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Russia: The People
From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge
Lake Baikal at the point where the Angara River begins. More than 330 streams flow into Baikal. Only the Angara River, in southeast Siberia, flows out.

Photo: AP/Wide World

The enormous landmass of the Russian Federation is bounded on two sides by oceans—the Arctic on the north and the Pacific on the east. Its neighboring countries are North Korea, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan on the south; Azerbaijan and Georgia on the southwest; Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the west; and Finland and Norway on the northwest.

The Arctic north, which extends from Norway to the Bering Strait, consists of tundra, much of which is permafrost, or permanently frozen land. Just below the tundra and stretching across the country, barely interrupted by the modest-sized Ural Mountains, is the wide belt of forest known as the taiga. South of the taiga is an extensive region of steppe, or plains, containing some of the country's most fertile soil. The steppe reaches as far south as the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains and extends, more narrowly, east of the Urals, where it merges into the semi-desert regions of Central Asia.

Land Regions

Russia's landscape is marked by broad plains (or steppes), rugged plateaus, and towering mountain ranges. The western half of the country includes two vast plains: the Russian (or European) Plain and the West Siberian Plain. The Russian Plain is separated from the West Siberian Plain by the Ural Mountains, which form part of the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. In the east, the land rises to the Central Siberian Plateau and the uplands and mountains of East Siberia.

The Asian part of Russia, although many times larger in area than European Russia, is much more sparsely populated, because of its harsher climate and less fertile soil.

The Russian Plain. The great Russian (or European) Plain is Russia's westernmost region. Watered by the Volga and Northern Dvina rivers and their tributaries, the plain extends as far east as the Ural Mountains. The Russian Plain is Russia's heartland. It contains its most fertile lands and supports the largest population.

The country's highest peaks lie within this region, mainly in the Caucasus Mountains along Russia's southern border between the Black and the Caspian seas. With an elevation of 18,510 feet (5,642 meters), Mount Elbrus, in the Caucasus Range, is the highest mountain peak in Europe.

The Ural Mountains. The Ural Mountains, along with the Caucasus Range in the southwest, are the traditional boundaries between Europe and Asia. The mountains are densely forested and rich in mineral resources. The highest peak among them, Mount Narodnaya, rises 6,214 feet (1,894 meters).

Historically, the relatively low Urals were not a useful natural barrier against invasion from the east. Nomadic peoples from Asia, including the war-like Mongols, crossed into Russia in its early centuries.

The West Siberian Plain. East of the Urals, the West Siberian Plain continues as far as the Yenisey River. This region, formed by glacial deposits from the last Ice Age, is forested and swampy.

The Central Siberian Plateau. Rising 2,000 feet (610 meters) or more above sea level, the Central Siberian Plateau covers the vast region between the Yenisey and Lena rivers.

The East Siberian Uplands. Farther east are the mountains of the East Siberian Uplands and the varied terrain of the Pacific coastal region. The largest ranges in this region are the Kamchatka, Kolyma, and Chukotskoye Nagor'ye.

Rivers and Lakes

Russia has an extensive network of rivers. The Volga, the longest river in Europe, flows 2,293 miles (3,689 kilometers) across the Russian Plain, south to the Caspian Sea. The Dnieper, Europe's third longest river, rises in Russia and flows south into Ukraine. Other major rivers in western Russia include the Don, Oka, and Sukhona. Several others flow north into the Arctic Ocean—the Northern Dvina and Pechora in Europe and the Ob', Yenisey, and Lena in Asia. The Amur River, which forms part of the border with China, flows into the Pacific.

The two largest lakes in Europe, Ladoga and Onega, lie within Russia, not far from St. Petersburg. The magnificent Lake Baikal in Russian Asia is the world's deepest lake. It is estimated to contain one-fifth of all the fresh water on the planet but is threatened with pollution. Russia borders on the Caspian Sea (actually a salt lake), the world's largest inland body of water, situated just east of the Caucasus, on the boundary between Europe and Asia.

Climate

Russia's climate ranges from the frozen north to a small subtropical area in the south. The average monthly temperature in the tundra is -50°F (-10°C) or less, and for at least eight months of the year it is below freezing. Precipitation (rain and snow) is usually less than 16 inches (410 millimeters) per year. The taiga may even be colder, falling to -90°F (-68°C) at Verkhoyansk in Siberia, the coldest spot on Earth outside of Antarctica. Precipitation there varies from 8 to 20 inches (200 to 500 millimeters) a year.

In the steppe region around Moscow, agriculture is possible, although the temperature remains below freezing for much of the year.

Natural Resources

The precise extent of Russia's vast underground mineral deposits is still unknown. But in petroleum reserves alone, Russia ranks at least second to the Persian Gulf region. Most of its petroleum and natural gas are found in western Siberia and carried by pipeline westward to Europe and eastward to the Pacific coast. It has huge deposits of coal and iron ore. Gold, bauxite (aluminum ore), and many other metals have long been mined or are known to be present in the lands east of the Urals. Russia has the largest forest reserves of any country. The swift-flowing Siberian rivers are a primary source of hydroelectric power.

Russia has a great variety of animal life. In the north are found polar bears, seals, musk oxen, and reindeer. The taiga supports elk and small fur-bearing animals, such as sable and ermine. Farther south are wolves, foxes, beavers, otters, and deer as well as small brown bears. Siberian tigers, found along the Pacific coast, are protected.

Major Cities

Moscow, which dates from the 1100's, was the capital of the Grand Principality of Muscovy for centuries before the Russian Empire was founded in 1721. It became the capital of the Soviet Union in 1918 and of the Russian Federation in 1991. Although the city was burned during a French invasion of Russia in 1812, much of it was preserved, and Moscow still contains many monuments and treasures from the time of the czars.

An aerial view of the old Russian capital of Saint Petersburg. The large golden dome of Saint Isaac's Cathedral is in the foreground.

Photo: Corbis

St. Petersburg was built on a marsh by Czar Peter the Great, beginning in 1703, and served as the Russian capital from 1712 to 1918. In 1924 it was renamed Leningrad, after the Soviet Communist leader V.I. Lenin. But its original name was restored in 1991. It remains to a considerable extent the beautiful city it was in the 1700's, complete with the canals that inspired its nickname, Venice of the North.

Nizhniy Novgorod, formerly known as Gorki, is one of Russia's most important industrial cities. It was founded in 1221 on the south bank of the Volga River about 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of Moscow.

Novosibirsk, a major industrial center in Russian Asia, prospered as a terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Situated on the Ob' River, it is a major producer of steel and mining equipment.

Yekaterinburg, or Ekaterinburg, is another major mining center along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was founded as a fortress in 1721 and named for the Empress Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. Czar Nicholas II and his family were held as prisoners and assassinated there in 1918.

Volgograd, once known as Stalingrad, is an industrial center and the eastern terminus along the Volga-Don Canal. Founded as a Russian fort in 1589, it was the site in 1942 of one of the most crucial battles against the Germans during World War II.

Donald W. Treadgold
University of Washington
Author, Twentieth Century Russia

Reviewed by Ilya Prizel
University of Pittsburgh

Copyright © 2002 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.