Thursday, December 23, 2010

United States

Officially, its name is the United States of America. But people often call it the United States, the USA, or America.
The United States is a vast and beautiful land. It’s home to rich farmland, towering mountains, huge stands of timber, mighty rivers, and valuable mineral deposits.
Colonists from Europe founded the United States more than 200 years ago. They created a new kind of society based on the ideals of freedom and opportunity. The American people, through their ambitiousness and hard work, built one of the world’s richest and most powerful nations.
Facts About the United States
Official name United States of America
Capital Washington, D.C.
Population 304,000,000 people
Rank among countries in population 3rd
Major cities New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia
Area 3,790,000 square miles
9,830,000 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area 3rd
Highest point Mt. McKinley
20,320 feet/6,194 meters
Currency United States dollar
The United States is the third largest country in area in the world, after Russia and Canada. It covers the width of North America between Canada and Mexico. That gives the United States long coastlines facing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
A broad coastal plain lines the East Coast of the United States. To the west, the land climbs to the rugged Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachians are a chain of thickly wooded mountains that stretch from Maine to Alabama. They contain rich veins of coal.
West of the Appalachians, the land drops to the greatest river in America, the mighty Mississippi. West of the Mississippi is a vast open area called the Great Plains. The Mississippi rolls along the eastern edge of the Plains.
West of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains rise to peaks of more than 14,000 feet (4,260 meters). They span the country from north to south. Farther west, along the coast, stands another great system of mountains, the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.
In the northwestern corner of North America lies Alaska, still mostly a rugged wilderness. About 2,400 miles (3,680 kilometers) across the Pacific Ocean is Hawaii, a group of tropical islands. Alaska and Hawaii were the last two states to join the Union. They were admitted in 1959.
The United States is a democracy. This means that American citizens choose their government, rather than having one forced on them. Americans choose their government by voting.
The capital of the United States is Washington, D.C. That’s where the federal (national) government is based. The United States is made up of 50 individual states. Each state has its own separate, democratically elected government.
The foundation of American democracy is the U.S. Constitution. This document, written in 1787, created the American system of government. It opens with these three words: “We, the people ….”
The Constitution defines the powers of the U.S. Congress, president, and federal courts. Just as important, the Constitution lays out the rights and freedoms of all American citizens in the Bill of Rights.
Today, the United States is home to about 304 million people. That makes it the world’s third most populated country, after China and India. The motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum. You can read it on all the nation’s coins and paper money. But what does it mean?
E Pluribus Unum is a Latin phrase that means “from many, one.” It was first used to unify the 13 English colonies in North America during the American Revolution (1775-1783). But the phrase took on new meaning when wave after wave of immigrants came to settle in the United States.
Over the last 200 years, tens of millions of people from other lands have come to live in America. Why so many? There are many answers. The United States had open space for people to build homes and towns. It had plenty of jobs. It was a place where people could practice a religion of their own choosing.
For most immigrants, the United States was a land of opportunity. It was a place for people looking to make a new life. Today, most Americans are descended from immigrants.
The United States is often called the melting pot. Most immigrants adapt to the American way of life. They “melt” together in one big pot. But they also bring their own cultures and traditions with them. These different traditions often blend together to form something new and uniquely American.
The blending of different traditions is at the heart of American culture. You can see it in food, music, clothing, architecture, and many other things.
American pizza, for instance, is adapted from a dish made by Italian immigrants. Hot dogs are based on a sausage dish made by German immigrants. The American musical styles of jazz and blues have roots in Africa. African immigrants brought their musical traditions with them. Country music has roots in the folk music carried to America by immigrants from the British Isles.
The history of the United States has not always been simple or easy. America was founded on the ideals of freedom and opportunity for all. But many people have had to struggle to gain the basic freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
America long tolerated the enslavement of millions of people from Africa. In the 1860s, the United States split apart over the issue of slavery. The Civil War was fought to hold the country together.
Meanwhile, American pioneers pushed westward from the Atlantic Coast, building settlements in the wilderness. As they did, new states were added to the original 13, greatly expanding the size of the country. But American expansion caused conflict with Native Americans, who were gradually forced off their land.
Despite these difficulties, the United States prospered. Today, it is the world’s richest, most powerful nation. Its fertile land, diverse people, troubled past, and great successes are all a part of the American experience.

