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European Russia dwarfs all other European countries in size but still makes up only a quarter of the 17 million-sq-km area of Rus­sia -the world’s biggest country. The border between Europe and Asia runs down the western side of the Ural Mountains, 1300km east of Moscow. Cities and towns are con­centrated chiefly across the middle half of European Russia, thinning out in the frozen north and the southern steppe.


In the north, European Russia faces the Arc­tic Kara and Barents Seas and the White Sea (an inlet of the Barents Sea ), and has a short border with Norway and a longer one with Finland. The Novaya Zemlya and Zemlya Frantsa-losifa island groups, the latter stretch­ing to the edge of the permanent Arctic ice­cap, are also part of European Russia. South of Finland, Russia opens on the Gulf of Fin­land, an inlet of the Baltic Sea ; St Petersburg stands at the eastern end of this gulf. In the west and southwest, Russia borders Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine. The small Kalin­ingrad region of Russia lies disconnected from the rest of the country, between Lithua­nia, Poland and the Baltic Sea. East of Ukraine, stretches of Russian coast on the Sea of Azov, an inlet of the Black Sea, and on the Black Sea itself, intervene before Russia’s borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus Mountains. East of the Caucasus, Russia faces the Caspian Sea, and north of the Caspian its border with Kazakhstan runs up to the Ural Mountains.


Most of the country is flat, with the Ural Mountains rising no higher than 1900m; the plains to their west, never more than 500m high, average 170m. Only in the Caucasus, stretching between the Black and Caspian Seas on European Russia’s southern fringe, are major elevations reached. Here, on the Russian side of the Georgian border, stands Mt Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak at 5642m.

Rivers & Lakes

Hundreds of rivers snake across the plains. The biggest is the 3690km Volga, Europe’s longest river and until the 20th century one of Russia’s major highways. The Volga rises northwest of Moscow, then flows eastward for about half its length before turning south at Kazan and emptying into the Caspian Sea near Astrakhan. Long stretches of the river are now reservoirs for hydroelectric purposes. The Volga also has the biggest drainage basin (1.38 million sq km) of any European river. The next-longest rivers are the 1870km Don, which rises south of Moscow and flows south into the Sea of Azov, and the 1810km Pe­chora, which flows from the Ural Mountains to the Barents Sea.

With all these ‘highests’ and ‘longests’, you might bet on Europe’s biggest lake being in Russia, too. In fact Russia contains the two biggest, both northeast of St Petersburg : Lake Onega (9600 sq km) and Lake Ladoga (18,390 sq km).