Sputnik. Swan Lake. Colorful onion dome architecture. Those little wooden dolls that fit inside one another (aka Matryoshkas!) These are just a few of the things often associated with the country of Russia—not to mention the many “bad guy” portrayals of Russians in Hollywood films and on television. But look beyond those stereotypes, and you’ll find a complex past, evolving present and rich culture dating back centuries.
The largest country in the world, Russia is comprised of 6,601,668 square miles and 11 time zones—nearly double the size of United States territory. It’s home to 142 million people, half of whom are part of the Russian Orthodox Church. Islam is the second biggest religion (about 10 percent of the population) and there are thousands more minority religions practiced in the country as well.
Russians are a proud, family-centric people, uniting around both national holidays of independence and military victories, and religious ones like Russian Orthodox Christmas and Easter. They have a refined ballet, music and literature tradition, the works of which are celebrated and readily consumed across the globe. Traditional Russian cuisine includes “Pirozhkis,” veggie-, cheese- or meat-stuffed baked buns, and “borshch,” a flavorful beet soup. Russians also enjoy “Blini,” a crepe-like dish, typically filled with something savory or sweet, and locally-made vodka. Popular sports in the country include soccer, ice hockey, gymnastics, chess and figure skating.
Tensions ran high between United States and Russia—then Soviet Union—from the mid- to late-20th century as both nations ramped up nuclear and military capabilities. Two fundamentally different super powers—one capitalist in the West and one communist in the East—the US and Soviet Union disagreed on a wide range of foreign policy issues, and competed for military power and influence in the world. A particularly alarming period of the Cold War came in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles away from the United States, which fortunately ended in a mutual agreement.
Conflicts between the two countries continued as The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, resulting in the US leading a 65-nation boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The Soviet Union and allies answered in 1984 boycotting the Los Angeles Olympic games.
While arms reduction treaties from the 1980s through early 2000s improved relations, they became strained once again, as Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. Russia’s military offense in Syria and interference in the US Presidential Election have also rekindled what some say consider to be Cold War-like tensions. And despite recent sanctions from President Obama, Russia’s long-time President, Vladimir Putin and President-Elect Donald Trump have expressed a mutual willingness to work together in the coming year.