United Kingdom

Some people call it Britain. Others say Great Britain. Many people mistakenly call the whole country England. But its real name is a mouthful: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That’s why it’s usually just called the United Kingdom, or UK for short.
Facts About the United Kingdom
Official name United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Capital London
Official language English
Population 60,900,000 people
Rank among countries in population 22nd
Major cities London, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow
Area 94,300 square miles
244,000 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area 77th
Highest point Ben Nevis
4,406 feet/1,343 meters
Currency Pound sterling
The United Kingdom is a country made up of four parts: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. For centuries, it was ruled by kings and queens. The United Kingdom still has a monarchy, although today its power is mostly symbolic.
England is the biggest part, but don’t forget the others. Each part was once ruled separately. Each has its own culture and its own native language, which some people still speak. Each even has its own national soccer team!
The United Kingdom lies off the northwest coast of Europe. There are two main islands—Great Britain and Ireland. There are hundreds of smaller ones, too, especially off the coast of Scotland in the north. Northern Ireland is on the same island with the country of Ireland, but it’s part of the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom has lots of coastline and coastal towns. Rolling plains cover much of the interior. There are mountains, too. Ben Nevis, in Scotland, is the highest at 4,406 feet (1,343 meters). England has an area of mountains and lakes called the Lake District. Wales is almost entirely covered by craggy mountains and deep, green valleys.
The weather in the United Kingdom is mild and damp. It’s rainy or overcast up to 300 days each year. That’s why so much of the countryside is lush and green!
London is the capital of the United Kingdom. It’s located in England, and it’s the biggest city in Europe. More than 8 million people live there.
London has great churches like Saint Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. It has a castle called the Tower of London and a large public square called Trafalgar Square. There’s Big Ben, the famous clock tower at the Houses of Parliament. There’s also a famous shopping and entertainment center called Piccadilly Circus.
The United Kingdom has other big cities such as Edinburgh in Scotland, Belfast in Northern Ireland, and Cardiff in Wales. But none is as big and important as London.
When you’re in London, don’t forget to visit Buckingham Palace. This famous palace is the London home of Queen Elizabeth II. Guards carefully watch over the palace grounds. Tourists enjoy watching the changing of the guards.
The queen has very little power when compared with earlier English kings and queens. Today, an elected prime minister and Parliament hold most government power. But Elizabeth II is popular with her people. You’ll find her image on every British stamp, banknote, and coin!
The United Kingdom is the birthplace of the English language. Today, English is spoken in more parts of the world than any other language.
English is considered one of the world’s richest languages. It has well over half a million words! Why so many? Because many different people settled in Britain over the centuries, and each group added their own words.
The United Kingdom has produced some of the greatest writers of the English language. You’ve heard of William Shakespeare, right? He was a great playwright and poet from England. Shakespeare wrote many famous plays, including Romeo and Juliet.
In the 1800s, the United Kingdom was the center of what’s called the Industrial Revolution. It built the world’s first railroads and large factories. It improved machinery to manufacture goods more efficiently. Later, the Industrial Revolution spread to the rest of Europe and to the United States.
The United Kingdom began to build an overseas empire in the late 1500s. It built a large navy to serve its growing empire. By the early 1900s, the United Kingdom controlled the world’s greatest empire.
“The sun never sets on the British Empire,” people liked to say. They were right. The empire reached around the world, so there was always daylight somewhere in the empire. British possessions included India, Australia, and parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Even the United States began as a British colony!
In the 20th century, the United Kingdom lost most of its world empire. But the country continues to work with many of its old colonies in an organization called the Commonwealth of Nations. Commonwealth members share many customs and traditions with Britain.
Many people from Commonwealth countries have moved to Britain. These immigrants have made the United Kingdom very diverse. Today, the United Kingdom is a multicultural country of more than 61 million people.


