GEOG101 Study Guide

Unit 3: Russia

3a. Describe the physical geography of Russia

  • Why is Russian dominated by the type D climate?
  • Although Russia does have mountain ranges, including active volcanoes, describe the terrain that is most common in this vast region. 

The vastness of Russia cannot be overestimated. Its northern latitude and size contribute to the type D (continental) climate that dominates the realm. Because most of the Russian realm is far from the moderating effects of oceans, temperatures are extreme. Winters are very cold, and summers are very hot. Furthermore, precipitation is highly variable.

Although Russia's physical landscape ranges from Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, to Mount Elbrus, a dormant volcano in the Caucasus Mountains, it has large contiguous areas with little variation in elevation. These extensive plains, steppes, and plateaus are covered in forests, grasses, and wetlands. Because some of Russia extends into the Arctic, tundra covers its northern extent. 



3b. Explain how the Czars expanded their territorial power to create the Russian Empire

  • Given its vast land area, how did the czars convince their subjects to minimize their cultural differences?
  • What is Russification?
  • What were the political cores of the Russian Empire?

As the largest territorial empire in the world, it is not surprising that it included many different ethnic groups, including people who spoke many different languages and practiced different religions, among many other differences. Their identity was tied to that ethnic group, not Russia. The czars engaged in Russification to turn all of their subjects into Russians through language instruction and conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. This attempt to create a Russian identity was less successful the farther the people were from Moscow, the center of power.

The political cores of imperial Russia were St. Petersburg and Moscow. Peter the Great established St. Petersburg in the early 18th century to rival European cities, moving the capital there from Moscow. Although Moscow was no longer the capital, it remained an important city. Throughout the imperial period, Russia expanded from St. Petersburg and Moscow east toward the Pacific Ocean, south to the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains, and west to Poland and Finland. Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow in 1917 following the Russian Revolution. 



3c. Compare and contrast how issues of ethnic diversity were handled under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union

  • What did the Republics of the USSR represent?
  • How did the Soviets hope to dilute ethnic minorities?

Rather than teaching these ethnic groups the Russian language and converting them to Russian Orthodoxy as the czars attempted to do, the Soviet central government organized them into units they could control from Moscow. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) consisted of fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). The largest, the Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (shown in red in the following map), included the area that the central government considered to be ethnically Russian. The remaining SSRs represented separate ethnic groups such as the Georgians, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, and Uzbeks, among others.

These SSRs had very little autonomy. Indeed, the central government sought to dilute these ethnic groups by sending ethnic-Russians into these SSRs. Members of these ethnic groups were also exiled to the hinterlands of the Soviet Federated Socialist Republic to separate them from the historic homeland of their people. Thus, it is common to find ethnic Russians who have lived in Kazakhstan (the former Kazakh SSR) and ethnic Ukrainians who have lived in Siberia (part of the former Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) for generations.



3d. Describe some of the environmental problems facing Russia today

  • What are the types of pollution associated with industrial and urban activity in Russia?
  • What environmental problems are the taiga and tundra areas of Russia experiencing?
  • How has Russia disposed of nuclear waste?

Russia's large territory means there are more opportunities for environmental damage and a greater chance that the damage will either go unnoticed or be ignored.

  • Sewage and chemical pollutants from industrial centers and urban areas have contaminated the air, waterways, and water bodies, including the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea (the world's largest inland body of water by area), and Lake Baikal (the world's oldest and deepest lake). In spite of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, proposed oil and gas exploration also threatens Lake Baikal's biodiversity.
  • Oil exploration and production pollution, including oil spills, have contaminated both the Siberian tundra and taiga environments. Nuclear waste is dumped in the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea. Given their remoteness, concern for these vast ecosystems and the humans who live there have only recently received attention.
  • Coal-burning utilities, mining, and smelting activities in and around Siberian cities reduce air quality. The smog in Krasnoyarsk, a Siberian city on the Yenisei River, causes Black Sky emergencies.
  • Overfishing depletes fish stocks in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. These water bodies are the source of the increasingly rare caviar-producing wild sturgeon.

Many of Russia's current environmental problems date to Soviet-era industrial practices.

Review the Regional Environmental Problems described in Introducing the Realm.


3e. Define the main tenets of a socialist economy

  • How did the USSR implement socialism?
  • What role does the government play in a socialist economy?

Socialism encompasses a wide range of economic and social systems, and not all countries implement it in the same way. Under Stalin, the USSR forced the conversion of large family farms and privately held land and businesses to collective or state control. Collective ownership of the means of production is a fundamental tenet of socialism, but the methods used in the USSR are not. In the Soviet Union, collectivizing agriculture was meant to increase food production; instead, it was a significant factor in the devastating famine of 1932 - 1933. It is estimated that four million people starved to death in the Ukrainian SSR alone.

The central government of the USSR implemented another tenet of socialism when it took control of the economy rather than allowing it to be driven by supply and demand. This command economy allocated inputs, established output quantities, and eliminated competition. To achieve these aims, Stalin executed millions of people who did not agree with him. Central control of the economy to achieve equality is a component of socialism, but the methods Stalin used to implement and maintain that control are not. 

Review The USSR and the Russian Federation, an explanation of socialism and the USSR's implementation of it as a socialist state.


