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Encyclopedia > Geography of the Soviet Union

Modern day Russia occupies most of the territory of the Soviet Union.

Contents

Physical environment

Any geographic description of the Soviet Union is replete with superlatives. Its inventory of land and water contained the world's largest and deepest lakes, the most expansive plain, and Europe's highest mountain and longest river. Desert scenes from Soviet Central Asia resembled the Australian outback. The Crimean coast on the Black Sea was the Soviet Riviera, and the mountains rimming the southern boundary were as imposing as the Swiss Alps. However, most of the topography and climate resembles that of the northernmost portion of the North American continent. The northern forests and the plains to the south find their closest counterparts in the Yukon Territory and in the wide swath of land extending across most of Canada. Similarities in terrain, climate, and settlement patterns between Siberia and Alaska and Canada are unmistakable.


After the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing Civil War (1918- 21), Soviet regimes transformed, often radically, the country's physical environment. In the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet citizens, from the highest officials to ordinary factory workers and farmers, began to examine negative aspects of this transformation and to call for more prudent use of natural resources and greater concern for environmental protection.


Global Position and Boundaries

Located in the middle and northern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, the Soviet Union on the whole was much closer to the North Pole than to the equator. Individual country comparisons are of little value in gauging the enormous size (more than twice that of the United States) and diversity of the Soviet Union. A far better perspective comes by viewing the country as a truly continental-sized landmass only slightly smaller than North America and larger than South America in both area and population.


The country's 22.4 million square kilometers included one-sixth of the earth's inhabited land area. Its western portion, more than half of all Europe, made up just 25 percent of the Soviet Union; this, however, was where the overwhelming majority (about 72 percent) of the people lived and where most industrial and agricultural activities are concentrated. It was here, roughly between the Dnepr River and the Ural Mountains, that the Russian Empire took shape and gradually over centuries expanded to the Pacific Ocean and into Central Asia.


Although its historical, political, economic, and cultural ties bound it firmly to Europe, the Soviet Union was largely an Asian country because of Siberia. For centuries this land between the Urals and the Pacific was infamous as a place of exile, a land of endless expanses of snow and frigid temperatures. In the post-World War II period, however, Siberia has also become known as a new frontier because of its treasure of natural resources.


The Soviet Union measured some 10,000 kilometers from Kaliningrad on the Gulf of Gdańsk in the west to Ratmanova Island (Big Diomede Island) in the Bering Strait, or roughly equivalent to the distance from Edinburgh, Scotland, east to Nome, Alaska. From the tip of the Taymyr Peninsula on the Arctic Ocean to the Central Asian town of Kushka near the Afghan border extended almost 5,000 kilometers of mostly rugged, inhospitable terrain. The east-west expanse of the continental United States would easily fit between the northern and southern borders of the Soviet Union at their extremities.


Extending for over 60,000 kilometers, the Soviet border was not only one of the world's most closely guarded but also is by far the longest. Along the nearly 20,000-kilometer-long land frontier, the Soviet Union abuted twelve countries, six on each continent. In Asia, its neighbors were the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey; in Europe, it bordered Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, and Finland. Except for the icy eighty-six kilometers of the Bering Strait, it would have a thirteenth neighbor--the United States.


Approximately two-thirds of the frontier was bounded by water, forming the longest and, owing to its proximity to the North Pole, probably the most useless coastline of any country. Practically all of the lengthy northern coast is well above the Arctic Circle and, with the important exception of Murmansk, which received the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, was locked in ice much of the year. A dozen seas, part of the water systems of three oceans--the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific--washed Soviet shores.


See also Republics of the Soviet Union.


Topography and Drainage

Most geographers divide the vast Soviet territory into five natural zones that generally extend from west to east: the tundra zone; the taiga or forest zone; the steppe or plains zone; the arid zone; and the mountain zone. Most of the Soviet Union consisted of three plains (East European Plain, West Siberian Plain, and Turan Lowland), two plateaus (Central Siberian Plateau and Kazakh Upland), and a series of mountainous areas, concentrated for the most part in the extreme northeast or extending intermittently along the southern border. The West Siberian Plain, the world's largest, extended east from the Urals to the Yenisey River. Because the terrain and vegetation were uniform in each of the natural zones, the Soviet Union, as a whole, presented an illusion of uniformity.


