Russia’s Northwest: Fishing, Timb er, and Culture

The United States has its own Pacific Northwest. Russia's Northwest borders the seas of the Atlantic Ocean and is much farther to the north, but it does have some similarities to its American counterpart; for example, both have a maritime climate, are highly dependent on timber and fishing, and house large navy fleets. Russia's Northwest, however, has St. Petersburg—the second largest city in Russia, its former capital, and one of Russia's top three seaports by tonnage. St. Petersburg is also the unofficial cultural capital of Russia, with its numerous museums, theaters, and famous historical sites. Visitors from abroad arrive in this region through St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport; on a train from Moscow; or via one of its three main seaports (St. Petersburg, Murmansk, or Arkhangelsk). Some also come overland from Finland. For Russians, the region is shrouded in the nostalgic imperial past because of St. Petersburg. It is also a perpetual frontier, with a history of border conflicts with the Swedes, Finns, Poles, and Baltic peoples going back over 1,000 years.

This region as discussed here coincides with the Northwest federal district (as defined in 2000) and includes 11 subjects of federation: the Karelia and Komi Republics, Nenetsky Autonomous Okrug, seven oblasts, and the city of St. Petersburg. The oblast that surrounds St. Petersburg is an independent subject of federation and is still known by its Soviet name, Leningradskaya. Note that Kaliningradskaya oblast is an isolated exclave on the Baltic Sea; it borders Lithuania and Poland and is surrounded by the European Union (EU). The federal district includes two old Soviet economic regions: the Northwest proper, with four oblasts near the Baltic Sea (Leningradskaya, Pskovskaya, Novgorodskaya, and Kaliningradskaya); and the North, with the other subjects of federation.

The Northwest region/district thus defined (1.7 million km2) accounts for 10% of Russia's area and 10% of its population (14 million people). It is the most heavily urbanized of all Russia's regions, with an 82% urbanization rate. The population density here is exactly Russia's average, 8.3/km2. However, the population distribution is very uneven: The region's most important city, St. Petersburg, accounts for 5 million people (about a third of the total). Nenetsky Autonomous Okrug, on the other hand, contains merely 42,000 people spread over 177,000 km2 of territory, roughly the size of Oklahoma. Northwest Russia is entirely in Europe. It borders Finland, Poland, and the Baltic states; the Baltic, Barents, White, and Kara Seas; the Ural Mountains; and the Urals and Central federal districts. The region has a lower-than-average birth rate and a higher-than-average death rate. St. Petersburg and Leningradskaya Oblast together have the lowest fertility rate in Russia—1.2 children per woman, as opposed to about 1.4 in Russia as a whole in 2008. With high mortality and low fertility comes rapid depopulation (–0.7% per year in 2005). Only the Far East region's population is declining at a similar rate. Despite considerable immigration from other parts of Russia (Siberia, the Far East, and the Caucasus), as well as from other former Soviet Union (FSU) nations, the region is shrinking by 100,000 people per year. This is equivalent to the disappearance of a sizable city.

Physical Geography

At the height of the last glaciation, much of the Northwest region was buried under the Scandinavian ice shield. As the ice melted, some of the oldest rocks on the planet were exposed in parts of the Kola Peninsula and in Karelia; these are similar in age and composition to the rocks found in eastern Canada and northern Minnesota (over 3 billion years old). The world-record-breaking research shaft near Murmansk is a hole deeper than 15,000 m drilled into crystalline bedrock by geologists to enable them to study the composition and structure of the earth's crust. It is still only about halfway down to the earth's mantle. Thousands of glacial lakes dot the landscape, including large lakes Ladoga and Onega, as well as Lake Chudskoe (Peipus), Ilmen Lake, and White Lake. The biggest river of the region is the Northern Dvina, which enters the White Sea near Arkhangelsk. The short and powerful Svir connects Lake Onega and Ladoga, continuing as the Neva River into St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. One of the best ways to see much of the region is to take a boat cruise along the Volga–Baltic canal. The Belomorcanal stretches from Lake Onega north to the White Sea. Both canals were built with prison labor in the Soviet period. The relief of the region is mostly flat in the south and west, and hilly in the north. The tundra-covered Khibiny Mountains in the Kola Peninsula rise just to 1,000 m above sea level and are treeless. In the extreme northeast of the region, Mt. Narodnaya in the northern Urals rises to 1,895 m.

