Official name: Russian Federation

Area: 17,075,200 square kilometers (6,592,771 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Mount El'brus (5,633 meters/18,481 feet)

Lowest point on land: Caspian Sea (28 meters/92 feet below sea level)

Hemispheres: Northern, Eastern, and Western

Time zones: 3 P.M. Moscow = noon GMT; 12 A.M. Anadyr = noon GMT

Longest distances: 4,000 kilometers (2,400 miles) from north to south; 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) from east to west

Coastline: 37,653 kilometers (23,396 miles)

Land boundaries: 19,961 kilometers (12,403 miles) total boundary length; Azerbaijan 284 kilometers (176 miles); Belarus 959 kilometers (596 miles); China 3,605 kilometers (2,265 miles); Estonia 294 kilometers (183 miles); Finland 1,313 kilometers (816 miles); Georgia 723 kilometers (449 miles); Kazakhstan 6,846 kilometers (4,254 miles); Latvia 217 kilometers (135 miles); Lithuania 227 kilometers (141 miles); Mongolia 3,485 kilometers (2,165 miles); North Korea 19 kilometers (12 miles); Norway 167 kilometers (104 miles); Poland 206 kilometers (128 miles); and Ukraine 1,576 kilometers (979 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


Russia is the largest country in the world, spreading from northeastern Europe across the entire northern width of the Asian continent. It shares borders with fourteen other countries and has coastlines on the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. With a total area of about 17,075,200 square kilometers (6,592,771 square miles), it is nearly twice the size of the United States. Russia is administratively divided into forty-nine oblasts, twenty-one republics, ten autonomous okrugs, six krays, two federal cities, and one autonomous oblast.


A small portion of Russia, the Kaliningrad Oblast, is located in Eastern Europe between Poland and Lithuania. There are no overseas dependencies of Russia.


It is said that Russia has only two seasons: summer and winter. Though this is a slight exaggeration, the statement accurately characterizes the country's harsh climate with its long, cold winters and short, cool summers. These conditions are owing to Russia's location in the high northerly latitudes. More than half the country lies above 60° north latitude, with only relatively small areas below 50° north. Furthermore, the high mountains that form Russia's southern border effectively block out warm air masses. The predominant movement of the country's weather systems from east to west essentially nullifies any moderating influence the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean might have on the climate. In winter, Siberia lies under a vast high-pressure cell centered in Mongolia, which keeps the region enveloped in frigid air. The magnitude of this cold is not easy to grasp. Soil in the far northern permafrost can be frozen several hundred meters deep. Even into southern Siberia, the land is covered by snow for more than six months. The annual average temperature for most of Siberia is below freezing. For the majority of European Russia, the average is only somewhat higher.

In summer, warm, moist air from the Atlantic Ocean is able to push east to central Siberia, under the influence of a prevailing low-pressure system. That area thus receives moisture-bearing air that delivers fairly high amounts of precipitation. Russia's short growing season relies heavily upon this rainfall to water its crops; unfortunately, distribution of the moisture in many areas is often irregular and unpredictable. Droughts are not uncommon, especially in early summer. On the other hand, heavy rains in middle and late summer may compromise harvesting. In the east, late-summer Pacific air can bring monsoon-like rainfall, with disastrous effects.

Overall, lack of sunshine characterizes the Russian climate. Overcast skies are the rule, especially in winter. In December, for example, Moscow typically experiences twenty-three days of cloud cover. Sunless winter days are the rule throughout the nation.

Russia's climate zones lie in easily distinguishable belts that run from east to west across the whole country. In the far north, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, and numerous smaller Arctic islands experience a polar desert climate. Below this, a tundra climate predominates for at least 100 kilometers (60 miles) south, extending up into the steep mountain slopes far to the east. Next, a broad subarctic zone passes southward as far as St. Petersburg in the west, crosses the Urals, and takes in nearly all the rest of Siberia. Last is a wide belt of cold, dry steppe climate starting at the Black Sea, crossing the North Caucasian Plain, moving through the lower Volga Valley and the southern Urals into Siberia.

