Exploring Our World: People, Places, and Cultures
History and Cultures of Russia
Russia grew from a small trading center into a large empire thanks to czars (rulers) who governed from 1547 until 1917. These czars expanded Russian territory to reach from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. Through the centuries, Russia remained largely rural and agricultural. Large landowners enjoyed comfortable lives, but most Russians were serfs and worked the land. In the late 1800s, Czar Alexander II freed the serfs, but their freedom did not help their conditions. Unrest spread among the people until it finally erupted in 1917. After losing millions of soldiers in World War I and suffering food shortages afterward, the people forced the czar to step down in early 1917. Later that year, Vladimir Lenin led a revolt that overturned the temporary government and established a communist state, the U.S.S.R. or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Although the U.S.S.R. and the United States were allies in World War II, the increasing power of the Soviets led to the Cold War that pitted democracy against the threat of communism. But the communist government of Russia focused on weaponry and space exploration rather than its people. Tired of shortages and government control, the people of Russia were ready for change by the 1980s. As a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev instituted reforms, citizens of eastern European countries threw off communism, leading to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 after a failed coup by hard-line Communists.
The Russian people have created a rich culture based on the traditions of its variety of ethnic groups and religions. After the collapse of communism, the Russian people were allowed to practice religion. Many Russians are Eastern Orthodox, but there are also many Muslims. Russian arts and literature reflect strong feelings of nationalism, and Russia is a center of music and dance. As Russia modernizes, transportation and communication infrastructure must be built.