Regional distribution of population

Population distribution and redistribution in Russia has been managed by the government. Recently, it has been modified by the economic restructuring associated with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The population hub of imperial Russia was Moscow, which was the largest city in the Soviet Union. In 1724, Peter the Great ordered the first census taken in tsarist Russia. It covered only the European, or western, portion of the country. The last census taken by the Soviet government was in 1989. It was a complete census that provided much detail. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian population data show great changes in density and internal migration. Parallel to the initial decline in population, there has been a continuous process of redistribution. People move from area to area. They leave the countryside for cities (rural-to-urban migration). At least 90 percent of Russia's population lives west of the Ural Mountains. Those who live east of the Urals are primarily found in a 50-mile (81-kilometer) band on either side of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Others are scattered in isolated settlements throughout the tundra. The densest population is found in the Moscow region, around St. Petersburg and the rail corridor to Moscow, along the Volga River and its major tributaries, in the central section of the Ural Mountains, and in the region surrounding Novosibirsk. Similar to the United States, approximately 75 percent of the population resides in urban areas.

Originally, Slavic pioneers moved east from the northern slope of the Carpathian Mountains. They practiced slash-andburn agriculture, without setting up permanent villages. As their population increased, the Slavs began to cluster together to avoid social isolation. They sought protection against marauding bands of nomads. The Mongol and Tatar invasions of the thirteenth century intensified the Slavic pattern of banding together for common defense. Village sites were selected primarily for defense. The Russian word for “city,” gorod, originally meant “hill” or “hill fortress.” Because land was so plentiful, there was no concept of private land ownership. Peasant farmers would journey out of their small villages to work communally owned fields. As rudimental transportation networks developed, trade increased. Regularity in the selection of settlement sites, village patterns, and settlement forms emerged. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, villages in newly settled areas were platted (designed) by noble landowners, church administrators, or tsarist administrators. Serfdom provided a means of government control. It kept peasant farmers from leaving rural villages and towns. At the same time, it slowed rural and small-town economic and social development until it was abolished in 1861.

Rural settlement patterns in the period of Russian expansion to the tundra and taiga regions reflected the people's predominant economic activities, including hunting, fur trapping, and fishing. Permanent settlement sites were chosen at confluences (the joining) of streams, in river valleys above flood level, and on southern-facing slopes. Breaks in navigation or waterfalls along a river were often selected for a settlement. Natural harbors on lakeshores or on major bodies of water were other favored sites.

South of the tundra and taiga, mixed and deciduous forests covered the glaciated plains. In this region, villages and towns were established on small hills or mounds. The southern-facing slopes were warmer in winter and drier in summer, enabling the people to grow a greater range of crops. As in the far north, settlers favored sites at the confluence of streams or rivers and at easily defended places. Many larger towns and small cities grew around a fort, or kremlin. Examples include Moscow, Kazan, Tver, and Novgorod. Kremlins were natural defense positions, surrounded by walls and ditches (moats). Arsenals, palaces, churches, and commercial enterprises were built within the kremlin so that life could continue as normally as possible in time of siege.

South of the mixed and deciduous forest regions, the wooded steppe and steppe dominate the landscape. Here, settlers preferred to establish villages on the highest bank of a river, at a confluence of rivers or streams, or near a natural ford (a place where a river can easily be crossed because of shallow water). At Volgograd, the original settlements eventually merged into large towns. The settlements became a city situated on high western bluffs overlooking the river.

Farthest south, in the semidesert and desert regions, early settlements were located where there was adequate water. Places where a defensible position existed were also favorable sites.

Initially, the emancipation of the serfs within imperial Russia in 1861 had little effect on rural settlement patterns. Aristocratic landowners and the Russian Orthodox Church were required to give the peasants land. However, the land was assigned to villages for communal administration, and land payment had to be made to the tsar for land received from the nobles. Change finally came with the land reforms of 1905–1906. These reforms allowed farmers to acquire and live on their own farmland outside of villages. Within 10 years, one-fourth of all rural dwellers left the rural villages (called “communes”). Single-family homesteads became the main form of settlement in western Ukraine and the Baltic area. In the 1930s, the Soviet government attempted to consolidate all private farms. Small villages were to be merged into larger ones in an attempt to gain greater control over food supplies for urban dwellers. The state-directed process of eliminating small villages continued through the 1960s and 1970s. They created large rural population centers. Today, rural villages in Russia range in size from a few households to more than 20,000 inhabitants.

The site selection and economic base for the major cities of the Soviet Union were determined in the last half-century of tsarist rule. This was the period of rapid urban growth, railroad building, industrial expansion, and international trade. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were only two cities with populations in excess of 100,000 people. By 1913, there were 30. Moscow and St. Petersburg both doubled their populations in this time. New port and industrial cities in Russia and Ukraine grew in size and economic importance. Odessa, Rostov-on-Don, and Yuzovka (Donetsk) were three of these.

In 1926, one out of five Russians lived in an urban area. By 1989, two out of every three were urban dwellers. Soviet urban centers had to absorb more than 150 million people in a little more than 60 years.Massive industrial growth in the 1930s, followed by World War II, led to a shortage of urban housing. Many of the Soviet Union's largest cities and their buildings were severely damaged or destroyed in the war. The rapid growth of cities between 1926 and 1939 has never been equaled elsewhere before or since. Cities of all sizes—small, medium, and large—more than doubled.Moscow's population increased by 1.7 million in one decade.

This rapid urban growth created problems, however. Quality of life suffered. There were shortages of housing, goods, and services. Nowhere were the problems more severe than in the many newly built cities.

Communist leaders believed they had to urbanize in order to industrialize the Soviet Union as quickly as possible. Instead of gradual industrial development, a series of five-year plans set bold goals. Villages were to become cities. Small handicraft units and factories were to become huge industrial complexes. The fastest-growing cities were in regions with the greatest industrial growth. By 1939, most industrial cities had tripled their populations. In 1939, urban centers of 100,000 or more were centers of industry, transportation, or trade. Some were also centers of political administration. After World War II, the cities took on more functions. Some became centers for education and training. Others added research and development facilities.

Resort and recreation areas appeared. However, manufacturing became even more important than it had been before the war. During World War II, the German Army destroyed 1,700 urban centers. Twenty-five million people were left homeless. They needed employment, as well as food and housing. The Soviet government devised a crash program to rebuild the ruined cities. Construction was simplified and the least-expensive materials were used. As a result, style and quality suffered. Prefabricated, reinforced concrete slabs were assembled into apartment buildings. Quality and diversity were sacrificed to increase quantity. Housing, transportation, and pollution problems abounded. Still, Soviet cities continued to grow, and more new cities were founded. By 1989, the Soviet Union was a land of great cities. It contained 24 cities with more than one million inhabitants each. More than 50 cities had populations of more than half a million. No other country had as many cities with so many residents as the Soviet Union at the time it dissolved. Today, Russia is still predominantly an urban nation.