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6.18: Russian Domain- Overview

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    In the various essays about Russia in this textbook, there are many facts presented and many ways of life understood. After reading the textbook, students or other readers should know and understand many things about Russia. Also, as has been stated, it is not the point of this textbook to attempt to convey every possible bit of knowledge about Russia. However, there are certain basic facts about Russia that the reader should know, whether picked up in previous chapters or not.

    In area, Russia is huge. Straddling the Eurasian landmass, Russia covers eleven time zones, stretching from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. This is not a new phenomenon, for once the Russians passed the Ural Mountains into Siberia, there were few people to stop the tsars, the Cossacks, and others from expanding the empire to the eastern shores of Asia.

    Being huge, Russia has vast quantities of natural resources. Oil and natural gas pipelines extend from western Siberia to a variety of European countries. Much of Russia’s economy depends on resource exports. Russians are proud of their huge country and enjoy noting its singular features – Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake, Siberia has the world’s largest coniferous forest, the Trans-Siberian Railway is the world’s longest railroad, etc.

    Russia is often cold. Being parallel to Canada, of course Russia will have a relatively cold climate. With almost its entire coastline being on the frigid Arctic Ocean, Russia receives little warming from the sea. Being cold, Russia’s land often is inhospitable to sizeable human population. Indeed, Siberia averages about eight people per square mile.

    Although often cold, Russia is not simple one slab of ice. Being huge, Russia incorporates numerous landscape features. Yes, the tundra is cold. Tundra is land that is sufficiently cold so that even trees are uncommon or absent. In fact, the term tundra, meaning treeless, is a word taken from the language of the Sami peoples who are native to these far northern lands. In Russia the tundra extends across the length of the Arctic coastline from the Kola Peninsula to the Bering Strait (Chapter 97), typically dipping 100-400 miles south of the northern ocean.

    Sable home. Photo by Tatiana Bulyankova on Flickr.

    However, the dominant physical landscape of Russia is mainly coniferous forest, known there as taiga. Although the roots of the word тайга are Turkic, this is a vast Russian landscape. This too stretches the length of the country from Karelia bordering Finland to the Sea of Okhotsk. In contrast to the tundra, taiga lunges fully southward, so that in central Siberia is reaches Russia’s southern border there with Mongolia. While much of these forests is comprised of evergreen trees such as larch, there are some deciduous species present. For instance, Russian birch trees often are seen as emblematic of Russian forests. A majority of the land of the world’s largest country is taiga. There also are forests in western Russia; however, these show a much higher share of deciduous (broadleaf) trees than found in Siberia.

    The Ural Mountains as discussed sometimes mark the division between Europe and Asia. to both the southwest and the southeast of these mountains, Russia features the steppe (степь) landscape. Steppe is a treeless plain, indeed similar to the American Great Plains in its characteristics. This means that for a share of Russia (perhaps 40%), its forests are bounded on north and south by treeless regions.

    Although the Soviet Union had considerable desert area in Central Asia, by itself Russia has little desert or near-desert land, that being a small area along the borders with Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea.

    The Soviet Union had significant mountainous areas in Central Asia and the Caucasus that again by itself Russia no longer holds. In this case, though, Russia has other mountain ranges. The low Ural Mountains are somewhat similar to America’s Appalachian Mountains is low elevation, age, and raw material wealth. Some of the mountains of the Caucasus region extend into Russia past the trio of countries there – Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. This includes Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain of Russia at 18510 feet. In Siberia, there are several mountain ranges. The Altai Mountains cross Russia’s southeastern border with Kazakhstan, as the Sayan Mountains do with China’s western border with Russia. East of Lake Baikal are the Yablonoi Mountains which sit south of the Stanovoy Range. Farther north and then east of the Lena River is the Verkhoyansk Range that lie west of the Kolyma Mountains that sit across from the Kamchatka Peninsula (Chapter 92) and its volcanoes.

    Lake Baikal. Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Flickr.

    There are plenty of lakes in Russia, but by far the most noteworthy are Lake Baikal and the Caspian Sea. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, filling a mile down between stretches of mountains. The Caspian Sea technically is a lake, for it fails to connect to the world’s oceans, thus not meeting the geographic standards to be a sea. While the Soviet Union held about 3/4 of the shoreline and thus waters of the Caspian Sea (the rest for Iran), now Russia’s share is only about 1/4. In terms of waterways, the historic Volga River is crucial to western Russia, but is considerably smaller and shorter than Siberian streams that are discussed in Chapter 85.

    Lake Baikal Panorama. Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Flickr.

