The Urals: Metallurgy, Machinery, and Foss il Fuels

The Urals economic region of the Soviet Union included four subjects of federation (Bashkortostan and Udmurtiya Republics, Permsky Kray, and Orenburg Oblast) that have already been discussed in Chapter 24. It also included Sverdlovsk Oblast around Yekaterinburg, as well as Chelyabinsk and Kurgan Oblasts, all of which are discussed here. The federal districting scheme of 2000 has added Tyumen Oblast, and the Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs to the Urals as well, although they were previously part of the West Siberia economic region.

As currently defined, the Urals federal district has 1.8 million km2 populated by 12 million people. It is 81% urban, but with a low population density of 6/km2. It is hard to find an analogue to this region within the United States. On the one hand, the Urals resembles the industrial lower Midwest, with its emphasis on steel mills and manufacturing. On the other, the region resembles Texas and parts of the American South, with the emphasis on fossil fuels. Finally, because of the scenic low continental mountains in the middle, it resembles the Appalachian states.

Physical Geography

The Ural Mountains run almost perfectly north–south, dividing Europe from Asia. The average elevations near Chelyabinsk are only 1,000 m, with the highest point, Yaman-Tau, reaching 1,638 m. Mt. Narodnaya in the polar Urals reaches 1,895 m. The Western Siberian Lowland, in the eastern part of the region, extends to the Arctic Ocean and is one of the largest wetlands in the world. During the late glacial period, a vast, shallow lake covered the area. In the more distant past, the entire Western Siberian Lowland was a tropical sea that left massive deposits of shale and limestone. The Urals are located along an old, inactive tectonic boundary uniting the Western Siberian and European platforms. The mountains are about 230–300 million years old; they were formed in the Permian period of the late Paleozoic age. The Permian period's name comes from the city of Perm, west of the Urals.

The Urals are seriously worn down by water and wind erosion. East of the mountains, the Irtysh and the Ob form the largest river basin in Russia. The western slopes give rise to the Kama and the Ural Rivers in the south and the Pechora in the north. The Ural Mountains are a treasure trove of resources: coal, iron ore, manganese, titanium, chromium, gold, copper, nickel, vanadium, marble, and many other minerals. This is the richest area in all of Russia with respect to nonferrous metals and gemstones. Over 1,000 minerals are found in the Urals, including some with names derived from local landmarks: uralite, ilmenite, and others. Now that Tyumen Oblast and the two autonomous okrugs are included in the Urals district, the region has also become by far the richest area in Russia with respect to petroleum and natural gas, accounting for over 70% of all Russia's oil and more than 80% of its natural gas reserves.

The climate is strongly continental, mainly of the Dfb (humid continental) and Dfc (subarctic) Koppen types. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Yekaterinburg, which is in the middle of the region, is –48°C, and the warmest is +38°C. The mean annual temperature is +2.8°C, which is almost 4° colder than Minneapolis, Minnesota. The rivers freeze in late November and thaw in late April. The western slopes of the Urals may receive over 800 mm of precipitation, while the dryer southeastern slopes receive less than 400 mm per year. Podzolic, gray, and brown forest soils are common in the Urals proper, and gley-podzolic and peat soils in the former West Siberia. North of Tyumen, permafrost is common, but not very thick.

Most of the region is located in the southern taiga and mixed forest zones, with small areas of steppe in the south, many peat bogs in the east, and diverse forest and alpine communities in the mountains. About 40% of the district is forest covered. The main area of timber harvesting is in Sverdlovskaya Oblast, providing 60% of the regional total of 6.2 million m3 of timber per year, or about 6% of the national total. Agriculture is underdeveloped, due to the harsh climate and poor soils, but still accounts for 7% of Russia's total agricultural output; most of the agricultural activity is concentrated in Chelyabinsk and Kurgan Oblasts because of their warmer climate.

Protected natural areas include nine zapovedniks, three national parks, and nine federal wildlife refuges. Denezhkin Kamen Zapovednik in northern Sverdlovsk Oblast protects about 70,000 ha of mountainous taiga in the northern Urals. The preserve straddles the boundary between Europe and Asia, which ensures high biological diversity of its flora and fauna. The preserve has healthy wildflower, wolverine, sable, bear, wolf, lynx, moose, and wild boar populations.

Pripyshminsky Bory National Park, also in Sverdlovsk Oblast, focuses on outdoor recreation and preservation of unique pine forests along the ancient terraces above the Tobol and Tura Rivers. Hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting routes are being developed. Kurgansky Wildlife Refuge, located on the border with Kazakhstan in Kurgan Oblast, protects rare steppe birds, including bustards and red-breasted geese.