Have you heard of a mountain called the Matterhorn? Do you know what yodeling is? Maybe you’ve tasted Swiss cheese or Swiss chocolate? If so, you already know something about Switzerland, a small, mountainous country in the middle of Europe.
Facts About Switzerland
Official name Swiss Confederation
Capital Bern
Official languages German, French, Italian
Population 7,580,000 people
Rank among countries in population 93rd
Major cities Zürich, Geneva, Basel
Area 15,900 square miles
41,300 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area 132nd
Highest point Dufourspitze
15,203 feet/4,634 meters
Currency Swiss franc
The people of Switzerland are called Swiss. The Swiss are a mix of people of different origins. Most have ancestors from Germany, but many have ancestors from France and Italy, too.
Because of this mix of people, German, French, and Italian are all official languages in Switzerland. In fact, most towns have two or even three correct names, each from a different language! A fourth official language, called Romansch, is spoken in just a few Swiss villages.
Most Swiss people can speak several languages. The most common spoken language is Swiss German, or Schweizerdeutsch. It’s based on a form of the German language. Swiss German is a spoken language only. Most newspapers and magazines are written in standard German, French, or Italian.
High mountains cover most of Switzerland. Most of the mountains are part of a great belt of mountains called the Alps. Western Europe’s highest mountains are in the Alps. Many of the towering peaks of the Swiss Alps are covered in snow year-round.
Between the mountains are steep gorges and beautiful valleys. Switzerland has many glaciers, rushing rivers, mountain lakes, and waterfalls. The spectacular Staubbach Falls in western Switzerland is one of the world’s highest waterfalls.
There are many famous peaks in the Swiss Alps, including the Eiger and the Jungfrau. But the best-known one of all is the Matterhorn in southwestern Switzerland. It’s 14,692 feet (4,478 meters) high and is famous for its jagged horn shape.
Switzerland has a large tourism industry. In summer, people from around the world come to Switzerland’s mountains to go hiking. In winter, they come to go skiing. One famous resort in eastern Switzerland, called Davos, is the largest winter resort in Europe.
Because of all the mountains, there isn’t much land for farms in Switzerland. Most farmland is devoted to pasture for dairy cows and other grazing animals.
Switzerland’s dairy industry makes many kinds of cheese, including the world-famous Swiss cheese. It also provides milk to make milk chocolate, another famous product of Switzerland.
Long ago, cow herders in the mountains used a long, trumpet-like instrument called the alphorn to communicate with other herders. They also learned how to yodel, a way of singing that can be heard for great distances in the mountains. Even today, you can hear people yodeling in Switzerland’s mountains.
Most people in Switzerland live in towns and cities. Switzerland has many beautiful old cities that are noted for their historic homes, churches, and universities.
Zürich, in northern Switzerland, is the biggest city. It’s the main center for Swiss banking, a major industry in Switzerland. In Zürich you can learn a lot about Switzerland by visiting the Swiss National Museum.
Bern, in western Switzerland, is the country’s capital. There you can walk along the top of the old city walls and look out at the surrounding mountains.
Another important city is Geneva. It sits on the edge of a big mountain lake in western Switzerland called Lake Geneva. Geneva is famous for the many international organizations based there. If you’ve ever seen a Swiss watch, it was probably made near Geneva. Geneva is the center of Switzerland’s watch- and jewelry-making industries.
Switzerland is a neutral country. That means when there is a war, Switzerland stays out of the fight. Switzerland first chose neutrality in the early 1500s, and it has been that way ever since. During World War II, while battles were fought all over Europe, Switzerland remained peaceful. Many people escaped to Switzerland for safety.
Because it’s neutral, Switzerland doesn’t keep a standing army. It does have soldiers, though. All Swiss men who reach the age of 20 must serve in the military. They keep their uniforms and weapons at home and train part-time.
The Red Cross is an organization that helps people in need. In 1863, a Swiss man named Jean Henri Dunant was troubled by how little care soldiers got during wartime. He founded the International Red Cross in Geneva.
Today, the Red Cross helps many people. Like Switzerland, it’s neutral. If there is a war or a natural disaster in the world, the Red Cross tries to help all people in need, regardless of who they are or what side they are on.


