Geography of Russia

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CURVING AROUND THE NORTH POLE in a huge arc, Russia (the Russian Federation) spans almost half the globe from east to west and about 4,000 kilometers from north to south. Divided into eleven time zones, Russia is by far the world's largest country. It occupies much of Eastern Europe and northern Asia. The country's terrain is diverse, with extensive stands of forest, numerous mountain ranges, and vast plains. On and below the surface of the land are extensive reserves of natural resources that provide the nation with enormous potential wealth. Russia ranks sixth in the world in population, trailing China, India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil. The population is as varied as the terrain. Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians) are the most numerous of the more than 100 European and Asiatic nationalities.

The Ural Mountains, which extend more than 2,200 kilometers from north to south, form the boundary separating the unequal European and Asian sectors of Russia. The continental divide continues another 1,375 kilometers from the southern end of the Ural Mountains through the Caspian Sea and along the Caucasus Mountains. Asian Russia is about as large as China and India combined, occupying roughly three-quarters of the nation's territory. But it is the European western quarter that is home to more than 75 percent of Russia's inhabitants. This acutely uneven distribution of human and natural resources is a striking feature of Russian geography and population. Despite government attempts to settle people in sparsely populated Asian areas abundant in resources, this imbalance persists. Meanwhile, depletion of water and fuel resources in the European part outpaces exploitation of resource-rich Siberia, the famously forbidding land stretching from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean. From 1970 to 1989, the campaign to settle and exploit western Siberia's plentiful fuel and energy supplies was expensive and only partially successful. Since glasnost (see Glossary), revelations of extreme environmental degradation have tarnished the image of the Siberian development program.

The Soviet and Russian environmental record has been generally dismal. Seven decades of Soviet rule left irradiated landscapes and marine ecosystems, a desiccated inland sea, befouled rivers, and toxic urban air as reminders of the consequences of seeking industrialization at any price. Russia and the other Soviet republics responded to the pressures of the long and costly Cold War by developing a defense-oriented, production-obsessed economy amid ecological devastation. Without a genuine environmental movement until its final years, the Soviet Union left in its wake an environmental catastrophe that will take decades and perhaps trillions of dollars to repair even partially.

During the Soviet period, natural and geopolitical phenomena shaped the characteristics of Russia's population. In that period, wars, epidemics, famines, and state-sanctioned mass killings claimed millions of victims. Before the 1950s, each decade brought to the population of the former Russian Republic some form of cataclysmic demographic event. Demographers have calculated that a total of 33.6 million people died from a brutal collectivization process and the famine that ensued in the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Terror of Joseph V. Stalin (in office 1927-53) in the 1930s, and World War II. Although those events ended more than fifty years ago, such disasters have had significant long-term effects. In age-groups above forty-five, women greatly outnumber men.

In the 1990s, demographers and policy makers are concerned about alarming trends such as a plummeting birthrate, increasing mortality among able-bodied males, and declining life expectancy. Another demographic concern is the millions of Russians remaining in the other newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union, called by policy makers the "near abroad." These Russians or their forebears resettled under a variety of conditions. Russian authorities fear that social and ethnic upheaval in those states could trigger the mass migration of Russians into the federation, which is ill equipped to integrate such numbers into its economy and society. By the early 1990s, Russia had already become the destination of greatly increased numbers of immigrants.

In 1995 the population of the Russian Federation was estimated at slightly less than 150 million. Whereas Russians had accounted for only about 50 percent of the Soviet Union's population, in Russia they are a clear majority of 82 percent of the population in what remains a distinctively multicultural, multinational state.

Physical Environment

Russia's topography includes the world's deepest lake and Europe's highest mountain and longest river. The topography and climate, however, resemble those of the northernmost portion of the North American continent. The northern forests and the plains bordering them to the south find their closest counterparts in the Yukon Territory and in the wide swath of land extending across most of Canada. The terrain, climate, and settlement patterns of Siberia are similar to those of Alaska and Canada.

