Central Russia: The Heart of the Country

This chapter begins this book's section on the regional geography of Northern Eurasia. “Regions” in this context have been defined as “human constructs … of considerable size, that have substantial internal unity or homogeneity, and that differ in significant respects from adjoining areas” (Hobbs, 2009, p. 4). In the United States, examples of regions include the Midwest and the South; in Europe, they include Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. In Northern Eurasia or the former Soviet Union (FSU), there are 15 countries in four groups: the Baltic states; Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; the three states in the trans-Caucasus; and the five states of Central Asia. Russia is presently divided into seven regions, distinguished on the basis of political units.

Chapter 8 details the number of regions within the Russian Federation during the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet periods, when it was common to divide Russia into 11 economic regions and almost 90 oblasts and autonomous republics. It also describes the new scheme of 7 federal districts and 83 subjects of federation. It takes a while to learn the names and geographic peculiarities of even a few of these units.

The region of Russia centered on Moscow was formally defined during the Soviet period as consisting of Moscow itself and the 12 oblasts immediately surrounding it. An “oblast” is broadly analogous to a U.S. state or a Chinese or Canadian province. However, oblasts have not been as stable as the U.S. states; their borders and names have frequently changed over the last 150 years. Most have remained unchanged for the last 30 years, with the exception of some recent mergers of the small ethnic autonomous okrugs in Siberia with larger Russian-populated krays. Moscow and the 12 oblasts around it constituted the so-called Central economic region, which was used by Soviet geographers to report statistical data. This region was analogous to the mid-Atlantic states in the United States, centered on the national capital with high population density and heavy dependence on government jobs. Since 2000, the new Central federal district created by the Putin administration has included an additional five oblasts to the south of Moscow, which were previously classified as part of the Chernozemny economic region adjacent to Ukraine. Because the most recent governmental statistics pertain to this new federal district, it makes sense to discuss it here as one unit. Therefore, this chapter focuses on the 17 oblasts in the middle of European Russia and the federal city of Moscow.

The Central region/district thus defined (0.7 million km2) accounts for only 4% of Russia's territory but over 25% of its population (38 million people), and is 80% urban. The population density is 58/km2, which is seven times Russia's average. However, the population distribution is uneven: The region's center is the city of Moscow, a giant with over 11 million people, and an additional 5 million in the surrounding Moscow Oblast. There is no exact analogue to Moscow City or Oblast in the United States: Moscow combines the functions of the U.S. political (Washington, D.C.), financial (New York), and historical (Philadelphia) capitals. A better analogue would be Paris, the primate city of France, and the ?le-de-France region surrounding it.

The highways, railroads, and power lines converge on the national capital like spokes in a wheel. At the same time, few people live over large swaths of rural territory north of Moscow—for example, in northeastern Kostroma Oblast or northwestern Tver Oblast, where the population densities approach Siberian levels (12/km2). The region's population is growing because of immigration from other parts of the country and from other parts of the FSU. The natural growth rate, however, is negative.

Physical Geography

Much of the Central region fits in the watersheds of the Volga and Dnieper rivers. The relief is flat, slightly undulating plain covered with thick glacial deposits, at about 300 m above sea level. There are few valuable mineral deposits, except the massive deposits of iron ore (55% of Russia's total) near Kursk. Peat (about one-quarter of Russia's total), construction stone, gravel, and sand industries are well developed. Slow-flowing rivers, numerous lakes, and many wetlands provide for excellent navigation, fishing, and easy access to many natural areas in the region. Some small rivers, such as the Klyazma, Moskva, and Upa Rivers, are heavily tapped for municipal needs.

The climate is mildly continental, with about 4 months of winter (average January temperature = –10.8°C) and four distinct seasons. Summers are warm and moderately wet (average July temperature = +18.4°C). There is a well-developed gradient of annual precipitation across the region from the northwest (600 mm) to the southeast (420 mm). Soils are primarily poor podzols (spodosols) in the north, and considerably richer gray forest soils (alfisols) and chernozems (mollisols) in the south. Because of the moisture gradient, the northern half of the region is in the coniferous and mixed forest zone, while the southern half is in the forest–steppe and true steppe zones. In the northern half (Tver, Kostroma), forestry is common; in the southern half (Lipetsk, Tambov, Belgorod), agriculture is more important. Moscow Oblast is about 40% forest-covered, similar to Minnesota. The Central region accounts for about 19% of Russia's arable land, and the chernozem soils in Kursk, Belgorod, and Tambov Oblasts are among the most productive on the planet. A few world-class nature parks are also located in the Central region. These include Prioksko-Terrasny Zapovednik, where one can observe the endangered Eurasian wood bison (zubr); Ugra National Park in Kaluga Oblast and Bryansky Les Zapovednik in Bryansk Oblast, both well known for strong natural interpretation programs and a good blend of cultural and natural elements on their trails; and Valdaysky National Park on the border with Novgorod Oblast in the Northwest region, providing an authentic experience of glacial lakes and fishing in a southern taiga setting.