Moscow -16°C to -9°C (3°F to 16°F) 13°C to 23°C (55°F to 73°F)
Vladivostok -18°C to -11°C (0°F to 13°F) 16°C to 22°C (60°F to 71°F)
Verkhoyansk -32°C (-26°F) 13°C to 37°C (56°F to 98°F)

Most of Russia experiences only modest precipitation, but the averages vary by region. On the Great European Plain, averages decrease from more than 80 centimeters (30 inches) in the west to less than 40 centimeters (16 inches) on the Caspian Sea shoreline. Siberia uniformly sees annual precipitation ranging from 50 to 80 centimeters (20 to 32 inches), although amounts are generally less than 30 centimeters (12 inches) in extreme northeastern Siberia. At high elevations, precipitation totals may reach 100 centimeters (40 inches) or more, but in the valleys they average less than 30 centimeters (12 inches).


Russia can be categorized into several large regions. From west to east, they are the Great European Plain; the Ural Mountains; the mountain systems and ranges along much of Russia's southern border; and Siberia, which includes the West Siberian Plain, the Central Siberian Plateau, and the mountain ranges of northeastern Siberia and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Most of Russia is located on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate, but eastern Russia is on the North American Plate. The exact boundary between the two plates is uncertain. The Pacific Plate is located off of Russia's eastern coastline. The movement of these three plates against each other is a cause of significant earthquakes and volcanoes in this region, especially on Kamchatka. Seismic activity is also common in the Caucasus Mountains in the southwest.


Seacoast and Undersea Features

The majority of Russia's coastline is on the Arctic Ocean and its seas, including the White Sea, Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea, and the Chukchi Sea. Located almost entirely north of the Arctic Circle, much of the water here remains frozen for the better part of the year. One exception is the area in the far west, where the Gulf Stream current warms the waters of the Barents Sea near the Kola Peninsula, allowing the port of Murmansk to function year-round. The eastern coastline of Russia lies on the Pacific Ocean and its seas, including the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and a portion of the Sea of Japan. Western Russia has short coastlines along the Baltic Sea (in northern Europe) and the Black Sea (an inland sea between southeastern Europe and Asia), both of which are seas of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sea Inlets and Straits

The Gulf of Ob' and the estuary of the Yenisey River are inlets of the coastline of the Kara Sea. A channel called the Proliv Dmitrya Lapteva connects the Laptev Sea to the East Siberian Sea. Long Strait near the northeast coast connects the East Siberian Sea to the Chukchi Sea and separates the mainland from Wrangel Island. The Bering Strait separates Siberia and Alaska by a mere 86 kilometers (53 miles) and connects the Chukchi Sea to the Bering Sea. Shelikhova Bay is a deep inlet of the Sea of Okhotsk. The Gulf of Anadyr, near the northeastern tip of Russia, is an inlet of the Bering Sea. Russia's principal Pacific Ocean port, Vladivostok, is found on Peter the Great Bay, within the Sea of Japan. The Tatar Strait connects the Sea of Okhotsk to the Sea of Japan. The Gulf of Finland in the west is an inlet of the Baltic Sea. St. Petersburg is located at its apex. The Sea of Azov is an inlet of the Black Sea, located at the southwestern Russian border.

Islands and Archipelagos

Many islands lie within the Arctic and Pacific Oceans off the shores of Russia. Franz Josef Land is comprised of about one hundred small islands in the Arctic Ocean; it is the northern-most part of Russia and is among the north-ernmost lands on Earth. Other large Arctic islands are Novaya Zemlya, Vaygach Island, Wrangel Island, and the Severnaya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands groups. Many small islands and island chains are scattered among these larger groups.

In the Pacific, the Kuril Islands curve southwest from the Kamchatka Peninsula to Japan. Although the Kuril Islands are under Russian administration, Japan and Russia dispute ownership of the four southernmost islands. Also lying in the Pacific is Sakhalin, a large island that separates the Seas of Okhotsk and Japan.

Coastal Features

No country in the world can surpass Russia's 37,653 kilometers (23,396 miles) of coastline. Yet most of this coastline is so far north that it is frozen for much of the year. Despite the fact that frozen harbors mean Russia has very few outlets to the ocean that remain open all year, Russian shipping and fishing thrives on all its seas.

The coastlines contain many peninsulas and capes. Gydan Peninsula lies between the Gulf of Ob' and the estuary of the Yenisey River. Continuing to the east, the Taymyr Peninsula extends north, reaching mainland Russia's northernmost point at Cape Chelyuskin.

