Landform and physiographic region
Because of its vast size, Russia contains rocks and minerals from almost every geologic period. Lev Berg, born in Russia in 1876, was an outstanding physical geographer. He was the most respected physiographic scientist in both imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Berg believed that Russia's physiographic regions had formed over millions of years. They resulted from involved processes that took place on very complex geologic structures. Russia has 11 basic physiographic regions. Each of these has a distinctive physical character, as well as distinctive opportunities (or limitations) for human habitation. Russia's various configurations—its plains, hills and mountains, rivers, lakes, and inland seas—are important factors. They must be considered in any plan for regional or national economic development.
Western Russia, located west of the Urals and south of the European Arctic Lowlands, is within the vast Russian Plain. This huge plain is basically flat and glacially modified, with poor internal drainage.Most of the plain is lower than 650 feet (198 meters) above sea level. The low, rolling, glacially created Valdai Hills are the source of the Volga and many other rivers. Near the center of this region are the Smolensk-Moscow Hills. They encompass the large but minerally poor Moscow Basin. Noted for its valuable salt deposits, the Caspian Depression lies at 92 feet (28 meters) below sea level. The shore of the Caspian Sea is the lowest place in Russia. As a result of continental glaciation, the Russian Plain lacks mineral energy resources in the north. In the south, however, it contains significant deposits of coal, minerals, and natural gas.
European Arctic Lowlands
To the north of the Russian Plain are the flat and swampy European Arctic Lowlands. Located in northwestern Russia, these lowlands are snow- and ice-covered in the winter, and retain snowmelt water on the surface in the summer. Only a few feet of soil thaw out during the summer. The underlying, permanently frozen ground (called permafrost) will not absorb meltwater. On the large Kola Peninsula adjoining Finland, repeated glacial action has carved picturesque fjords. The landscape contains thousands of small lakes, swamps, and streams. To the east and near the Ural Mountains lies the Pechora Plain. Here, coal is mined in permanently frozen ground.
North Caucasus Mountains
South of the Russian Plain, the North Caucasus Mountains and valley region are a complex mixture of spectacular landform types. The Caucasus Mountains stretch from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea—800 miles (1,288 kilometers). Numerous mountain peaks exceed 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). Mount Elbrus, Russia's highest peak, reaches an elevation of 18,481 feet (5,633 meters). More than 20 alpine glaciers descend from the towering, snow-clad peak. The Caucasus Mountains are a barrier to human interaction. There is only one major highway through a 700-mile (1,127-kilometer) stretch of the mountains. This mountain range is considered the southeastern limit of Europe.
East of the Russian Plain lie the historic Ural Mountains. Located within Russia, the Urals are a long, narrow, heavily eroded, low chain of mountains and hills. Their crest forms the boundary between Europe and Asia. The Urals extend more than 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) from north of the Arctic Circle to the deserts north and east of the Caspian Sea. They are only about 50 miles (81 kilometers) wide in the north. In the south, they spread out nearly 140 miles (225 kilometers). Consisting of a series of north-south ridges with many low eastwest mountain passes, the Urals do not block human movement. Geologically, the mountains are old, have a complex structure, and abound in mineral resources. For centuries, the Urals have been extremely important to the Russian economy. This mountain range provides timber, oil, natural gas, iron ore, and a host of valuable minerals and precious metals.
West Siberian Lowland
East of the Ural Mountains is a vast area of low-lying swamps and broad floodplains called the West Siberian Lowland. This region is one of the most impenetrable, least-developed, flattest, and most monotonous portions of Earth's surface. It extends east of the Urals for more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers). It spans more than 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) from south of the Siberian Arctic Lowland to the Caspian Basin. This vast, marshy lowland is so flat that elevation within the entire region varies no more than 400 feet (122 meters). The broad, sluggish, meandering, northward-flowing Ob River and its tributaries drain the area.Winters are cold and harsh in the northern section of the plain. Spring thaws affect the frozen southern portions of the north-flowing rivers first. Spring and summer snowmelt water spills onto the vast flat lowland, causing widespread flooding. The southern edge of this region is covered by vast, flat steppes that are the best farming areas in all of Siberia. The unique geology of the lowland has given it some of the most productive oil and gas fields in the world.
