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Russia on a roll

The Russian economy has come a long way from the fall of communism and the ruble crash of 1998. But the nation faces dramatic challenges. Is the economic boom deeper than just oil? And can the nation overcome one of the widest income disparities anywhere in the world?

From the oil towns of Siberia to the streets of St. Petersburg to the new malls of Moscow, the Russian economy is booming.

Oil flows out of the country and dollars flow in. Consumers are spending and cash registers are ringing.

“Today is my birthday, and 14 years ago I would not have been able to celebrate it,” said 21-year-old Dimitri Toropov. “My parents and I would not have had the resources to afford it. Today, the number of people living in those dire circumstances has greatly decreased.”

The numbers seem to back up Toropov's assessment.

The Russian economy is growing at nearly eight percent, adjusted for inflation. With a rising middle class, retail sales have been growing about 20 percent a year.

Inflation, still at 11 percent annually, has been halved in the past four years.

And the Russian Treasury has bounced back from the ruble crisis of 1998.

A critical difference in economy today is the Russian central bank. It has foreign currency reserves of almost $90 billion.

“Finally, after 15 years, we are finally starting to reform. We are seeing a new phase of Russia,” said Ruben Vardanian of Troika Dialog. “People are learning to live in and behave in a new environment.

In fact, the service industry is one of the fastest growing sectors.

But the core of the Russian economy remains natural resources. From oil to natural gas to metals, Russia is the world's commodities storehouse.

“They've got all the resources here and the next thing to do and where were just starting to see the beginning of is process those resources and add value on those resources,” said Breech Simms of Brunswick UBS.

Money is flowing into the Russian stock market, but economist Roland Nash says there's still room to grow.

“Well, after four years of being the fastest growing stock market in the emerging market world, Russia is still the cheapest stock market on the planet,” said Nash of Renaissance Capital.

Bill Browder has piloted his $1.2 billion Hermitage fund to a 900 percent gain over the past eight years ... years that included the crash of 1998.

“It's an enormous opportunity, and it's not just oil, in just about every sector you have this type of undervaluation,” the Hermitage Fund CEO said. “And, it is really a question: Can you put up with all of these other problems to invest in this undervaluation?

But there are reasons Russian stocks are cheap. Among them: Weak corporate governance. Browder has filed 46 cases trying to enforce shareholder rights. He's lost 40.

“So that's not a very good track record for using the Russian legal system to enforce contracts. Having said that, the six wins that we've had have all happened in the last year and a half,”  Browder said.

The risks of Russian investing are evident every day. The spectacular tax trial of Russia's richest man and its biggest oil companies, along with horrific scenes of terror.

But beyond those headlines, some investors are focusing on more fundamental risks.

Big cities, like Moscow, are tremendously wealthy.

But just outside of the capital, the riches disappear.

Ordinary workers struggle with salaries that are growing, but still average just $236 a month.

And not everyone has money to buy the new consumer products flooding the country.

“It's just like it is for you now in the U.S.,” said 40-year-old Vitaly Ziaka, a resident of Volokolamsk, Russia. “The only difference is that we still don't have money!”

Another big concern: How much the country's economic boom is tied to high oil prices. Russia is expected to export nearly $76 billion in oil this year, just under half of all exports.

“There's this inherent instability that will always be existing as long as the economy depends excessively on one or two products,” said Christof Ruhl of World Bank, Russia.

The Russian economy has never grown by more than five percent if oil prices are not rising.

So, despite and expanding middle class, a rise in consumerism and a more diverse economy, the fate of Russia remains closely tied to the outlook for oil.