Cultural and Historical Features

Culturally, the region is overwhelmingly Russian, with some Uralic minorities living in the forested east and north (Mordvinians and Mari) and Ukrainians in the south. The presence of cosmopolitan Moscow also makes this region the most visited by foreigners. There are an estimated 2 million migrant workers and refugees from near and far abroad in Moscow City and Oblast. The largest minorities in Moscow include Tatars, Jews, and Ukrainians, who have lived here for centuries, but also Azerbaijanis, Chechens, Georgians, Moldovans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and a host of Western nationals (Americans, Germans, French, British, etc.). The region has the best universities in the country. It also has the greatest number of theaters, museums, sports events, cultural sites, and other cultural landmarks, although the vast majority of those are located in Moscow City, as discussed in Chapter 15. Outside Moscow, the most important historical and cultural places are located along the Golden Ring northeast of Moscow, a tourist route of international importance that includes many sites on the World Heritage list: Vladimir, Suzdal, Rostov, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Uglich, Rybinsk, and others. Many of the cities along the way predate Moscow, and contain important religious and cultural artifacts, kremlins, cathedrals, museums, and newly reopened monasteries. These are also among the most visited places in Russia, popular with large tour groups.

Good alternatives to the heavily traveled Golden Ring cities are the historical cities of Kasimov in Ryazan Oblast and Murom in Vladimir Oblast. Located about 4 hours east of Moscow by car, they provide excellent examples of well-preserved old city centers with important Uralic (Murom) and Tatar (Kasimov) influences. Each boasts many churches, some monasteries, typical pre-Soviet merchant-class districts, and pretty riverfronts along the Oka. Both also have a fair share of Soviet-era-built apartment blocks and large factories, and are thus also very typical (rather than exceptional) cities. Murom is astonishingly old; its official founding date is 862 A.D., which is about three centuries older than Moscow and about 1,000 years older than many U.S. or Canadian cities. With a population of only 126,000, Murom is not large, although it is advantageously located on the lower Oka River, the largest right tributary of the Volga. The deep forests and thick wetlands of the Meshchera Lowland between Kasimov and Murom are legendary for their pristine wilderness.

Another cultural specialty of the Central region is artistic landscapes. Many poets, writers, composers, and artists had their estates in villages located around Moscow. Of particular note are Yasnaya Polyana (Leo Tolstoy) in Tula Oblast; Spasskoe-Lutovinovo (Ivan Turgenev) in Orel Oblast; and Melikhovo (Anton Chekhov), Abramtsevo (many famous artists worked there), Zvenigorod (Mikhail Prishvin), and Klin (Pyotr Tchaikovsky), all in Moscow Oblast. Right next to Moscow, the village of Peredelkino attracts thousands of people to the grave of Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr. Zhivago and one of the best Russian poets of all time. Tarusa, about halfway between Kaluga and Moscow, has sites associated with the life of another famous poet, Pasternak's friend and contemporary Marina Tsvetaeva, as well as with Anton Chekhov, Konstantin Paustovsky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and others. The painter Vasily Polenov lived and worked near Tarusa as well.

The areas west and north of Moscow are famous for historical sites associated with many wars. Dear to every Russian heart is the Borodino battlefield, so aptly described in War and Peace, the site of the epic battle between Napoleon's and Kutuzov's armies in 1812. Borodino hosts an annual reenactment of the battle in September—probably the largest such event in Russia, involving tens of thousands of people—and has numerous monuments and historical landmarks. Sites associated with the much bloodier and more recent World War II also abound in the same area, between Moscow and Smolensk. Smolensk, Vyazma, and Kaluga saw some of the fiercest battles in 1941–1943, as the Nazis were advancing toward and then retreating from Moscow. It is still not uncommon to discover unexploded mines buried deep in the woods. Far to the south, the battle of Kursk (summer of 1943) was the largest tank battle in history, involving over 5,000 tanks and millions of men. The battle unfolded from north-central Ukraine to Kursk and Belgorod Oblasts.