The Northwest federal district of Russia

The climate is humid continental (the Dfb type as defined by the Koppen system) in the southern half, and subarctic (Dfc) in the north. The shores of the Arctic Ocean are in the polar climate type (ET). Winters are over 5 months long, and insolation (solar radiation) is low. St. Petersburg is located at 60°N, the same latitude as Stockholm, Oslo, or Anchorage, Alaska. If in June one can read outside at 2:00 in the morning “without a lamp” (as Alexander Pushkin famously said), in winter one has only 5–6 hours of daylight, and winter-caused depression is common. Murmansk, above the Arctic Circle (68°50'N), experiences real polar night: No sun is visible at all for about 45 days from early December until mid-January. Because of twilight it is not absolutely dark outside for a few hours per day even then, but local residents have to cope with the long period of darkness. Coastal locations in the region experience a damp maritime climate. St. Petersburg is infamously soggy; rain is common any time during the summer, and a lot of heavy wet snow is common in winter. The coldest temperature recorded in St. Petersburg is –36°C; the hottest is +33°C. The coldest temperatures inland from Arkhangelsk may plunge to –51°C, approaching the coldest recorded in the lower 48 U.S. states. Bioclimatically, the region is not warm enough for most crops to grow. In the middle of the region, near Petrozavodsk, Karelia, the vegetative season is not long enough even for wheat to grow. Only rye, barley, oats, some hardy potato varieties, green peas, radishes, turnips, carrots, and flax can ripen here. Soils are primarily poor podzols or peat soils (histosols) in the north and richer turf podzolic soils
in the south.

Shrubby and mossy tundra covers much of Nenetsky Autonomous Okrug and the Kola Peninsula's shores. Much of the region, however, is covered in boreal forests (taiga). This region is home to the largest surviving fragments of taiga old growth in European Russia, especially in areas of the Karelia and Komi Republics away from the railroads. About half of the forests in the region are Scotch pine stands; the other half are mixed forests of birch, aspen, fir, and spruce. Generally, the vegetation resembles northern Minnesota and parts of Ontario (albeit with fewer species of trees), and is almost identical to nearby Finland. The Northern Dvina valley is covered in azonal grasslands, which make excellent pastures.

The region has many zapovedniks and national parks. Laplandsky Zapovednik on Kola Peninsula (established 1930), covering 278,000 ha, preserves the last wild herds of reindeer in Europe and unique landscapes of fragile northern alpine tundras of the Khibiny Mountains. It also contains archeological sites of the Lapps. Vodlozersky National Park, on the border of Karelia and Arkhangelsk Oblast, is one of the best places to experience the middle taiga and associated waterways. The main focus here is on horse and baidarka (kayak) tourism. Kandalakshsky Zapovednik protects the littoral zone of the White Sea, with a host of marine organisms. Rare eider ducks nest here that provide the warmest down insulation known to humankind. The largest parkland of all, Virgin Forests of Komi, includes Pechoro-Ilych Biosphere Preserve and Yugyd-Va National Park in the eastern Komi Republic along the Ural Mountains on over 2.5 million ha, which is about double the size of Yellowstone National Park. This area is home to the largest intact boreal forests of Europe.

Cultural and Historical Features

Culturally, the Northwest region is primarily Russian, with important Uralic minorities of Karelians and Komi in their respective republics, as well as Lapps and Nenets tribes in the extreme north. The forces of assimilation were strong, especially during the Soviet period, and few of the natives continue to speak their languages or practice traditional lifestyles. The cities of Novgorod (established 860 A.D.) and Pskov (established 903 A.D.) are among the oldest Russian cities as recorded in the Primary Chronicle. In the first three centuries of the Russian state, they rivaled Kiev as major centers of crafts and trade. Merchants in Novgorod and Pskov had easy access to the Baltic Sea and helped explore and settle the inhospitable and distant shores of the White Sea. The old sections of both cities are included on the list of World Heritage sites. St. Sophia Cathedral is the oldest church of the Russian north, built between 1045 and 1050 A.D. under Prince Vladimir, son of Yaroslav the Wise. Novgorod also boasts an impressive kremlin and over 50 churches, many of which were badly damaged during World War II but have now been restored. The city of St. Petersburg was established in 1703 by Peter the Great as the imperial capital of Russia. It is second only to Moscow in the number of its theaters, museums, universities, and sport facilities. It is, however, first in per capita visits to cultural sites, earning it the nickname of the “cultural capital of Russia.” St. Petersburg is home to the Mariinsky Theater for opera and ballet; the largest art museum in the world, the State Hermitage Museum; the excellent Russian Museum, exhibiting Russian art; the magnificent Peter and Paul Fortress; and the Alexandro-Nevsky Lavra monastery. It also has dozens of sites associated with the lives of poets and writers (Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Blok, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and many more). Many sculptors, painters, composers, and musicians lived in the city in the 19th and 20th centuries as well.