Global Position and Boundaries

Located in the northern and middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, most of Russia is much closer to the North Pole than to the equator. Individual country comparisons are of little value in gauging Russia's enormous size (slightly less than twice that of the United States) and diversity. The country's 17.1 million square kilometers include one-eighth of the earth's inhabited land area. Its European portion, which occupies a substantial part of continental Europe, is home to most of Russia's industrial and agricultural activity. It was here, roughly between the Dnepr River and the Ural Mountains, that the Russian Empire took shape after the principality of Muscovy gradually expanded eastward to reach the Pacific Ocean in the seventeenth century (see Expansion and Westernization, ch. 1).

Russia extends about 9,000 kilometers from westernmost Kaliningrad Oblast, the now-isolated region cut off from the rest of Russia by the independence of Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania, to Ratmanova Island (Big Diomede Island) in the Bering Strait. This distance is roughly equivalent to the distance from Edinburgh, Scotland, east to Nome, Alaska. Between the northern tip of the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya to the southern tip of the Republic of Dagestan on the Caspian Sea is about 3,800 kilometers of extremely varied, often inhospitable terrain.

Extending for 57,792 kilometers, the Russian border is the world's longest--and, in the post-Soviet era, a source of substantial concern for national security. Along the 20,139-kilometer land frontier, Russia has boundaries with fourteen countries. New neighbors are eight countries of the near abroad--Kazakstan in Asia, and, in Europe, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Other neighbors include the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), China, Mongolia, Poland, Norway, and Finland. And, at the far northeastern extremity, eighty-six kilometers of the Bering Strait separate Russia from a fifteenth neighbor--the United States.

Approximately two-thirds of the frontier is bounded by water. Virtually all of the lengthy northern coast is well above the Arctic Circle; except for the port of Murmansk, which receives the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, that coast is locked in ice much of the year. Thirteen seas and parts of three oceans--the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific--wash Russian shores.

Administrative and Territorial Divisions

With a few changes of status, most of the Soviet-era administrative and territorial divisions of the Russian Republic were retained in constituting the Russian Federation. In 1996 there were eighty-nine administrative territorial divisions: twenty-one republics, six territories (kraya ; sing., kray ), forty-nine oblasts (provinces), one autonomous oblast, and ten autonomous regions (okruga ; sing., okrug ). The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg have separate status at the oblast level. Population size and location have been the determinants for a region's designation among those categories. The smallest political division is the rayon (pl., rayony ), a unit roughly equivalent to the county in the United States.

The republics include a wide variety of peoples, including northern Europeans, Tatars, Caucasus peoples, and indigenous Siberians. The largest administrative territorial divisions are in Siberia. Located in east-central Siberia, the Republic of Sakha, formerly known as Yakutia, is the largest administrative division in the federation, twice the size of Alaska. Second in size is Krasnoyarsk Territory, which is southwest of Sakha in Siberia. Kaliningrad Oblast, which is somewhat larger than Connecticut, is the smallest oblast, and it is the only noncontiguous part of Russia. The two most populous administrative territorial divisions, Moscow Oblast and Krasnodar Territory, are in European Russia.

Topography and Drainage

Geographers traditionally divide the vast territory of Russia into five natural zones: the tundra zone; the taiga, or forest, zone; the steppe, or plains, zone; the arid zone; and the mountain zone. Most of Russia consists of two plains (the East European Plain and the West Siberian Plain), two lowlands (the North Siberian and the Kolyma, in far northeastern Siberia), two plateaus (the Central Siberian Plateau and the Lena Plateau to its east), and a series of mountainous areas mainly concentrated in the extreme northeast or extending intermittently along the southern border.


The East European Plain encompasses most of European Russia. The West Siberian Plain, which is the world's largest, extends east from the Urals to the Yenisey River. Because the terrain and vegetation are relatively uniform in each of the natural zones, Russia presents an illusion of uniformity. Nevertheless, Russian territory contains all the major vegetation zones of the world except a tropical rain forest.

