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Russia country overview

The land of Russia

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

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Geographic regions

Based on the geological structure and topographical features, the Russian Federation can be geographically delineated into two principal sectors—western and eastern—aligned approximately with the Yenisey River meridian. The western sector, encompassing approximately 40% of Russia’s total landmass, is characterized predominantly by expansive lowland plains, interspersed with modest hills and plateaus. Conversely, the eastern sector is predominantly mountainous, notwithstanding the presence of some significant lowland expanses. Considering these topographical elements, Russia can be categorized into six primary relief regions: the Kola-Karelian region, the Russian Plain, the Ural Mountains, the West Siberian Plain, the Central Siberian Plateau, and the southern and eastern mountain ranges.

The Kola-Karelian region

The Kola-Karelia region, recognized as the most diminutive among Russia’s topographical divisions, is situated in the northwestern segment of European Russia, bordered by Finland to the west and the White Sea to the east. The terrain of Karelia is predominantly characterized by a modest, glaciated plateau, with its highest point reaching approximately 1,896 feet (578 meters), although the majority of the region remains under 650 feet (200 meters) in elevation. This landscape features a series of low ridges and small hills interspersed with basins filled with lakes and marshes. In a similar vein, the Kola Peninsula exhibits comparable topographical features, with the notable exception of the Khibiny mountain range, which ascends to an elevation nearing 4,000 feet (1,200 meters). The region is also notable for its geologically ancient, mineral-rich rocks that are exposed or lie just beneath the surface across various locales.

This unique geological composition has contributed to the region’s rich mineral resources, including deposits of apatite, nickel, and copper, which have been a significant driver of the local economy. The Kola-Karelia region is also home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, with forests predominately composed of coniferous trees such as pine, spruce, and fir. The numerous lakes and marshes provide vital habitat for a variety of bird species, including waterfowl and migratory birds. The region’s climate is classified as subarctic, with long, cold winters and short, mild summers. The White Sea moderates temperatures along the coast, while inland areas experience more extreme temperature fluctuations. The long daylight hours of the summer months contrast with the dark, polar nights of winter, creating a unique rhythm to life in the region. Culturally, the Kola-Karelia region is home to a blend of Russian, Finnish, and indigenous Saami influences, contributing to a rich tapestry of traditions and customs. The region’s capital, Petrozavodsk, showcases a mix of architectural styles, reflecting its diverse history and influences. The region also boasts a vibrant arts scene, with a strong tradition of folk music, dance, and crafts. Overall, the Kola-Karelia region offers a unique blend of natural beauty, rich resources, and cultural diversity, making it a fascinating and dynamic part of Russia’s diverse landscape.

The Russian Plain

The western segment of Russia constitutes the most expansive section of one of the world’s significant lowland regions, known as the Russian Plain or the East European Plain. This extensive plain stretches from Russia’s western frontier and spans eastward for approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to the Ural Mountains, and extends from the Arctic Ocean for over 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) to the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea. Roughly half of this immense territory is situated at altitudes below 650 feet (200 meters) above sea level, with the highest elevation found in the Valdai Hills, northwest of Moscow, reaching a modest 1,125 feet (343 meters). Despite its predominantly low elevation, the region’s topography is notably diverse.

To the north of the latitude corresponding to Moscow, the landscape is dominated by features typical of glacial lowland deposition, including prominent morainic ridges such as the Valdai Hills and the Smolensk Upland, which ascend to 1,050 feet (320 meters). These features contrast with the surrounding low-lying areas, which are characterized by an array of hollows, lakes, and marshes. Moving southward from Moscow, the terrain transitions into a pattern of rolling plateaus and expansive plains. In the western part, the Central Russian Upland reaches a peak elevation of 950 feet (290 meters), delineating the lowland regions of the upper Dnieper River valley from those of the Oka and Don rivers. Further east, the Volga Hills rise gradually to 1,230 feet (375 meters) before descending steeply to the Volga River. The uplands are marked by numerous small river valleys deeply cut into the landscape, while the major rivers traverse the lowlands in wide, shallow floodplains.

