The East European Plain encompasses most of European Russia. The West Siberian Plain, which is the world's largest, extends east from the Urals to the Yenisey River. Because the terrain and vegetation are relatively uniform in each of the natural zones, Russia presents an illusion of uniformity. Nevertheless, Russian territory contains all the major vegetation zones of the world except a tropical rain forest.
About 10 percent of Russia is tundra, or treeless, marshy plain. The tundra is Russia's northernmost zone, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, then running south along the Pacific coast to the northern Kamchatka Peninsula. The zone is known for its herds of wild reindeer, for so-called white nights (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter) in summer, and for days of total darkness in winter. The long, harsh winters and lack of sunshine allow only mosses, lichens, and dwarf willows and shrubs to sprout low above the barren permafrost (see Glossary). Although several powerful Siberian rivers traverse this zone as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean, partial and intermittent thawing hamper drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps of the tundra. Frost weathering is the most important physical process here, gradually shaping a landscape that was severely modified by glaciation in the last ice age. Less than 1 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone. The fishing and port industries of the northwestern Kola Peninsula and the huge oil and gas fields of northwestern Siberia are the largest employers in the tundra. With a population of 180,000, the industrial frontier city of Noril'sk is second in population to Murmansk among Russia's settlements above the Arctic Circle.
The taiga, which is the world's largest forest region, contains mostly coniferous spruce, fir, cedar, and larch. This is the largest natural zone of the Russian Federation, an area about the size of the United States. In the northeastern portion of this belt, long and severe winters frequently bring the world's coldest temperatures for inhabited areas. The taiga zone extends in a broad band across the middle latitudes, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia and as far south as the southern shores of Lake Baikal. Isolated sections of taiga also exist along mountain ranges such as the southern part of the Urals and in the Amur River valley bordering China in the Far East. About 33 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone, which, together with a band of mixed forest to its south, includes most of the European part of Russia and the ancestral lands of the earliest Slavic settlers.
The steppe has long been depicted as the typical Russian landscape. It is a broad band of treeless, grassy plains, interrupted by mountain ranges, extending from Hungary across Ukraine, southern Russia, and Kazakstan before ending in Manchuria. Most of the Soviet Union's steppe zone was located in the Ukrainian and Kazak republics; the much smaller Russian steppe is located mainly between those nations, extending southward between the Black and Caspian seas before blending into the increasingly desiccated territory of the Republic of Kalmykia. In a country of extremes, the steppe zone provides the most favorable conditions for human settlement and agriculture because of its moderate temperatures and normally adequate levels of sunshine and moisture. Even here, however, agricultural yields are sometimes adversely affected by unpredictable levels of precipitation and occasional catastrophic droughts.
Russia's mountain ranges are located principally along its continental divide (the Urals), along the southwestern border (the Caucasus), along the border with Mongolia (the eastern and western Sayan ranges and the western extremity of the Altay Range), and in eastern Siberia (a complex system of ranges in the northeastern corner of the country and forming the spine of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and lesser mountains extending along the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan). Russia has nine major mountain ranges. In general, the eastern half of the country is much more mountainous than the western half, the interior of which is dominated by low plains. The traditional dividing line between the east and the west is the Yenisey Valley. In delineating the western edge of the Central Siberian Plateau from the West Siberian Plain, the Yenisey runs from near the Mongolian border northward into the Arctic Ocean west of the Taymyr Peninsula.
The Urals are the most famous of the country's mountain ranges because they form the natural boundary between Europe and Asia and contain valuable mineral deposits. The range extends about 2,100 kilometers from the Arctic Ocean to the northern border of Kazakstan. In terms of elevation and vegetation, however, the Urals are far from impressive, and they do not serve as a formidable natural barrier. Several low passes provide major transportation routes through the Urals eastward from Europe. The highest peak, Mount Narodnaya, is 1,894 meters, lower than the highest of the Appalachian Mountains.
To the east of the Urals is the West Siberian Plain, which covers more than 2.5 million square kilometers, stretching about 1,900 kilometers from west to east and about 2,400 kilometers from north to south. With more than half its territory below 500 meters in elevation, the plain contains some of the world's largest swamps and floodplains. Most of the plain's population lives in the drier section south of 55° north latitude.
The region directly east of the West Siberian Plain is the Central Siberian Plateau, which extends eastward from the Yenisey River valley to the Lena River valley. The region is divided into several plateaus, with elevations ranging between 320 and 740 meters; the highest elevation is about 1,800 meters, in the northern Putoran Mountains. The plain is bounded on the south by the Baikal mountain system and on the north by the North Siberian Lowland, an extension of the West Siberian Plain extending into the Taymyr Peninsula on the Arctic Ocean.
Truly alpine terrain appears in the southern mountain ranges. Between the Black and Caspian seas, the Caucasus Mountains rise to impressive heights, forming a boundary between Europe and Asia. One of the peaks, Mount Elbrus, is the highest point in Europe, at 5,642 meters. The geological structure of the Caucasus extends to the northwest as the Crimean and Carpathian mountains and southeastward into Central Asia as the Tian Shan and Pamirs. The Caucasus Mountains create an imposing natural barrier between Russia and its neighbors to the southwest, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In the mountain system west of Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, the highest elevations are 3,300 meters in the Western Sayan, 3,200 meters in the Eastern Sayan, and 4,500 meters at Mount Belukha in the Altay Range. The Eastern Sayan reach nearly to the southern shore of Lake Baikal; at the lake, there is an elevation difference of more than 4,500 meters between the nearest mountain, 2,840 meters high, and the deepest part of the lake, which is 1,700 meters below sea level. The mountain systems east of Lake Baikal are lower, forming a complex of minor ranges and valleys that reaches from the lake to the Pacific coast. The maximum height of the Stanovoy Range, which runs west to east from northern Lake Baikal to the Sea of Okhotsk, is 2,550 meters. To the south of that range is southeastern Siberia, whose mountains reach 2,800 feet. Across the Tatar Strait from that region is Sakhalin Island, where the highest elevation is about 1,700 meters.
Northeastern Siberia, north of the Stanovoy Range, is an extremely mountainous region. The long Kamchatka Peninsula, which juts southward into the Sea of Okhotsk, includes many volcanic peaks, some of which still are active. The highest is the 4,750-meter Klyuchevskaya Volcano, the highest point in the Russian Far East. The volcanic chain continues from the southern tip of Kamchatka southward through the Kuril Islands chain and into Japan. Kamchatka also is one of Russia's two centers of seismic activity (the other is the Caucasus). In 1994 a major earthquake largely destroyed the oil-processing city of Neftegorsk.