The Spanish call their country España. The name comes from the ancient word Span, which means hidden or remote land. It’s a fitting name, since Spain stands somewhat apart from the rest of Europe.
Facts About Spain
Official name Kingdom of Spain
Capital Madrid
Official language Castilian Spanish
Population 40,500,000 people
Rank among countries in population 30th
Major cities Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville
Area 195,000 square miles
506,000 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area 50th
Highest point Pico de Teide
12,188 feet/3,715 meters
Currency Euro

Spain is on a peninsula, a piece of land that juts into water. It’s called the Iberian Peninsula, and it lies between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Spain covers most of the peninsula, apart from a small area occupied by the country of Portugal to the west.
The steep Pyrenees Mountains cross the neck of the peninsula. For centuries, the Pyrenees isolated Spain from its European neighbors to the north.
In the south, Spain almost touches northern Africa. Only a narrow strip of water called the Strait of Gibraltar separates Spain from the African continent. For this reason, African influences are an important part of Spain’s history.

Spain has numerous islands, too. They include the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa.

A huge, rocky plateau called the Meseta Central rises in central Spain. It’s a high, mostly treeless region that covers more than half the country. The best farmland lies along a narrow coastal plain in the north. Even here, rocky ridges come right to the ocean. They cut the plain into short strips.

Spain has sunny weather and a dry climate. Spanish farmers herd animals such as sheep and cattle. They grow crops such as olives, grapes, and almonds. Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olives. They are picked for eating and used to make olive oil. Spain also grows plenty of cork oak trees. Cork is cut from the bark of this tree.
The sunny weather, sandy Mediterranean beaches, and scenic islands make Spain a playground for visitors. In fact, Spain is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

Spain’s capital and largest city is Madrid. It stands near the very heart of the Iberian Peninsula. Madrid is a modern city that’s home to about 3 million people. It’s also filled with famous old landmarks, such as the Plaza Mayor, a huge public square lined with impressive buildings.
Barcelona, on the northeast coast, is Spain’s second largest city. Barcelona is Spain’s chief port and main industrial center. The city’s most famous landmark is the Church of the Holy Family. The ornate spires of the cathedral rise more than 328 feet (100 meters).

Perhaps no sport is more Spanish than bullfighting. The Spanish consider it an art form. Bullfighters, called matadors, seek to show bravery and dignity in the bullfighting ring. The danger and excitement of the sport inspired American author Ernest Hemingway to write about bullfighting in two books, The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon.
Every summer, Spaniards celebrate the beginning of bullfighting season with a week of festivities. In the city of Pamplona, celebrations include the running of the bulls. Each morning, bulls are set loose in the city streets. Those who dare get in front of the bulls and try to race ahead of them. Sometimes, people are wounded or even killed by the bulls.

In ad 711, Muslim invaders from Africa captured Spain. The Muslims had conquered their way across North Africa before invading Spain. Spain remained a Muslim-ruled land for hundreds of years.
The Muslim rulers built dazzling cities such as Granada and Córdoba. Muslim palaces such as Alhambra in Granada still amaze visitors. Spain became a center of learning under Muslim rule. Philosophers, scientists, and artists produced important works.

Christian kingdoms in northern Spain fought the Muslims fiercely. Slowly, Christian forces recaptured Spain. In the late 1400s, two Roman Catholic monarchs got married—Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castile. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last Muslim rulers from Spain.
Afterward, Spain became a Catholic nation. In fact, the Spanish government set up a court called the Spanish Inquisition. This court caught and punished people who refused to convert to Catholicism.

Ferdinand and Isabella made Spain a great power. In 1492, Isabella sponsored a voyage led by a sailor named Christopher Columbus. Columbus was seeking a westward route to Asia. Instead of finding Asia, Columbus found the Americas. It proved to be a turning point in Spanish history.
Spain got to the Americas ahead of most other European countries. It quickly built an empire in parts of North and South America. Spanish ships carted huge amounts of silver and gold back to Europe. Spain became Europe’s richest country. It ruled a world empire.

Spain’s great wealth led to a Golden Age in Spain. In the 1500s and 1600s, Spanish writers and artists reached great heights of achievement. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote Don Quixote, a masterpiece of European literature. Artists such as El Greco produced brilliant paintings.

Spain used most of its wealth to build military power, including a great navy called the Spanish Armada. When the gold and silver ran out, it had little to fall back on. Spain grew poor and weak. Its colonies broke away.
In 1898, Spain lost a war with the United States. That forced Spain to give up Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico, its last holdings in the Americas.

