1. Physical Characteristics
  2. Human Regions
  3. Development
  4. Culture
  5. Demographic Analysis based on Population Data Sheet (2006)
  6. Key Concepts
  7. References
  8. Review Questions

Physical Characteristics

Russia lies just north of 40°N, with most of its area north of 50°N, placing it as far north as Canada or Alaska. Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of land area, measuring in at 6,592,819 square miles. It has approximately one-ninth of the world's land area and nearly twice the landmass than the United States or China (3,717,796 sq. miles and 3,696,100 sq. miles respectively). East to West, Russia spans across two continents (Europe and Asia) and 11 time zones. The Ural Mountains divide Europe and Asia as well as separating Russia's populated and unpopulated areas. There are no natural barriers against the Arctic air of the north and too many natural barriers for warm subtropical air to reach the interior of Russia.

Due to its immense size, numerous climates can be identified within Russia. This country contains the farthest places on earth from large bodies of water (many parts over 2,000 km from the ocean), and as such, much of Russia’s climate can best be described in terms of its contintentality. These continental areas become very cold in the winter (below -22F) and very hot in the summer, because they are away from the moderating effects of the ocean. The farther inland one goes, the winters become longer and colder. Also, precipitation reduces the farther inland one goes. This inland region, known as Siberia, is inhospitable due to its low temperature and low precipitation. Along the northern coast, one will find arctic climates, known as E climates.  Arid climates with cool summers and wet winters dominate the southwest areas, while areas with high precipitation all year and hot summers dominate the southeastern areas. The central areas south of Siberia are semiarid.

A variety of landscapes can be found in Russia as well. The southern border of the country is characterized by mountain ranges, including the Caucasus Mountains between the black and Caspian Seas, the Elburz Mountains near northern Iran, and the Sayan Mountains near northern Mongolia. These ranges were formed from collision of tectonic plates within Eurasia, and many peaks over 3,000 m high. The western region is dominated by plains and low plateaus, extending from the northern European border to the Ural Mountains, which run longitudinally down the center of Russia. Some over the world’s longest rivers exist in this region, including Don River system which flows into the Black Sea and the Volga River, flowing into the Caspian Sea. Among the landscapes near the southern border are hot deserts, steppe grassland, and coniferous forest. Along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, one will find tundra vegetation. Farther north, deciduous forests can grow because of low evaporation rates.

 In Siberia, permafrost greatly inhibits farming in this area. Permafrost is a condition where water in the ground is permanently frozen year round. In summer, the top layer defrosts and becomes saturated with water because the frozen ground below limits percolation through the soil. Agriculture in permafrost conditions is very difficult, and many resources, such as natural gas, cannot be tapped into due to permafrost conditions. These regions pose a problem for permanent settlement. Often, these areas will partially melt creating muddy conditions which are difficult to pass through; these areas are actually easiest to pass when they are frozen solid.

Russia is an area rich in natural resources and holds the greatest reserves of mineral resources of any country. Metallic resources include iron and gold. Oil is abundant especially around the Volga River in the Volga Urals, but it is also abundant is western Siberia. Some estimate that Russia has about 50 percent of the world's supply of oil. It is also approximated that Russia holds 40% of the world's reserves of natural gas deposits. In Western Siberia, natural gas exists in large quantities along the Arctic coast. The natural gas is transported from Western Siberia to Western Europe via the Siberian pipeline. Much of the natural gas has not been tapped into because of cost and difficulties transporting the resources through Siberia. Other resources include diamonds, coal, and uranium.

Human Regions

The Russian core consists of 75% of Russia's population. It is located east of the Urals and is sometimes referred to as European Russia. It is also the center for industry, manufacturing and resources. The core is a region of Russia rich in history and culture. Moscow, the largest city in Russia, is the capital city as well. Moscow is the center of all of the elements of Russia and contains 40% of manufacturing output. Roads and railroads run from Moscow to all regions of Russia, such as St. Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, the Urals, and the waterways of the Volga River. St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city serves as a port city and is at the periphery of the Russian core. Although there was a time when St. Petersburg was the focus of politics, economics, and culture, its location kept it from remaining that way.