The Chukchi Peninsula stretches out to become Russia's easternmost point, with the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Bering Sea of the Pacific Ocean to the south. Further south is the large Kamchatka Peninsula. Kamchatka encloses the Sea of Okhotsk to the west.


Russia was even larger in the past than it is today. Russia controlled Finland, Alaska, and parts of modern-day Poland at various times in history. After World War I (1914–18), Russia technically ceased to be an independent country, instead becoming part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R., or the Soviet Union). Russia was by far the largest of the republics that made up the Soviet Union, however, and was considered to be the ruling power of that nation. The Soviet Union started to dissolve in 1991. Eventually, many nations within the Soviet Union became independent of Russia.


The Caspian Sea, on Russia's southern border between Europe and Asia, is not a true sea; it is actually a saltwater lake and the largest inland body of water in the world. The Caspian is held in a vast land depression with no outlet to any ocean. Although many rivers drain into it, water escapes only through evaporation. The Caspian's salinity results from accumulated salts. The sea extends approximately 1,210 kilometers (750 miles) from north to south and 210 to 436 kilometers (130 to 271 miles) from east to west. Its area is 371,000 square kilometers (143,000 square miles). Its mean depth is about 170 meters (550 feet), with the deepest areas in the south.

Most other Russian lakes were formed by glaciation. The largest such lakes in European Russia are Ladoga (17,703 square kilometers/ 6,835 square miles) and Onega (9,609 square kilometers/3,701 square miles), northeast of St. Petersburg. They are also the two largest lakes in all of Europe (since the Caspian Sea is generally not counted as a lake). Other large lakes in western Russia include Lake Peipus on the Estonian border and the reservoirs of the Volga River.

Lake Baikal in southern Siberia is the largest lake in Russia and the largest lake in Asia (excluding the Caspian Sea). It is 632 kilometers (392 miles) long and 59 kilometers (32 miles) wide, with a surface area of 30,510 square kilometers (11,870 square miles). It has a maximum depth of 1,742 meters (5,715 feet), making it the deepest body of freshwater on Earth. Due to its great depth, Lake Baikal also has the greatest volume of any freshwater lake. It is said to contain one-fifth of Earth's fresh surface water. Other large Siberian lakes include Lakes Taymyr, Chany, and Khanka and the Novosibirsk, Bratsk, and Zeya Reservoirs. There also are many smaller lakes.


Most of Russia's urban population lives along the banks of the nation's many rivers. The most important commercial river in Russia is the Volga, which is also the longest river in Europe. The Volga begins in the hills west of Moscow and flows southeastward for 3,689 kilometers (2,293 miles) to the Caspian Sea. Four of Russia's largest cities are located on its banks: Nizhniy Novgorod, Samara, Kazan', and Volgograd. The Kama River flows west out of the southern Urals and into the Volga. This also is a major waterway for both Russia and Europe.

Also located in European Russia are the Dnieper and the Don Rivers. Although the Dnieper flows mainly through Belarus and Ukraine, it has headwaters in the hills west of Moscow. The Don flows from its origins in the Central Russian Upland south of Moscow for 1,860 kilometers (1,153 miles) before emptying into the Sea of Azov at Rostov-na-Donu.

Further east is the Ural River, which flows south from the Ural Mountains into Kazakhstan before reaching the Caspian Sea. The Ural River is traditionally considered part of the boundary between Europe and Asia.

A number of major rivers drain into the Pacific and Arctic Oceans from the Siberian plateau and mountain areas in the east. The Irtysh-Ob' river system flows through the West Siberian Plain, emptying into the Arctic at the Gulf of Ob'. The Irtysh is the longer of the two rivers, but is a tributary to the Ob'. Together they have a length of 5,380 kilometers (3,335 miles), making them the longest river system in Russia.

On the far side of the Central Siberian Plateau is the Lena, the longest individual river in Russia at 4,400 kilometers (2,700 miles). It too empties into the Arctic, and it has many large tributaries including the Aldan, Vitim, and Vilyui. The third great Arctic river, the Yenisey (4,000 kilometers/2,480 miles), flows across the Central Siberian Plateau. Its largest tributary, the Lower Tunguska, is itself roughly 3,226 kilometers (2,000 miles) long. Other major tributaries include the Stony Tunguska and Angara.