In 1936, a terrible civil war broke out in Spain. It ended with a general named Francisco Franco taking over. This tough dictator executed thousands of people and put thousands more in prison. Franco died in 1975.

After Franco’s death, Spain appointed a king. They chose Juan Carlos I, who was descended from Spain’s last king. But Spain also adopted a new constitution that made the king a symbol rather than the ruler. It gave real power to an elected prime minister. Today, Spain is a vibrant democracy.

South Korea

South Korea is a land of striking contrasts. Rugged, forested mountains cover much of the country. Bustling cities and farms crowd the country’s few lowland areas. Thousands of islands dot the long, indented coastline.
In the early 1900s, most South Koreans worked on farms growing rice, the country’s main food crop. Since the 1960s, South Koreans have built many factories and modernized their farms. Today, South Korea is home to one of Asia’s largest economies.
Facts About South Korea
Official name Republic of Korea
Capital Seoul
Official language Korean
Population 49,200,000 people
Rank among countries in population 24th
Major cities Seoul, Busan, Daegu
Area 38,300 square miles
99,300 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area 106th
Highest point Mt. Halla
6,398 feet/1,950 meters
Currency South Korean won
South Korea is one of two countries on the Korean Peninsula. This finger of land sticks out from China, between the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and the Yellow Sea. South Korea lies on the southern part of the peninsula. The country of North Korea lies to the north and shares a border with China.
In ancient times, the steep mountains of the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding seas sealed it off from the Asian mainland. Few wanderers traveled into Korea. The ancient tribes of Korea didn’t mix much with anyone else. As a result, the Korean Peninsula has just one main ethnic group—Korean. Koreans speak six forms, or dialects, of the Korean language.
In the past, Chinese culture had a strong influence on the Korean Peninsula. Koreans welcomed the ideas of Confucius, a great Chinese teacher who lived about 2,500 years ago. Confucius taught people to respect their elders and honor their ancestors. Grave Visiting Day remains an important holiday in South Korea. Families spend the day at the cemetery, decorating their ancestors’ graves.
Many Koreans practice an ancient Chinese religion called Daoism. Daoism teaches people to live simply and fit in with nature. Koreans learned about the Buddhist religion from the Chinese, too.
In Korea, new religions do not replace older ones. Koreans often blend beliefs from several religions, such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity. In the 1970s, a Korean preacher named Sun Myung Moon created a new religion called the Unification Church. His religion has spread to many other parts of the world.
For centuries, Koreans used the Chinese writing system. Chinese writing uses characters that stand for ideas instead of sounds. In the 1400s, Korean kings decided Korea needed its own writing system. In 1446, a team of Korean scholars introduced a new alphabet called Han-gul. In Han-gul, each mark stands for a sound rather than an idea. Koreans still use Han-gul as their writing system.
One kingdom ruled the Korean Peninsula from AD 668 until 1948, although it was conquered a few times. Korea was a province of China for several centuries. In 1910, Korea came under the rule of the Japanese. Then, in World War II (1939-1945), Japan was defeated. The victors included the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union, a communist country, and the United States, quickly became enemies. They could not agree on the future of Korea. In 1948, they divided the Korean Peninsula into two countries.
A communist government took over in North Korea. Under communism, everyone works for the government. The government owns all the land and businesses. South Korea became a capitalist country. Under capitalism, citizens are allowed to own land and private businesses.
In 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea. They hoped to unite the Korean Peninsula by force. The United Nations (UN) sent troops to stop the North Korean army. Most of the soldiers were Americans. China, a huge communist country, helped North Korea. The Korean War devastated Korea’s cities and killed millions of Korean people.
In 1953, the two sides agreed to stop fighting. They never signed a peace treaty. Instead, each side stationed troops along a thin strip of land separating the two countries. This strip of land is called the “demilitarized zone,” or DMZ. To this day, no one may set foot in the DMZ. As a result, the DMZ has become a refuge for wild animals and migrating birds.
After the war, South Korea prospered. Many factories were built. Seoul, South Korea’s capital, grew into the world’s fourth biggest city. In fact, nearly one-fourth of South Korea’s 49 million people live in Seoul.
Today, South Korea makes goods such as clothes, televisions, radios, telephones, automobiles, and steel. South Korea ships its manufactured goods all over the world.
During the late 20th century, reforms brought a stronger democracy to South Korea. In 1998, Kim Dae Jung won a democratic election to become president of South Korea. In 2000, Kim Dae Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to improve South Korea’s ties with North Korea.

