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Russia Rising
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Russia Today

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By Fen Montaigne Photographs by Gerd Ludwig

Clambering from the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Russia has emerged a decade later with four-star restaurants, cybercafés, Santa Claus, and social ills. Can it speed its halting progress?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

A decade has passed since the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, and during that time the Russian people have been subjected to nothing less than an economic and social revolution. Three-quarters of state enterprises have been fully or partly transferred to individual owners in a corrupt privatization drive. The Soviet social safety net has been shredded, and articles about the woes and impoverishment of the Russian people could fill volumes. But as a seven-week trip around Russia earlier this year showed, shoots of new life are springing up throughout the country.

Most of Russia’s economic activity is centered in Moscow, where a sizable middle class has emerged. Yet vibrant businesses also have taken root in many other cities, including Novosibirsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Samara, and Yekaterinburg. Often the most successful enterprises are in spheres of activity that scarcely existed in the Soviet Union, such as computer software, sophisticated food processing and packaging, restaurants, and advertising. Ironically, the collapse of the ruble in 1998—which made imports prohibitively expensive—boosted domestic production. That increase, coupled with higher prices for Russian oil and gas, has at last halted the country’s economic slide; the economy grew by 5 percent in 1999 and by 8 percent in 2000.

That said, the financial success stories—and the middle-class workers affiliated with them—are still islands in a sea of stagnation. The official salaries of most Russian workers hover around a hundred dollars a month, although many earn some undeclared income on the side. An estimated 20 million of Russia’s 145 million people live below the official poverty line of $31 a person a month. Tax evasion is epidemic, and an estimated 25 to 40 percent of the economy is conducted underground. And every year a tiny layer of super-rich Russians—fearful of general instability and a shaky banking system—ships an estimated 20 to 25 billion dollars out of the country to foreign banks, much of it from the sale of Russia’s abundant natural resources.

Still, to focus solely on the myriad of problems is to ignore what has been accomplished in a mere decade. And, as I have discovered after a dozen years of writing about the former U.S.S.R. and being whipsawed by bouts of optimism and pessimism, you must be able to hold in your mind the dichotomy of the two Russias. One is a place of well-educated, hard-working people slowly building a humane society and the other a land where a worn-out populace endures corruption and a lack of decent civil institutions. The question is, will the second Russia overwhelm the first, or will the new Russia ultimately prevail?

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Sights and Sounds
After a decade of struggle, Russia emerges full of hope in this narrated special.

VIDEO Photographer Gerd Ludwig shares insights into the challenges and hopes of a rebounding Russia. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
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Why are the trappings of capitalism so alluring to Russian and other youth? Tell us what you think.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Both New Year’s Day and Christmas are celebrated twice in Russia because of two calendar systems—the Gregorian and Julian calendars. The Gregorian calendar is the one used in Western and Westernized countries today; it replaced the Julian calendar in 1582. However, the Russian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar to determine holiday observances. Therefore, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 (Gregorian) and January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar), and New Year’s Day is celebrated on January 1 (Gregorian) and January 14 (January 1 on the Julian calendar).

Although some Russians may celebrate all four dates, the holidays vary in popularity. The Gregorian New Year’s Day (January 1) is by far the most popular of the dates, and until the fall of the Soviet Union it was the only one declared an official holiday (Christmas on January 7 was made an official holiday in 1991). Many of the customs that were associated with Christmas before the creation of the Soviet Union (gifts, a decorated tree, and caroling) were moved to New Year’s Day under Stalin’s regime, a time when religious observances were discouraged and people were persecuted for practicing religion. Just as Santa Claus brings gifts to children on December 25 in other countries, Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, visits children on New Year’s Day in Russia. Ded Moroz sports a long white beard and a fur-trimmed robe like Santa Claus (although sometimes his robe is blue instead of red), but he is skinnier than his Western cousin. Traditionally, he travels in a troika, a sleigh pulled by three horses, and is accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. Ded Moroz, though, isn’t the only holiday patriarch in Russia. Riding the coattails of Western products over the past decade, Santa Claus has become a familiar figure and is associated with Christmas on December 25. Santa Claus is most prominently found in stores in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Overall, Ded Moroz still edges out Santa Claus for a place in most Russians’ lives.

Following the Julian calendar, Orthodox Christian Russians quietly celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7, now a state holiday and the second most popular date of the season. Finally, people who still have energy left for more feasting and drinking end the holiday season with a New Year’s celebration on January 14.

—Heidi Schultz

CDI Russia Weekly
The nonprofit Center for Defense Information’s e-mail newsletter offers news and analysis on all aspects of today’s Russia including political, economic, social, military, and foreign policy issues.

The Moscow Times
Daily English-language Russian newspaper.

BISNIS (Business Information Service for the Newly Independent States)
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s resource center provides country and industry reports for Russia and other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—Russian and Eurasian Program
Find publications and experts on the social, economic, and political situation in the Russian Federation today.

Russia Energy Information
U.S. Energy Information Administration’s overview of the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and second largest exporter of oil.


Cohen, Stephen. Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia. W.W. Norton and Co., 2000.

Freeland, Chrystia. Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism. Crown Publishers, 2000.

Josephson, Paul. New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, the Siberian City of Science. Princeton University Press, 1997.

Reddaway, Peter, and Dmitri Glinski. Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy. United States Institute of Peace, 2001.

Schultze, Sydney. Culture and Customs of Russia. Greenwood Press, 2000.

Tayler, Jeffrey. “Russia Is Finished,” Atlantic Monthly (May 2001), 35-52.


Thomas, Bill. “Seeing Red in Today’s Moscow,” National Geographic Traveler (July/August 2001), 1-3.

Montaigne, Fen. “Remote Russia: Expedition to the Putorana Plateau,” National Geographic (November 2000), 32-49.

Winchester, Simon. “Black Dragon River: On the Edge of Empires,” National Geographic (February 2000), 2-33.

Cullen, Robert. “The Rise and Fall of the Caspian Sea,” National Geographic (May 1999), 2-35.

Cartwright, Gary, and Genine Babakian. “Moscow Rising,” National Geographic Traveler (April 1999), 68-81.

Thornton, Jim. “To Russia With Jet Ski,” National Geographic Adventure (Fall 1999), 65-71.

Edwards, Mike. “A Comeback for the Cossacks,” National Geographic (November 1998), 34-57.

Montaigne, Fen. “Russia’s Iron Road,” National Geographic (June 1998), 2-33.

Vesilind, Priit J. “Kaliningrad: Coping With a German Past and a Russian Future,” National Geographic (March 1997), 110-123.

Edwards, Mike. “Lethal Legacy: Pollution in the Former U.S.S.R.,” National Geographic (August 1994), 70-99.

Edwards, Mike. “Chernobyl; Living With the Monster,” National Geographic (August 1994), 100-115.

Edwards, Mike. “After the Soviet Union Collapse: A Broken Empire,” National Geographic (March 1993), 4-53.


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