The Eastern Frontier has now industrialized areas for the manufacturing of iron and coal. These resources are then transported across the country via the Trans-Siberian railroad, which runs through the Eastern Frontier. Originally, the Eastern Frontier, specifically Kazakhstan, was the target of the Virgin and Idle Lands Project. The project was an attempt to increase agricultural production quickly by turning dry pasturelands into wheat fields. The project worked for awhile, but the severe droughts, poisoned groundwater, and illness of the surrounding population led to the project's termination. With the failure of this project, new problems were created as old problems were solved. The Kuznetsk Basin is another area in the Eastern Frontier. This region contains coal, iron, and other resources. Another region, the Qaraghandy-Aqmola, includes Kazakhstan, and is an area with the largest Russian minority. The region of the Lake Baykal Area has a low population with settlements that are small and far between.

Siberia extends from the Ural Mountains to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The population of Siberia is about 15 million with most living along the southern periphery. Siberia, though, is about the size of the United States. Siberia is a region of rich resources. Early settlers found gold, diamonds and other minerals. Iron bauxite and other ores were found later. Natural gas and oil are the most recent resource of the vast and frigid region of Siberia. Siberia remains, though, an underdeveloped and difficult region to develop due to vast distances, cold weather, poor soils, and poor living conditions. The permafrost that exists in the region also inhibits development. The majority of Siberia is uninhabitable. There are small populations along the Yenisey River and the upper Lena valley, but these populated areas are separated by hundreds of miles.

The Far East is a sparsely populated region due to its terrain and climate. The winters are long and very cold and the summers are cool. Although this area is near the Pacific Ocean, the ocean has little effect on the climate due to the prevailing winds from the West. Seafood is the leading product of this area, but some minerals have been discovered here. High-quality coal has been found in the Bureya River valley as well as tin and iron ore near Komsomolsk. The tin deposits are very important, because they are Russia's only supply of tin.

The major population of the Far East Region is near Vladivostock along the Amur-Ussuri river system. Vladivostock, a military port, lies on the southern coast of the Far East Region. This port has to be kept open during the winter by icebreakers although it is at a latitude similar to that of San Francisco and Seattle. It has fish-processing plants and shipbuilding capabilities. Khabarovske is a city with great centrality advantage. It is a machine and metal working city. It depends on Kosomolk for steel and iron, and it depends on Sakhalin for oil and timber. Russia also has several islands off the east coast in the Arctic and Pacific oceans. The farthest north island in the Arctic Ocean is the Franz Josef Land that consists of 100 islands. Other islands in the Arctic are Novaya Zemlya, Vaygach Island, the New Siberian Islands and Wrangel Island. In the Pacific Ocean are the Kuril Islands, which extend from the southern part of Russian peninsula of Kamchatka to Japan. These Islands have been the subject of a dispute between Russia and Japan over the ownership and fishing rights.


The tsars, overthrown in 1917, had beliefs in nationalism, great authority, and a resistance to change. Russia grew from a nation to an empire with these rulers. The tsars wanted wealth, territory and power. In order to achieve these goals, Russian armies traveled the outlying areas extensively - as far as Alaska and the west coast of the US. As Russia expanded, internal Russia experienced internal dissatisfaction and eventually a revolt occurred in 1905. The serfs rebelled, unpaid and poorly fed armies mutinied and the aristocracy resisted any reform attempts by the Nicholas II. This revolt set the stage for the emergence of the Soviet Union.

