Geography

   Covering more than 17 million square kilometers, Russia is the world’s largest country. The Russian Federation sits on two continents and occupies 13 percent of the earth’s surface; it covers one-quarter of the European continent and nearly 30 percent of Asia. Russia is relatively synonymous with northern Eurasia, that is, the northernmost third of the Eurasian supercontinent. From the westernmost point in Kaliningrad Oblast to Chukotka’s easternmost islands, Russia is over 8,000 kilometers wide; from the northern reaches of Franz Josef Land to the country’s southern border, the country is more than 3,500 kilometers long.
   Despite the apparent monotony of the Russian landscape, it possesses every significant ecological environment except for tropical rainforests. The Russian landmass is divided between four principal biomes: tundra, found in the country’s Far North; taiga, accounting for more than half of the country, and most of its Asian territory; temperate broadleaf forests and steppe-forests, found mostly in European Russia and along the Kazakhstan border; and semiarid steppe, which dominates extreme southern European Russia. Nearly one-quarter of the world’s forests and half of its bogs are found in Russia, making the country vital to global biogeochemical cycles and the production of oxygen. Russia’s climate is mostly continental; however, extremes exist in the country’s higher and lower latitudes. Due to expansive, varied, and sparsely populated territory, Russia— particularly Asiatic Russia—is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including many critically endangered species such as the Amur leopard, Saiga antelope, and Siberian white crane. Russia’s sable and Beluga sturgeon are internationally known for their fur and caviar, respectively.
   The country has a number of major mountain ranges; from west to east, the largest are: the Caucasus, the Urals, Altay, Sayan, Byrranga, Yablonovy, Stanovoy, Verkhoyansk, Chersky, Dzhugdzhur, Kolyma, Kamchatka, and Anadyr. Mount Elbrus, at 5,642 meters, is Russia’s (and Europe’s) highest point. The major lowlands are the East European Plain and the West Siberian Plain, which are divided by the Urals. The Central Siberian Plateau occupies much of the central part of Asiatic Russia.
   A large portion of the Earth’s freshwater reserves are also found in the country. Lake Baykal, the largest freshwater lake by volume, is located in Asiatic Russia; other important bodies of water include the lakes of Onega, Ladoga, and Peipus and the Kuybyshev and Rybinsk reservoirs. Russia’s prodigious waterways include the European rivers of the Volga, Don, Kuban, Pechora, Kama, and Oka; its most important Asian rivers are the Ob, Irtysh, Yenisey, Lena, Amur, Indigirka, and Kolyma. These rivers empty into the various seas and oceans that lie on Russia’s borders, including the Sea of Azov, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the seas of the Arctic Ocean (White, Barents, Kara, Laptev, and East Siberian), the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Bering Sea. The country’s major islands and island chains include Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island, the Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin. Important peninsulas include the Kola, Taymyr, Yamal, Kamchatka, and Chukchi.
   Russia commands the largest share of the world’s natural resources, including valuable commodities such as oil, natural gas, uranium, iron ore, aluminum, gold, silver, and diamonds, as well as other precious metals. Due to Leninist attitudes toward the natural world, the Soviet Union paid little attention to the negative aspects of industrialization, mineral resource extraction, and land use. This has resulted in extensive pollution of the country’s rivers, lakes, air, and soil, including radioactive contamination associated with Chernobyl and other nuclear power accidents. Little has been done during the post-Soviet period to improve the situation, although Russia is party to a number of international agreements dedicated to environmental issues. However, the ecological situation in the European part of Russia improved significantly in the 1990s because of the collapse of many industries.
   Less than 10 percent of the landmass—mostly in European Russia and along its southern Asiatic rim—is used for farming, as the taiga proves unsuitable for most forms of traditional agriculture. However, Russia is still one of the world’s largest countries in terms of farmed land, despite suffering from soil degradation and erosion wrought by poor farming practices.
   At the metalevel, Russia can be divided into the European core (including the most densely populated areas of Russia, which lie north of the Black Sea), the Northern Caucasus and its hinterlands, the Russian Far North, Siberia, and the Russian Far East.
   In the contemporary Russian Federation, the highest level of internal political geographic division is the Federal Districts; from west to east, these seven units are the Northwestern, Central, Southern, Volga, Urals, Siberian, and Far Eastern. Each district is comprised of between 6 and 18 federal subjects. Each subject, whether ethnic republic, krai, oblast, autonomous oblast, autonomous okrug, or federal city, is then subdivided into smaller administrative districts, known as raions. Russia is home to the world’s largest subnational political unit, Sakha, as well as the world’s third largest, Krasnoyarsk Krai (the state of Western Australia is the second largest). Russia’s urban geography is dominated by its two historical capitals: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Other major cities include Novosibirsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Samara, Omsk, Kazan, Ufa, and Chelyabinsk. Overall, Russia has approximately 150 urban areas with a population in excess of 100,000. In Asiatic Russia, proximity to the Trans-Siberian Railway is a key requirement for economic and demographic success.
   With nearly 60,000 kilometers of international borders, Russia has more neighbors than any other country. Most of these countries are part of the so-called near abroad, or former Soviet republics, and include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan; its border with the latter is the longest unbroken territorial border in the world. Russia also neighbors Norway, Finland, Poland (via the Kaliningrad exclave annexed from Germany after World War II), China, Mongolia, and North Korea. Since its recognition of Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, these states can also be considered to be on the Russian frontier. Russia’s maritime boundaries abut those of the United States and Japan (and potentially Canada, based on recent Russian claims to the Arctic basin), and Russia shares jurisdiction of the Caspian with Turkmenistan and Iran (in addition to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan).
   As a result of a millennium-long history of territorial expansion, Russia incorporated a panoply of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups in the fabric of the country. As a “settler empire,” Russia’s ethnic geography is shaped by the historic expansion of Cossacks and other ethnic Russians southward from the European (or Muscovy) core toward the Caucasus and eastward into Siberia and north-eastern Eurasia, sometimes referred to by some geographers as the “boreal empire.” In the Volga-Ural region and the North Caucasus, significant populations of ethnic minorities remain, while in Siberia and the Far East, Russian migration significantly diluted the former demographic dominance of indigenous peoples, with the exception of some ethnic republics such as Tuva.
   In terms of economic geography, the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are the dominant nodes of activity, alongside Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok, and other regional centers of finance, commerce, and industry. The central and southern parts of European Russia, formerly dominated by agriculture, experienced massive industrialization in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), while the Kuzbass enjoyed an expansion of mining during the 1930s. Subsequent wartime conditions—relocation of factories from occupied territories—contributed to the development of an industrial base in the Urals. It is in these areas that Russia’s population density is the highest, upward of more than 100 persons per square kilometer in Moscow and parts of southern Russia. The vast majority of Russia, however, has a population density of fewer than one person per square kilometer, and migration patterns suggest that this statistic will only decrease in the coming decades except in areas associated with hydrocarbon exploitation such as Krasnoyarsk and Khantiya-Mansiya. Severe poverty afflicts certain regions of the North Caucasus, Kalmykiya, Nenetsiya, Taymyriya, and much of the Russian Far East, whereas the European part of Russia, especially Moscow, enjoys a high level of development.
   See also Indigenous peoples of the North.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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