Russia, excluding the Kaliningrad Oblast (an isolated Russian region separated from Russia proper), borders on 12 countries. Counterclockwise from the south they are North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Norway. Kaliningrad is bounded by the Baltic Sea, Lithuania, and Poland.
Two characteristics of Russia's physical geography stand out above all others. The first is the country's great size; occupying nearly all of northern Eurasia, Russia is the world's largest country. With an area of 6,592,850 square miles (17,075,400 km2), it is nearly the size of the continent of South America and almost twice the size of the United States. Russia extends eastward from the Gulf of Finland about 5,000 miles (8,000 km) to the Bering Sea—a span so wide that it includes 11 of the world's 24 time zones. From the Arctic Ocean in the north, Russia stretches southward over distances ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 miles (2,400 to 4,000 km).
The second outstanding characteristic of Russia is its extreme northern location. Most of the country is within the same latitudes as Alaska and Canada; St. Petersburg, for example, is about as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. The northern location is a major reason for the severely cold climate prevailing over most of the country, sharply limiting the crop growing season and locking seaports in ice for months at a time.
In the most general terms, Russia consists largely of flat to rolling plains with plateaus and mountainous regions in the west-central, eastern, and most of the southern parts of the country. For simplification, Russia may be divided into two large regions: European Russia and Siberia.
European Russia consists of the western part of the country up to and including the western face of the Ural Mountains. Although it occupies slightly less than a quarter of the country's total area, it contains most of the people and industry. This single region is a little more than half the size of the continental United States.
Except for the Urals in the east and the Caucasus Mountains in the southwest, European Russia consists principally of the eastern section of the Great European Plain. This area is sometimes called the East European Plain. In Russia it spreads from the Arctic coast to the Black Sea. The plain rises slowly towards the Urals in the east. Much of the surface is gently rolling.
Several upland areas break the otherwise monotonous surface. Most of these areas consist of low, rounded hills whose tops do not exceed 1,300 feet (400 m). Northwest of Moscow are the Valday Hills and the Smolensk-Moscow Ridge. Europe's longest river, the Volga, begins in this region. Other major rivers that originate here are the Dnieper and the Western Dvina. Beginning west of Moscow and extending south-southeast to Ukraine's eastern border are the Central Russian Uplands. From here flow the Don, the Donets, and other major rivers. To the east, along the Volga's middle course, are the Volga Uplands, whose narrow southern end separates the Volga and Don rivers by less than 50 miles (80 km).
To the south of the Volga Uplands, lying along the northwest shore of the Caspian Sea, is a region that is part of the Caspian Depression. Here land gradually drops to about 90 feet (2 7 m) below sea level.
Between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are the Caucasus Mountains. They mark the southern boundary of the East European Plain and form a high, nearly unbroken barrier to the lands beyond, which are sometimes known as Transcaucasia. In the western Caucasus rises Europe's loftiest peak, Elbrus, reaching 18,510 feet (5,642 m) above sea level.
Along the plain's eastern edge are the Ural Mountains, often considered part of the Europe-Asia boundary. The Urals are much less a barrier than the Caucasus; only in the northern and southern sections do peaks rise as high as 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,200 to 1,800 m). The middle Urals are little more than low hills. The only other significant elevations in European Russia occur on the Kola Peninsula, where the Khibiny Mountains rise up to more than 3,900 feet (1,190 m).
Siberia extends eastward from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean. Siberia's southwestern limits are indefinite, but often are considered to be at about 50° N. latitude.
Western Siberia, between the Urals and the Yenisey River, consists mainly of the West Siberian Lowland, a vast, extremely flat area crossed by winding, sluggish rivers. Much of the land in the central section is swampy, especially between the Ob and Irtysh rivers. To the south are scattered uplands and the Altai Mountains, which reach more than 14,000 feet (4,300 m).
Central Siberia is chiefly an upland region and lies within the area drained by the Yenisey and Lena rivers. In the north is the Central Siberian Plateau, an eroded tableland whose surface rarely exceeds elevations of about 3,000 feet (900 m). The plateau gives way to lowlands along the Arctic coast, except on the Taymyr Peninsula, which rises more than 3,700 feet (1,100 m) above sea level. In the extreme south, high mountains lie near the Mongolian border. Highest are the Sayan Mountains, which exceed 11,000 feet (3,400 m) and contain most of the Yenisey River's headstreams. East of Lake Baykal, which lies in a deep fault between steep mountain slopes, is a complex group of ranges. These extend in a southwest-northeast direction and include the Yablonovyy Range.
Eastern Siberia—the land between the Lena River and the Pacific Ocean—is almost entirely mountainous. Paralleling the lower Lena is the Verkhoyansk Range; just to the east is the higher Cherskiy Range, rising to more than 10,000 feet (3,000 m). Lesser ranges spread across the extreme northeast and down the Kamchatka Peninsula, where there are numerous active volcanoes, including towering Klyuchevskaya Sopka, which at 15,584 feet (4,750 m) is the highest peak in Siberia. Other mountain systems of eastern Siberia are the Stanovoy Range between the Lena and Amur rivers, and the Sikhote Alin Range facing the Pacific coast. Across the Tatar Strait is Sakhalin, the largest island in Russia.