St. Petersburg has a number of historical sites associated with the two revolutions of 1917, including the battleship Aurora (which signaled the beginning of the October revolt) and Smolny Institute (the site of the first Bolshevik government). In the Soviet period, Leningrad was famous for its heroic 900-day resistance to the Nazi siege, when about 1.2 million of its residents died but did not give up the city. Piskarevsky Memorial Cemetery is one of the largest memorials in the world, dedicated to those who died in World War II. Surrounding the city are a few well-preserved royal palaces and estates, which receive millions of tourists per year: Tsarskoe Selo, Petrodvorets, Lomonosov, Pushkin, and Pavlovsk. The city is also surrounded by wide sandy beaches and dozens of resorts stretched along the Gulf of Finland.

Other heavily visited sites in Northwest Russia include the 1,000-year-old Valaam Monastery on a group of islands at the north end of Lake Ladoga; Kizhi wooden churches on Lake Onega; sites in Pskov Oblast associated with the life of Pushkin; and small towns in Vologda Oblast, the Komi Republic, and Arkhangelsk Oblast with their unique wooden log churches (Veliky Ustyug, Kargopol).


The Northwest region is also an economic powerhouse of Russia. In 2006 the region attracted about 13% of all investments in the country, slightly higher than its share of the population. The region accounts for 8% of Russia's petroleum production, 10% of its hydropower, 18% of its diamond mining, 26% of its peat extraction, 27% of its bauxite mining, 44% of its oil shale production, and 55% of its phosphate fertilizer production. Large copper, nickel, and phosphate mines are found on Kola Peninsula, and the Pechora basin is an important source of coal. The region's main specialty is forestry, however, accounting for 35% of all timber produced in Russia and 60% of all cardboard, paper, and pulp. The region is second only to the Far East in commercial fishing, accounting for about 35% of the nation's total catch.

Manufacturing remains a major activity, accounting for 10% of all industrial output. Although the region lacks iron ore and petroleum, and has only modest quantities of coal and nonferrous metals, the early Soviet program of industrial development favored large steel, aluminum, and machine-building factories in this region (especially in Leningrad and Cherepovets). The machinery building focuses on three very different types of items: (1) high-tech radioelectronic, testing, and medical equipment; (2) heavy machines (e.g., power plant turbines, printing presses, and road construction machinery); and (3) ships. As in the Central region, construction materials, energy generation, and the chemical industry are well represented. Use of the Baltic Sea coast's oil shale is an unusual specialty of the region; numerous facilities exist near St. Petersburg to process this shale into usable petrochemicals. The region is also one of the top fertilizer producers in the country, due to a high concentration of phosphate deposits on the Kola Peninsula. Finally, because of the proximity to Europe, since 2000 car manufacturers from other parts of the world have opened factories in the Northwest for assembling vehicles from prefabricated parts. For example, there is now a Kia factory in Kaliningrad, and a Ford plant in Vsevolozhsk near St. Petersburg now makes the Focus model for the Russian market.

Northwest Russia is a great place to grow trees and hunt game, but not to grow food. As noted above, the climate is cool and soggy, and the soils are poor. The region produces negligible amounts of grain or sugar beets, and only modest amounts of vegetables, meat, and milk (about 7–9% of the national total in each of the latter three categories). Much food must be imported from other regions of Russia and from Western Europe. Flax production is regionally important. As in Central Russia, agricultural efficiency is very low: Farms use a lot of obsolete equipment, and the rural population is elderly.

The infrastructure of the Northwest focuses on St. Petersburg as the main hub. Its proximity to Western European markets, its good Internet and phone connections, and its highly educated workforce make it especially attractive for export and import of consumer goods, as well as for retail and financial services. Connections to Finland, Germany, and Sweden are particularly strong. As described above, St. Petersburg is also a cultural magnet for foreign tourists. As the most “European” of all large Russian cities, it welcomes people interested primarily in the rich imperial history of the Romanov period. Its tricentennial in 2003 and a more recent Group of Eight (G8) summit were attended by thousands from around the world. To make these events possible, a major renovation of the old city core required massive investments of federal funds (Bater, 2006). As in Moscow, Gazprom and the major petroleum companies have a conspicuous presence in the city. Gazprom's controversial Okhta Center tower, to be finished by 2012 for about $2.5 billion, will be the tallest building in northern Europe, reaching 300 m. The height is symbolic; it celebrates 300 years of the city's history. The controversy revolves mainly about the visual impact of a huge, ultramodern skyscraper on the historical low-rise city center (Blinnikov & Dixon, 2010).