About 10 percent of Russia is tundra, or treeless, marshy plain. The tundra is Russia's northernmost zone, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, then running south along the Pacific coast to the northern Kamchatka Peninsula. The zone is known for its herds of wild reindeer, for so-called white nights (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter) in summer, and for days of total darkness in winter. The long, harsh winters and lack of sunshine allow only mosses, lichens, and dwarf willows and shrubs to sprout low above the barren permafrost (see Glossary). Although several powerful Siberian rivers traverse this zone as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean, partial and intermittent thawing hamper drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps of the tundra. Frost weathering is the most important physical process here, gradually shaping a landscape that was severely modified by glaciation in the last ice age. Less than 1 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone. The fishing and port industries of the northwestern Kola Peninsula and the huge oil and gas fields of northwestern Siberia are the largest employers in the tundra. With a population of 180,000, the industrial frontier city of Noril'sk is second in population to Murmansk among Russia's settlements above the Arctic Circle.

The taiga, which is the world's largest forest region, contains mostly coniferous spruce, fir, cedar, and larch. This is the largest natural zone of the Russian Federation, an area about the size of the United States. In the northeastern portion of this belt, long and severe winters frequently bring the world's coldest temperatures for inhabited areas. The taiga zone extends in a broad band across the middle latitudes, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia and as far south as the southern shores of Lake Baikal. Isolated sections of taiga also exist along mountain ranges such as the southern part of the Urals and in the Amur River valley bordering China in the Far East. About 33 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone, which, together with a band of mixed forest to its south, includes most of the European part of Russia and the ancestral lands of the earliest Slavic settlers.

The steppe has long been depicted as the typical Russian landscape. It is a broad band of treeless, grassy plains, interrupted by mountain ranges, extending from Hungary across Ukraine, southern Russia, and Kazakstan before ending in Manchuria. Most of the Soviet Union's steppe zone was located in the Ukrainian and Kazak republics; the much smaller Russian steppe is located mainly between those nations, extending southward between the Black and Caspian seas before blending into the increasingly desiccated territory of the Republic of Kalmykia. In a country of extremes, the steppe zone provides the most favorable conditions for human settlement and agriculture because of its moderate temperatures and normally adequate levels of sunshine and moisture. Even here, however, agricultural yields are sometimes adversely affected by unpredictable levels of precipitation and occasional catastrophic droughts.

Russia's mountain ranges are located principally along its continental divide (the Urals), along the southwestern border (the Caucasus), along the border with Mongolia (the eastern and western Sayan ranges and the western extremity of the Altay Range), and in eastern Siberia (a complex system of ranges in the northeastern corner of the country and forming the spine of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and lesser mountains extending along the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan). Russia has nine major mountain ranges. In general, the eastern half of the country is much more mountainous than the western half, the interior of which is dominated by low plains. The traditional dividing line between the east and the west is the Yenisey Valley. In delineating the western edge of the Central Siberian Plateau from the West Siberian Plain, the Yenisey runs from near the Mongolian border northward into the Arctic Ocean west of the Taymyr Peninsula.

The Urals are the most famous of the country's mountain ranges because they form the natural boundary between Europe and Asia and contain valuable mineral deposits. The range extends about 2,100 kilometers from the Arctic Ocean to the northern border of Kazakstan. In terms of elevation and vegetation, however, the Urals are far from impressive, and they do not serve as a formidable natural barrier. Several low passes provide major transportation routes through the Urals eastward from Europe. The highest peak, Mount Narodnaya, is 1,894 meters, lower than the highest of the Appalachian Mountains.

To the east of the Urals is the West Siberian Plain, which covers more than 2.5 million square kilometers, stretching about 1,900 kilometers from west to east and about 2,400 kilometers from north to south. With more than half its territory below 500 meters in elevation, the plain contains some of the world's largest swamps and floodplains. Most of the plain's population lives in the drier section south of 55 north latitude.

The region directly east of the West Siberian Plain is the Central Siberian Plateau, which extends eastward from the Yenisey River valley to the Lena River valley. The region is divided into several plateaus, with elevations ranging between 320 and 740 meters; the highest elevation is about 1,800 meters, in the northern Putoran Mountains. The plain is bounded on the south by the Baikal mountain system and on the north by the North Siberian Lowland, an extension of the West Siberian Plain extending into the Taymyr Peninsula on the Arctic Ocean.

