Environment in Russia Essay

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Russia forms an arc around much of the North Pole, extending east to west half way across the globe, and stretching 2,500 miles north to south. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still remains by far the largest country on earth, spanning 11 time zones. Encompassing most of north Asia, Russia has 14 international land borders, second only to China (15).

Climate and Population

Because only a small part of Russia lies south of 50 degrees north latitude, and the majority of the country lies above the line of 60 degrees north, much of Russia experiences six months of snow cover every year. Mountain chains along its southern and eastern borders block the effect of moderating temperatures from the Indian and Pacific oceans. The lack of such topographical features on its northern frontiers, however, leaves Russia exposed to the effects of cold winds from the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

Isotherms, or lines of constant temperature, move west to east across the Eurasian landmass, in contrast with north to south in North America. Thus, while in North America temperatures tend to contrast from north to south, north Asia experiences far greater temperature contrasts, ranging warmer to colder from west to east. A massive winter highpressure system creates winds blowing from the south and southwest across all of the Russian landmass except for its Pacific zone. During the summer months, a low-pressure system produces winds blowing from the north and northwest. Thus, cities located at approximately the same latitude have increasingly cold average temperatures as one moves west to east: Average January temperatures are -8 degrees C for St. Petersburg, -27 degrees C in the West Siberian Plain, and -43 degrees C for Yakutsk, located in eastern Siberia.

Despite its size, much of Russia is not conducive to agriculture; it is either too cold or dry. This is due to Russia’s continental climate and the fact that much of its landmass is more than 250 miles from an ocean or sea. While parts of northwestern Russia near the Baltic Sea receive an average annual rainfall of 23.6 inches, the amount of precipitation decreases to the southeast further from the sea. Moscow, therefore, receives only 20.6 inches annually. Parts of Russia also experience desert conditions: Along sections of its border with Kazakhstan, 0.787 inches, and parts of coastal Arctic Siberia, as little as 0.590 inches annually. This explains why a country as large as Russia has only 7.17 percent arable land.

It is estimated (1996) that Russia has a population of 150,000 million, with 82 percent ethnic Russians and more than 100 other ethnic groups. Much of Russia’s population (75 percent) lives in only one-fourth of its territory lying to the west of the Ural Mountains (European Russia). Much of Russia’s natural resources (coal, natural gas, oil, timber, diamonds, gold, and furs) are found in regions of low population density, such as the subArctic and Arctic zones and the area located to the east of the Urals, Siberia. A major theme of the last century of Russia’s history, therefore, has been that European Russia’s energy consumption outpaces that which can be produced by its thinly populated far northern and eastern territories.

Recent History

In the early 18th century, Peter the Great (1682-1725) inherited a massive empire that lagged far behind Europe technologically and culturally. He reoriented Russia to the West by visiting and studying in Western Europe, inviting Western specialists to work in Russia, expanding Russia’s educational institutions, and modernizing its military. Since a modern European empire required a warm-water port providing access to European markets, Peter spent much of his reign fighting, and eventually winning, the Great Northern War (1700-21) against Sweden, in which Russia gained control over much of the eastern Baltic. There, Peter built a new, Western-style capital city, St. Petersburg.

Russia’s modernizing and expansionist trend continued under Catherine the Great (1762-96), under whose reign Russia acquired large parts of Poland, the Ukrainian steppe lands, the Crimean Peninsula, and Georgia. Russia continued its eastward expansion by organizing the Russian-American Company (1799), with bases established in Alaska and northern California (Fort Ross). Following the Napoleonic Wars, Russia also gained Bessarabia (Moldova) and Finland.

