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
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.
Data as of July 1996
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
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
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.
Data as of July 1996
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 -8°C
in St. Petersburg, -27°C in the West Siberian Plain, and -43°C
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 4°C, and the southernmost regions average
20°C. Russia's potential for temperature extremes is typified
by the national record low of -94°C, recorded at Verkhoyansk
in north-central Siberia and the record high of 38°C, 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.
Data as of July 1996