Russian Federation

Area 6.6 million square mi (17 million square km)
Population 143.8 million 2014
Capital Moscow
Highest Point 18,476 ft (5,633 m)
Lowest Point -91 ft (-28 m)
GDP $1.861 trillion 2014
Primary Natural Resources oil, natural gas, coal.

STRETCHING IN A GIGANTIC arc around the ARCTIC OCEAN and North Pole, the Russian Federation spans 11 time zones, nearly half the globe from east to west. Russia is by far the world’s largest country, occupying much of Eastern Europe and northern Asia. The country includes one-eighth of the Earth’s inhabitable land area. The smaller European portion is home to most of Russia’s industrial and agricultural activity. The URAL MOUNTAINS, which divide Europe and Asia, also separates the Great Russian Plain in the east from the West Siberian Plain.

Russian Federation map

From east to west, the land gradually rises to form the Central Siberian Plateau. In the south, the Caucasus region separates the BLACK SEA from the CASPIAN SEA. The tundra of northern Russia has scant vegetation of mostly scrub plants and lichen. South of this high Arctic zone is a great forested zone known as the TAIGA, beyond which lie the great STEPPEs, or GRASSLANDs of Central Asia.

The Russian Far East is mountainous, and the KAMCHATKA PENINSULA contains active volcanoes and hot springs. 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 people.

This acutely uneven distribution of human and natural resources is one of the striking features of Russian geography. The country’s terrain is diverse, with extensive stands of forest, numerous mountain ranges, and vast plains. On and below the surface the land has 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 Belarussians) are the most numerous of the more than 100 European and Asiatic nationalities. Russia has borders with NORWAY, FINLAND, ESTONIALATVIA, LITHUANIA, BELARUS, and the UKRAINE in the west; GEORGIA, AZERBAIJAN, KAZAKHSTAN, MONGOLIA, and China in the south; the PACIFIC OCEAN in the east, and the Arctic Ocean in the north.

Politically, the country is organized as a federation that is divided into 89 regions. The president serves as the head of state, while a prime minister serves as the head of government. In addition to the president and prime minister, leadership is managed through a bicameral legislature consisting of a Federal Assembly that represents the 89 regions and a state Duma that provides popular representation. The major cities are MOSCOW, SAINT PETERSBURG, Kiev, Minsk, Novgorod, Volgograd, Kaliningrad, Murmansk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Pskov, and Vladivostok.


Geographically, it has been traditional to divide Russia’s vast territory into five natural zones: the tundra; the taiga, or forest; the steppe, or plains; an arid zone; and a mountain zone. In broad geographic terms, most of the Russian landscape consists of two plains (the East European Plain and the West Siberian Plain), two lowlands (the North Siberian and the Kolyma), two plateaus (the Central Siberian Plateau and the Lena Plateau), and a series of mountainous areas in the extreme northeast or intermittent scattered in pockets along the southern border. The East European Plain encompasses most of European Russia, while the West Siberian Plain (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, the Russian landscape appears to be uniform. Despite this illusion, however, Russia contains all of the major vegetation zones with the exception of a tropical rain forest.

About 10 percent of Russia’s land is a treeless, marshy plain or tundra located above the ARCTIC CIRCLE. This northernmost zone stretches from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east before running south along the Pacific coast to the northern end of the Kamchatka Peninsula. It is an area known for its vast herds of wild reindeer, for the so-called white nights of summer (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter), and for seemingly endless 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 in a very narrow zone just above the barren permafrost. Although several major Siberian rivers traverse this region, their partial and intermittent thawing hampers drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps of the tundra. This is 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 above the Arctic Circle. Among the regions major employers are fishing, the port industries of the northwestern KOLA PENINSULA and the huge oil and gas fields of northwestern Siberia.

The taiga, the world’s largest forest region and the largest natural zone in the Russian Federation, is about equal in size to the United States. The taiga zone extends in a broad band across the country’s middle latitudes, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia in the east and as far south as the southern shores of Lake BAIKAL near the Mongolian border.

Because much of the Taiga is above 60 degrees north latitude, the forest contains mostly coniferous spruce, fir, cedar, and larch, species well adapted to the long winter conditions that frequently bring the world’s coldest temperatures. Isolated sections of taiga also exist along the southern part of the Urals and in the AMUR RIVER valley bordering China in the Far East. About one-third of Russia’s population lives in this zone.

