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Russia is a water-rich country. The earliest settlements in the country sprang up along the rivers, where most of the urban population continues to live. The Volga, Europe's longest river, is by far Russia's most important commercial waterway. Four of the country's thirteen largest cities are located on its banks: Nizhniy Novgorod, Samara, Kazan', and Volgograd. The Kama River, which flows west from the southern Urals to join the Volga in the Republic of Tatarstan, is a second key European water system whose banks are densely populated.

Russia has thousands of rivers and inland bodies of water, providing it with one of the world's largest surface-water resources. However, most of Russia's rivers and streams belong to the Arctic drainage basin, which lies mainly in Siberia but also includes part of European Russia. Altogether, 84 percent of Russia's surface water is located east of the Urals in rivers flowing through sparsely populated territory and into the Arctic and Pacific oceans. In contrast, areas with the highest concentrations of population, and therefore the highest demand for water supplies, tend to have the warmest climates and highest rates of evaporation. As a result, densely populated areas such as the Don and Kuban' river basins north of the Caucasus have barely adequate (or in some cases inadequate) water resources.

Forty of Russia's rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers are east of the Urals, including the three major rivers that drain Siberia as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean: the Irtysh-Ob' system (totaling 5,380 kilometers), the Yenisey (4,000 kilometers), and the Lena (3,630 kilometers). The basins of those river systems cover about 8 million square kilometers, discharging nearly 50,000 cubic meters of water per second into the Arctic Ocean. The northward flow of these rivers means that source areas thaw before the areas downstream, creating vast swamps such as the 48,000-square-kilometer Vasyugane Swamp in the center of the West Siberian Plain. The same is true of other river systems, including the Pechora and the North Dvina in Europe and the Kolyma and the Indigirka in Siberia. Approximately 10 percent of Russian territory is classified as swampland.

A number of other rivers drain Siberia from eastern mountain ranges into the Pacific Ocean. The Amur River and its main tributary, the Ussuri, form a long stretch of the winding boundary between Russia and China. The Amur system drains most of southeastern Siberia. Three basins drain European Russia. The Dnepr, which flows mainly through Belarus and Ukraine, has its headwaters in the hills west of Moscow. The 1,860-kilometer Don originates in the Central Russian Upland south of Moscow and then flows into the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea at Rostov-na-Donu. The Volga is the third and by far the largest of the European systems, rising in the Valday Hills west of Moscow and meandering southeastward for 3,510 kilometers before emptying into the Caspian Sea. Altogether, the Volga system drains about 1.4 million square kilometers. Linked by several canals, European Russia's rivers long have been a vital transportation system; the Volga system still carries two-thirds of Russia's inland water traffic (see Transportation, ch. 6).

Russia's inland bodies of water are chiefly a legacy of extensive glaciation. In European Russia, the largest lakes are Ladoga and Onega northeast of St. Petersburg, Lake Peipus on the Estonian border, and the Rybinsk Reservoir north of Moscow. Smaller man-made reservoirs, 160 to 320 kilometers long, are on the Don, the Kama, and the Volga rivers. Many large reservoirs also have been constructed on the Siberian rivers; the Bratsk Reservoir northwest of Lake Baikal is one of the world's largest.

The most prominent of Russia's bodies of fresh water is Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and most capacious freshwater lake. Lake Baikal alone holds 85 percent of the freshwater resources of the lakes in Russia and 20 percent of the world's total. It extends 632 kilometers in length and fifty-nine kilometers across at its widest point. Its maximum depth is 1,713 meters. Numerous smaller lakes dot the northern regions of the European and Siberian plains. The largest of these are lakes Beloye, Topozero, Vyg, and Il'men' in the European northwest and Lake Chany in southwestern Siberia.


Russia has a largely continental climate because of its sheer size and compact configuration. Most of its land is more than 400 kilometers from the sea, and the center is 3,840 kilometers from the sea. In addition, Russia's mountain ranges, predominantly to the south and the east, block moderating temperatures from the Indian and Pacific oceans, but European Russia and northern Siberia lack such topographic protection from the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans.

Because only small parts of Russia are south of 50° north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60° north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters. The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below. Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them. Transportation routes, including entire railroad lines, are redirected in winter to traverse rock-solid waterways and lakes. Some areas constitute important exceptions to this description, however: the moderate maritime climate of Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea is similar to that of the American Northwest; the Russian Far East, under the influence of the Pacific Ocean, has a monsoonal climate that reverses the direction of wind in summer and winter, sharply differentiating temperatures; and a narrow, subtropical band of territory provides Russia's most popular summer resort area on the Black Sea.

In winter an intense high-pressure system causes winds to blow from the south and the southwest in all but the Pacific region of the Russian landmass; in summer a low-pressure system brings winds from the north and the northwest to most of the landmass. That meteorological combination reduces the wintertime temperature difference between north and south. Thus, average January temperatures are -8°C in St. Petersburg, -27°C in the West Siberian Plain, and -43°C at Yakutsk (in east-central Siberia, at approximately the same latitude as St. Petersburg), while the winter average on the Mongolian border, whose latitude is some 10° farther south, is barely warmer. Summer temperatures are more affected by latitude, however; the Arctic islands average 4°C, and the southernmost regions average 20°C. Russia's potential for temperature extremes is typified by the national record low of -94°C, recorded at Verkhoyansk in north-central Siberia and the record high of 38°C, recorded at several southern stations.

The long, cold winter has a profound impact on almost every aspect of life in the Russian Federation. It affects where and how long people live and work, what kinds of crops are grown, and where they are grown (no part of the country has a year-round growing season). The length and severity of the winter, together with the sharp fluctuations in the mean summer and winter temperatures, impose special requirements on many branches of the economy. In regions of permafrost, buildings must be constructed on pilings, machinery must be made of specially tempered steel, and transportation systems must be engineered to perform reliably in extremely low and extremely high temperatures. In addition, during extended periods of darkness and cold, there are increased demands for energy, health care, and textiles.

Because Russia has little exposure to ocean influences, most of the country receives low to moderate amounts of precipitation. Highest precipitation falls in the northwest, with amounts decreasing from northwest to southeast across European Russia. The wettest areas are the small, lush subtropical region adjacent to the Caucasus and along the Pacific coast. Along the Baltic coast, average annual precipitation is 600 millimeters, and in Moscow it is 525 millimeters. An average of only twenty millimeters falls along the Russian-Kazak border, and as little as fifteen millimeters may fall along Siberia's Arctic coastline. Average annual days of snow cover, a critical factor for agriculture, depends on both latitude and altitude. Cover varies from forty to 200 days in European Russia, and from 120 to 250 days in Siberia.

Data as of July 1996

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