Off Russia's Arctic coast are several island groups that are within neither Siberia nor European Russia. Between the Barents and Kara seas lies Novaya Zemlya ("new land"), the largest group, occupying some 35,000 square miles (91,000 km2). Farther north is ice-covered Franz Josef Land, an uninhabited group of about 85 islands. Severnaya Zemlya ("northern land") is another group of islands, off the Taymyr Peninsula, and to the east across the Laptev Sea are the New Siberian Islands. Smaller islands are scattered through the Chukchi Sea and Bering Strait.
Russia is a land of mighty rivers. Some of the rivers are historically important in the settlement and growth of the country, and many are of great economic significance. Linked by interconnecting canals and waterways, rivers provide vital avenues of inland shipping. They are also used to generate large amounts of electric power, to float logs to mills, and for commercial fishing.
The largest rivers are in Siberia. Among these are the three giants—the Ob, Yenisey, and Lena, all of which flow northward into seas of the Arctic Ocean. Other large rivers include the Kolyma and the Indigirka, which also flow into Arctic waters, and the Amur, which flows to the Pacific.
The rivers of European Russia, though generally smaller than those of Siberia, are of greater economic importance. Among these are the Neva, which empties into an arm of the Baltic Sea; the Northern Dvina and the Pechora, which flow northward to seas of the Arctic Ocean; the Volga, which empties into the Caspian Sea; and the Don, which flows southward to the Sea of Azov, an arm of the Black Sea.
Most of the major rivers have huge drainage basins and are of great length. The Lena, Ob, Volga, and Yenisey river systems all exceed 2,000 miles (3,200 km) in length. Nearly all the rivers have courses sloping gently to the sea, and the flow of water is usually sluggish. In winter nearly all rivers freeze—the length of freeze varying from 1 to 2 months near the Black Sea to 6 to 10 months above the Arctic Circle. Extensive flooding occurs in the Arctic during the spring thaw, when water from melting ice and snow in the south is blocked by frozen channels in the north.
Russia has thousands of lakes, most of which are in the northern glaciated section. The country's largest lakes and seas, however, are in the south. The Caspian Sea, which is shared with Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, is the world's largest lake, covering 143,200 square miles (371,000 km2). By volume of water, however, the largest lake in Russia—and in the world—is Lake Baykal, in south-central Siberia. It contains more water than all of the Great Lakes combined. Other important inland bodies of water include the Black Sea (shared with Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine), and Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega in the northwest. There are also numerous large reservoirs.
Most of Russia, being far north and away from the tempering influence of the ocean, has a severe continental type of climate; the country is greatly affected by the intense heating of the Eurasian landmass in summer and by the extreme cooling of the landmass in winter. With few exceptions the climate is marked by long, bitterly cold winters; short, warm to hot summers; and little annual precipitation.
In winter, cold air settles in central Siberia, causing icy blasts of air to move out over much of Europe and Asia. Winters become colder from the southwest to the northeast. The average January temperature at Sochi, in the southwest, is about 43° F. (6° C); at Verkhoyansk, in the northeast, about —58° F. (-50° C.) Temperatures lower than -90° F. (—68° C.) have been recorded in several places in the northeastern part of the country. Because of this extreme cold, the land is permanently frozen beneath the surface in the north. The frozen ground forms a layer called permafrost.
Summers range from warm to hot. Even as far north as the Arctic Circle temperatures reach 80° F. to 90° F. (2 7° C. to 32° C.) for short periods. Yakutsk (62° N. latitude) has a record of 102° F. (39° C.). Summers become hotter from north to south. The average July temperature at Archangel, in the north on the shore of the cold White Sea, is about 59° F. (15° C.); at Krasnodar in the south, 73° F. (23° C.). Spring and autumn are short throughout Russia.
Russia's precipitation comes mainly in the summer and is scanty nearly everywhere. Only in some of the southern and eastern mountains does the precipitation exceed 40 inches (1,000 mm) a year. European Russia receives about 16 to 24 inches (400 to 600 mm), except for part of the Arctic coast and the steppes of the southwest, which generally receive less than 16 inches (400 mm). Most of Siberia receives 8 to 16 inches (200 to 400 mm). Except in the far north and the mountains, snow accounts for only a small part of the yearly precipitation. In most of the country,' because of the constantly low winter temperatures, the snow remains on the ground for more than half the year.
The only subtropical region of Russia is near the Black Sea, which experiences balmy temperatures and receives more than 80 inches (2,000 mm) of precipitation a year. The Pacific coast has a monsoon-type climate with dry, cold winters and rainy, hot summers.