Even after being stripped of the former Soviet republics Russia is still the largest country in the world, with an area of 17,075,200 square kilometers (16,995,800 of which are land surface) or 6,592,800 square miles. Covering more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area and 1.8 times the size of the United States, Russia occupies much of easternmost Europe and northern Asia, stretching from Norway to the Pacific Ocean and from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Russia’s area encompasses over three quarters of the total area of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, Soviet Union), which covered 22,402,200 square kilometers (8,649,500 square miles). Russia stretches from Finland, Poland, Norway, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine on the west, to the Pacific Ocean in the east, spanning 11 time zones. Its southern neighbors include Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and North Korea. The Caucasus Mountains in southwestern Russia and the Ural Mountains in central Russia are regarded as dividing lines between Asia and Europe.

The areas where Russians live have tended to be flat or rolling, and a mix of forests, agricultural areas and steppes. The topography of European Russia was influenced more by Ice Age glaciation than Siberia and the West. Soils are podzolic in the north and chernozemic in the south. There are so many lakes, ponds and swamps that stands of trees sometimes seems like islands. In the flat terrain rivers meander and loop all over the place, often forming oxbow lakes. The landscape of large portions of Russia have been transformed by agriculture. Only residual forest are found south of Moscow.

Russians have a deep love for their land and the countryside as reflected in their literature, poetry and desire to have a dacha in the countryside. Birches, oaks, pines, feather grass nightingales, cranes and rivers all have a deep meaning to Russians.

Russia is largest country in the world in terms of area but unfavorably located in relation to major sea lanes of the world; despite its size, much of the country lacks proper soils and climates (either too cold or too dry) for agriculture; Mount El'brus is Europe's tallest peak; Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, is estimated to hold one fifth of the world's fresh water

Two classic authorities on the geography of Russia are Paul E. Lydolph's “Geography of the U.S.S.R.” and David Hooson's “The Soviet Union: People and Regions”. A post-Soviet treatment of the topic is found in Russian Regions Today: Atlas of the New Federation , published in 1994 by the International Center in Washington, D.C.

Geography Facts of Russia

Location: North Asia bordering the Arctic Ocean, extending from Europe (the portion west of the Urals) to the North Pacific Ocean; Geographic coordinates: 60 00 N, 100 00 E; Area: total: 17,098,242 sq kilometers; land: 16,377,742 sq kilometers; water: 720,500 sq kilometers; country comparison to the world: 1. Area - comparative: approximately 1.8 times the size of the US. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Land boundaries: total: 22,408 kilometers; border countries (14): Azerbaijan 338 kilometers, Belarus 1,312 kilometers, China (southeast) 4,133 kilometers, China (south) 46 kilometers, Estonia 324 kilometers, Finland 1,309 kilometers, Georgia 894 kilometers, Kazakhstan 7,644 kilometers, North Korea 18 kilometers, Latvia 332 kilometers, Lithuania (Kaliningrad Oblast) 261 kilometers, Mongolia 3,452 kilometers, Norway 191 kilometers, Poland (Kaliningrad Oblast) 210 kilometers, Ukraine 1,944 kilometers. =

Coastline: 37,653 kilometers, bordering the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. Maritime claims: territorial sea: 12 nautical miles; contiguous zone: 24 nautical miles; exclusive economic zone: 200 nautical miles; continental shelf: 200-m depth or to the depth of exploitation; =

Terrain: broad plain with low hills west of Urals; vast coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia; uplands and mountains along southern border regions; Elevation extremes: lowest point: Caspian Sea -28 meter; highest point: Gora El'brus 5,633 meters (highest point in Europe); ; Natural resources: wide natural resource base including major deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, and many strategic minerals, reserves of rare earth elements, timber; note: formidable obstacles of climate, terrain, and distance hinder exploitation of natural resources. =

Land use: agricultural land: 13.1 percent; arable land 7.3 percent; permanent crops 0.1 percent; permanent pasture 5.7 percent; forest: 49.4 percent; other: 37.5 percent (2011 est.). In 2005 some 7.2 percent of Russia’s land was classified as arable, 45 percent was forested, and 0.1 percent was planted to permanent crops. In 2003 about 46,000 square kilometers were irrigated. In the 1990s, it was estimated 10 percent of Russian was arable, 45 percent was forest, 5 percent meadows and pasture, and 40 percent other, including tundra. [Source: Library of Congress * =]

Time Zones: Russia’s territory includes 11 time zones. Moscow is three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Geographical Highlights of Russia

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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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, revelations of extreme environmental degradation have tarnished the image of the Siberian development program.*

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 of Russia

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. Russia’s 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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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.*

Land Boundaries and Disputed Territories of Russia

Land Boundaries: Russia’s land boundaries extend 21,139 kilometers, bordering the following nations: Azerbaijan (284 kilometers), Belarus (959 kilometers), China (3,645 kilometers), Estonia (290 kilometers), Finland (1,313 kilometers), Georgia (723 kilometers), Kazakhstan (6,846 kilometers), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) (19 kilometers), Latvia (217 kilometers), Lithuania (227 kilometers), Mongolia (3,441 kilometers), Norway (167 kilometers), Poland (432 kilometers), and Ukraine (1,576 kilometers). [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Disputed Territory: Russia has unresolved territorial disputes with Japan over the southernmost four Kuril Islands; with Ukraine over the maritime boundary in the Kerch Strait north of the Black Sea; and with other Caspian littoral states over control of offshore resources. In 2004 seabed treaties with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan eliminated one issue in the Caspian region. Some border segments with Georgia, Estonia, and Latvia have not been accepted by both parties. In 2005 China and Russia ended a long dispute by agreeing to divide jurisdiction over river islands along their common border. **

Maritime Claims: Russia claims a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, a 12-nautical- mile territorial sea, and jurisdiction over the continental shelf to a 200-meter depth or to the depth of resource exploitation. **

Topography of Russia

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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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. *

European Russia is dominated by a broad plain, with low hills west of the Ural Mountains. The Urals, considered the boundary between European and Asian Russia, stretch from the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya to the border of Kazakhstan. Russia’s southern border with Mongolia and its entire Pacific coast are marked by mountain ranges. The border with China is defined by the Amur River valley. Siberia contains vast coniferous forests, to the north of which is a broad tundra zone extending to the Arctic Ocean. The southwestern border is marked by the uplands of the northern slope of the Caucasus Mountains. In Russia’s southernmost extremity, flat, fertile steppe extends between its borders with Ukraine on the west and Kazakhstan on the east. About 10 percent of the country is swampland; about 45 percent is forested. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

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 degrees 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. East of the Central Siberian Plateau is the Lena Plateau.*

Tundra, Taiga and Steppe

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. 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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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.*

Mountains of Russia

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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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.*

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.*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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