The country has rich mineral and energy resources. The mighty Volga, Europe's longest river, flows from northern Russia into the Caspian Sea. A bleak behemoth, Siberia encompasses more than half the territory but is home to less than 20 percent of the population. Siberian workers toil at prying natural gas, oil, coal, gold, and diamonds from the frozen earth. Commodities such as fur and timber also earn coveted foreign currency.
Invading Mongols controlled Russia from 1240 to 1380. In 1547 Ivan IV, a Muscovite prince, adopted the ancient title of caesar (tsar in Russian). He and his successors unified fragmented lands and began taking the region that is today Siberia.
Russia looked westward after 1698, when Peter the Great returned from his travels in Europe. Conquering territory along the Baltic Sea, he built his mostly landlocked realm a port capital, St. Petersburg (known from 1924 until 1991 as Leningrad), and established Russia's first navy. Russia entered the 20th century as enormous and imperial.
The forced abdication of Nicholas II in March 1917 ended tsarist rule. In November Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a Marxist, gained power and moved the capital to Moscow—deep in the Russian interior. The new communist state would look inward, expanding and confronting the West. Eventually the Soviet Union came to consist of 15 republics. Soviet planners relocated entire peoples, to reward or punish.
Relocation often moved minority peoples eastward (often to Siberia) and replaced them with Russians—who came to teach the Russian language, to organize (and often dominate) the local Communist Party, and to implement Moscow's decisions. Military power and Soviet security forces held the empire together—extending Soviet control into Eastern Europe after World War II.
Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985 and unveiled sweeping plans for economic restructuring (perestroika), soon followed by unprecedented political openness (glasnost). The Soviet Union dissolved after a failed coup in 1991, producing Russia and 14 independent republics—with Russian minorities totaling some 20 million. Russia seeks to protect these minorities, maintain its economic influence on resources (like oil), and confront separatism at home (as in Chechnya).