Cultural and Historical Features

Culturally, the Urals region is overwhelmingly Russian, with small Uralic minorities in the forested east—the Mansi people west of the Ob, and the closely related Khanty east of the Ob. Siberian Tatars near Tyumen, and Bashkirs in the south near Chelyabinsk, form two important Turkic minorities. One of the oldest Russian settlements in the region is Tobolsk, the former capital of Siberia, established at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers in 1587. Its stone kremlin is Siberia's first. The city lost much of its significance when the Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed a few hundred kilometers to the south in the late 19th century. Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk have over 1 million people each, while Tyumen has over 500,000. Yekaterinburg was founded in the 18th century, when the first iron smelters were established in the Urals. It is the main cultural and business center of the region today, with world-class universities, museums, theaters, and even its own movie studio.

Magnitogorsk, south of Chelyabinsk, and Nizhniy Tagil, north of Yekaterinburg, are among the largest steel producers in Russia. Miass and Zlatoust, west of Chelyabinsk, are also important industrial centers with about 200,000 residents each. The central part of the Urals Mountains is the most urbanized, whereas Kurgan Oblast is the least urbanized. The city of Kurgan itself (population 345,000) is an important agricultural and weapons-building center.

The Urals cannot match Central Russia in terms of cultural or historical sites worth visiting. Yekaterinburg was the place where the last tsar and tsarina of Russia, Nicholas II and Alexandra, were executed with their family and servants in 1918 by the Bolsheviks. Today the murder site is adorned with a magnificent cathedral, All Saints on the Blood. Alapaevsk is visited as the site where Elizabeth Romanov, Alexandra's sister, was murdered with her associates. Verkhoturye is another heavily visited religious site in the Urals, associated with St. Symeon, a 17th-century saint. Not too far away is the village of Pokrovskoe in Tyumen Oblast—the birthplace of Grigory Rasputin, the controversial friend and spiritual associate of the last royal family.

D. Mamin-Sibiryak is a well-known late-19th-century writer who grew up in Yekaterinburg Oblast. Another well-known literary figure from the Urals is Pavel Bazhov, whose fairy tales were based on local folk legends about the masters of the gemstone underworld. Other well-known figures associated with Yekaterinburg include Vladislow Krapivin, a popular Soviet children's writer; movie director S. Govorukhin; Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation; Alexey Yashin, a legendary ice hockey player; sculptor Ernest Neizvestny; mathematician Nickolai Krasovsky; and Olympic swimming champion Alexandr Popov. Yekaterinburg also gave Russia three very popular rock bands: Nautilus Pompilius, Agata Kristie, and Chaif.


Economically, the Urals region is a mining and metallurgy giant, accounting for about 19% of all industrial output in Russia. As noted earlier, the region now accounts for over 70% of all petroleum in Russia (most of it in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug) and over 80% of all natural gas reserves (mostly in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug). The Urals district also leads the country in production of bauxite, and is second only to the Siberia district in production of copper ore and to the Central district in production of iron ore. Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk Oblasts together account for 38% of all steel made in Russia. Only the Central district produces more machinery.

The oil and natural gas fields of what was then the West Siberia economic region were discovered in the 1960s and developed in the 1970s. In 1965 this area produced only 1 million metric tonnes (mmt) of petroleum, but by 1985 it was already 400 mmt, or about 2.9 billion barrels per year! To put this in perspective, the entire United States uses about 5.5 billion barrels per year. The production of oil in this area dropped dramatically in the 1990s because of the economic downturn, to about 200 mmt per year in 1995, but has since risen to about 320 mmt. This number is unlikely to increase farther, because the oil fields are rapidly being depleted. Tyumen is a large historical center in the former West Siberia, on the banks of the Tura River. It is a railroad hub and a major river port. Oil and gas processing and shipbuilding are two major activities. Courtesy of the energy boom in recent years, Tyumen Oblast leads the nation in gross regional product (GRP) per capita—about $28,800 in 2006 (Table 26.1). The largest oil fields are concentrated along the middle reaches of the Ob River, in the central and eastern parts of Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. There are four major concentrations of extracting areas near cities, each associated with one or two of the major oil companies of Russia: Surgut (Surgutneftegaz), Nizhnevartovsk (BP-TNK and Lukoil), Nefteyugansk (formerly Yukos, now Rosneft), and Kogalym (Lukoil). Gazpromneft (formerly Sibneft) controls the very large Noyabrsk oil and gas field northeast of Surgut, and the new Priobskoe oil field near Khanty-Mansiysk.

Farther to the north, there is primarily natural gas production in the giant fields near the base of the Yamal Peninsula. Most of the gas production is controlled by Gazprom; however, some gas is also produced by TNK-BP, Surgutneftegaz, and Novatek. The earliest gas fields to be developed, near Urengoy (just below the Arctic Circle), started producing in 1964. In 2005, 557 billion m3 of gas was produced in Yamal alone.

The Urengoy fields are connected to Tyumen and the Urals proper via a railroad link and multiple oil and gas pipelines. The more recently discovered gas fields are located farther north, above the Arctic Circle: Yamburgskoe on Gydansk Peninsula, and Bovanenkovskoe on Yamal Peninsula. A new railroad link from Labytnagi to Yamal is being built. Overall, Russia is thought to have about 48 trillion m3 of gas in proven reserves, more than in all of North and South America, Europe, and Africa combined. Only some Middle Eastern countries, especially Qatar and Iran, have comparable reserves.