The Central region is the heart of Russia not only historically and culturally, but also economically, accounting for almost a third of the nation's GDP. The main economic strengths of the region are manufacturing and services. The presence of the best universities and research centers, as well as a large consumer base, makes the Central region an attractive place for domestic and foreign investments. In 2006 it attracted about one-quarter of all domestic investments in Russia and 54% of all foreign investments.

Manufacturing remains the key economic activity, accounting for about one-quarter of the region's total industrial output. Some of the earliest factories in Russia emerged here in the 18th century (flax mills in Ivanovo, gun factories in Tula, ceramics and crystal glass manufacturers in Ryazan and Vladimir, etc.). The second most important industry is food processing, to satisfy the appetites of the large population. Construction materials, energy generation (mainly from coal, natural gas, and nuclear power), and chemicals are also well-represented industries.

Among the machinery-building centers, besides Moscow, a few medium-sized cities can be mentioned. Kolomna, southeast of Moscow, is the leading producer of large diesel train engines in Russia. Railroad cars are built in Tver and Bryansk. Kostroma and Rybinsk have shipbuilding facilities. Zhukovsky, near Moscow, is the leading development and testing site for the aerospace industry in Russia. Ivanovo produces construction cranes. Vladimir makes tractors. A number of military factories are also located in the region (Zelenograd, Kaluga, Ryazan, Korolev, and Dubna), producing handguns, ammunition, short- and long-range missiles, radioelectronic equipment, lasers, space satellites, and other items. One of the dirtiest industries of the Central region is its chemical industry, mainly concentrated east and south of Moscow in Vladimir, Orekhovo-Zuevo, Shchekino, and Novomoskovsk. Plastics, fertilizer, shampoos, creams, gels, detergents, and so on are made here. The textile industries and associated clothing manufacturers are concentrated in the opposite end of the region, north and west of Moscow in the areas historically suitable for growing flax. Today, however, most textiles and clothing are made from imported cotton in Ivanovo, Smolensk, Tver, Kostroma, and Vladimir Oblasts. Ivanovo Oblast alone makes 57% of all textiles in the country.

The construction industry is booming in and around Moscow. The region accounts for about half of all cement produced in Russia; it also accounts for one-third of all housing units built in recent years. There is a lot of individual housing construction in the suburbs, as well as busy reconstruction of old city buildings. The region is able to satisfy most of its needs for construction materials from local sources. Cement, plywood, glass, brick, metal and wood farming, flooring, siding, and roofing materials are all produced here. Finnish, German, and Canadian firms predominate in making contemporary composite materials for siding and roofing. The production of construction materials is concentrated in Podolsk (Moscow Oblast), Tula, Bryansk, Voskresensk, and Ryazan.

Kursk, Belgorod, Tambov, and Lipetsk Oblasts are heavily farmed, with wheat as the main crop grown on the excellent chernozem soils (similar to the mollisols of the U.S. Midwest). They also contain the largest facilities for mining and processing iron ore in Russia, in the area known as the Kursk Magnetic Anomaly (KMA). The KMA contains so much iron ore that a magnetic compass cannot be used here, because the needle points down instead of north! It contains about 31 billion metric tonnes (mmt) of iron ore in reserves. (This is about twice as much as is left in all of the United States, mostly in Michigan and Minnesota.) Much of the KMA mining takes place in open pits. Belgorod Oblast has the best ores; however, they must be dug up from deep underground. Unfortunately, the KMA lacks local energy sources, so these must be imported. Nearby Lipetsk Oblast has one of the largest steel-processing plants in the country, the Novolipetsky Combine, as well as a large steel pipe plant and a refrigerator plant. Stary Oskol has another large, modern steel plant. Lipetsk has some of the highest salaries in Russia for workers outside Moscow and western Siberia.

