Russia is by far the largest country on the planet geographically. At 6.8 million square miles, it is almost twice the size of either Canada or the United States, the second and third largest countries. Much of that land, however, is empty space. Russia has only the ninth largest population in the world, at 138 million people – fewer than Nigeria or Bangladesh.
As the focus of attention from the United States during the long Cold War and anti-Communist eras of the mid-1900s, Russia is already familiar to many in the West. Modern Russia began with the execution of the royal Romanov family in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Vladimir Lenin and his allies established Russia as a Communist state, and following a brief civil war the country’s borders expanded to engulf neighbors including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Soviet Union was born, and eventually grew to include Kazakhstan and the other Soviet states of central Asia, as well as Moldova, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Josef Stalin began consolidating power after Lenin’s death in 1924 and ran a brutal and repressive regime that killed millions. Stalin, who sided with the Allies in World War II, died in 1953 and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who expanded both the Soviet nuclear arsenal and space program. A succession of leaders followed during a period of gradual decline that culminated with the tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 to 1991.
Gorbachev introduced a series of reforms meant to modernize the Communist state, but they ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991.
Vladimir Putin served as Russia’s president from 2000-2008, a period that saw relations cool between the United States and Russia over issues including human rights and political machinations. Dmitriy Medvedev stepped in for a single term as president, owing to term limits, before Putin returned in 2012.
For journalists, Russia – with its vast geography and numerous ethnicities – can be a complicated assignment. Beginning in the 1990s Russia has fought a series of wars in the Northern Caucasus region, including in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. With four journalists murdered since 2000, Dagestan remains a dangerous region, and the U.S. State Department recommends that Americans not travel to the Northern Caucasus.
Human rights remain a significant concern in Russia, which has one of the highest prison populations in the world. Although Russia nominally protects press freedoms, the government maintains some control over media. The country has a poor track record for solving murders of journalists, although the situation improved in 2011 with arrests in noteworthy cases such as that of Anna Politkovskaya, whose killing in 2006 attracted international attention. Russia ranks ninth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index.
The Overseas Press Club wrote six letters in 2011 alone regarding the treatment of journalists in Russia. Some expressed hope that the arrest and conviction of suspects in the murders of journalist Anastasia Baburova and a human rights lawyer signaled support for the right to free expression. Another expressed outrage at the murder of journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov.
Russia barred Luke Harding, a reporter for The Guardian of London, from re-entering the country after he reported on Wikileaks documents concerning Kremlin officials. And police detained at least six journalists attempting to report on election protests in December 2011, although state-controlled media did carry televised reports of the protests.