The steppe has long been depicted as the typical Russian landscape, although most of the former Soviet Union’s steppe zone was located in what are now the Ukrainian and Kazakh republics. The much smaller Russian portion of that steppe is located mostly between those nations then extends southward between the Black and Caspian seas before blending into the increasingly desiccated territory of the Republic of Kalmykia. The steppe itself is a broad band of treeless, grassy plains that extend from HUNGARY in the west across the Ukraine, through southern Russia, and into Kazakhstan and Mongolia before ending in northeast China. Within the vast Russian landscape, the steppe provides the most favorable conditions for human settlement and agriculture because of relatively moderate temperatures and normally adequate levels of sunshine and moisture.

Russia has nine major mountain ranges, with the eastern half of the country being more mountainous than the western half. Russia’s mountain ranges can be found along its continental divide (the Urals), in the Caucasus region along the southwestern border, along the border with Mongolia, and in eastern Siberia. The Urals are the most famous of the country’s mountain ranges, containing quite large and valuable mineral deposits. As the natural boundary between Europe and Asia, the range extends about 1,304 mi (2,100 km) from the ARCTIC OCEAN to the northern border of KAZAKHSTAN. From Kazakhstan, the divide continues another 854 mi (1,375 km) from the southern end of the Ural Mountains through the Caspian Sea to the CAUCASUS MOUNTAINS. In terms of elevation and vegetation, however, the Urals are far from impressive, nor do they represent any formidable natural barrier. The highest peak, Mount Narodnaya, is 6,212 ft (1,894 m), lower than the highest of the APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS. In addition, there are several low passes that provide major transportation routes through the Urals eastward into SIBERIA.

East of the Urals is the West Siberian Plain, extending about 1,180 mi (1,900 km) from east to west and about 1,490 mi (2,400 km) from north to south. With more than half its territory below 1,640 ft (500 m) 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, which is generally 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 Yenisey valley, which delineates the western edge of the Central Siberian Plateau from the West Siberian Plain, runs from near the Mongolian border northward to the Arctic Ocean. It is also the traditional dividing line between what the Russians think of as eastern and the western Russia. The region is divided into several plateaus, with elevations ranging between 1,050 to 2,400 feet (320 and 740 m) and the highest elevation of about 5,900 ft (1,800 m) in the northern Putoran Mountains.

Truly alpine terrain can be found 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. They also create an imposing natural barrier between Russia and its neighbors to the southwest, Georgia and Azerbaijan. One of the peaks in the range, Mount ELBRUS, is the highest point in Europe, at 18,505 feet (5,642 m), and a popular mountaineering climb. 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 mountain systems west of Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia contain a number of ranges, with peak elevations ranging from the 10,500 ft (3,200 m) in the Eastern Sayan to 14,760 ft (4,500 m) at Mount Belukha in the Altay Range. The Eastern Sayan reach nearly to the southern shore of Lake Baikal, where they rise impressively some 9,315 ft (2,840 m) above the water. The mountain systems east of Lake Baikal are lower, forming a complex of minor ranges and valleys that extend eastward to the Pacific coast.

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, more than 20 of which are still active. The highest of these is the 15,580-ft (4,750-m) Klyuchevskaya Volcano, which is also the highest point in the Russian Far East. The Kamchatka region is also one of Russia’s two main centers of seismic activity (the other is the Caucasus), and earthquakes are common. In 1994, a major earthquake largely destroyed the oil-processing city of Neftegorsk.


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 are part of the Arctic drainage system, extending across sparsely populated Siberia. Of the Russian rivers longer than 620 mi (1,000 km), 40 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, the Yenisey, and the Lena. The basins of these river systems cover about 3 million square mi (8 million square km) and discharge nearly 1.7 million cubic ft (50,000 cubic m) of water per second into the Arctic Ocean.

The northward flow of these rivers, however, means that their source waters come from areas that thaw before the areas downstream. This buildup of water each spring has created vast swamps, such as the 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 Indigirka in Siberia. The result of all this is that approximately 10 percent of Russia’s territory is classified as swampland.

A number of other rivers drain from Siberia’s eastern and southeastern mountain ranges into the Pacific Ocean. The AMUR RIVER, which forms a long winding boundary between Russia and China, together with its main tributary, the Ussuri, drains most of southeastern Siberia.

Altogether, 84 percent of Russia’s surface water is located east of the Urals, where the rivers flow through sparsely populated territory and empty into the Arctic or Pacific oceans. By contrast, the highest concentrations of population, and therefore the highest demand for water supplies, tend to have climates much warmer than those of Siberia and thus higher rates of evaporation. As a result, densely populated areas such as the Don and Kuban river basins north of the Caucasus have barely adequate water resources.