3f. Discuss the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)

  • How did the war in Afghanistan contribute to the decline of the USSR?
  • What did Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms reveal about the Soviet economy?
  • Why did the central government allow the SSRs to break away?

Many factors contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR's efforts since 1979 to maintain communism in Afghanistan was costly and exacerbated the already decaying economic situation that followed World War II. The political structure inside the Soviet Union was also faltering, and its control over the Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain was fading. President Mikhail Gorbachev implemented reforms, such as perestroika and glasnost, to modernize the country, but they only served to further reveal the structural problems with the economy, including corruption, waste, and fraud. Hard-line communists sought to wrest power from Gorbachev but were unsuccessful. The SSRs that wanted independence sensed weakness in Moscow and began to break away from the Soviet Union.

Review The USSR and the Russian Federation and the events leading up to the dissolution of the USSR.


3g. Describe the post-Soviet economic and political situation

  • What reforms did President Boris Yeltsin implement to transition to a capitalist economy?
  • What were the economic effects on the Russian people during this period? 

The economic, political, and social situation in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union was tumultuous.

  • Although there were more freedoms and access to Western goods increased, many people suffered significant financial loss and uncertainty.
  • The transition to an open market economy was known as shock therapy, because it would be painful but brief.
  • Unfortunately, the pain continued, particularly for ordinary workers. President Yeltsin privatized state-owned enterprises, stabilized the ruble, and lessened government control on pricing, among other reforms.
  • Inflation sky-rocketed, people lost what little they had, and unemployment increased as new owners sought to cut costs.
  • The business elite were the only segment of the population that benefited during this transition period, rapidly accumulating wealth at the expense of others.

These Russian oligarchs continue to wield considerable power despite U.S. sanctions whereas ordinary citizens find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Review The USSR and the Russian Federation, an overview of the economic, political, and social conditions that characterized Russia between 1991 and 2000. 


3h. Explain the Chechen-Russian conflict

  • Why were territories such as Georgia and Armenia allowed to separate from the USSR in 1991 but Chechnya was not?
  • How has Chechnya's location and physical landscape contributed to its cultural landscape and the identity of its people?

Chechnya was part of the Soviet Federated Socialist Republic rather than a SSR such as Georgia and Armenia. Because Chechnya was administratively part of the Russian SSR, it had no right to secede. Furthermore, Russia feared that if some territories were allowed independence, many others would follow. Thus, Russia has fought to retain control of Chechnya. Chechnya's strategic location and oil-rich potential are also strong motivating factors for Russia to maintain its control.

Due to its position as a crossroads between the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires and its mountainous terrain, Chechnya's history is a turbulent one.

  • Chechnya is located in the Caucasus mountains, which is home to numerous ethnolinguistic groups all of which have their own identity. 
  • These ethnic groups have long been separated by terrain yet routinely invaded by larger territorial powers because of its strategic value. 
  • For example, Russia's interest in the Caucasus, including Chechnya, goes back hundreds of years.
  • The Chechens turned to the Ottoman Empire for protection from Russia's encroachment. To gain the favor of the Ottomans and show their resistance to the Russians, the Chechens converted to Islam. 

Like Dagestan and other Russian-controlled territories in the North Caucasus, Chechnya takes pride in its cultural identity and continues to strive for independence. 

Review Regions of Russia, the section on Southern Russia.


3i. Discuss the reasons behind Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 

  • Explain why there is unrest in Georgia.
  • Why did the residents of the South Ossetia region within Georgia welcome a Russian invasion in 2008? 
  • Why has Georgia long been a target of invasion?

The country of Georgia, a former SSR, includes several ethnolinguistic regions that are not ethnically Georgian, including South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Adjara which have sought independence from Georgia.

  • South Ossetia is part of a larger region known as Ossetia, which straddles the North Caucasus and the Transcaucasus.
  • The South Ossetians have sought independence from Georgia since Georgia broke away from the USSR.
  • In 2008, Georgia tightened its control over the region by force, leading to Russia's invasion to support the Ossetian goal of independence
  •  Although South Ossetians are neither ethnically Georgian nor Russian, they see Russian support as useful for achieving independence from Georgia.

Russia's invasion of Georgia was not the first time a foreign power has sought to seize control of its territory. As part of the Caucasus region, Georgia is located on the strip of land between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The area has long been a heavily traveled route, connecting east and west. The Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, and Russians have all conquered this territory since the 4th century BCE.

Review Transcaucasia in Regions of Russia.


Unit 3 Vocabulary

This vocabulary list includes terms that students need to know to successfully complete the final exam for the course.

  • biodiversity
  • Black Sea
  • business elite 
  • Caspian Sea
  • Caucasus Mountains
  • Chechnya
  • collective ownership
  • command economy
  • communism
  • contiguous
  • czars
  • Georgia
  • glasnost
  • hinterlands
  • inflation 
  • Iron Curtain 
  • Lake Baikal
  • Lenin
  • Mikhail Gorbachev
  • Moscow
  • oligarchs
  • open market economy 
  • Peter the Great
  • perestroika
  • plains
  • plateaus
  • ruble
  • Russian Orthodoxy
  • Russification
  • socialism
  • Soviet Federated Socialist Republic
  • Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs)
  • St. Petersburg 
  • Stalin 
  • steppes
  • taiga
  • tundra
  • type D (continental) climate
  • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)