Russian History


The Northern Republics

Karelia and Komi, the two northernmost republics of European Russia, occupy a sizable portion of the latitudes north of Moscow. Both are rich in natural resources, exploitation of which has caused considerable environmental damage.

At 172,400 square kilometers, Karelia is the fourth largest of the autonomous republics of the Russian Federation. The republic shares a border with Finland from the Kola Peninsula in the north to Lake Ladoga in the south. The Karelians are of the same ethnic stock as the Finns. The status of Karelia has changed several times in the twentieth century. When Karelia first became an autonomous republic of the Soviet Union in 1923, it included only the territory known as Eastern Karelia, which had been Russian territory since 1323. When Western Karelia was gained from the Finns in 1940, the enlarged Karelia became a full republic of the Soviet Union, called the Karelo-Finnish Republic. After World War II, the southwestern corner of the republic, including its only stretch of open-water seacoast on the Gulf of Finland, became part of the Russian Republic. In 1956 the regime of Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office 1953-64) redesignated the artificial entity, which never came close to having a Karelian majority, as the Karelian ASSR. In 1994 the republic's population of about 800,200 was 74 percent Russian, only 10 percent Karelian, 7 percent Belarusian, and 4 percent Ukrainian. The dominant religion is Russian Orthodoxy.

In a region dominated by forests, lakes, and marshes, the Karelian economy is supported mainly by logging, mining, and fishing. The plentiful mineral resources include construction stone, zinc, lead, silver, copper, molybdenum, aluminum, nickel, platinum, tin, barite, and iron ore. Industries include timber and mineral processing, and the manufacturing of furniture, chemicals, and paper. The capital of Karelia is Petrozavodsk.

The Republic of Komi extends westward from the northern end of the Ural Mountains across the Pechora River basin; the republic's westernmost extension is about 250 kilometers east of Arkhangel'sk and the White Sea. The region, which as a republic occupies 415,900 square kilometers, was annexed by the principality of Muscovy in the fourteenth century, principally because of its rich fur-trading potential. In the eighteenth century, Russians began exploiting mineral and timber resources. The Komi people, a Finno-Ugric group, traditionally have herded reindeer, hunted, and fished. They nominally accepted Russian Orthodoxy in the fourteenth century. In 1921 the Soviet government designated an autonomous oblast for the Komi, and in 1936 the oblast became an autonomous republic. The Komi include three ethnic subgroups: the Permyaks, who inhabit the Permyak Autonomous Region south of the republic; the Yazua, who live in both the Republic of Komi and the Permyak region; and the Zyryan, who account for the majority of the republic's Komi population. Altogether, in 1994 the Komi constituted 23 percent of the 1.2 million people of their republic, which had a 58 percent Russian majority. Long isolated by the forbidding climate of their region, the Komi of the north have intermixed with other ethnic groups only in recent decades.

Located just southwest of the oil-rich Yamal Peninsula, Komi has become an important producer of oil and natural gas; in 1994 a pipeline leak caused extensive damage to the tundra and rivers in the Pechora Basin. Vorkuta, in the far northeastern corner of the republic near the Kara Sea, is an important Arctic coal-mining center. The capital of Komi is Syktyvkar.