Russia is the world’s largest land power, extending almost halfway around the globe. But most of its territory is too cold or too dry to accommodate large, permanent settlement.
The area between the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic Circle is a barren tundra. To the south lies the taiga, the world’s largest coniferous forest, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Parts of it are covered in permafrost.
Between the Carpathian Mountains in the west and Manchuria in the east is the steppe. Russia scholar W. Bruce Lincoln described it as “the great grass road.” It carried the Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus’ in the thirteenth century as well as Russia’s own expansion into Central Asia during the nineteenth century. Historian Philip Longworth identified the repeated expansion and collapse of empires across this generally flat topography as the principal feature of Russian history in Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin (2006).
The Russians originally came from the forests and had to conquer the steppe to safeguard their homelands from Central Asian nomads. The location of Moscow, the capital, between the taiga and the steppe, reflects the nation’s place between these two worlds. It also explains Russia’s continued territorial expansion over the centuries as well as its perennial sense of insecurity. With the exception of the Carpathian Mountains in the west, Russia’s European core lacks natural barriers to invasion. Thus it pushed back its frontiers.
Starting with the reign of Ivan the Terrible and into the seventeenth century, Russia carved out a huge “boreal riverine empire” in Siberia. It was this endeavor, rather than its later expansions into Eastern Europe, argued Lincoln in The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians (1994), “that has defined [Russia’s] greatness.”
It also brought Russia in contact with China. The lack of a clearly definable border between the two empires meant tension was almost inevitable, whatever ideological affinities have periodically existed between them. China’s own expansion into Manchuria and Mongolia was undertaken for reasons similar to Russia’s — to protect the Han core in the southeast from invasion across the steppe.
The discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in northwestern Siberia in the 1960s made Russia an energy hyperpower. It has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, the second-largest coal reserves and the eighth-largest oil reserves. Siberia’s many rivers and lakes also provide ample opportunity for hydropower generation.
But Siberia’s inhospitable climate made it ill suited for mass colonization. While it comprises 77 percent of Russia’s territory, it only has a quarter of its population today. As many ethnic Russians live in Siberia as do in Belarus, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Moldova and Ukraine — territories Russia conquered starting in the eighteenth century but lost in 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved.
These areas to the west, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, were conquered as a buffer. Throughout its history, Russia has suffered invasion not only from the steppe but across the North European Plain as well; World War II being the most recent instance.
Ukraine, besides the Volga watershed, was also Russia’s breadbasket. Notwithstanding the disastrous collectivization of land that was carried out under Joseph Stalin and which caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933, Russia is able to feed itself — but it cannot efficiently transport what it grows from the countryside to the cities due to the hard climate.
To prioritize feeding the urban over the peasant population, Russia required a strong, centralized state authority. This was also necessary in order to subjugate the non-Russian peoples living in its buffer zones and it engendered an obedience to authority as well as a belief in the state’s indispensability on the part of the Russian population.
Vladimir Putin argued that “Russia needs strong state power” before he first became president in 2000, adding, “The key to Russia’s recovery and growth today lies in the state-political sphere.” That has, in fact, long been the view of Russian leaders, predating even Soviet communism, whereas the breakdown of central authority in 1991 is still generally seen as the cause of an economic and societal decline, rather than the other way around.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms accelerated the Soviet empire’s collapse in the late 1980s but its root cause was an overextension into Central Asia and Europe. This not only drained Russia’s economic resources; it set off a global rivalry with the United States which could not allow any one power to dominate the whole of Eurasia. America won that Cold War. But Russia’s geopolitical imperatives haven’t changed. Its history suggests it will try to reclaim what it lost — if not by conquest, then through economic and political subordination of its frontier states.