Nevertheless, the Soviet territory contained all the major vegetation zones with the exception of tropical rain forest. Ten percent of Soviet territory is tundra, that is, a treeless marshy plain. The tundra was the Soviet Union's northernmost zone of snow and ice, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east and then running south along the Pacific coast to the earthquake and volcanic region of northern Kamchatka Peninsula. It was the land made famous by herds of wild reindeer, by "white nights" (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter) in summer, and by days of total darkness in winter. The long harsh winters and lack of sunshine allowed only mosses, lichens, and dwarf willows and shrubs to sprout low above the barren permafrost. Although the great Siberian rivers slowly traversed this zone in reaching the Arctic Ocean, drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps was hampered by partial and intermittent thawing. Frost weathering is the most important physical process here, shaping a landscape modified by extensive glaciation in the last ice age.


The northern forests of spruce, fir, pine, and larch, collectively known as the taiga, made up the largest natural zone of the Soviet Union, an area about the size of the United States. Here too the winter is long and severe, as witnessed by the routine registering of the world's coldest temperatures for inhabited areas in the northeastern portion of this belt. The taiga zone extended in a broad band across the middle latitudes, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia and as far south as the southern shores of Lake Baykal. Isolated sections of taiga are found along mountain ranges, as in the southern part of the Urals, and in the Amur River Valley in the Far East. About 33 percent of the population lives in this zone, which, with the mixed forest zone, includeed most of the European part of the Soviet Union and the ancestral lands of the earliest Slavic settlers.


Long associated with traditional images of Russian landscape and cossacks on horseback are the steppes, which are treeless, grassy plains. Although they covered only 15 percent of Soviet territory, the steppes were home to roughly 44 percent of the population. They extend for 4,000 kilometers from the Carpathian Mountains in the western Ukrainian Republic across most of the northern portion of the Kazakh Republic in Soviet Central Asia, between the taiga and arid zones, occupying a relatively narrow band of plains whose chernozem soils are some of the most fertile on earth. In a country of extremes, the steppe zone, with its moderate temperatures and normally adequate levels of sunshine and moisture, provides the most favorable conditions for human settlement and agriculture. Even here, however, agricultural yields were sometimes adversely affected by unpredictable levels of precipitation and occasional catastrophic droughts.


Below the steppes, and merging at times with them, was the arid zone: the semideserts and deserts of Soviet Central Asia and, particularly, of the Kazakh Republic. Portions of this zone became cotton- and rice-producing regions through intensive irrigation. For various reasons, including sparse settlement and a comparatively mild climate, the arid zone became the most prominent center for Soviet space exploration.


One-quarter of the Soviet Union consisted of mountains or mountainous terrain. With the significant exceptions of the Ural Mountains and the mountains of eastern Siberia, the mountains occupy the southern periphery of the Soviet Union. The Urals, because they have traditionally been considered the natural boundary between Europe and Asia and because they are valuable sources of minerals, were the most famous of the country's nine major ranges. In terms of elevation (comparable to the Appalachians) and vegetation, however, they are far from impressive, and they do not serve as a formidable natural barrier.