Transport connections across the vast Northwest region include the following:

  • The Baltic–White Sea waterway from St. Petersburg to Murmansk, across Lakes Ladoga and Onega and the Belomorcanal.
  • The Northern Dvina River to Arkhangelsk.
  • A number of federal highways, especially the St. Petersburg–Vyborg, St. Petersburg–Petrozavodsk–Murmansk, St. Petersburg–Cherepovets–Vologda, and Vologda–Arkhangelsk routes.
  • A few railroads (generally alongside the highways), including the lines to Vorkuta and Murmansk that reach above the Arctic Circle.

A unique corner of Russia is Kaliningrad Oblast, the only exclave of the country completely surrounded by EU territory (see Vignette 9.1). Established in 1946 on the territory formerly known as eastern Prussia, the oblast is centered on the old port city of Koenigsberg, renamed Kaliningrad after one of Stalin's figurehead ministers. After World War II, the victorious U.S.S.R. chose to keep the territory to itself, both as one of several war reparations from Germany and as a convenient gateway to Europe. When Lithuania was Soviet, the U.S.S.R. saw no problem with keeping a sliver of the Baltic Coast for Russia proper. However, after the end of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Baltic republics, questions arose about the future of the isolated Russian oblast, which is entirely surrounded by EU territory now that Poland and Lithuania have joined NATO and the EU. The biggest issue is getting the Russian population in and out, since they now need EU visas if they travel by car or by most trains. As a partial solution to the problem, a new express train takes Russian citizens from Belarus to Kaliningrad Oblast without stopping inside Lithuania. The city of Kaliningrad has 430,000 people, and the oblast is densely populated (62 people/km2). It is an important center of heavy industry (shipbuilding, small engines, paper and pulp), transportation, and fishing. The Kurshskaya Kosa sandspit, covered in dunes, is an international park shared by Russia and Lithuania and is very attractive for swimmers and sun bathers.

The future of the Northwest region depends on a few key factors:

  • The continued development of St. Petersburg must be thoughtfully addressed. At present the city lags far behind Moscow in per capita investments or income, but it is likely to gain on the capital in these areas over time. St. Petersburg is particularly attractive to Western companies because of its coastal location, proximity to Europe, and large, educated workforce. It is also arguably a better place to live than the congested and suffocating Moscow; in fact, St. Petersburg covers twice as large an area as Moscow, but has only half of Moscow's population. It has a well-developed urban transit system and has many attractive coastal suburban communities where the new upper middle class can live. Its cultural sites, numerous parks, and relatively low real estate prices also make the city a good choice for living. At the same time, its dark, damp winters and the city's bad reputation as a high crime area (its official murder rate is about 50% higher than Moscow's) make it a poor choice, and solutions to the crime problem must be found.
  • The demographics of the region are worse than Russia's average. Some of the biggest cities in the region also have among the top HIV infection rates in the country. Also, the incidence of drug use is rising, and so are interethnic tensions. For example, in 2007 Karelia witnessed spontaneous outbursts of anti-Chechen (and broadly anti-Caucasus) mob violence; this was fueled by high unemployment rates for the local Russians, as well as by the outsiders' economic success (which was perceived as unfair) in retail and restaurant businesses.
  • Improvements in the agriculture and tourism infrastructure of the traditionally poor Novgorod and Pskov Oblasts need to be made soon. These areas have the warmest climate in the region, as well as plenty of agricultural land, which has been sitting idle since the end of Soviet rule. With global warming, the region is expected to gain more farmland farther to the north, while the water supplies should remain adequate for successful farming even in much warmer temperatures.
  • Federal support for the aging Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy, with a heavy concentration of nuclear submarines in a few closed settlements near Murmansk, must continue; otherwise, these areas will see a dramatic decline in population and living standards. At the same time, the problem of sea pollution from dumped nuclear waste must be addressed. Recall that the Novaya Zemlya islands are among the most radionuclide-polluted areas on earth.
  • The long-term sustainability of the forestry sector is questionable. Many areas of the Komi and Karelia Republics are severely overcut. New paper and pulp mills may be built and will require more logs in the near future. Some areas of Arkhangelsk Oblast experience water and air pollution from giant paper and pulp mills located there.
  • The problems associated with development of coal, oil, and gas fields in the extreme north-east of the region must be addressed. The needs of traditional cultures and environmentally sensitive tundras frequently clash with the insatiable demands of fossil fuel extraction.