At the beginning of the emergence of the Soviet Union, Russia held its first democratic election, which allowed the return of exiled activists in the Bolshevik camp. Two of them were of significant importance, V.I. Lenin and Stalin. Lenin gained control of the revolting Soviets and organized communism. After his death in the same year, Stalin took over. Stalin implemented a totalitarian form of communism. This form of communism is characterized by absolute power over the people. To gain absolute power, Stalin starved the peasants, moved ethnic groups, eliminated disloyal peoples, and implemented collectivization. Collectivization put farms into collectives where all farmers pooled their resources and worked at farming together. With no incentives for anything over their quota, the farmers were not very productive.

Communism is based partly on the ideas of the great philosopher Karl Marx in a book called "Das Kapital." This book expresses Marx's ideas of a classical economy. His theories of class struggle, capitalism, labor value, etc. are key factors in the study and implementation of economics. At the same time, his teachings promoted socialism over capitalism as he predicted a huge working class would overthrow capitalist economies. Lenin began to follow and implement Marx's theories into Russia and surrounding territories, which created the USSR.

World War I, a civil war, and a war with Poland left the Soviet Union’s economy weak. Stalin decided it was time to transform the economy into a “workers paradise” based on industry. This was also necessary to keep up with Western advances in technology. Since the primarily agricultural community had difficulty adjusting to industrialized life, Stalin imposed plans for collectivization and industrialization which came to be known as five-year plans. Under the new plans, small farms were merged together into larger ones, and the government claimed ownership of all industries. The government-controlled economy came to be known as the command economy. Instead of profits and demand driving what needed to produced, as in western culture, the government made all decisions regarding production.

In 1991, the USSR broke apart as communism ended and ultimately failed. Today Russia’s economy is in disorder. The standard of living for most people is incredibly low (12% living below poverty line of U.S. $2 a day - Source: 2006 Population data Sheet). The standard of living may be even lower now than it was during the Communist rule, due to the long-term effects of the break up of the Soviet Union. One of the major factors for the fall of Communism in Russia is that the government did not live up to its promise of a better life for all, and the failure of government to deal properly with social and foreign affairs.

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the new independent countries were not all prosperous. Having been part of a larger system, the fragmentization left many of the countries’ economies weak or incomplete. Realizing that cooperation would be important, 11 of these countries, including Russia, banded together to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS does not undermine sovereignty of any of the countries, but acts as an economic union much like the European Union does. Aside from economic policy, these countries have little in common.


Russia’s population is unevenly distributed across the country. Most of the people live in the Russian core around Moscow. Moscow has a population of about 9.3 million people and is the focus of an area that includes one third of the country's population. Moscow is a metropolis of high rise apartment complexes, which are congregated in the residential areas. The use of high rise apartments helps somewhat with the overpopulation of Moscow, but most people still live in extremely cramped living areas. The natural increase of Russia is actually negative at -0.6 percent (2006). Infant mortality and death rates are high and abortion is the preferred form of birth control. The population of Russia is predicted to decline in coming years (see demographic analysis for more info).

More than 100 culture groups inhabit Russia, making it one of the most multinational countries in the world. Although Russians are the predominate culture, Turks, Mongolians, Finns, and Hungarians also inhabit Russia. The Chuvash Republic and the Bashkort Republic are made up of Turks. The Tatar Republic is made up of Mongolians. The Mordova Republic, the Mari Republic, and the Udmurt Republic are all Finns and Hungarians. Separate states in southern Russia also have specific ethnic groups. Chechnya, Dagestan, and N. Ossetia are mainly Muslim. Russian Orthodox is the major religion among Russian people although its practice was discouraged under Communism.

Agriculture is probably the most inefficient component of the Russian economy. Food production has always been a problem and was worsened by collectivization. Forty-five percent of all agriculture came out of the Ukraine, which was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. In 1994, a cold summer stunted most of Russia's crops. Heavy rains, that followed, washed what was left away. Russia has had to import a majority of its food supply, which has hurt its economy.