Truly alpine terrain was found in the southern mountain ranges. Between the Black and Caspian seas, for example, the Caucasus Mountains rose to impressive heights, marking a continuation of the boundary separating Europe from Asia. One of the peaks, Mount Elbrus, is the highest point in Europe at 5,642 meters. This range, extending to the northwest as the Crimean and Carpathian mountains and to the southeast as the Tien Shan and Pamirs, formed an imposing natural barrier between the Soviet Union and its neighbors to the south. The highest point in the Soviet Union, at 7,495 meters, was Mount Communism (Pik Kommunizma) in the Pamirs near the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. The Pamirs and the Tien Shan were offshoots of the tallest mountain chain in the world, the Himalayas. Eastern Siberia and the Soviet Far East are also mountainous regions, especially the volcanic peaks of the long Kamchatka Peninsula, which jutted down into the Sea of Okhotsk. The Soviet Far East, the southern portion of Soviet Central Asia, and the Caucasus were the Soviet Union's centers of seismic activity. In 1887, for example, a severe earthquake destroyed the city of Vernyy (present-day Alma-Ata), and in December 1988 a massive quake demolished the Armenian city of Spitak and large sections of Kirovakan and Leninakan. The 1988 quake, one of the worst in Soviet history, claimed more than 25,000 lives.


The Soviet Union's water resources were both scarce and abundant. With about 3 million rivers and approximately 4 million inland bodies of water, the Soviet Union held the largest fresh, surface-water resources of any country. Unfortunately, most of these resources (84 percent), as with so much of the Soviet resource base, were at a great distance from consumers; they flowed through sparsely populated territory and into the Arctic and Pacific oceans. In contrast, areas with the highest concentrations of population, and therefore the highest demand for water supplies, tended to have the warmest climates and highest rates of evaporation. The result is barely adequate (or in some cases inadequate) water resources where they are needed most.


Nonetheless, as in many other countries, the earliest settlements sprang up on the rivers, and that is where the majority of the urban population prefers to live. The Volga, Europe's longest river, was by far the Soviet Union's most important commercial waterway. Three of the country's twenty-three cities with more than 1 million inhabitants were located on its banks: Gor'kiy, Kazan', and Kuybyshev.


The European part of the Soviet Union had extensive, highly developed, and heavily used water resources, among them the key hydrosystems of the Volga, Kama, Dnepr, Dnestr, and Don rivers. As is the case with fuels, however, the greatest water resources are found east of the Urals, deep in Siberia. Of the sixty-three rivers in the Soviet Union longer than 1,000 kilometers, forty are east of the Urals, including the four mighty rivers that drain Siberia as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean: the Irtysh, Ob', Yenisey, and Lena rivers. The Amur River formed part of the winding and sometimes tense boundary between the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. Taming and exploiting the hydroelectric potential of these systems has been a monumental and highly publicized national project. Some of the world's largest hydroelectric stations operated on these rivers. Hundreds of smaller hydroelectric power plants and associated reservoirs were also constructed on the rivers. Thousands of kilometers of canals linked river and lake systems and provide essential sources of irrigation for farmland.


The Soviet Union's 4 million inland bodies of water were chiefly a legacy of extensive glaciation. Most prominent among them are the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland sea, and Lake Baykal, the world's deepest and most capacious freshwater lake. Lake Baykal alone held 85 percent of the freshwater resources of the lakes in the Soviet Union and 20 percent of the world's total. Other water resources included swampland, a sizable portion of territory (10 percent), and glaciers in the northern areas.


Climate

Notorious cold and long winters have, understandably, been the focus of discussions on the Soviet Union's weather and climate. From the frozen depths of Siberia came baby mammoths perfectly preserved, locked in ice for several thousand years. Millions of square kilometers experience half a year of subfreezing temperatures and snow covered over subsoil that was permanently frozen in places to depths of several hundred meters. In northeastern Siberia, not far from Yakutsk, hardy settlers coped with January temperatures that consistently average -50 C. Transportation routes, including entire railroad lines, had been redirected in winter to traverse rock-solid waterways and lakes.


Howling Arctic winds that produced coastal wind chills as low as -152 C and the burany, or blinding snowstorms of the steppe, are climatic manifestations of a relatively unfavorable position in the Northern Hemisphere. The dominance of winter in the Soviet Union is a result of the proximity to the North Pole--the southernmost point of the country was about on the same latitude as Oklahoma City, Oklahoma--and remoteness from oceans that tended to moderate the climate. As a result, cold, high-pressure systems in the east--the "Siberian high"--and wet, cold cyclonic systems in the west largely determined the overall weather patterns.