Truly alpine terrain appears in the southern mountain ranges. Between the Black and Caspian seas, the Caucasus Mountains rise to impressive heights, forming a boundary between Europe and Asia. One of the peaks, Mount Elbrus, is the highest point in Europe, at 5,642 meters. The geological structure of the Caucasus extends to the northwest as the Crimean and Carpathian mountains and southeastward into Central Asia as the Tian Shan and Pamirs. The Caucasus Mountains create an imposing natural barrier between Russia and its neighbors to the southwest, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In the mountain system west of Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, the highest elevations are 3,300 meters in the Western Sayan, 3,200 meters in the Eastern Sayan, and 4,500 meters at Mount Belukha in the Altay Range. The Eastern Sayan reach nearly to the southern shore of Lake Baikal; at the lake, there is an elevation difference of more than 4,500 meters between the nearest mountain, 2,840 meters high, and the deepest part of the lake, which is 1,700 meters below sea level. The mountain systems east of Lake Baikal are lower, forming a complex of minor ranges and valleys that reaches from the lake to the Pacific coast. The maximum height of the Stanovoy Range, which runs west to east from northern Lake Baikal to the Sea of Okhotsk, is 2,550 meters. To the south of that range is southeastern Siberia, whose mountains reach 2,800 feet. Across the Tatar Strait from that region is Sakhalin Island, where the highest elevation is about 1,700 meters.

Northeastern Siberia, north of the Stanovoy Range, is an extremely mountainous region. The long Kamchatka Peninsula, which juts southward into the Sea of Okhotsk, includes many volcanic peaks, some of which still are active. The highest is the 4,750-meter Klyuchevskaya Volcano, the highest point in the Russian Far East. The volcanic chain continues from the southern tip of Kamchatka southward through the Kuril Islands chain and into Japan. Kamchatka also is one of Russia's two centers of seismic activity (the other is the Caucasus). In 1994 a major earthquake largely destroyed the oil-processing city of Neftegorsk.


Russia is a water-rich country. The earliest settlements in the country sprang up along the rivers, where most of the urban population continues to live. The Volga, Europe's longest river, is by far Russia's most important commercial waterway. Four of the country's thirteen largest cities are located on its banks: Nizhniy Novgorod, Samara, Kazan', and Volgograd. The Kama River, which flows west from the southern Urals to join the Volga in the Republic of Tatarstan, is a second key European water system whose banks are densely populated.

Russia has thousands of rivers and inland bodies of water, providing it with one of the world's largest surface-water resources. However, most of Russia's rivers and streams belong to the Arctic drainage basin, which lies mainly in Siberia but also includes part of European Russia. Altogether, 84 percent of Russia's surface water is located east of the Urals in rivers flowing through sparsely populated territory and into the Arctic and Pacific oceans. In contrast, areas with the highest concentrations of population, and therefore the highest demand for water supplies, tend to have the warmest climates and highest rates of evaporation. As a result, densely populated areas such as the Don and Kuban' river basins north of the Caucasus have barely adequate (or in some cases inadequate) water resources.

Forty of Russia's rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers are east of the Urals, including the three major rivers that drain Siberia as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean: the Irtysh-Ob' system (totaling 5,380 kilometers), the Yenisey (4,000 kilometers), and the Lena (3,630 kilometers). The basins of those river systems cover about 8 million square kilometers, discharging nearly 50,000 cubic meters of water per second into the Arctic Ocean. The northward flow of these rivers means that source areas thaw before the areas downstream, creating vast swamps such as the 48,000-square-kilometer Vasyugane Swamp in the center of the West Siberian Plain. The same is true of other river systems, including the Pechora and the North Dvina in Europe and the Kolyma and the Indigirka in Siberia. Approximately 10 percent of Russian territory is classified as swampland.

A number of other rivers drain Siberia from eastern mountain ranges into the Pacific Ocean. The Amur River and its main tributary, the Ussuri, form a long stretch of the winding boundary between Russia and China. The Amur system drains most of southeastern Siberia. Three basins drain European Russia. The Dnepr, which flows mainly through Belarus and Ukraine, has its headwaters in the hills west of Moscow. The 1,860-kilometer Don originates in the Central Russian Upland south of Moscow and then flows into the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea at Rostov-na-Donu. The Volga is the third and by far the largest of the European systems, rising in the Valday Hills west of Moscow and meandering southeastward for 3,510 kilometers before emptying into the Caspian Sea. Altogether, the Volga system drains about 1.4 million square kilometers. Linked by several canals, European Russia's rivers long have been a vital transportation system; the Volga system still carries two-thirds of Russia's inland water traffic.

