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Russia fills out Europe's right flank and reaches across the top of Asia to wade in the Pacific, making it European, Asian, Arctic, and none of the above. Its struggle for identity, association, and empire has defined it since the Vikings formed the state of Rus nearly 1,200 years ago. Blood and repression have marred this struggle, right up to today. Russia's leaders have been expert at inflicting ugliness on their people, and Russians have become expert at putting up with it. Yet the country has survived and thrived, producing some of the world's best science, music, and literature. More remarkably, Russians are among the most festive and giving people on the planet, always ready to put their last morsel of food and last drop of drink on the table to honor an unexpected late-night guest with toasts, more toasts, and laughter. Moscow has dominated the country's political, economic, and cultural life for most of the past 900 years; St. Petersburg, during the 2 centuries when it assumed the role of Russia's capital, plunged the country at long last into the modern world. The two distinct, yet distinctly Russian, cities remain the pride of this unfathomably vast country.

Unorthodox Beginnings

Whether legend or fact, the story of how Russians chose Orthodox Christianity hardly sounds holy: Grand Prince Vladimir I of Kievan Rus was deciding which of the world's religions would best suit his burgeoning state. He rejected Judaism for its prohibition of pork, a crucial Russian food source; and dismissed Islam because no Russian (even in the 10th c.) would heed a ban on liquor -- a lesson Mikhail Gorbachev learned a millennium later after launching a disastrous anti-alcohol campaign. Prince Vladimir finally settled on Orthodox Christianity, allegedly because of his envoys' rave reviews of the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople.

The Great Russian Spying Tradition

You've heard of the KGB, that ultimate of Cold War villains. Yet it represents just one chapter in Russia's rich history of spying, snooping, informing, rooting out conspiracies, and all-around paranoia. Most of this activity has been aimed not at outsiders, but at Russians themselves. Ivan the Terrible (1533-84) was the first Russian leader to establish a secret office to spy on his subjects, and his successors kept up the tradition. Undercover agents and counterespionage thrived amid the revolutionary activity of the late 19th century. When the Soviets took over, they formalized the secret police into a pillar of the government that became notorious for torturing or murdering suspects or sending them to prison based on flimsy or nonexistent evidence.

Soviet spy agencies were labeled with a succession of double-speak acronyms. Felix Dzerzhinsky, considered the father of Soviet espionage, established the Cheka, an abbreviation for the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Counter-revolution, Speculation and Sabotage, in 1917. Later, the NKVD (People's Committee for Internal Affairs) ruled over labor camps and prisons for political enemies under Stalin. It then became the MGB (Ministry of State Security), before morphing into the better-known KGB (Committee of State Security). Its many departments snooped on every aspect of Russians' lives, from workplace tardiness to personal correspondence. The system shrank considerably after the Soviet collapse, but the "gebeshniki," or "state security guys," enjoyed a bit of a comeback under Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB operative who ran the post-Soviet intelligence agency, the FSB (Federal Security Service), in the late 1990s before becoming president. While the FSB is in charge of domestic snooping, foreign spies are tracked by the honestly named Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

Calendar Confusion

Russia used the Julian calendar until February 1918, well after the rest of Europe switched to the Gregorian calendar, which at that point was 13 days ahead. When the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, it was still October 1917 in Russia but was already November in the rest of Europe; hence, for the next 7 decades, the Soviets celebrated "Great October Revolution Day" on November 7. The Russian Orthodox calendar ignored the switch, and Russians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 instead of December 25. Some also celebrate the "Old" New Year on January 13 and 14, as well as the traditional New Year's bash on December 31 and January 1.

Chechnya

Chechnya is an uncomfortable subject, and objective information is nearly impossible to come by. Even calling the blood spilling that continues there a "war" can provoke hours of debate. The fate of this region in the Northern Caucasus Mountains is the most controversial subject in today's Russia -- and in many ways, the most important.

Chechens make up one of nearly 100 ethnic groups with no relation to Slavic Russians scattered in the slopes and valleys of the Caucasus Mountains. Russians fought for dominance over the region in the 18th and 19th centuries, and technically "won" in 1859; but Chechens in particular continued to bristle at Russian rule, and guerrilla bands repeatedly attacked Russian colonizers. During the Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war, the Bolsheviks won over many Chechens with promises of greater autonomy and religious freedom. These promises were quickly forgotten, however, and Chechens staged uprisings against Soviet rule.

Stalin was so panicked by Chechen hostility toward Moscow that he accused the entire Chechen population of collaborating with the Nazis and exiled them all to concentration camps in Kazakhstan in 1944. They were allowed to return home only under Khrushchev's thaw 13 years later, to find Chechnya "Sovietized," with an ethnically diverse population, a university, and a busy airport. The Chechens assimilated back into their homeland, which was by then a province within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. But the indignity of exile remains seminal in Chechens' modern memory, and pent-up rage over that and other Russian offenses simmered for decades. The late-1980s independence movements in other Soviet republics fueled the ambitions of a few Chechens, led by Dzhokhar Dudayev, to establish their own sovereign state. But Chechnya remained a republic within Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. Dudayev encouraged resistance against Russian police, and amid increasing violence in the region, then-President Boris Yeltsin ordered troops into Chechnya in December 1994.

Neither side seemed ready for what happened next. The Russian army turned out to be so demoralized and financially crippled that its troops succumbed in battle after battle to ragtag Chechen bands. The Russian populace was horrified by the war and the deaths of underfed, underpaid teenage conscripts in pointless firefights. Even Dudayev's death in 1996 didn't improve the Russian forces' lot, and in August that year the two sides signed a peace deal allowing Chechnya greater autonomy. Yet the Chechens proved unprepared to govern themselves, and the republic sank into lawlessness. Reconstruction funds were blatantly embezzled, and kidnapping for ransom became the engine of the Chechen economy (in addition to siphoning oil from pipelines leading out of the Caspian Sea). Nearly no outsiders dared enter the region, whether federal official, journalist, or aid worker.

In August 1999, Chechen bands raided the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan and seized several villages, pledging to create a regionwide Islamic state. Soon afterward, apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities killed 300 civilians and terrified the nation. Yeltsin sent troops back to Chechnya, and his new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, successfully "sold" the war to the Russian people, who by then were eager for determined leadership and an end to Chechen crime and terrorism. Putin's popularity soared amid early successes for Russian troops, and within months he had replaced Yeltsin as president.

And the war rages on. Chechnya's remaining warlords continue to stage terrorist attacks on civilian targets, including the hostage-taking in a Moscow theater in 2002 and the seizure of a school in Beslan in 2004, both of which left scores of dead. Such attacks only strengthen Russian resolve against peace talks. The Chechens' funding, which appears steady, is believed to come from various Islamic extremist groups. A decade ago most Chechens were casual in their observance of Islamic custom, but the war has changed that. Many now sport long beards, forego alcohol, and adhere to sharia law. The Kremlin has claimed for years that Chechnya is "normalized," but Russian police and the Chechens who cooperate with them are killed regularly in guerrilla raids on mountain roads, and Chechen families suffer routine torture in Russian "cleanup operations" on villages thought to harbor rebels. Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president, Ramzan Kadyrov, is widely feared, and his militias are believed to act with impunity against perceived threats. International pressure failed to persuade Putin to rethink his Chechnya policy.

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