GEOGRAPHY Russia, the largest country in the world, occupies one-tenth of all the land on Earth. It spans 11 time zones across two continents (Europe and Asia) and has coasts on three oceans (the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic).
The Russian landscape varies from desert to frozen coastline, tall mountains to giant marshes. Much of Russia is made up of rolling, treeless plains called steppes. Siberia, which occupies three-quarters of Russia, is dominated by sprawling pine forests called taigas.
Russia has about 100,000 rivers, including some of the longest and most powerful in the world. It also has many lakes, including Europe's two largest: Ladoga and Onega. Lake Baikal in Siberia contains more water than any other lake on Earth.
NATURE As big as Russia is, it's no surprise that it is home to a large number of ecosystems and species. Its forests, steppes, and tundras provide habitat for many rare animals, including Asiatic black bears, snow leopards, polar bears, and small, rabbit-like mammals called pikas.
Russia's first national parks were set up in the 19th century, but decades of unregulated pollution have taken a toll on many of the country's wild places. Currently, about one percent of Russia's land area is protected in preserves, known as zapovedniks.
Russia's most famous animal species is the Siberian tiger, the largest cat in the world. Indigenous to the forests of eastern Russia, these endangered giants can be 10 feet (3 meters) long, not including their tail, and weigh up to 600 pounds (300 kilograms).
HISTORY The earliest human settlements in Russia arose around A.D. 500, as Scandinavians moved south to areas around the upper Volga River. These settlers mixed with Slavs from the west and built a fortress that would eventually become the Ukrainian city of Kiev.
Kiev evolved into an empire that ruled most of European Russia for 200 years, then broke up into Ukraine, Belarus, and Muscovy. Muscovy's capital, Moscow, remained a small trading post until the 13th century, when Mongol invasions in the south drove people to settle in Moscow.
In the 1550s, Muscovite ruler Ivan IV became Russia's first tsar after driving the Mongols out of Kiev and unifying the region. In 1682, Peter the Great became tsar at the age of ten and for 42 years worked to make Russia more modern and more European.
In 1917, Russians unhappy with their government overthrew the tsar and formed an elected government. Just a few months later, though, a communist group called the Bolsheviks seized power. Their leader, Vladimir Lenin, created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) from Russia and 11 other countries.
The U.S.S.R. fought on the side of the United States in World War II, but relations between the two powers and their allies became strained soon after the war ended in 1945. These tensions led to the Cold War, which ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE There are about 120 ethnic groups in Russia who speak more than a hundred languages. Roughly 80 percent of Russians trace their ancestry to the Slavs who settled in the country 1,500 years ago. Other major groups include Tatars, who came with the Mongol invaders, and Ukrainians.
Russia is known all over the world for its thinkers and artists, including writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, composers like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and ballet dancers like Rudolf Nureyev.
GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMY Russia's history as a democracy is short. The country's first election, in 1917, was quickly reversed by the Bolsheviks, and it wasn't until the 1991 election of Boris Yeltsin that democracy took hold.
Russia is a federation of 86 republics, provinces, territories, and districts, all controlled by the government in Moscow. The head of state is a president elected by the people. The economy is based on a vast supply of natural resources, including oil, coal, iron ore, gold, and aluminum.
FAST FACTSOfficial Name:Russian Federation Form of Government: Federation Capital: Moscow Population: 141,377,752 Official Language: Russian Money: Ruble Area: 6,592,772 sq mi (17,075,200 sq km) Major Mountain Ranges: Ural, Altay Major Rivers: Amur, Irtysh, Lena, Ob, Volga, Yenisey