Russia's inland bodies of water are chiefly a legacy of extensive glaciation. In European Russia, the largest lakes are Ladoga and Onega northeast of St. Petersburg, Lake Peipus on the Estonian border, and the Rybinsk Reservoir north of Moscow. Smaller man-made reservoirs, 160 to 320 kilometers long, are on the Don, the Kama, and the Volga rivers. Many large reservoirs also have been constructed on the Siberian rivers; the Bratsk Reservoir northwest of Lake Baikal is one of the world's largest.

The most prominent of Russia's bodies of fresh water is Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and most capacious freshwater lake. Lake Baikal alone holds 85 percent of the freshwater resources of the lakes in Russia and 20 percent of the world's total. It extends 632 kilometers in length and fifty-nine kilometers across at its widest point. Its maximum depth is 1,713 meters. Numerous smaller lakes dot the northern regions of the European and Siberian plains. The largest of these are lakes Beloye, Topozero, Vyg, and Il'men' in the European northwest and Lake Chany in southwestern Siberia.


Russia has a largely continental climate because of its sheer size and compact configuration. Most of its land is more than 400 kilometers from the sea, and the center is 3,840 kilometers from the sea. In addition, Russia's mountain ranges, predominantly to the south and the east, block moderating temperatures from the Indian and Pacific oceans, but European Russia and northern Siberia lack such topographic protection from the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans.

Because only small parts of Russia are south of 50 north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60 north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters. The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below. Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them. Transportation routes, including entire railroad lines, are redirected in winter to traverse rock-solid waterways and lakes. Some areas constitute important exceptions to this description, however: the moderate maritime climate of Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea is similar to that of the American Northwest; the Russian Far East, under the influence of the Pacific Ocean, has a monsoonal climate that reverses the direction of wind in summer and winter, sharply differentiating temperatures; and a narrow, subtropical band of territory provides Russia's most popular summer resort area on the Black Sea.

In winter an intense high-pressure system causes winds to blow from the south and the southwest in all but the Pacific region of the Russian landmass; in summer a low-pressure system brings winds from the north and the northwest to most of the landmass. That meteorological combination reduces the wintertime temperature difference between north and south. Thus, average January temperatures are -8C in St. Petersburg, -27C in the West Siberian Plain, and -43C at Yakutsk (in east-central Siberia, at approximately the same latitude as St. Petersburg), while the winter average on the Mongolian border, whose latitude is some 10 farther south, is barely warmer. Summer temperatures are more affected by latitude, however; the Arctic islands average 4C, and the southernmost regions average 20C. Russia's potential for temperature extremes is typified by the national record low of -94C, recorded at Verkhoyansk in north-central Siberia and the record high of 38C, recorded at several southern stations.

The long, cold winter has a profound impact on almost every aspect of life in the Russian Federation. It affects where and how long people live and work, what kinds of crops are grown, and where they are grown (no part of the country has a year-round growing season). The length and severity of the winter, together with the sharp fluctuations in the mean summer and winter temperatures, impose special requirements on many branches of the economy. In regions of permafrost, buildings must be constructed on pilings, machinery must be made of specially tempered steel, and transportation systems must be engineered to perform reliably in extremely low and extremely high temperatures. In addition, during extended periods of darkness and cold, there are increased demands for energy, health care, and textiles.

Because Russia has little exposure to ocean influences, most of the country receives low to moderate amounts of precipitation. Highest precipitation falls in the northwest, with amounts decreasing from northwest to southeast across European Russia. The wettest areas are the small, lush subtropical region adjacent to the Caucasus and along the Pacific coast. Along the Baltic coast, average annual precipitation is 600 millimeters, and in Moscow it is 525 millimeters. An average of only twenty millimeters falls along the Russian-Kazak border, and as little as fifteen millimeters may fall along Siberia's Arctic coastline. Average annual days of snow cover, a critical factor for agriculture, depends on both latitude and altitude. Cover varies from forty to 200 days in European Russia, and from 120 to 250 days in Siberia.

SOURCES: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook

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