population, who helped Russian troops to repel them. Following a series of terrorist bombings in Russian cities, for which the Russians blamed the Chechens (though this is yet to be proven), the Russian government in October 1999 launched a military campaign in Chechnya, aimed at stamping out terrorism.

The conflict has ground on with steady casualties on both sides. Russian forces fully occupy Chechnya, but they are unable to prevent Chechen fighters from mounting attacks throughout the republic. Troop withdrawals have been put on hold because of the unstable security situation.

There have been widespread and credible allegations of human rights abuses by both sides: Chechen militants have killed moderate Islamic clerics and members of the Moscow-appointed civil administration. Russian forces have used excessive and indiscriminate force, and are allegedly responsible for summary executions, rape, torture, looting and extortion. 'Disappearances' following successive sweep operations in Chechnya have provoked unprecedented criticism, including from Russian commanders and the civil administration. Criminal proceedings have been opened against Federal servicemen, but few of these have resulted in convictions.

On 24 September 2001, President Putin called on Chechen rebels to sever links with international terrorists, disarm, and return to civilian life. Maskhadov responded favourably and appointed a representative to begin talks with the Russians on a political solution to the conflict. The Russian and Chechen representatives met in Moscow on 18 November. Neither side released details of the discussion but both said that further talks were possible. Further talks, however, did not take place.

In the first half of 2002, Russian forces mounted a series of special operations to kill or capture prominent field commanders. Their most notable success was the death of Khattab in March of that year. In July, Maskhadov appeared on an Al Jazeera TV broadcast, apparently reconciled with his bitter rivals, Shamil Basayev and Abu Walid, Khattab's successor. It was not clear whether this public show of unity reflected a genuine rapprochement between the three or was intended to assist fundraising efforts overseas. However, Maskhadov's decision to share a public platform with Basayev and Abu Walid damaged his standing with a number of Western governments, who had until then advocated further talks between Maskhadov's representatives and the Russian government.

International concern also continued to grow about the clear links between the Arab mujahideen and Al Qa'ida, and the presence of Al Qa'ida operatives in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, near the Georgian/Chechen border. This prompted the US government to fund a train and equip programme for the Georgian Army, to enable them tackle this growing international security problem.

On 23 October 2002, a group of armed individuals, led by the Chechen warlord Movsar Barayev, seized the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, taking over 800 people hostage. They demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and threatened to destroy the building. Russian special forces stormed the theatre on 26 October, releasing over 600 hostages, though around 120 others died from the gas used. Soon afterwards, Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the incident, and threatened further attacks against the civil population aimed at causing serious casualties. Maskhadov condemned the attack as an act of terrorism and reportedly severed all links with Basayev. The Russian authorities, however, allege Maskhadov's complicity in the Dubrovka siege.

Following the siege, the Russian government sought the extradition of Akhmed Zakayev, Maskhadov's representative, from Denmark. The Danish authorities refused the extradition request on the grounds of insufficient evidence and released Zakayev in December. The Russian authorities are currently seeking Zakayev's extradition from the UK.

Kidnapping remains a serious problem in Chechnya. Two British aid workers, Camilla Carr and Jon James, were eventually released in September 1998 after 14 months in captivity. But four telecom engineers (three British nationals and one New Zealander) were taken captive in October 1998 and murdered two months later. The dangers of operating in the region have forced NGOs to suspend their activities several times in the last year despite the grim humanitarian situation faced by Chechen IDPs. The area is unsafe for foreigners.


Travel advice: Russia



2003 marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg. Many of the Countries associated with the city, including the UK, are preparing programmes of various kinds as a contribution to the city's own programme of events.
This is an external link UK@SPb

Last updated: 24 April 2003

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