Most of the economic development took place in the Central Industrial Region or Russian Core centralized around Moscow. Industrialization developed quickly in the 1920's and 1930's. Stalin brought the production of resources into manufacturing during this time. Industrial cities were formed in a circle around Moscow to gain better control of the industries and have the cities become dependent upon each other. The extraction zones of the resources were located to the South and in the Ural Mountains, which necessitated the movement of large amount of resources. During WWII the manufacturing areas were moved towards the Ural Mountains for protection. The development of the Trans-Siberian railroad, begun under the Tsars, also allowed industry to expand in the Eastern Frontier and the Far East. Along the Amur River in the Far East, wood has become another economic resource.

Demographic Analysis Based on Population Data Sheet (2006)

Russia has a population of 142.3 million (2006), currently making it the world’s 8th largest country in terms of population. The table below summarizes the demographic information of Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union for comparative purposes (shown from greatest population to least. Information current as of mid-2006. Source: 2006 population Data Sheet).



Population    (in millions)

% Under  15

% Over 65

Rate of Increase

Proj. Pop.   for 2025*

Proj. Pop  for 2050*

   Population    Density

Infant Mortality**

 GNI PPP    (for 2005)
























































































































































* In millions. Numbers projected is from 2006 Population Data Sheet


** Infant deaths per 1000. From 2006 Population Data Sheet


By comparing Russia to surrounding countries, we see that its population is by far the greatest. The fact that its percent population of persons aged less than 15 and greater than 60 are similar indicates a fairly stable population size. Its rate of natural increase is lower than many of its neighbors, but Ukraine’s is lower still at -0.8%. The projected population will remove it completely from the world’s ten largest countries in terms of population by 2050. Even thought the country has an enormous population, its enormous size means that the country’s population is less dense than almost all of its neighbors (except Kazakhstan) at only 22 persons per square mile. Infant mortality is at 10 deaths per 1,000 infants, which is lower than many neighbors, but still higher than Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. Finally, the GNI PPP per capita is $10,640, which seems to be about average for the region. This figure is much higher than the lowest income in the region (Tajikistan - $1,260) but falls short of the highest (Estonia - $15,420).

Key Concepts of Russia

  1. The USSR is abolished and unlikely to be reinstated. The Commonwealth of Independent States is very weak as its economy struggles and looks for leadership. 
  2. The boundaries of Russia have fluctuated widely throughout history. Many neighboring countries such as Finland, Poland and the Baltic republics have been in, out, in, and now out of the Russian/Soviet Empire. After World War II, many countries, including Russia, gained or lost territory.
  3. Russia spans over two continents and is highly multi-ethnic. Because of this, there are a large number of ethnic minority groups who bring many languages, religions, and cultures to Russia.
  4. Russia is a federation of ethnic republics. These republics are all different and some dislike being part of the Russian Federation, notably Chechnya.
  5. There is potential ethnic unrest in Russia. Of the 100 ethnic groups, 20% are non-Russian. The illogical boundaries that were drawn for the purpose of keeping groups from rising to power have put the ethnic groups in a weak condition. Rebels and lawlessness can lead weaker republics into revolting from Russia.
  6. Russia is diverse is landscape and rich in natural resources. There are over a hundred nature reserves in Russia and since it spreads out across many degrees, the climates throughout Russia vary. Russia is the leader in natural resources but with weak leadership and bad economics, it has squandered some of this resource wealth, especially its oil reserves. Also the permafrost in Russia creates many problems in obtaining resources as only 8% of Russia is arable compared to 50% of the US.
  7. Russia is highly polluted. Environmental problems are widespread such as radioactive wastes. The 1986 reaction and explosion at Chernobyl was one of the highest radioactivity spreads ever. Pollution creates poor public health in Russian cities.
  8. There is a severe demographic problem. Russia’s population is declining and could be as few as110.3 million people by 2050 (2006 Population Data Sheet). Life expectancy is lower than many countries. With men at an expectancy of 56 years, and women at 69 years, this is the largest gap between genders in the world. Diseases form the poor environmental conditions are rampant. These factors create a declining work force, which is leading to a weakening economy.
  9. There are possible issues with Russia’s infrastructure. Old buildings and factories characterize Russia. The transportation systems are not fully developed. Poor planning by officials has left maintenance and quality control below average.
  10. Russia is seeking a new identity. Economically, Russia hopes to grow with its oil, forests, and other great resources. They seek their former clout by improving their economy and developing the CIS. Russia seeks to emulate the US economic system, yet the country must have a system of checks and balances system rather than the traditional one-ruler system if it hopes to succeed.


