Russia and the Republics: Landforms and Resources

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Russia and the Republics occupy a tremendous expanse of territory—approximately three times the land area of the United States. The region sprawls across the continents of both Europe and Asia and crosses 11 time zones. When laborers in the western city of Kaliningrad are leaving their jobs after a day’s work, herders on the region’s Pacific coast are just beginning to awaken their animals for the next day’s grazing.

Northern Landforms

The geography of Russia and the Republics is the geography of nearly one-sixth of the earth’s land surface—over eight and a half million square miles. In spite of this huge size, the region’s landforms follow a simple overall pattern. You can divide the northern two-thirds of the region into four different areas. Moving from west to east, they are the Northern European Plain, the West Siberian Plain, the Central Siberian Plateau, and the Russian Far East. (See the physical map on pages 336–337 of the Unit Atlas.)


The Northern European Plain is an extensive lowland area. It stretches for over 1,000 miles from the western border of Russia and the Republics to the Ural Mountains. One of the world’s most fertile soils—chernozem, or black earth—is abundant on this plain. It sometimes occurs in layers three feet deep or more. Because of the high quality of its soil, many of the region’s agricultural areas are located on this plain.

Nearly 75 percent of the region’s 290 million people live on this plain. Three of the region’s largest cities are located there: Moscow, Russia’s capital; St. Petersburg; and Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.


The Ural Mountains separate the Northern European and West Siberian plains. Some geographers recognize the Urals as a dividing line between Europe and Asia. Others consider Europe and Asia to be a single continent, which they call Eurasia. The West Siberian Plain lies between the Urals and the Yenisey River and between the shores of the Arctic Ocean and the foothills of the Altay Mountains. Because the plain tilts northward, its rivers flow toward the Arctic Ocean.


Although extensive plains lie east of the Yenisey River, uplands and mountains are the dominant landforms. High plateaus—with average heights of 1,000 to 2,000 feet—make up the Central Siberian Plateau, which lies between the Yenisey and Lena rivers.

East of the Lena River lies the Russian Far East and its complex system of volcanic ranges. The Kamchatka Peninsula alone contains 120 volcanoes, 20 of which are still active. The Sakhalin and Kuril islands lie south of the peninsula. Russia seized the islands from Japan after World War II. Japan still claims ownership of the Kuril Islands.

Southern Landforms

The southern areas of Russia and the Republics feature towering mountains, barren uplands, and semiarid grasslands.


The Caucasus Mountains stretch across the land that separates the Black and Caspian seas. The mountains form the border between Russia and Transcaucasia—a region that consists of the republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Farther east, along the southern border of Russia and the Republics, rises a colossal wall of mountains, including the Tian Shan, shown below.

Some of these mountains are located along the southeastern border of Central Asia—a region that includes the republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These ranges are so high that they prevent moist air from entering the region from the south, contributing to the arid climate of Central Asia.

Transcaucasia and Central Asia


An extensive lowland called the Turan Plain lies between the Caspian Sea and the mountains and uplands of Central Asia. Although two major rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, cross the plain, much of the lowland is very dry. Two large deserts stretch across the plain—the Kara Kum and the Kyzyl Kum.

Rivers and Lakes

Some of the world’s longest rivers flow through the vast plains of Russia and the Republics. The region also boasts some of the largest and deepest lakes in the world.


The region’s rivers flow through a number of large drainage basins. You may recall from Chapter 2 that a drainage basin is an area drained by a major river and its tributaries. The main drainage basins in Russia and the Republics are the Arctic Ocean, Caspian Sea, Pacific Ocean, Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Aral Sea basins.

The Arctic basin is the region’s largest. The basin’s three powerful rivers—the Ob, the Yenisey, and the Lena—drain an area of more than three million square miles. These rivers deliver water to the Arctic Ocean at a combined rate of nearly 1,750,000 cubic feet per second. The Volga River, the longest river on the European continent, drains the Caspian Sea basin. The Volga begins near Moscow and flows southward for about 2,300 miles until it arrives at the Caspian. This important waterway carries about 60 percent of Russia’s river traffic.


In addition to some of the world’s longest rivers, Russia and the Republics also boast some of the largest lakes on our planet. Two of them, the Caspian and Aral seas, are located in Central Asia.

The Caspian Sea, which is actually a saltwater lake, stretches for nearly 750 miles from north to south, making it the largest inland sea in the world. The Aral Sea, which lies east of the Caspian, is also a saltwater lake. Since the 1960s, the Aral has lost about 80 percent of its water volume. This enormous loss is the result of extensive irrigation projects that have diverted water away from the rivers that feed the lake. Unless drastic action is taken, the Aral Sea could vanish within 20 to 30 years.


The crown jewel among the region’s lakes is Lake Baikal—the deepest lake in the world. At its deepest point, Baikal is more than a mile from the surface to the bottom. From north to south, the lake stretches for nearly 400 miles. It holds 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

Though it has some pollution, most of Lake Baikal is remarkably clean. Thousands of species of plants and animals live in the lake. Twelve hundred species, including the world’s only freshwater seal, are unique to Lake Baikal.

Regional Resources

Russia and the Republics have a great wealth of natural resources. Regional leaders have found it difficult to properly manage these resources. One challenge has been how to transport resources from harsh and distant regions. Another has been how to use the resources without damaging the environment in the process.


Russia and the Republics boast huge reserves of coal, deposits of iron ore, and other metals. The region is also a leading producer of oil and natural gas. Petroleum deposits around the Caspian Sea are among the world’s largest.

Russia’s vast forests hold one-fifth of the world’s timber resources. And the region’s powerful rivers make it one of the world’s largest producers of hydroelectric power.


Harsh climates, rugged terrain, and vast distances make it difficult for Russia and the Republics to remove resources from the ground and transport them to markets. Many of these resources are located in the frigid arctic and subarctic region of Siberia—the part of Russia that lies on the continent of Asia. Businesses find it difficult to attract workers to this severe region.

When businesses have been able to exploit regional resources successfully, they have often done so at great cost to the environment. Mining operations have caused significant damage, as has the production of oil and gas.

Russia’s hydroelectric plants have also caused substantial damage. Dams and the plants’ discharge of unusually hot water—known as thermal pollution—have caused significant damage to surrounding plant and animal habitats.

Dramatic political and economic change in recent years will continue to make resource management difficult. Leaders will have to balance the need for economic growth with their responsibility to protect the environment.