The long, cold winter had a profound impact on almost every aspect of life in the Soviet Union. It affected where and how long people live and work and 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, along with the sharp fluctuations in the mean summer and winter temperatures, imposed special requirements on many branches of the economy: in regions of permafrost, buildings must be constructed on pilings, and machinery must be made of specially tempered steel; transportation systems must be engineered to perform reliably in extremely low and high temperatures; the health care field and the textile industry are greatly affected by the ramifications of six to eight months of winter; and energy demands are multiplied by extended periods of darkness and cold.


Despite its well-deserved reputation as a generally snowy, icy northern country, the Soviet Union included other major climatic zones as well. According to Soviet geographers, most of their country is located in the temperate zone, which for them included all of the European portion except the southern part of Crimea and the Caucasus, all of Siberia, the Soviet Far East, and the plains of Soviet Central Asia and the southern Kazakh Republic.


Two areas outside the temperate zone demonstrated the climatic diversity of the Soviet Union: the Soviet Far East, under the influence of the Pacific Ocean, with a monsoonal climate; and the subtropical band of territory extending along the southern coast of the Soviet Union's most popular resort area, Crimea, through the Caucasus and into Soviet Central Asia, where there were deserts and oases.


With most of the land so far removed from the oceans and the moisture they provide, levels of precipitation in the Soviet Union was low to moderate. More than half the country received fewer than forty centimeters of rainfall each year, and most of Soviet Central Asia and northeastern Siberia could count on barely one-half that amount. The wettest parts were found in the small, lush subtropical region of the Caucasus and in the Soviet Far East along the Pacific coast.


Natural Resources

The Soviet Union was richly endowed with almost every major category of natural resource. Drawing upon its vast holdings, it has become the world leader in the production of oil, iron ore, manganese, and asbestos. It has the world's largest proven reserves of natural gas.


Self-sufficiency had traditionally been a powerful stimulus for exploring and developing the country's huge, yet widely dispersed, resource base. It remains a source of national pride that the Soviet Union, alone among the industrialized countries of the world, can claim the ability to satisfy almost all the requirements of its economy using its own natural resources.


The abundance of fossil fuels supplied not just the Soviet Union's domestic needs. For many years, an ample surplus has been exported to consumers in Eastern Europe and Western Europe, where it earned most of the Soviet Union's convertible currency.


However, as resource stocks were depleted in the heavily populated European section, tapping the less accessible but vital riches east of the Urals became a national priority. The best example of this process is fuels and energy. The depletion of readily accessible fuel resources west of the Urals caused development and exploitation to shift to the inhospitable terrain of western Siberia, which in the 1970s and 1980s displaced the Volga-Ural and the southern European regions as the country's primary supplier of fuel and energy. Fierce cold, permafrost, and persistent flooding made this exploitation costly and difficult.


Environmental Concerns

In spite of a series of environmental laws and regulations passed in the 1970s, authentic environmental protection in the Soviet Union did not become a major concern until General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Without an established regulatory agency and an environmental protection infrastructure, enforcement of existing laws was largely ignored. Only occasional and isolated references appeared on such issues as air and water pollution, soil erosion, and wasteful use of natural resources in the 1970s. This lack of concern was prompted by several factors. First, after collectivization in the 1930s, all of the land became state owned and managed. Thus, whenever air and water were polluted, the state was most often the agent of this pollution. Second, and this was true especially under Joseph V. Stalin's leadership, the resource base of the country was viewed as limitless and free. Third, in the rush to modernize and to develop heavy industry, concern for damage to the environment and related damage to the health of Soviet citizens would have been viewed as detrimental to progress. Fourth, pollution control and environmental protection itself is an expensive, high-technology industry, and even in the mid-1980s many of the Soviet Union's systems to control harmful emissions were inoperable or of foreign manufacture.