With respect to agriculture, the Central region has diverse specializations. Near Moscow are mainly potato, vegetable, and fruit farms, as well as dairy production. North and west of Moscow are areas of flax cultivation, while wheat and potato farming take place in the “black earth” belt to the south. As explained in Chapter 20, much of this farming actually takes place on tiny private plots next to dachas. For example, 93% of the potatoes in the region come from such plots, and less than 5% from large agricultural enterprises. However, egg and dairy production are dominated by large poultry farms. Despite heavy production, not enough grain is grown in the Central region (only about 5–6 mmt), so additional grain must be imported.

The biggest problem with agriculture in the region is the lack of young people in rural areas. The farming population is rapidly aging; the average villager's age is over 50 years, versus 38 years countrywide. Young people are leaving for jobs in the cities, and no one is left to replace them. Some communities manage to attract immigrants from other FSU republics and from Siberia, but in most places the need for laborers is great.

Whereas the immediate vicinities of large cities are doing well because of their easy access to urban markets, much of the region's periphery can be characterized as “economic black holes.” Such areas are remote from potential markets and cannot support themselves over the long term; they include western Tver, southwestern Kaluga, eastern Ryazan, northeastern Ivanovo, and eastern Kostroma Oblasts. Over a third of all arable land has been abandoned in these areas since the collapse of socialism.

The infrastructure of the Central region is well but unevenly developed. Moscow, of course, is the giant hub of communications and transportation networks. It is a true primate city, surpassing the next three biggest cities combined (St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Nizhniy Novgorod). It is served by 11 major railways, three large airports, two ferry terminals on the Moscow River, and a dozen federal highways radiating in all directions. Moscow is surrounded by new cargo terminals, storage warehouses, and customs facilities that serve not only the city, but other areas of the country as well. The density of roads and railways decreases dramatically as one leaves the city. At 50 and 100 km outside the city center, there are ring roads (beltways). Both survive from the Cold War period, when they were built to deploy antiaircraft and missile defense rapidly around Moscow in the event of a NATO attack; they were military roads not shown on maps. Today both are being renovated. The one at the 50-km mark is going to be partially replaced by a private tollway, which would permit improved freight traffic circulation around the city. The Central region is also crisscrossed by a number of large oil and gas pipelines stretching from Siberia and the Volga to Europe, and by electric power lines from nuclear, hydropower, and thermal power plants to the cities. The region is a net exporter of electricity, but a major importer of fossil fuels, petroleum products, and industrial chemicals. The heaviest concentrations of population and industrial centers occur east (Vladimir and Ivanovo), south (Podolsk, Serpukhov, and Tula), and southeast (Moscow Oblast, Kolomna, and Ryazan) of Moscow itself. Moscow is surrounded by immediate satellite cities (Khimki, Mytischi, Lyubertsy, Krasnogorsk) right next to the 50-km beltway, and more distant satellites (Ramenskoe, Podolsk, Zelenograd, Zvenigorod) about 30 km away. The periphery of Moscow Oblast has a number of medium-sized cities (Serpukhov, Dmitrov, Kolomna, Mozhaysk) located 100 km away from the city. Many of the latter are historical cities over 10 centuries old. Others (Dubna, Obninsk, Pushchino) are Soviet-era towns built explicitly for scientific or weapons research.

The western and northern parts of Moscow Oblast are less attractive for industry or agriculture, but more attractive for tourism and recreation. For example, Istra Rayon, located west (i.e., upwind) of Moscow City, is attractive for year-round outdoor enthusiasts. Old Soviet sanatoria and new private lodges receive hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. Summer camps for children abound. Hunting, fishing, biking, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing are all well developed here. A new development will create “Moscow Switzerland” on a vast tract of land in the Central district in the near future, complete with artificial ski slopes, ski lifts, and glitzy restaurants and bars. For those wishing a wilder experience, large tracts of forests in the Egoryevsk, Dmitrov, and Taldom areas allow for plenty of hunting. The Zavidovo reserve in the extreme north of Moscow Oblast is the traditional hunting area for members of the Kremlin administration, Duma deputies, and important foreign guests.

FIGURE 22.2. The Central federal district of Russia. Map: J. Torguson.