    Even by random chance, we would expect that the vast lands of Russia would hold a variety of natural resources. This certainly is true, though the remote locations of many of these resources has presented challenges for the extraction and transportation of energy and mineral wealth. Siberia is a treasure trove of energy sites – oil and natural gas (Chapter 83) – and mineral resources – nickel, gold, platinum. In the 1930s Stalin had the city of Magnitogorsk constructed to specialize in the extraction and processing of immense deposits of iron ore nearby. Bordering Ukraine, the Kursk Magnetic Anamoly holds another huge supply of iron ore. The resource city of Norilsk is discussed in Chapter 88.

    Again to be clear, Russia is not and was not the same place as the Soviet Union (USSR). Under the tsars, the Russian Empire expanded greatly, especially across Siberia. The land area of the Russian Revolution that overthrew the Romanov dynasty was roughly the same as the extent of the Soviet Union after World War II. Russia was by far the largest piece of the Soviet Union, both in population and in area; however, there were numerous other pieces too. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russia became an independent country, but the other fourteen republics of the USSR did so as well. This geopolitical event distributed a lot of land and a large number of people from the USSR into these new countries. So, Russia is huge in area and big in population, but it is smaller than the Soviet Union was. During the decades of the Soviet Union and ever since then Russia has faced demographic challenges that eventually resulted in Russia having several recent years of more deaths than births. Most population scholars anticipate that Russia’s population will shrink in upcoming years and decades.

    The breakup of the Soviet Union led to great disruption within the fifteen successor States. Russia experienced considerable social, economic, and political turmoil. The country’s eventual relative stability under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin is responsible for much of his popularity. Putin’s emphasis on pushing Russia’s international status and clout toward that of the Soviet Union also has been effective in boosting his appeal. Russia annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in 2014 and continues to battle in eastern Ukraine.

    Even so, the chaos following the dissolution of the USSR led to great economic disparities and the development of the super-rich oligarch class (Chapter 90). Moscow ranks fourth in the world among cities with numbers of billionaires. In 2019 Credit Suisse Bank in Switzerland ranked Russia as the world’s most unequal economy with the top 10% of people owning 83% of Russia wealth.

    Russia has inherited many elements of life from the Soviet days. The skewed sex ratio (Chapter 94), heavily favoring numbers of women, is an artifact of male life expectancy in the late Soviet period. Considerable environmental pollution is a legacy of Soviet near total disregard for protecting the natural environment. The ethnoterritorial system (Chapter 86) of managing a multinational State moved from the Soviet Union to the governing system of Russia. The autocratic leadership under Putin is a morphed inheritance of the authoritarian Soviet system, which in its harsh control was an altered version of tsarist autocratic rule.

    Although World War II is even further back in history than is the breakup of the Soviet Union, WWII still is noteworthy for Russians. At a bare minimum there were twenty million deaths on the Soviet side. The Battle of Stalingrad caused 3.5 million Soviet deaths alone. While the Stalin era also cost millions of lives as caused by the communist system, unlike the history of WWII, Stalinist history has not been taught well in Russian schools. In fact, in a survey by the Levada-Center in 2019, when asked what role Stalin played in the history of Russia, 70% of answering adults in Russia either said entirely positive or mostly positive. It should not be a surprise that Putin seems to secure the highest ratings of popularity when he emphasizes nationalism, even as far as annexing Crimea away from Ukraine.

    Russians comprise a remarkable nation, locked into a huge and often cold land, governed by autocratic leadership.

    For this textbook, we are counting Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, and perhaps Moldova in a region to be called the Russian Domain. The peoples of Ukraine and Belarus are mainly Slavic, sharing ethnic and linguistic characteristics with Russians. The lands of Ukraine and Belarus border western Russia and not surprisingly share similar landscape features of forests and the North European Plain. These several lands that now are the countries listed here share historical links with Russia, territorial occupation and conquest both in the tsarist era and during the Soviet Union.

    Did you know?

    Steppe eagle. Photo by Francesco Veronesi.

    The steppe eagle breeds in Siberia and Kazakhstan. In 2019 a tagged steppe eagle send accumulated GPS data back to scientists in Russia. Unfortunately, the eagle had flown to Iran, so that when the data was sent, it accumulated huge roaming charges.

    The Siberian tiger does live in the taiga.

    Cited and additional bibliography:

    Bulyankova, Tatiana. 2014. Sable Home. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

    Frank, Robert. 2018. “The 10 Cities with the Most Billionaires.” CNBC. May 17, 2018.

    Pesterev, Sergey. 2016. Lake Baikal. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

    ———. 2016b. Lake Baikal Panorama. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

    “Stalin’s Perception.” 2019. Levada-Center. April 19, 2019.

    Times, The Moscow. 2019. “Russia Named World’s Most Unequal Economy.” The Moscow Times. October 22, 2019.

    Veronesi, Francesco. 2013. Steppe Eagle. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

    This page titled 6.18: Russian Domain- Overview is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Joel Quam & G. Scott Campbell.

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