Under Gorbachev's leadership, the official attitude toward the environment changed. Various social and economic factors helped produce this change. To maintain economic growth through the 1980s, a period in which the labor force had been declining significantly, intensive and more prudent use of both natural and human resources was required. At the same time, glasnost' provided an outlet for widespread discussion of environmental issues, and a genuine grass-roots ecological movement arose to champion causes similar to the ecological concerns of the West. Public campaigns were mounted to protect Lake Baykal from industrial pollution and to halt the precipitous decline in the water levels of the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov, and, most urgently, the Aral Sea. A grandiose scheme to divert the northern rivers southward had been counted on to replenish these seas, but for both economic and environmental reasons, the project was canceled in 1986.


Without this diversion project, the Aral Sea, once a body of water larger than any of the Great Lakes except Lake Superior, seemed destined to become the world's largest salt flat as early as the year 2010. By 1987 so much water had been siphoned off for irrigation of cotton and rice fields south and east of the sea that all shipping and commercial fishing had ceased. Former seaports, active as late as 1973, were reported to be forty to sixty kilometers from the water's edge. Belatedly recognizing the gravity of the situation for the 3 million inhabitants of the Aral region, government officials declared it an ecological disaster area.


With respect to air pollution, mass demonstrations protesting unhealthful conditions were held in cities such as Yerevan in the Armenian Republic. Official reports confirmed that more than 100 of the largest Soviet cities registered air quality indexes ten times worse than permissible levels. In one of the most publicized cases, the inhabitants of Kirishi, a city not far from Leningrad, succeeded in closing a chemical plant whose toxic emissions were found to be harming--and in some cases killing--the city's residents. Finally, separate, highly publicized cases of man-made disasters, the most prominent of which was the Chernobyl' nuclear power plant accident in 1986, highlighted the fragility of the manproduction -nature relationship in the Soviet Union and forced a reconsideration of traditional attitudes and policies toward industrialization and development.


As part of the process of restructuring (perestroika), in the 1980s concrete steps were taken to strengthen environmental protection and to provide the country with an effective mechanism for implementing policy and ensuring compliance. Two specific indications of this were the inclusion of a new section devoted to environmental protection in the annual statistical yearbook and the establishment of the State Committee for the Protection of Nature (Gosudarstvennyi komitet po okhrane prirody--Goskompriroda) early in 1988.


Despite these measures, decades of environmental degradation caused by severe water and air pollution and land abuse were unlikely to be remedied soon or easily. Solving these critical problems will require not only a major redirection of capital and labor but also a fundamental change in the entire Soviet approach to industrial and agricultural production and resource exploitation and consumption.


Size: Approximately 22,402,200 square kilometers (land area 22, 272,000 square kilometers); slightly less than 2.5 times size of United States.


Location: Occupied eastern portion of European continent and northern portion of Asian continent. Most of country north of 50 north latitude.


Topography: Vast steppe with low hills west of Ural Mountains; extensive coniferous forest and tundra in Siberia; deserts in Central Asia; mountains along southern boundaries.


Climate: Generally temperate to Arctic continental. Winters varied from short and cold along Black Sea to long and frigid in Siberia. Summers varied from hot in southern deserts to cool along Arctic coast. Weather usually harsh and unpredictable. Generally dry with more than half of country receiving fewer than forty centimeters of rainfall per year, most of Soviet Central Asia northeastern Siberia receiving only half that amount.


Land Boundaries: 19,933 kilometers total: Afghanistan 2,384 kilometers' China 7,520 kilometers; Czechoslovakia 98 kilometers; Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) 17 kilometers; Finland 1,313 kilometers, Hungary 135 kilometers; Iran 1,690 kilometers; Mongolia 3,441 kilometers; Norway 196 kilometers; Poland 1,215 kilometers; Romania 1,307 kilometers; and Turkey 617 kilometers.


Water Boundaries: 42,777 kilometers washed by oceanic systems of Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific.


Land Use: 11 percent of land arable; 16 percent meadows and pasture; 41 percent forest and woodland; and 32 percent other, including tundra.


Natural Resources: Oil, natural gas, coal, iron ore, timber, gold, manganese, lead, zinc, nickel, mercury, potash, phosphates, and most strategic minerals.


Reference


 
 

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