Three basins drain European Russia. The Dnepr, which flows mainly through BELARUS and Ukraine, has its headwaters in the hills west of Moscow. The 1,155-mi- (860-km-) long 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 Russia’s European systems, rising in the Valday Hills west of Moscow and meandering southeastward for 2,180 mi (3,510 km) before emptying into the Caspian Sea. With the addition of several canals, European Russia’s rivers have long been linked together as part of a vital transportation system. The Volga system still carries two-thirds of Russia’s inland water traffic.

Russia’s other inland bodies of water are chiefly a legacy of extensive glaciation during the last several glacial periods. The most prominent of these bodies of fresh water is Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. Numerous smaller lakes dot the northern regions of the European and Siberian plains. The largest of these lakes are Beloye, Topozero, Vyg, and Il’men’ in the European northwest and Lake Chany in southwestern Siberia. In European Russia, the largest lakes are Ladoga and Onega, both of which are northeast of St. Petersburg. A number of other smaller man-made reservoirs have been created on the Don, the Kama, and the Volga rivers to increase the water resources in those areas where population demands exceed natural capacity. There have also been many large reservoirs constructed on some of Siberia’s rivers; the Bratsk Reservoir, for example, northwest of Lake Baikal is one of the world’s largest.


Because climate has played such a critical role in Russia’s history and development, let alone the mental image one might have, it is important to include some of its major influences. Russia has a largely continental climate because of its sheer size and compact configuration. But weather in the Northern Hemisphere generally moves from west to east.

This means that European Russia and northern Siberia lack any topographic protection from the wintertime extremes of cold air that build in the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. On the other hand, Russia’s mountain ranges are predominantly to the south and the east, thus blocking any moderating temperatures that might move north from the INDIAN OCEAN or onshore monsoonal flows moving inland from the Pacific Ocean. Because only small parts of Russia are south of 50 degrees north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60 degrees north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths of several hundred meters (hundreds of feet). The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is far below freezing. The result is that most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them.

The long, cold winter has a profound impact on almost every aspect of life. 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 imposes special requirements on many branches of the economy.

In regions of permafrost (ground frozen throughout the year), 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. Transportation routes, including entire railroad lines, are redirected in winter to traverse rock-solid waterways and lakes.

There are some areas that represent important exceptions to this description, however. The moderate maritime climate of the Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea has a climate similar to that of the American Northwest. And 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, creating sharply differentiating temperatures and extremes. There is even a narrow, subtropical band of territory on the Black Sea that is Russia’s most popular summer resort area.

Because Russia has little exposure to ocean influences, most of the country receives low to moderate amounts of precipitation, a critical factor necessary for consistent agricultural production. The highest amounts of precipitation fall in the northwest, with amounts decreasing as one moves to the southeast across European Russia. The wettest areas exist as two small pockets, a lush subtropical region adjacent to the Caucasus in southern Russia and another in the Kamchatka region along the Pacific coast.

Along the Baltic coast, average annual precipitation averages around 24 in (60 cm), while in Moscow the  average is about 20 in (52.5 cm). In contrast, the area near the Russian-Kazakh border in Russian Central Asia has an average of only less than 1 in (2 cm) and there are similar measurements along Siberia’s Arctic coastline. Another important indicator is the average number of days of snow cover, a critical factor for agriculture. While the actual figure depends on both latitude and altitude, it generally varies from 40 to 200 days in European Russia to 120 to 250 days in Siberia.


Russia is one of the world’s richest countries in raw materials, many of which are significant inputs for an industrial economy. Russia accounts for around 20 percent of the world’s production of oil and natural gas and possesses large reserves of both fuels. This abundance has made Russia virtually self-sufficient in energy and a large-scale exporter of fuels. Oil and gas were primary hard-currency earners for the Soviet Union, and they remain so for the Russian Federation. Russia also is self-sufficient in nearly all-major industrial raw materials and has at least some reserves of every industrially valuable nonfuel mineral. Tin, tungsten, bauxite, and mercury were among the few natural materials that were imported during the Soviet period. Russia possesses rich reserves of iron ore, manganese, chromium, nickel, platinum, titanium, copper, tin, lead, tungsten, diamonds, phosphates, and gold, and the forests of Siberia contain an estimated one-fifth of the world’s timber reserves.

The iron ore deposits close to the Ukrainian border in the southwest are believed to contain one-sixth of the world’s total reserves. Intensive exploitation began there in the 1950s. Other large iron ore deposits are located in the Kola Peninsula, Karelia, south-central Siberia, and the Far East. The largest copper deposits are located in the Kola Peninsula and the Urals, and lead and zinc are found in North Ossetia.