The same river systems that account for such an enormous flow of water into the Arctic Ocean are also responsible for creating vast swamps in the West Siberian Plain. Snow and ice in the warmer regions, where the rivers have their sources, thaw well before the northern regions, causing great flooding to the north. The Vasyugan'ye Swamp in the center of the West Siberian Plain, for example, covers 48,000 square kilometers (18,500 square feet). The same effect can be observed with other Siberian river systems.

The Amur River (2,874 kilometers/1,768 miles) is the most important Siberian river flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Its major tributaries are the Argun, Ussuri, and Shilka. The Amur River, with its primary tributary the Ussuri River, comprises a significant section of the boundary between Russia and China.


There are no desert regions in Russia.


In all nearly 10 percent of Russian territory can be classified as swampland. Much of this is concentrated in the West Siberian Plain, which lies between the Ural Mountains and the Yenisey River. This plain is a vast area of lowlands, probably the largest expanse of flat land anywhere in the world. It stretches from the steppes of Central Asia in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north, covering a region nearly 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) wide. Flat and poorly drained, these lowlands feature many swamps, marshes, and peat bogs, with significant oil and natural gas deposits in their central and northern regions.


The areas now known as Siberia and Alaska were once connected by a stretch of land that surfaced during the Ice Ages, an area that researchers have called the Bering Land Bridge or Beringia. Archaeologists believe that the first ancestors of the Native Americans crossed this bridge from Asia into North America more than thirteen thousand years ago. Over time, as the Bering and Chukchi Seas rose, they covered Beringia. Remnants of the region can still be seen at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Seward Peninsula in Alaska.

The Ural Mountains separate two vast plains: the Great European Plain and the even larger West Siberian Plain. Both of these so-called plains contain a wide variety of terrain, including vast forests, swamps, and stretches of tundra. The plains also contain many areas of grassland and farmland, however, especially the Great European Plain.

The central portion of the Great European Plain between St. Petersburg and the Ukrainian border features a mixed forest of both conifers and deciduous trees. Oak, beech, maple, and hornbeam are the primary broad-leaf tree species. Moving south, the mixed forest passes through a narrow zone of forest steppe, which is 150 kilometers (95 miles) wide, on average, before giving way to a zone of true steppe.

The steppe is a broad band of nearly treeless, grassy plains that extends across Hungary, Ukraine, southern Russia, and Kazakhstan before ending in Manchuria. Although historically presented as the typical Russian landscape, the steppe in Russia proper is in fact quite small, located mainly northwest of the Greater Caucasus Mountains and stretching across the southern Volga Valley, the southern Urals, and parts of western Siberia.

Isolated pockets of steppe can also be found in the mountain valleys of southeastern Siberia. Moderate temperatures and normally adequate levels of sunshine and moisture give the steppe zone relatively favorable conditions for agriculture, although precipitation here can be unpredictable, sometimes even catastrophically dry.

Tundra makes up about 10 percent of Russian land, a treeless and marshy plain that lies along Russia's northernmost zone. The tundra stretches from the Finnish border to the Bering Strait, then extends south along the Pacific coast to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The North Siberian and Kolyma lowlands are entirely made up of tundra. Only mosses, lichens, dwarf willows and shrubs can grow on the permafrost and survive the long, harsh, sunless winters. In summer, dusk comes at midnight and dawn follows within minutes. The powerful Siberian rivers that cut across the tundra toward the Arctic Ocean do a poor job of draining the region, due to partial and intermittent thawing. The most important physical process at work in the tundra is frost weathering, a vestige of the glaciation that shaped it during the last Ice Age.


The areas now known as Siberia and Alaska were once connected by a stretch of land that surfaced during the Ice Ages, an area that researchers have called the Bering Land Bridge or Beringia. Archaeologists believe that the first ancestors of the Native Americans crossed this bridge from Asia into North America more than thirteen thousand years ago. Over time, as the Bering and Chukchi Seas rose, they covered Beringia. Remnants of the region can still be seen at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Seward Peninsula in Alaska.

There are many regions of hills and uplands in Russia. The Valdai Hills are the most noteworthy. Although not particularly tall (from 182 to 304 meters/600 to 1000 feet in elevation), they are among the highest summits located in the Great European Plain of western Russia. Many important rivers have their source there, including the Volga.


With nine major mountain ranges, Russia can be considered among the most mountainous countries in the world. Eastern Russia is by far more mountainous than the west, while the center section of the country is primarily low plains.

