An immense space from populous Europe to the vastness of Siberia
Russia is almost a single large plain, straddling the Old World to the Far East, which is so foreign to our cultural habits and so present, instead, in the Russian ones. To occupy this immense space there are a people and a thousand minorities, a thousand problems, a thousand resources. Cities and factories to the west, uninhabited forests and steppes to the east; rivers and immense marshes that freeze causing difficulties in connection; gigantic riches to be used and an exceptional geopolitical position; the habit of overcoming adversity and making incredible progress in a few decades: in short, a great country that wants to find greater well-being and greater stability
The pivot of the world?
The immensity of Russia, the largest state in the world, makes any attempt to synthesize its characteristics difficult, and a history of a great world power, from the seventeenth century onwards, makes any assessment of the country risky.
Such a huge space (9,000 km from one end to the other) hosts a great ethnic, linguistic and religious variety which required particular management systems: one is the federal structure, adopted after the Bolshevik Revolution. The country still today is made up of 21 federated republics, 2 autonomous cities (Russian revolutions) (Moscow and St. Petersburg), 14 autonomous territories or districts and 49 provinces: a complex system, which serves above all to guarantee its own territories and management autonomy to non-Russian ethnic groups.
Today perhaps it no longer seems possible to define Russia – as someone did (and it was not a Russian) – “the pivot of the world”, that is the geopolitical area around which everything revolves: but, between great expansions and deep crises, the power for four centuries, however, has been at the center of world history.
The plain, the rivers
Most of the territory is occupied by a plain enlivened by the Ural Mountains, which do not reach 2,000 m in altitude but serve as a – conventional – boundary between European and Asian Russia, and then by the Central Siberian Plateau (1,700 m). Further east, the plain narrows and hardly continues beyond the Lena River.
On the southern edge of the plain, on the other hand, high mountains rise: both in Europe (Caucasus, with peaks over 5,000 m) and in Asia (Altai, over 4,500 m). East of the great Lake Baikal, the deepest in the world (1,620 m), and the course of the Lena, other mountains exceed 3,000 m and occupy the easternmost region of the country, including the Kamˇcatka Peninsula (with a volcanic peak of 4,750 m).
The plain is interrupted by large rivers, which are generally arranged longitudinally, rich in water and navigable, both in the European part – with the Volga system – and in the Asian part – with those of the Ob´-Irtyš, of the Ienissei (4,092 km) and of the Lena (4,400 km) – while the course of the Amur (4,416 km) marks the border with China for a long time. Almost all of the Siberian rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean (where large islands belong to Russia), frozen for most of the year and not very useful for navigation; however, they are used for internal communications, except in winter when they freeze, and on their banks there are many of the Asian cities. These rivers regularly flood the surrounding plains, which are therefore marshy and poorly traversable in summer, freezing in winter.
In the north-western part of Europe there are many lakes, including Ladoga, the largest in Europe.
The big cold
It is not entirely true that Russia’s climate is so cold. It is true that it is everywhere clearly continental, both in Europe and above all in Asia, with very severe winters. In summer, however, it can also be very hot. The fact is that Russia reaches very high latitudes, well beyond the Arctic Circle, where summer is very short and only allows the growth of low and scarce vegetation (tundra). Further south opens a belt of coniferous forests (taiga). In these two regions agriculture is impossible and human presence depends either on mineral deposits or on particular activities (military, scientific).
Further south, then, there is the steppe. The soils of the steppe consist largely of black, fertile and very deep accumulations of humus, excellent for agriculture, provided there is sufficient water, while the whole Russian territory is rather arid, and in particular the area of steppes.
The climatic conditions of the European section are a little better than in Asia: less low temperatures in winter and a little more abundant rainfall. Both for this and because the Russian socio-political organization was born west of the Urals, the population was concentrated in the European part and, after the conquest of the Asian part, in the steppe area.
Russians and no
The population of the Russian territory is a very ancient phenomenon: it is thought that a large part of the present peoples of Europe and Asia descend from ancestors who lived in the steppes of Central Asia, between Russia and Kazakhstan. The peoples of the steppes were nomadic herders and these areas had very low densities. Only agriculture could increase the number, and the Slavs – including the Russians – learned it in Europe. In the European part, therefore, the Russian population has had relatively high densities for centuries; always very low (26 residents / km 2) compared to European countries, but much more than in the Asian part (2 residents / km 2). Obviously, if we exclude the almost uninhabited northern regions from the account, the density increases a bit, especially in European Russia.
From this more populous area, in the sixteenth century many expeditions left for Asia to conquer new lands: the Russian Empire incorporated a number of different populations, generally non-Slavic, few in number and nomads. Even today, the Russians are just over 80% of the population, but the other residents are divided between 128 recognized nationalities, and the largest minorities (Tatars and Ukrainians) barely exceed 3% of the total.
For many decades, however, the population of Russia has been in constant decline – except, in fact, in some of the non-Slavic minorities; in the last twenty years, then, the political and economic upheavals have led to a marked worsening of living conditions, which we are struggling to recover, and to internal and foreign migrations.
Living in Russia
Almost three quarters of the residents of Russia live in cities concentrated in the European part: beyond the capital Moscow, St. Petersburg (4,670,000 residents), Nižni Novgorod (1,311,000), Samara, Perm, Volgograd and others exceed one million residents, and many are still a little less populous. On the Asian side, the major cities – Novosibirsk (1,426,000), Ekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk – and almost all the others are located on the very important Trans-Siberian railway.
The urban phenomenon is not traditional in Russian society; on the contrary, it is very recent. Excluding a few medieval cities in European Russia, almost all of them were formed or developed with nineteenth-twentieth-century industrialization – again concentrated in European Russia (at least 80% of production), although many of the raw materials are found in Siberia. Among these – it is impossible to remember them all – the reserves of oil and gas, coal, gold, iron are very important.
Although agriculture (cereals, industrial plants) and forestry are very important, Russia has long been an industrial power: now it is transforming basic production (steel, chemicals) into more refined ones, which arose above all in large European cities, and has however an impressive production complex.
The potential wealth of the country is considerable and the social organization has allowed extraordinary progress in the past (health, culture, employment). The recent economic regime change has created many imbalances and has had high social costs, but Russia seems ready for a new phase of great growth.