Having established itself as a major European power, Russia concentrated its foreign policy on securing influence in the weakening Ottoman Empire. While Russia possessed warm-water ports in the Baltic, it lacked an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s claim to a protectorship over Christians and pilgrimage sites in the Ottoman Empire was challenged by an alliance of France, England, and Ottomans during the Crimean War (1853-55), which Russia lost in part due to its comparatively undeveloped industrial complex. During the next half century, as Russia engaged in large-scale military, social, and economic reforms, which included the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, it focused its expansion efforts on the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia easily annexed Turkestan (1865), the Emirate of Bukhara, Samarkand (1867), the AmuDarya and Ferghana regions, and the Transcaspian region (1881-85). Russian Turkestan played an especially important role in the Russian economy through the cultivation of cotton, which helped meet the demands of the world market as the production of American cotton plummeted in the immediate post-Civil War period.

Despite Russia’s successful conquests in Central Asia, and expanding sphere of influence in the Balkans, Russia’s industrial development and transportation network were far outpaced by that of the other European empires. Russia lost the Crimean War in large part because of the delays imposed by lack of rail lines in provisioning its army. While other European states had expansive railroad networks by 1850, Russia had only recently completed its first line connecting Moscow with St. Petersburg.

Sergei Witte, finance minister from 1892 to 1902, played a large role in orchestrating Russia’s rapid industrialization. He encouraged foreign investment, put Russia on the gold standard, and, as transport minister, oversaw the building of the Trans-Siberian railroad. Witte, along with Pyotr Stolypin and his agrarian reforms, also encouraged the migration of the peasantry to Siberia from central Russia’s overpopulated agricultural regions. Peasants were offered free land and transportation west of the Urals on the Trans-Siberian railroad; between 1890 and 1914, four to 10 million people (estimates vary widely) made the journey, an estimated 750,000 by foot. This migration more than doubled the Siberian population.

The Russian Empire ended in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin (d.1924). Poorly managed reforms, lagging industrialization, and gross mismanagement of Russia’s army in World War I were all contributing factors. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918), concluded by the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers, led to the independence of Poland, Finland and, until they were forcibly re-annexed by the Soviets following World War II, the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The early results of the Revolution were promising. During the Civil War (1918-22), the Soviets practiced War Communism, which involved the requisitioning of grain from all farmers. In 1921, however, they began to implement the New Economic Policy by which farmers were permitted to sell part of their surplus yields. Agricultural activity increased and the economy slowly recovered and, by 1928, agricultural and industrial output had returned to their 1913 (pre-World War I) levels.

Agricultural Collectivization

Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Premier from the mid 1920s to 1953, dismantled NEP, beginning in 1929 a program of agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialization. In the collective (kolhoz) and state (sovkhoz) farms, peasants shared equipment and received a dividend check from the state-purchased proceeds of their harvest. When peasants did not join voluntarily, they were forcibly collectivized. Forced collectivization resulted in famine, such as that which occurred in 1932-33 in Ukraine (Holodomor) and the Kuban region. Famine occurred in other regions of the Soviet Union as well, resulting in the starvation deaths of an estimated five to 10 million people. At the time, the Soviets were also exporting grain in a show of the success of socialism to the capitalist powers.

The Rapid Industrialization Plan

At the forefront of Stalin’s rapid industrialization plan was the construction of a massive iron and steel works in the southern Urals near a substantial deposit of iron ore. The town and factory, Magnitogorsk, produced more than one-half of Soviet tanks and one-third of its projectile weapons during World War II. By 1933, the results of Stalin’s plans were mixed: agricultural production had actually dropped below late 1920s levels, and industrial growth is now measured to have been negligible: 2.9 percent to 5.8 percent.

The disappointing results of collectivization and industrialization were blamed on middle and upper-class peasants and the educated elite. These and other groups were sent to prison camps in Siberia, known as the Gulag, a Russian acronym for the Main Camp Administration. The growth of the forced labor camps, many of which were in remote, thinly populated areas of Siberia, coincides with Soviet industrialization. In 1931-32, for example, the Soviet prison camp population consisted of 200,000. After World War II, the number rose to 2.5 million, 1.7 million of which were in camps, while the remainder lived in Siberian colonies. Many of the camps had an economic purpose, such as the exploitation of natural resources (timber, gold, iron) or the building of enormous infrastructure facilities. An example is the canal linking the Baltic and White seas, the Belomorkanal. This was the first major construction built completely by forced labor (1931-33). Over 100,000 prisoners died due to poor working conditions. Although praised as a success, the canal received only light traffic because it was only 12 feet deep.