East of the Volga River lies the vast Caspian Depression, with some areas descending more than 90 feet (25 meters) below sea level. The Russian Plain also extends to the south through the Azov-Caspian isthmus in the North Caucasus region, reaching the base of the Caucasus Mountains. The mountain range’s crest line demarcates the border between Russia and the Transcaucasian states of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Within this border lies Mount Elbrus, which, at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters), stands as the highest peak in Russia. The expansive Kuban and Kuma plains in the North Caucasus are divided by the Stavropol Upland, which features elevations ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 feet (300 to 600 meters).

The Ural Mountains

A contiguous band of modestly elevated mountains and plateaus, with altitudes ranging from approximately 1,150 to 1,500 feet (or 350 to 460 meters), adjoins the Ural Mountains on the eastern frontier of the Russian Plain. The Urals’ principal axis stretches in a north-south orientation, covering a distance of around 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) from the shores of the Arctic to the Kazakhstani border. This expanse is further extended by 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) into the Arctic Ocean by the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, which comprises two principal islands along with a number of smaller isles. Despite the Urals’ role as the conventional demarcation between the continents of Europe and Asia, their topography does not present a considerable barrier to transit. Mount Narodnaya stands as the highest summit within this range, reaching an elevation of 6,217 feet (1,895 meters). However, the mountain system predominantly consists of disjointed, parallel ridges, with peak elevations typically ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 feet (900 to 1,500 meters). Notably, the central segment of the Urals, particularly between the cities of Perm and Yekaterinburg, is traversed by several low mountain passes that facilitate the principal transit routes from European Russia into Siberia. The region is also distinguished by its geology, with numerous districts harboring mineral-rich substrata.

The West Siberian Plain

The West Siberian Plain represents the most expansive geographical feature within the Russian Federation, and arguably, it is among the most prominent topographical landmarks on a global scale. Encompassing an area well over 1 million square miles (approximately 2.6 million square kilometers), which accounts for one-seventh of Russia’s total landmass, the plain extends approximately 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) from the Ural Mountains to the Yenisey River, and about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the shores of the Arctic Ocean to the lower slopes of the Altai Mountains.

Elevation within this region rarely surpasses 650 feet (200 meters), with the majority of the terrain situated below 330 feet (100 meters). The northern portion of the plain is distinguished by expansive floodplains and some of the largest swamp areas in the world. Conversely, the southern region, situated below the 55th parallel north, features slightly elevated and less marshy land, which supports the majority of the human settlements in the area.

The Central Siberian Plateau

The Central Siberian Plateau, which dominates the expanse between the Yenisey and Lena rivers, is characterized by a succession of steeply fragmented plateau surfaces. These surfaces exhibit elevations that vary from approximately 1,000 to 2,300 feet, or 300 to 700 meters. The northern boundary of the plateau is accentuated by the Putoran Mountains, which ascend to a height of 5,581 feet, or 1,701 meters. The plateau is demarcated to the south by the Eastern Sayan and Baikal Mountains, while to the north, it gently slopes into the North Siberian Lowland, which is a continuation of the West Siberian Plain. Progressing further northward, the Byrranga Mountains on the Taymyr Peninsula reach an elevation of 3,760 feet, or 1,146 meters, and stretch into the Arctic Ocean. The eastern frontier of the Central Siberian Plateau transitions into the Central Yakut Lowland, a region noted for its relatively low elevation.

The mountains of the south and east

The southern and eastern remnants of Russia’s territory, which represent approximately one-fourth of the nation’s total landmass, are characterized by an intricate array of lofty mountain chains. These mountains collectively form a significant geographical feature, acting as a natural boundary along Russia’s southern and eastern peripheries. Despite their diverse geological origins, they can be collectively regarded as a singular, prominent topographical zone.