For much of the 20th century, Russia had a command economy in which the government controlled every facet of economic activity. Soviet communism forbade any private property and placed farmers in collectivized farms. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian economy has been in a difficult transition to a more free market form.

The liberalization of the economy has produced gaping inequalities between the rich and powerful few who control Russia’s industries and the rest of the population who barely make enough money for subsistence. Another limiting factor is Russian infrastructure, which dates back to the Soviet era and is well behind Western standards. Russia is heavily dependent on its exports of petroleum, natural gas, timber, and metals, a condition that leads to extreme vulnerability to dramatic market changes.

Foreign investment has been difficult to attract in Russia because of uncertainties in its banking system, because of business laws that have not kept up with Western standards, and because of excesses in government corruption. Although there is still a long way to go, 2002’s growth rate of 4 percent was encouraging. However, terrorism and political uncertainties continue to raise doubts over Russia’s transition to a free market system.


The Russian Federation may be conveniently divided into 9 major economic regions: the Central European, the North and Northwest European, the Volga, the North Caucasus, the Ural, the Western Siberia, the Eastern Siberia, the Northern and Northeastern Siberia, and the Russian Far East.

The Central European area is flat, rolling country, with Moscow as its center. It forms a major industrial region for the production of trucks, ships, railway rolling stock, machine tools, electronic equipment, cotton and woolen textiles, and chemicals. The Volga and Oka rivers serve as major water routes, and the Moscow-Volga and Don-Volga canals link Moscow with the Caspian and Baltic seas. Many rail lines serve the area.

The North and Northwest European area is centered on Saint Petersburg. Here the focus is on the production of machine tools, electronic equipment, chemicals, ships, and precision instruments. The hills, marshy plains, lakes, and desolate plateaus contain rich deposits of coal, oil, iron ore, and bauxite, and the area is a prime source of lumber. The chief water routes are the Baltic-Belomor Canal and the Volga-Baltic Waterway.

The Volga region has highly developed hydroelectric power installations, including major dams at Volgograd, Kazan, Samara, and Balakovo. Farm machinery, ships, chemicals, and textiles are all manufactured here. In addition, there are extensive oil and gas fields producing in the region. Agricultural products include wheat, vegetables, cotton, hemp, oilseeds, and fruit. Livestock raising and fishing are also important.

The North Caucasus area, descending northward from the principal chain of the Caucasus Mountains, has rich deposits of oil, natural gas, and coal. The region is an important production source for farm machinery, coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The Kuban River region is one of Russia’s chief granaries. Wheat, sugar beets, tobacco, rice, and sunflower seeds are grown, and cattle are also raised. Major rivers include the Don, the Kuma, and the Terek, and the Volga-Don Canal is a major transportation route.

The Ural area, the southern half of the Ural region, has been a major center of iron and steel production in addition to producing a substantial share of Russia’s oil. The region also has important deposits of iron ore, manganese, and aluminum ore.

The Western Siberian region is of growing economic importance. At Novosibirsk and Kamen-na-Obi are large hydroelectric stations. The Kuznetsk Basin in the southwest is a center of coal mining, oil refining, and the production of iron, steel, machinery, and chemicals. The area is also served by the Trans-Siberian and South Siberian rail lines, with Barnaul is a major rail junction. Agricultural products include wheat, rice, oats, and sugar beets, and livestock is raised.

Eastern Siberia, with its plateaus, mountains, and river basins, is a major source of coal, gold, graphite, iron ore, aluminum ore, zinc, and lead. There is also livestock industry, but mostly of reindeer. The regions major cities (Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, and Chita) are located along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. There are also hydroelectric stations at Bratsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk.

Northern and Northeastern Siberia covers nearly half of Russian territory. This is the least populated and least developed area. The Ob, Yenisei, and Lena rivers flow to the Arctic Ocean, but because they are frozen throughout much of the year, they provide little in the way of hydropower. Through the use of atomicpowered icebreakers, the Northern Sea Route has gained increasing economic importance. The Kolyma gold fields are the principal source of Russian gold, and industrial diamonds are mined in the Sakha Republic, notably at Mirny. Fur trapping and hunting are the chief activities in the taiga and tundra regions.

The Russian Far East, which borders on the Pacific Ocean, has the major cities of Komsomolsk, Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, and Vladivostok. Machinery is produced, and lumbering, fishing, hunting, and fur trapping are important. The Trans-Siberian Railroad follows the Amur and Ussuri rivers and terminates at the port of Vladivostok.