Russia occupies much of easternmost Europe and northern Asia, stretching from Norway to the Pacific Ocean and from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean. Russia is approximately 1.8 times the size of the United States with an area of about 17 million square kilometers (6.5 million sq. mi.); in geographic terms, this makes Russia the largest country in the world by more than 2.5 million square miles. Border countries include Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, Norway, Poland, and Ukraine. Russia’s territory includes 11 time zones. Moscow is three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Moscow is Russia's capital and largest city. Moscow is also increasingly important as an economic and business center; it has become Russia's principal magnet for foreign investment and business presence. It is rich in culture and tradition, and there are many museums devoted to art, literature, music, dance, history, and science, as well as hundreds of churches and dozens of notable cathedrals. The second-largest city in Russia is St. Petersburg, which was established by Peter the Great in 1703 to be the capital of the Russian Empire as part of his Western-looking reforms. The city was called Petrograd during World War I and Leningrad after 1924. In 1991, as the result of a city referendum, it was renamed St. Petersburg. Under the tsars, the city was Russia's cultural, intellectual, commercial, financial, and industrial center. After Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918, the city's political significance declined, but it remained a cultural, scientific, and military-industrial center. The Hermitage, formerly the Winter Palace of the tsars, is one of the world's great fine arts museums.
Most of the roughly 142 million Russians derive from the Eastern Slavic family of peoples, whose original homeland was probably present-day Poland. Russian is the official language of Russia and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Russia officially marks its independence on June 12, 1991, the date of the Russian Republic’s declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union. In the political system established by the 1993 constitution, the president wields considerable executive power. There is no vice president, and the legislative branch is far weaker than the executive. The bicameral legislature consists of the lower house (State Duma) and the upper house (the Federation Council). The president nominates the highest state officials, including the prime minister, who must be approved by the Duma. The president can pass decrees without consent from the Duma. He also is head of the armed forces and of the Security Council. Dmitriy Medvedev was elected to a four-year term as President on March 2, 2008; Vladimir Putin took post as Prime Minster in May 2008. Next elections for the Duma are scheduled to occur in December 2011 and for President in March 2012.
The terrain consists of broad plains with low hills west of the Ural Mountains, vast coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia, and uplands and mountains along southern borders. The climate of Russia’s vast territory ranges from temperate to Arctic continental. European Russia receives some maritime climatic influence from the Baltic and Black seas and the Atlantic Ocean; from the Urals to the Far East, the climate is fully continental. The Pacific Ocean provides the southern Far East with warm, humid monsoon conditions. Winter weather varies from short-term and cold along the Black Sea to long-term and frigid in northern Siberia. Summer conditions range from warm on the steppes to cool along the Arctic coast. Much of Russia is covered by snow for six months of the year, and the weather often is harsh and unpredictable.
Russia’s principal rivers are the Amur, Irtysh, Lena, Ob’, and Volga. The Irtysh, Lena, and Ob’ flow northward across Asian Russia into the Arctic Ocean. The Volga is the longest river in Europe. All of these rivers have complex systems of tributaries that collectively drain much of Russia’s territory.
Natural hazards include permafrost over Siberia, volcanic activity in the Kuril Islands, volcanoes and earthquakes on the Kamchatka Peninsula, and spring floods and summer/autumn forest fires throughout Siberia and parts of European Russia. In 2005, some 7.2 percent of Russia’s land was classified as arable, 45 percent was forested, and 0.1 percent was planted to permanent crops.
Russia's Koryakski volcano on the eastern Kamchatka Peninsula erupted on December 30, 2008.
CIA World Factbook, United States Dept. of State Background Notes, LC Federal Research Division, 12/2008; 07/2008; 10/2006