South Africa

South Africa is at the southern end of Africa. It’s a large land of great natural beauty and abundant resources. It has a troubled history and many problems, but South Africa is moving ahead even as it struggles with its difficult past.
Facts About South Africa
Official name Republic of South Africa
Capital Pretoria (administrative); Cape Town (legislative); Bloemfontein (judicial)
Population 43,800,000 people
Rank among countries in population 27th
Major cities Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg
Area 471,000 square miles
1,220,000 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area 24th
Highest point Njesuthi
11,306 feet/3,446 meters
Currency Rand
That’s a tough question, because South Africa has three capital cities! The parliament meets in Cape Town. Cape Town is the biggest city in South Africa, with about 3 million people. But the president runs his branch of government from the city of Pretoria. The judicial branch (the court system) is seated in yet another city, Bloemfontein.
The landscape of South Africa is spectacular. The interior of the country is a high plateau called the Veld. The Veld is separated from the coast by the Great Escarpment. The Escarpment is a long mountain range that runs through much of southern Africa. In the Drakensberg Mountains in eastern South Africa, this ridge rises over 11,000 feet (3,400 meters). In some places, it’s a sheer cliff dropping down from the Veld.
Maybe you’ve seen lions or giraffes in a zoo near home. But wouldn’t you like to see how these animals live in the wild? You can see this in South Africa.
In northeast South Africa, along its border with Mozambique, is Kruger National Park. It’s one of South Africa’s great tourist attractions. Here you can see lions, elephants, zebras, monkeys, rhinoceroses, antelope, and hundreds of other animals. You can even camp out in the park. But be careful, and don’t feed the animals!
More gold is mined in South Africa than in any other country in the world. South Africa is also famous for its diamonds. The largest diamond ever found came from South Africa. It was as big as an orange!
Many European settlers came to South Africa in search of gold or diamonds. Johannesburg, South Africa’s second biggest city, was founded in 1886 when gold was discovered. Talk about gold fever! Within ten years, Johannesburg was a city of 100,000 people.
The people of South Africa are as varied as the land. Three-fourths are black Africans. They were the country’s first inhabitants. Today, they belong to many different native groups and speak several different languages.
The Zulu are the largest native group, making up about one-fifth of South Africa’s total population. Most live in KwaZulu-Natal, a province in eastern South Africa. There was once a great Zulu kingdom there.
The first Europeans to settle in South Africa came from Holland in the late 1600s. People from Germany and France came after the Dutch settlers. The descendents of these European settlers are called Afrikaners. Afrikaners have their own language, called Afrikaans.
Settlers from Great Britain began arriving during the early 1800s. Britain later ruled South Africa for more than a century. Afrikaners and descendants of British settlers make up most of South Africa’s white population.
Until the early 1990s, white South Africans ruled the country through a system called apartheid. Apartheid means “separateness” in the Afrikaans language. It allowed the small, white population of South Africa to control the country’s large, black population.
Most black South Africans were poor during apartheid. Black South Africans had very few rights. They could not vote or live near whites. Millions were forced to live in shacks in shantytowns.
Many South Africans, both black and white, battled against apartheid. Nelson Mandela was one of them. He spent 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid. Mandela was released in 1990. Soon afterward, black South Africans were granted the right to vote. Four years later, Mandela became president of South Africa! Today, South Africa still has many problems and many poor people, but it is a working democracy.