In the segment west of Lake Baikal, the mountainous barrier is notably slender. The Altai Mountains, with their highest peak reaching 14,783 feet (4,506 meters), are situated along the frontiers of Russia with Kazakhstan and Mongolia. To the east, the Altai are followed by the Western Sayan and Eastern Sayan mountain ranges, which form a V-shaped configuration and ascend to heights of 10,240 and 11,453 feet (3,121 and 3,491 meters), respectively, encapsulating the elevated Tyva Basin. Additional mountain ranges extend northward, encompassing the Kuznetsk and Minusinsk basins.

The vicinity of Lake Baikal is distinguished by significant block faulting, where pronounced faults demarcate elevated plateaus and mountain ranges from the deep valleys and basins. The dramatic topographical contrast in this region is exemplified by Lake Baikal’s deepest point, which lies over 3,800 feet (1,160 meters) beneath sea level, while the adjacent western mountains soar to elevations of 8,400 feet (2,560 meters) above sea level, creating a vertical disparity of approximately 12,200 feet (3,700 meters).

To the east of Lake Baikal, mountain ranges proliferate, covering the expanse from the Lena River to the Pacific coastline. This area is typically divided into northeastern and southeastern Siberia, demarcated by the Stanovoy Range. The Stanovoy Range, peaking at 7,913 feet (2,412 meters), extends roughly 400 miles (640 km) eastward to the Pacific shore, delineating the drainage basins of the Lena and Amur rivers, which flow towards the Arctic and Pacific oceans, respectively. From the eastern terminus of the Stanovoy, the Dzhugdzhur Range ascends to 6,253 feet (1,906 meters) along the coast, with its alignment extending towards the Chukchi Peninsula via the Kolyma Mountains. Significant offshoots of this chain to the northwest include the Verkhoyansk Mountains, which reach 7,838 feet (2,389 meters) near the Lena, and the Chersky Range, with its highest elevation at 10,325 feet (3,147 meters). To the north of this mountainous array lies the Kolyma Lowland, a flat, marshy region that stretches approximately 460 miles (740 km) to the Arctic Ocean, abutting the Chersky Range.

A slender terrestrial passage bridging the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea delineates the intricate orogenic structures from the Kamchatka-Kuril sector. Within this sector, the Koryak and Sredinny mountain ranges ascend to elevations of 8,405 feet (2,562 meters) and 11,880 feet (3,621 meters), respectively. These ranges form a continuous northeast-southwest alignment along the Pacific-bordered Kamchatka Peninsula. The peninsula is characterized by a multitude of volcanic summits, a number of which are active. Among these, the Klyuchevskaya Volcano stands as the apex of the Russian Far East, reaching a height of 15,584 feet (4,750 meters), with several other volcanic formations surpassing the 10,000-foot (3,050-meter) mark. This volcanic belt is an integral segment of the vast circum-Pacific seismic ring, which extends southeastward through the Kuril Islands and onward into Japan.

The southeastern region of Siberia is marked by an array of elevated mountain ranges and expansive lowland plains. Notably, the Badzhalsky Mountains, peaking at 8,661 feet (2,640 meters), are situated to the west of the lower Amur River, while the Sikhote-Alin range, with its highest point at 6,814 feet (2,077 meters), lies between the Amur-Ussuri lowlands and the Pacific coast.

Sakhalin Island, demarcated from the Siberian mainland by the narrow Tatar Strait, stretches approximately 600 miles (970 km) from north to south and varies in width from 25 to 95 miles (40 to 150 km). The island’s geography is composed of a northern lowland plain and, towards the south, two parallel mountain ranges known as the Eastern and Western Sakhalin mountains, which reach heights of 5,279 feet (1,609 meters) and 4,347 feet (1,325 meters), respectively.

Rivers

The expansive lowland plains that characterize much of Russia’s topography are home to several of the planet’s lengthiest rivers. Within this vast territory, one can identify five principal hydrographic basins: the Arctic, Pacific, Baltic, Black Sea, and Caspian basins. The Arctic basin, predominantly situated in Siberia but also encompassing the northern sector of the Russian Plain, is by far the most extensive. This basin’s drainage is primarily facilitated by three colossal river systems: the Ob River, spanning 2,268 miles (3,650 kilometers), which, together with its chief tributary the Irtysh, reaches a combined length of 3,362 miles (5,410 kilometers); the Yenisey River, measuring 2,540 miles (4,090 kilometers); and the Lena River, at 2,734 miles (4,400 kilometers). These rivers’ catchment areas collectively exceed 3 million square miles (8 million square kilometers) in the Siberian region north of the Stanovoy Range, and their aggregate discharge into the Arctic Ocean averages a staggering 1,750,000 cubic feet (50,000 cubic meters) per second.

