Through Russia on Skis: An Olympic Guide to the Country’s Geography
This year's Winter Olympics are being held in Sochi, a Russian resort on the Black Sea, which is known for its balmy, sub-tropical climate. It may come as a surprise that a notoriously cold country like Russia has such resorts; it may be an even greater suprise that Olympic winder events can be held there. In the Olympic spirit, let's strap on our skis and take a breif tour of Russia's geography - from its highest point to its lowest.
Sochi’s winter advantage is that the beach gives way to mountains inland. It is similar in this respect to California, which also hosts a number of ski resorts. The Caucasus Mountains rise to impressive heights.We start at Mt. Elbrus, which is Europe’s highest peak at over 18,000 feet. The Caucasus range, betweenthe Black and Caspian Seas, marks the point where Russia’s European and Asian parts meet. Russia is theonly country in the world in which most of the population is in Europe, but most of the land is in Asia. In anintriguing mirroring effect, about 77% of Russia’s people live in the European part of the country, while the enormous Asian portion constitutes 77% of Russia’s land mass.
Let’s glide a bit lower down. Now we come to the Ural Mountains: a long range of medium height, which
extends south from the Arctic Ocean along the Europe-Asia boundary. At this height, we may also observe
the volcanoes of Kamchatka, thousands of miles away in Russia’s Far East, and some smaller mountain
ranges of middling height in Siberia. But these mountainous regions form only a small portion of Russia’s territory. Upon our descent from the peaks, we must switch to cross-country skis to explore most of the country.
One thing most of us know about Russia is that it is, geographically, the largest country in the world. But
while Russia is almost twice the size of the United States, it has less than half the population, at 143 million
people. One reason for this is that vast stretches of the country are virtually uninhabitable: located far to the north, with a substantial portion beyond the Arctic Circle. More than half the country is north of 60 degreeslatitude - the same parallel as Anchorage, Alaska. In fact, the “cold poles” of the Northern Hemisphere(where record low temperatures have been recorded) can be found not in the Arctic Sea, but in a pair of Eastern Siberian villages.
The distribution of the population testifies to the country’s northern orientation. St. Petersburg, the former
imperial capital, is the farthest north city in the world with over a million people. The port of Murmansk is
the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. Moscow has the largest population of any European city at about
12 million people, but it sits on the same latitude as Edinburgh and Copenhagen - much smaller cities.
This northern orientation gives rise to some extraordinary phenomena. In much of Siberia, the soil is
permanently frozen. Houses have to be fixed to the ground by driving pilings into it, as a foundation cannot
be poured. St. Petersburg is famed for its “white nights” during the summer - a time of near-constant
daylight, commemorated in classic works of Russian literature, and today the occasion for a major arts
and music festival in that city. Even farther north, regions such as Karelia and the White Sea, despite their
remoteness and difficult living conditions, have been inhabited for centuries; they contain some of the bestpreservedexamples of traditional Russian architecture and folk art.
Most of Russia is fairly flat, and this territory can be divided into essentially three kinds of terrain. The far north is characterized by tundra: treeless, marshy, and usually frozen. The tundra forms about 11 percent of Russia. South of this is the taiga - the seemingly endless coniferous forests that stretch through northern European Russia and Siberia. And in central and southern Russia we find the steppe - the grassy plains, largely devoid of trees, and punctuated by hills and mountains. Based on its depiction in paintings, literature and cinema, the steppe has become fixed in many people’s minds as the most typical Russian landscape.
Among the cities, the capital Moscow dominates to a degree extraordinary for a country with no fewer than nine time zones. Not just the country’s politics, but its media, business, entertainment, and industry are concentrated in and around Moscow, similar to the roles played by Paris and London in their much smaller countries. Moscow’s economy alone accounts for over 20% of Russian GDP.
Under our feet are some of the world’s greatest reserves of oil, gas, and coal. However, most of them are located in remote areas notable for their extreme climates. This makes natural resource extraction - one of the biggest sectors of Russia’s economy - an expensive proposition.
And finally, we change to water skis to course down Russia’s great rivers. The riverine backbone of Russia is the Volga, which has played a role in Russian history, song and story similar to that of the Mississippi in the United States. Along the Volga are several of the country’s largest cities. The great Siberian rivers, such as the Ob, Lena and Yenisei, are among the longest in the world, draining into the Arctic. And Siberia is the natural place to end our journey: here is Lake Baikal, containing 20% of the world’s fresh water supply. With a depth of over 5000 feet, it is the deepest lake in the world. We started at Russia’s highest point. We are now looking at its lowest - but to get to the bottom, we’ll have to drop our skis and change into scuba gear.