Russia is the biggest country on Earth. Russia is so big that the whole United States could fit inside it nearly twice. In fact, if you started from one end of Russia, you would travel almost halfway around the world before you reached the other end!
Russia extends across two continents. About one-third of it lies in Europe. The rest stretches all the way across northern Asia. The Ural Mountains, which run north to south, divide European Russia from Asian Russia. In all, about 141 million people live in Russia.
Russia’s weather is a lot like that of Canada—the world’s second biggest country in area. Russia lies about as far north as Canada. The weather tends to be cold, with long winters and short summers.
Facts About Russia
Official name Russian Federation
Capital Moscow
Official language Russian
Population 141,000,000 people
Rank among countries in population 8th
Major cities Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod
Area 6,590,000 square miles
17,100,000 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area 1st
Highest point Elbrus
18,510 feet/5,642 meters
Currency Ruble
A great plain stretches over European Russia. Slow-moving rivers crisscross this plain, including the Volga, the Daugava, and the Don. Most Russians live in this part of the country.
In the north, many swamps and lakes dot the plain. In the south, the rich soils make good farmland.
More than ten cities in European Russia have over 1 million people, but the largest by far is Moscow, Russia’s capital. Moscow grew up on the banks of the Moscow River. Today, it is a city of more than 10 million people.
At the heart of Moscow is a famous old fortress called the Kremlin. Today, the Kremlin is the seat of the Russian government. At the foot of the Kremlin’s eastern walls is Red Square, a vast public square that has been the scene of many famous events in Russian history. On the south end of Red Square is Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The cathedral’s multicolored, onion-shaped domes are world-famous.
The next largest city is Saint Petersburg, Russia’s biggest seaport. Saint Petersburg is on the Gulf of Finland to the west. Its lavish palaces and grand cathedrals make it one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. For more than two centuries, from 1712 to 1918, Saint Petersburg was Russia’s capital.
The Asian part of Russia is called Siberia. It lies to the east of the Ural Mountains. Siberia is a treasure-trove of natural resources. It has huge deposits of oil, natural gas, and minerals, and vast stands of timber.
The northernmost part of Siberia has treeless plains, called tundra. Most of the tundra is covered by permafrost, a deeply frozen soil. Few plants can grow in this part of Siberia.
Ice on the surface melts in summer, but the warmth can’t sink through the frozen soil. So the water pools in great marshes that swarm with flies and mosquitoes. Polar bears, walruses, and reindeer live on this land.
South of the tundra is a great belt of forested land called taiga. Russia contains about one-quarter of the world’s forested area. Sable, lynx, wolves, and brown bears live here. In Siberia’s eastern forests live antelope, leopards, and the world’s biggest cats—Siberian tigers.
Rolling grasslands, called steppes, cover much of southern Siberia. Siberia’s richest farmland is found here. Today, the steppes have been plowed and planted for farming.
During the 1400s, the princes of Moscow began wars to conquer lands around Russia. They called themselves tsars, a title Russians once used for their own conquerors. One Russian tsar, Peter the Great, decided to make his country like the ones found elsewhere in Europe.
When Peter came to power in the late 1600s, Russia was a backward land. Farming was primitive. The military was poorly organized. Peter ordered his nobles to dress like other Europeans. He built a strong army, roads, and canals. Russian tsars became powerful European kings.
The arts flourished in Russia during the 1800s. Writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anton Chekhov penned great works of literature. Musicians such as Peter Tchaikovsky and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov composed influential music. Russians performed brilliant ballets and operas.
By the late 1800s, many Russians began to oppose the great power of the tsars. Most Russians were poor farmers called serfs. Serfs were not allowed to leave the land where they worked. Many other Russians were terribly poor factory workers. Among these workers, an idea called Communism took hold.
Communists said that all workers should own the land and factories and control the government. In 1917, a Communist movement, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power.
In 1922, after a civil war, the Communists created a new state. They called it the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union, for short). Russia was the biggest part of this new state.
After Lenin died, Joseph Stalin took his place. Stalin turned Russia into a Communist country by force. He killed many people and sent millions more to prison camps in Siberia. His secret police, the KGB, terrorized the Russian people.
During World War II, the Soviet Union helped defeat Germany. After the war ended in 1945, the Soviet Union took control of the countries in Eastern Europe.
By 1989, Russians had grown tired of Communism. The system could not produce enough ordinary goods, such as clothing or cars. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to loosen the system. But his changes allowed the people to sweep the Communists out altogether.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union officially ended. The different parts of the Soviet Union became separate countries again, including Russia.
Since then, Russia has inched toward democracy. The government no longer tries to control every aspect of Russian life, as it once did. An elected president now leads the country. Factories have been sold to private companies. Land has been given to private citizens and businesses.