The Urals are perhaps the best known of Russia's mountain ranges, as they define the boundary between Asia to the east and Europe to the west. A lengthy range, the Urals extend 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) from the northern border of Kazakhstan all the way to the Arctic Ocean. The highest peak, Mount Narodnaya, is only 1,894 meters (6,212 feet) in elevation, however. The Urals have never offered any significant barrier to travel.

Located between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Caucasus Mountains consist of two major chains separated by lowlands. The northern Greater Caucasus range forms most of the border between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as marking the boundary between Asia to the south and Europe to the north. These mountain systems are made up of granite, other crystalline rocks, and some volcanic formations. Elevations in the Greater Caucasus reach a maximum of 5,633 meters (18,481 feet) at the extinct volcano Mount El'brus, the highest peak both in Russia and on the continent of Europe.

Russia's other mountains are far to the east. The Altay Shan and Sayan Mountains are found in the area north of Mongolia, west of Lake Baikal. Further east are the Yablonovyy Range and Stanovoy Mountains. They follow much of the southern border of central and eastern Siberia on toward the Pacific Ocean, where they join the other eastern ranges. The Altay Shan are the tallest of these; they include Mount Pelukha (4,619 meters/15,157 feet). The other ranges average less than 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) in height.

The topography east of the Lena River is predominantly mountainous, with the elevations becoming higher and more rugged farther to the east. Major ranges in this region are Verkhoyanskiy, Cherskiy, Kolyma, Koryak, and Sredinnyy. The easternmost ranges feature live volcanoes. As many as 120 volcanoes dot the Kamchatka Peninsula, and no fewer than 23 are active. Klyuchevskaya Sopka, the highest of these, reaches 4,750 meters (15,584 feet).

Moving offshore, these same mountains form the Kuril Islands, where thirty of one hundred volcanoes are active. Across the Sea of Okhotsk, in Russia's southeasternmost area, there are several low mountain ranges, including the Sikhote-Alin' Mountains and the mountains of Sakhalin Island.


Though there are many caves throughout the country of Russia, geological information or maps concerning them are not easy to obtain. One of the most famous of the many caves is Kapova Cave, which is known for its Paleolithic paintings of mammoths, rhinos, horses, and bison. Excavations from the two-level cavern uncovered human remains as well as animal bones and charcoal, indicating that people once lived there.


In an area known as the Kursk Magnetic Anomaly, near Ukraine, vast iron-ore deposits affect Earth's magnetic field.

Another famous site is the Kungur Ice Cave, located near the town of Kungur, southeast of Perm. It contains over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) of passageways. The entire depth of the cavern, however, has not been completely explored. The cave features many large columns of stalagmites and huge icicle stalactites.


The Central Siberian Plateau is an enormous stretch of rolling land between the Yenisey and the Lena Rivers. Heights of this vast plateau range from 500 to 700 meters (1,600 to 2,300 feet) on average. Its surface is eroded by the many rivers, some forming deep canyons. Layers of sedimentary rock, subsequently intruded by volcanic lava, were deposited long ago on top of igneous and metamorphic rock. Within the layers of sedimentary rock are rich deposits of coal.


Several canals connect most of European Russia's rivers. These rivers provide a vital transportation system, carrying fully two-thirds of the nation's inland water traffic. Because of one series of canals, it is possible to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow entirely by boat.

Russia's many rivers give the nation a great potential for hydroelectric power. In fact, Russia already has four of the ten largest hydroelectric plants in the world. The SayanoShushensk Dam on the Yenisey River is part of the fourth-largest plant and is also the twelfth-highest dam in the world, with a height of 242 meters (794 feet). The Krasnoyarsk Dam belongs to the fifth-largest hydroelectric plant in the world, while the Bratsk Dam and the Ust-Ilim Dam are eighth and tenth, respectively. The Saratov Dam on the Volga River is also listed as one of the world's largest dams.


Books and Periodicals

Clark, Miles. "A Russian Voyage." National Geographic , June 1994, 114-138.

Edwards, Mike. "Siberia: In from the Cold." National Geographic , March 1990, 2-39.

Jacobsen, Karen. The Russian Federation . Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.

Lydolph, Paul E. Geography of the U.S.S.R. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964.

Torchinsky, Oleg. Russia . New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1994

Web Site

Russian National Tourism Office. (accessed June 13, 2003).

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