Bradshaw, White, and Dymond. Contemporary World Regional Geography. McGraw Hill: New York, 2004. Pgs 125-170.


Clawson, Johnson, Haarmon, and Johnson. World Regional Geography, 9th Ed. Pearson Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2007. Pgs 326-354.


De Blij and Muller. Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. Wiley Publishing: New York, 2000. Pgs 107-152.

No Author. Karl Marx [Online] Virtual School. Available: [2001, March 22].

No Author. Russia Profile [Online] SkateFN. Available: [2001, March 22].

Pryde, Philip R. Teaching about Russia as Part of a World Regional Geography World 2000 Conference. [2000, Feb. 1].

Yablokova, Oksana (2000). Russian Population Takes Its Biggest Plunge Yet [Online] The St. Petersburg Times. Available: [2001, March 22].

Review Questions

  1. The government of the Soviet Union from 1917 until the late 1980's was probably not what Karl Marx had envisioned in his book, "Das Kapital." The Soviet form of government could best be described as:
    1. Socialist
    2. Totalitarian
    3. Capitalist
    4. Democratic


  1. The population of the Soviet Union in 1990 was about:
    1. 280 million
    2. 350 million
    3. 400 million
    4. 450 million


  1. The "Fertile Triangle" in the former Soviet Union is an area of:
    1. Dominantly agricultural activity
    2. Agriculture and industry
    3. Industry and minerals
    4. Agriculture but few people.


  1. Russia has:
    1. Few raw materials
    2. A large amount of raw materials, more than the U.S.
    3. A barely adequate supply of raw materials to support the present population
    4. Problems in securing raw materials from other countries


  1. A problem with Russian industry is:
    1. A disparity between centers of population and resources
    2. A dependence on imports
    3. Lack of sufficient energy resources
    4. Competition with the U.S.


  1. Which of the following was NOT a problem of Soviet agriculture?
    1. Insufficient motive to work
    2. Uncertain harvests
    3. Social conditions not equal with those in cities
    4. Over-productivity


  1. The virgin lands project was an effort by the Soviet government to:
    1. Develop virgin lands in W. Siberia for agriculture
    2. Develop northern areas for oil exploration
    3. Develop southern areas for industry
    4. Re-settle Soviet people to southern areas


  1. The proportion of the population in the former Soviet Union that was engaged in agriculture is about:
    1. 10%
    2. 15%
    3. 25%
    4. 35%


  1. Population growth in Russia:
    1. Is very low
    2. Is extremely high
    3. Is moderate
    4. Varies among cultural groups


  1. Compared to other countries in the western world, Russia has:
    1. Lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality rates
    2. Lower life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates
    3. Higher life expectancy and higher infant mortality rates
    4. Higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates


  1. Russia has a natural increase:
    1. Above 1.5
    2. Above 1.0
    3. Above 0.5
    4. Below 0.0


  1. Siberia has a land mass comparable to that of:
    1. France
    2. Texas
    3. Ireland
    4. United States


  1. The population of Russia is:
    1. About the same as 10 years ago
    2. Drastically greater than 10 years ago
    3. Much smaller than 10 years ago
    4. None of the above


Submitted by Sean Toppi on April 25, 2007. Previously submitted by: Kelly Kracher on June 16, 1997; Deanna Holt on March 12, 1997; Janice Grewatz (date unknown); Jim Melonis on March 22, 2001; and Karen Oyler on October 10, 2003.