Environmental Effects

The Soviets enlisted the natural physical environment in their industrialization as well. Dams and hydroelectric stations were built on the Dnepr, Volkhov, and Yenisei rivers to provide energy for heavy industry. Extensive canals were dug to connect Moscow with the Baltic, White, Caspian, Black, and Aral seas (such as the Moscow-Volga and Volga-Don canals). In the Virgin Lands Campaign, thousands of acres of land in the Kazakh and Altay steppe were plowed and, in 1955, more than 300,000 Ukrainians were moved there to plant wheat. After an initial remarkable harvest, the land became depleted of nutrients for wheat and, by the 1960s, the soil disappeared due to wind erosion. A few years after the first boom harvests, the Soviet government had to import grain from Canada. Poor planning is also evinced in the production of cotton in central Asia. Not only did these areas become monocultures, highly dependent upon imports, but also the Soviets, in diverting the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate the fields, contributed to the desiccation of the Sea of Azov.

Siberian Development

During the 1960s through the 1980s, the Soviets concentrated on the exploitation of mineral rich territories in the far north of European Russia and Siberia. Siberia alone contained a large part of the world’s mineral wealth: 40 percent of world natural gas reserves, 25 percent of the world’s coal, 30 percent of its aluminum and timber, six percent of global oil, and an as yet undetermined amount of diamonds, gold, and nickel. Significantly higher wages, longer vacations, and improved housing were offered to workers as incentives to move to harsher climates. The Soviet-planned economy helped to mask the astronomical production costs for these industries. For example, standard equipment such as trucks break down three to five times more frequently than in more moderate temperatures, and standard rotary and excavation equipment can only be used three to four months out of the year in the northern Siberian tin and gold mines.

The human labor cost is also greater than in moderate climates. There is a noticeable drop in human productivity when temperatures drop below 32 degrees F. When temperatures dip below -4 degrees F, a 10-minute warm up break is imposed per hour for a seven-hour work shift, which results in an estimated work loss of up to 73 percent. In Siberia and the extreme north, therefore, more people are needed in order to perform the same task. It has been estimated that 10 support people, such as family and various categories of support personnel, are needed for each worker.

Even though the gains were negligible, the Soviet government continued to develop Siberia. Today, Russia has 70 towns of over 50,000 people dependent on only one industry. The town of Vorkuta, for example, located north of the Arctic Circle in the Komi Peninsula, was built around its coal mines. Today, many of the mines have closed and much of the population is unemployed.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the territory controlled by Moscow shrank considerably. The Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and the Central Asian and several of the Caucasian republics gained independence. For Russia, this meant the loss of industry and ports in the Baltic, heavy industry and agriculture in Ukraine, and the oil fields of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia’s dependence on Siberia, therefore, is now magnified by these losses. For the time being, the mineral rich autonomous republics such as Yakutia (Sakha Republic) in the Far East, which produces 99 percent of Russia’s diamonds, remains dependent on Russia. Whether Russia can maintain its territorial breadth and retain its status as a world power is a question now being addressed by politicians and economists.


  1. L. Freeze, ed., Russia: A History (Oxford University Press, 2002);
  2. Fiona Hill and C.G. Gaddy, The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold (The Brookings Institution Press, 2003);
  3. P. Ledonne, The Russian Empire and the World 1700-1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment (Oxford University Press, 1997);
  4. R. Miller, ed., Encyclopedia of Russian History (Macmillan, 2004);
  5. J.B. Shaw, Russia in the Modern World: A New Geography (Blackwell, 1999);
  6. “Special Section: Russia,” The Economist (July 12, 1997).

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