The surrounding oblasts have certain specializations as well. Clockwise from the top of Figure 22.2, these oblasts (and their capital cities) are Tver, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Ivanovo, Vladimir, Ryazan, Tula, Kaluga, and Smolensk. South of Tula and Kaluga are Orel Oblast and five oblasts in the “black earth” belt: Bryansk, Lipetsk, Voronezh, Kursk, and Belgorod. The oblast centers are typically located about 200 km from Moscow and are fairly large cities, ranging from almost 1 million (Voronezh) to about 500,000 (Yaroslavl, Ryazan, Tula, Lipetsk) to about 300,000 people (Kaluga, Orel, Kostroma). Most of these cities date back eight or nine centuries, and a few (Vladimir, established 1108 A.D.; Yaroslavl, established 1010 A.D.) predate Moscow. Each oblast center has its own legislature and governor's office; at least one large university; and numerous factories, hospitals, shopping malls, transportation facilities, and so on. The majority of oblasts have a unicentric structure, with the oblast capital dwarfing all other cities. However, Rybinsk in Yaroslavl Oblast and Kovrov and Murom in Vladimir Oblast are cities just a little smaller than the capitals. The largest oblast by area, Tver, is also the least densely settled. Generally, the northern oblasts (Tver, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Ivanovo) specialize in timber and textile processing, while the southern ones (Kursk, Belgorod, Tambov) specialize in agriculture. The oblasts in the middle are most heavily industrialized (Tula, Ryazan, Kaluga, Vladimir) or have an intermediate agricultural–industrial profile (Bryansk, Voronezh, Smolensk).

Challenges and Opportunities in Central Russia

The Central region is uniquely positioned in Russia to take full advantage of new economic opportunities: It is the most centrally located, richest, best educated, and most globally connected part of the country. However, some of its peripheral units, especially in the north and south, will need a lot more time to catch up with the rest of the area economically. For example, the average gross regional product (GRP) per capita in 2004 in the poorest three oblasts (43,000 rubles) was half of that in the three richest (Moscow, Yaroslavl, and Lipetsk Oblasts at 97,000). The biggest uncertainty at present involves the future of agriculture: After the passage of the new Land Code, it has become possible to purchase agricultural land. This may help farmers on the one hand, but will lead to massive land speculation on the other. Already large areas of Kaluga and Ryazan Oblasts are experiencing speculative increases in land prices. Many suburban zones of oblast centers are being converted into residential housing for the rich, to the detriment of the local environment and social fabric.

In addition, the future of the region is uncertain because of the lack of funding and political goodwill for technological innovations, infrastructure improvements, or local land policy change. For example, the old academic cities near Moscow (Obninsk, Chernogolovka, Pushchino, Dubna) have suffered from years of neglect of even the most basic infrastructure, due to the drop in funding from the Russian Academy of Sciences. Many years of private and public investments are needed to reverse the trend. Likewise, some historical small cities (Klin, Torzhok, Kozelsk) look like ghosts of their former past, with many vacant lots, weed patches, broken pavement, and Soviet-era apartment blocks in serious need of repair. They could play a new role as tourism magnets, given the proper regional planning and adequate investments.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, Moscow and a few other booming regional centers are trying to cope with the influx of migrant workers, rising incomes, and unbridled consumption. The time spent in traffic jams alone has increased by a factor of two over the past few years in Moscow. The air gets dirtier every year; water supplies are inadequate; and the electricity grid runs at close to 100% capacity in the summer with the increased use of air conditioners. Constraining the growth of the Moscow metropolis, and encouraging development of its satellite cities and especially other oblast capitals, may be the top challenges facing the Central region's planners. One speculative, but attractive, idea being discussed is moving some governmental functions to St. Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, or even an entirely new city, to take some of the pressure off Moscow. This remains merely a speculation at the moment, although the Constitutional Court did get moved to St. Petersburg late in Putin's presidency.


  1. Use a map or atlas to research and develop a 3-day bus excursion itinerary for the following groups of tourists:
    a. Those interested primarily in the historical battlefields of Central Russia.
    b. Those interested in its religious heritage.
    c. Those interested in cultural, especially literary landscapes.
    d. Those interested in ecotourism and nature tourism. This activity may be done as a take-home exercise in your class, with different groups of students working on different topics and later presenting their itineraries to the entire class.
  2. Use Table 22.2 and any additional sources that you can find to compare and contrast the economic production of selected oblasts in Central Russia. For example, it may be interesting to compare a northern (Tver, Kostroma) with a southern (Tambov, Belgorod) oblast, to see differences in the relative importance of agricultural crops or types of industries.