National Geographic : 2001 Nov
workforce, the emerging middle class makes up less than 10 percent of the population. And while he thinks the middle class will continue to expand, he is mindful that, given Russia's history, much could still undermine the coun try's excruciatingly slow climb out of the post communist economic morass. "If 15 years from now Russia is in the same state as today, I may feel there is no hope for the future of the country," he said. A decade has passed since the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, and during that time the Rus sian 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 cen tered 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 pro cessing and packaging, restaurants, and adver tising. 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 coun try's economic slide; the economy grew by RUSSIA TODAY Most of the population of the planet's largest country is packed into its west and along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The government divides the country into seven districts (below). Many of Russia's valuable natural resources are in the remote north, creating rare islands of relative pros perity such as Yamal-Nenets, rich in oil and gas, and Sakha, source of 98 percent of Russia's diamonds.