Complementing these major rivers are smaller yet notable waterways contributing to the Arctic drainage. In the European part of Russia, these include the Northern Dvina, with tributaries such as the Vychegda and Sukhona, and the Pechora River. In Siberia, the Indigirka and Kolyma rivers are also part of this system. These Siberian rivers serve as vital navigational routes to the Arctic sea lanes, despite being impeded by ice for extended durations annually. Their notably gentle slopes, such as the Ob River’s mere 650-foot (200-meter) descent over 1,250 miles (2,010 kilometers), result in their slow meandering across vast floodplains. The northward direction of their flow causes the upper sections to thaw prior to the lower reaches, leading to widespread flooding and the formation of extensive swamps, like the Vasyuganye Swamp at the confluence of the Ob and Irtysh rivers, which spans roughly 19,000 square miles (49,000 square kilometers).

The remainder of Siberia, an area of about 1.8 million square miles (4.7 million square kilometers), drains into the Pacific Ocean. In the northern regions, where the watershed lies in proximity to the coast, a multitude of small rivers cascade sharply from the highlands. However, the majority of southeastern Siberia’s drainage is managed by the extensive Amur River system. The Amur, which stretches for 1,755 miles (2,824 kilometers), notably demarcates the border between Russia and China for much of its course, with the Ussuri River, a significant tributary, marking another considerable portion of the frontier.

Below the Arctic basin, three additional drainage basins span European Russia. The Dnieper River, with only its upper reaches within Russian territory, and the 1,162-mile (1,870-kilometer) long Don River flow southward towards the Black Sea. A smaller northwestern segment of the land drains into the Baltic Sea. The Volga River, Europe’s longest river, originates in the Valdai Hills northwest of Moscow and travels 2,193 miles (3,530 kilometers) to the Caspian Sea. Surpassed in size only by the Siberian rivers, the Volga’s drainage basin covers an area of 533,000 square miles (1,380,000 square kilometers). The rivers of the Russian Plain, which are interconnected by short overland portages and augmented by a network of canals, have historically served as critical transportation routes. The Volga River system, in particular, is responsible for two-thirds of all Russian inland waterway traffic.

Lakes

The Russian Federation is home to approximately two million bodies of water, encompassing both freshwater and saltwater lakes. Within its European territory, the preeminent lakes include Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, situated in the northwest. Lake Ladoga spans an area of 6,830 square miles, including its islands, while Lake Onega covers 3,753 square miles. Additionally, Lake Peipus, situated along the Estonian border, encompasses 1,370 square miles, and the Rybinsk Reservoir, located on the Volga River north of Moscow, is another significant body of water.

The country also features elongated lakes ranging from 100 to 200 miles in length, formed behind dams on rivers such as the Don, Volga, and Kama. In Siberia, man-made lakes of similar nature can be found on the upper Yenisey River and its tributary, the Angara, with the Bratsk Reservoir, extending 340 miles, being one of the largest in the world.

However, these lakes are all surpassed by the grandeur of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume. Lake Baikal stretches for 395 miles in length with an average width of 30 miles, covering a surface area of 12,200 square miles. Its maximum depth reaches an astounding 5,315 feet, making it one of the deepest lakes globally.

Beyond these larger water bodies, Russia’s landscape is dotted with a multitude of smaller lakes, predominantly situated in the poorly drained, low-lying areas of the Russian and West Siberian plains, particularly in their northern regions. Some notable examples include Beloye (White) Lake and Lakes Top, Vyg, and Ilmen in the European northwest, each exceeding 400 square miles in size, and Lake Chany in southwestern Siberia, which spans 770 square miles.

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