Steel production in the Urals is concentrated in a few very large factories dating back to Soviet times—in particular, the Magnitogorsk, Nizhniy Tagil, Chelyabinsk, and Novotroitsk steel combines. A few dozen smaller factories specialize in rolling steel, making pipes, and manufacturing precise parts. Also associated with the large steel-making combines are factories producing cement, gypsum panels, nitrogen fertilizer, and plastics. Historically, the fuel used in steel production was locally produced charcoal. In the past 30 years there has been a definite shift toward using more imported fossil coal, especially from central Kazakhstan, which is conveniently connected to the Urals by a few railroads. Another metallurgical specialty of the Urals is copper production (the Krasnouralsk, Revda, and Karabash plants) and refining (the Kyshtym and Verkhnepyshminsky plants). Nickel, aluminum, zinc, titanium, and magnesium production are also well developed. Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk Oblasts have a number of so-called secret cities producing components for nuclear weapons (Novouralsk and Lesnoy in the former oblast, and Snezhinsk, Ozersk, and Trehgorny in the latter). The vicinity of the Mayak factory in Chelyabinsk Oblast was the scene of a few nuclear accidents in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and is heavily damaged by radioactive waste.

The machinery-building sector in the Urals focuses on industrial machinery and turbines (Uralmash, Uralelektrotyazhmash, Yuzhuralmash), tractors (Chelyabinsk), trucks (Novouralsk, Miass, Kurgan), and railroad cars and tanks (Nizhniy Tagil). Motorcycles are built in Irbit. The construction industry is also well developed, based on local nonmetal mineral mining, cement, and plywood production. Finally, Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk are major producers of consumer goods, including leather jackets, cotton shirts, shoes, radioelectronics, and appliances.

As noted earlier, most of the Urals' farming areas are in the south, mainly in Kurgan and Chelyabinsk Oblasts (80% of the total). Grains are planted here, especially wheat, as well as sunflowers. Sverdlovsk Oblast leads the region in production of potatoes and vegetables; as in the rest of Russia, these are mainly grown on small dacha plots by city residents.

The infrastructure of the Urals has two main hubs in the middle (Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk) and one in the east (Tyumen). All three cities are on branches of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The northern line (Yekaterinburg–Tyumen–Omsk–Novosibirsk) runs entirely within Russia. The southern line, however, runs through Chelyabinsk and Kurgan to Petropavlovsk in Kazakhstan and then to Novosibirsk. In the Soviet period, that route was the faster of the two, but it is slower now because the double delays on the international borders add 5–6 hours to the length of the trip. The regional line from Tyumen northeast to Surgut and Urengoy is very important for moving people and freight in and out of the oil- and gas-producing districts. Construction of highways, railways, and pipelines in the fragile tundras and bogs of western Siberia is hampered by the presence of extensive wetlands, and in some areas, permafrost. Some Yamal “highways” are little more than 2- or 3-km-wide muddy ruts left by tractors. Paved highways largely run parallel to the railroads. A newly proposed federal highway will connect Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg via Perm and Kirov. The Ob, with its tributaries, serves as an important shipping lane. However, about half of the year it is ice-bound in the north, so navigation only occurs during the warmer half of the year.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Urals Region

The biggest future challenge for the region is reducing its dependence on heavy machinery, militarized enterprises, petroleum, and natural gas. Diversification of the local economy is progressing slowly. The large influx of capital due to fossil fuel extraction and processing development should be wisely invested to improve infrastructure and social life. Climatically, the region may experience some improvement with global warming, but it is certainly not an attractive place to live (especially in its eastern and northern parts).

However, the Ural Mountains themselves are well positioned for development of tourism and recreation, especially whitewater rafting, cave tourism, backpacking, and horse tourism. Heritage and religious tourism are also popular and could be made more so. Heavy air pollution and large areas of nuclear and other industrial contamination pose some serious challenges for future successful development.


  1. In groups, conduct research on the geography of oil production of one of the Russian oil majors. As of 2009, suitable companies included Lukoil, Rosneft, Gazpromneft, Surgutneftegaz, and TNK-BP. Find out where their oil fields are, where their production facilities and refineries are concentrated, and what their recent discoveries and investment trends have been. Give in-class presentations highlighting the accomplishments of each company. Try to convince an independent panel of judges (including your instructor) that your company has the best potential to attract new investments.
  2. Write a report on any traditional culture of the Urals (Khanty, Mansi, Siberian Tatars, etc.). Compare and contrast their lifestyle with that of any other traditional culture from around the world that you are familiar with.
  3. Investigate educational options available to a foreign student in either Yekaterinburg or Chelyabinsk.
  4. Read any of Pavel Bazhov's tales about the people and gemstones of the Urals. What are some of the key cultural elements in them that are related to the natural riches of the region?