The world's largest country by land area, Russia ranks sixth in terms of population. It occupies much of E Europe and all of N Asia, extending for c.5,000 mi (8,000 km) from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east and for 1,500 to 2,500 mi (2,400–4,000 km) from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Altai and Sayan mts., and the Amur and Ussuri rivers in the south. Russia also spans 9 time zones (11 prior to Mar., 2010). The Urals form the conventional geographic boundary between the European and Siberian parts of Russia. Russia's dominant relief features are (from west to east) the East European plain, the Urals, the West Siberian lowland, and the central Siberian plateau.
Mt. Elbrus (18,481 ft/5,633 m), in the Caucasus, is the highest peak in the country. The chief rivers draining the European Russia are the Don (into the Black Sea), the Volga (into the Caspian Sea), the Northern Dvina (into the White Sea), the Western Dvina (into the Baltic Sea), and the Pechora (into the Barents Sea). (For the main physical features of the Siberian Russia, see Siberia.) The climate of Russia, generally continental, varies from extreme cold in N Russia and Siberia (where Verkhoyansk, the coldest settled place on earth, is situated), to subtropical along the Black Sea shore. The soil and vegetation zones include the tundra and taiga belts, the entire wooded steppe and northern black-earth steppes, and isolated sections of semidesert, desert, and subtropical zones. (For additional information, see the discussion of the nine physioeconomic regions under Economy below.)
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced a decline in population. The decline was due in part to the difficult economic conditions the nation endured, especially in the 1990s, which led to a low birth rate, a reduced male life expectancy, and emigration. The population drop was slowed somewhat by immigration consisting mainly of ethnic Russians from other areas of the former Soviet Union, but it has continued during the early 21st cent.
There are at least 60 different recognized ethnic groups in Russia, but the vast majority of the population are Russians (80%). There are also Ukrainians (2%) and such non-Slavic linguistic and ethnic groups as Tatars (4%), Bashkirs, Chuvash, Komi, Komi-Permyaks, Udmurts, Mari, Mordovians, Jews, Germans, Armenians, and numerous groups in the Far North and in the Caucasus. Russian is the official language.
Administratively, Russia has generally relied on regional divisions inherited from the Stalin and Brezhnev constitutions of 1936 and 1977. Each area with a predominantly Russian population is constituted as a territory (kray) or region (oblast); some non-Russian nationalities are constituted, in descending order of importance, as republics, autonomous regions (oblasts), and autonomous areas (okrugs). Russia has 21 republics: Adygey, Altai, Bashkortostan, Buryat, Chechnya, Chuvash, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkar, Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkess, Karelia, Khakass, Komi, Mari El, Mordovia, North Ossetia-Alania, Sakha, Tatarstan, Tuva, and Udmurt; one autonomous region (or oblast): Jewish; 4 autonomous national areas (okrugs): Chukotka, Khanty-Mansi, Nenets, and Yamalo-Nenets; 46 Russian regions (oblasts); 9 Russian territories (krays); and 2 federal cities (gorods; the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg). Oblasts and krays are roughly equivalent to provinces. In addition to Moscow, other major urban areas in Russia include Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky), Rostov-na-Donu, Volgograd, Kazan, Samara (formerly Kuybyshev), Ufa, Perm, Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), Omsk, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, all of the former autonomous republics of the RSFSR were raised to full republic status, and four of the autonomous regions were made full republics as well. Under President Putin, the government undertook to consolidate the patchwork federal structure of the federation and assert central government authority. In 2000 the administrative units of Russia were grouped into regional administrative districts, which now number eight. The federal districts (and their adminstrative centers) are Northwest (St. Petersburg), Central (Moscow), Volga (Nizhny Novgorod), Southern (Rostov-na-Donu), North Caucasus (Pyatigorsk), Urals (Yekaterinburg), Siberian (Novosibirsk), and Far East (Khabarovsk). Subsequently, a number of smaller administrative units have been abolished and merged with larger neighboring regions to form several new territories (krays)
The majority of Russia's population has no religious affiliation due to the antireligious ideology of the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church, headquartered in Moscow, has about 60 million adherents; the numbers have grown rapidly since the end of Soviet rule. There are also communities of Old Believers, a group that broke with the Orthodox Church in the 17th cent., as well as a large Muslim minority. Other religions include various Christian churches, Lamaist Buddhism, Judaism, and tribal religions. Partly in reaction to proselytizing by Protestant evangelicals, Mormons, and others, a 1997 Russian law granted superior status to the Russian Orthodox Church (and other older Russian religions). The Orthodox Church has since developed even closer ties with the government.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.