North Caspian Basin (Desert Region)
South of the West Siberian Lowland is the dry Caspian Basin. This desert or semidesert region has internal drainage. It was once a part of Turkistan, and later, Soviet Central Asia. The dry lowland basin is formed of almost-horizontal deposits of sand, wind-deposited loess, and clay. Humans who live in the Caspian Basin experience an unusual climatic regime. They are subject to “Egyptian summers and Siberian winters.”
Southwestern Asiatic Ranges
The Southwestern Asiatic ranges form a long, narrow region that begins with the Altai Mountains. These mountains extend northwestward into southwestern Siberia. Beautiful alpine glaciers and vast snowfields are characteristic of the area. The Altai Mountains average 6,000 to 6,500 feet (1,829 to 1,981 meters) in elevation. Snowmelt feeds the headwater tributaries of the mighty Ob River. North of the Altai Mountains are the Sayan Mountains. Their elevations vary from 8,500 feet (2,591 meters) in the west to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) in the east. They form a southward-facing arc of mountains formed from granite and schist.Wedged between the Altai and Sayan ranges is the mineral-rich Kuznetsk Basin. Immense deposits of coal and iron ore have been found here. The Minusinsk Basin, located in the north-central Sayans, is a rich agricultural region that abounds in lignite, coal, and iron ore.
Siberian Arctic Lowland
East of the northern Ural Mountains is a series of flat lowlands that are snow-covered in winter and swampy in summer. Due to permafrost and poor drainage, snowmelt water and icedammed river water lie on the soil's surface during the summer. Open tundra vegetation, marshes, and swamps cover the Siberian Arctic Lowland. Insects abound in summer. Many of the sediments deposited by marine action bear oil and natural gas. The Ob, Yenisey, Khatanga, Lena, Yana, Indigirka, and Kolyma rivers flow northward across this flat plain. They bring sediment and summer flooding. Precious metals, including gold and silver, have been found in this sediment.
Central Siberian Plateau
North of the Central Asiatic ranges, east of the West Siberian Plain, and south of the Siberian Arctic Lowland is the Central Siberian Plateau. The Yenisey River marks the western boundary of this region. The Lena River is its approximate eastern boundary. The plateau is stream-dissected and glacially molded of limestone and clay. This upland region has elevations in excess of 1,600 feet (488 meters) above sea level. Numerous rivers have cut deep gorges into the Central Siberian Plateau.
These provide great sites for hydroelectric power plant development. The plateau's complex geology and the lack of deep glacial scouring have left valuable mineral deposits near the surface. Limestone and dolomite bedrock with volcanic pipes yield large quantities of diamonds. Vast deposits of mineral fuels, iron ore, nickel, and copper lie beneath other areas.
Between the Central Siberian Plateau and Eastern Highlands is the Lena Basin. This is a very complex region with rich deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, and precious metals. This basin is drained by one of the major rivers in Siberia—the Lena. The Lena River has its source on the slopes of the Baikal Mountains, near the Mongolian border. It flows northeast 2,653 miles (4,270 kilometers) to the Laptev Sea. In the summer months, it is navigable for about 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers).Weather in the winter is severe. The Lena Basin is the driest and coldest of any Russian physiographic region. Gold has been obtained from this basin for more than a century.
East of the Lena Basin and along the Siberian Pacific coast are the vast Eastern Highlands. Extending from Lake Baikal to the Bering Strait, this region includes the deepest lake on Earth, a complex system of mountains composed primarily of very old metamorphic and volcanic rock, and many broad intervening basins. The Kamchatka Peninsula is a unique subregion in itself. Beautiful, high mountains and snow-covered active volcanoes dot the peninsula. Geologists are currently studying 28 active volcanoes there. Numerous hot springs make this region very similar to the Yellowstone Basin in the western United States. Huge rift valleys were created by strong earthquake activity in the past. Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world, occupies one of these rift valleys. More than one mile deep, it is 395 miles (636 kilometers) long and 50 miles (81 kilometers) wide. It contains one-fifth of the world's surface freshwater. East of Lake Baikal, igneous and metamorphic rocks form the cores of various mountain ranges. Volcanic cones, volcanic craters, and lava flows are numerous in these ranges.