Russia, the most extensive and one of the most powerful empires of either ancient or modern times, occupies almost the entire northern portion of the eastern hemisphere, embracing, in its immense area, more than half of Europe, and one third of Asia. It is bounded on the north by the Arctic or Frozen ocean; on the west by Sweden, the Baltic, Prussia, and the Austrian dominions ; on the south by Turkey, the Black sea, Persia, Tartary, and the extensive Chinese territories ; and on the east by the North Pacific ocean. In its largest extent, the Russian empire stretches from the western limit of Russian Poland, at the eighteenth degree of east longitude from Greenwich, to the eastern promontory of the Tchuktchi territory, at the one hundred and ninetieth degree east from the same meridian, thus including one hundred and seventy-two degrees of longitude; while from its most northern promontory, at the seventy-eighth degree of north latitude, to the most southern point, at the thirty-ninth degree north, it comprehends thirty-nine degrees of latitude. Tooke, in his history of Russia, computes its extent to be nine thousand two hundred miles in length, and two thousand four hundred in breadth; while its superficial area included within the above boundaries has been variously estimated from six to eight millions of square miles. This (and it includes only the contiguous dominions of Russia) is three or four times the extent of the Roman empire in the height of its grandeur, and in the period of its greatest territorial amplitude. Exclusive of the above domain, Russia is mistress of Nova Zembla and most of the other islands in the Arctic ocean, of the Aleutian archipelago, off Kamtschatka, of Aland and other islands in the Baltic, and also of a very large tract in the northwest part of the continent of North America,* to the latter of which her claim is founded on the right of discovery in the sixteenth century.
A better idea may perhaps be formed of the vast dimensions of the Russian empire, by taking into view the fact that it is equal to two Europes, or the whole of North America; that it includes within its boundaries about one seventh of the terrestrial part of the globe, and about one twenty-seventh part of its entire surface. But by far the greatest proportion of this prodigious superficies is almost uninhabited, and seems to be destined to perpetual sterility; a consequence partly of the extreme rigor of the climate in the provinces contiguous to the Arctic ocean, and partly of almost all the great rivers by which they are traversed having their embouchure in that ocean, and being, therefore, inaccessible for either the whole or the greater part of the year.
Russia is, in general, level, and comprises some of the most extensive plains in the world. The empire, however, is naturally parcelled into the two great divisions of European and Asiatic Russia, by the Ural mountains, which stretch in a north-northeast direction from the Caspian sea to the Arctic ocean; forming, through the greater part of their course, the boundary between Europe and Asia. Compared with the Himalaya chains, tick Urals are very low in their general elevation, though some of them reach the limit of perpetual snow, a circumstance which is not remarkable in their high latitude. Where the road from Moscow to Siberia crosses these mountains, the chain is about forty miles broad, but the ascent and descent of the road are so nearly imperceptible, that were it not for the precipitous banks everywhere to be seen, the traveller would hardly suppose he was crossing a range of hills. The average elevation of this part of the range seems not to exceed thirteen hundred and fifty feet, though some rocky masses rise perhaps a thousand feet higher; and the base upon which the chain rests is itself nine hundred feet above the level of the sea. Beyond fifty-eight degrees, the chain presents several summits which attain between two and three thousand feet; but the highest part of the range is situated to the north of fifty-nine degrees, and the highest of all, the Dan-eshken-kamen, lies to the north of sixty degrees. The summits of this northern part of the range have been ascertained to rise to between eight and nine thousand feet above the level of the sea; but the principal summits are detached mountains, to the eastward of the main range. Lateral branches also extend eastward to a considerable distance into the plain. The principal chain bears successively from north to south the names of Poyas, the Verkhuturian Urals, the Urals of Ekaterinburg, and the Bash-kirian Urals. Several low branches diverge into the governments of Archangel and Vologda; but the principal subordinate or diverging chains are connected with the Bashkirian Urals. The mountains of Obtsheisyrt, which diverge from the western slope of the principal chain, are really nothing more than a long table-land of undulating hillocks, extending into the government of Orenburg; forming, however, the northern limit of the depression which surrounds and contains the Caspian sea. The chain of Moii-ghojar extends into the country of the Kirghiz, and seems to be connected with the plateau called the Ust-Urt, between the Caspian sea and Lake Aral. Subordinate to this last-named chain, or part of the same group, are the Great Burzouk, a chain of low hills, which extends in a series of rocky cliffs along the northern shore of the Aral, spreading out toward the west, and turning into the isthmus; and the Little Burzouk, which are situated a little farther to the southeast, and terminate with a promontory at the northeastern corner of the Aral. The mountains of Nova Zembla may also be considered as an orographic connection or prolongation of the Urals. The principal summit is Glassowsky, about twenty-five hundred feet above the level of the sea. This range is very productive, both of the useful and precious metals, and precious stones.
In all the vast country, extending on the west side of this central chain to the confines of Poland and Moldavia, there is hardly a single hill. The Valdai hills, or elevated grounds, between Novgorod and Tver, where the Volga, the Don, and the Dnieper, have their sources, are nowhere more than about twelve hundred feet above the level of the sea, the country exhibiting a waving surface, and without any considerable elevations. There is nothing, in fact, save the forests, to break or interrupt the course of the wind, in all the immense space interposed between the Ural and the Carpathian mountains.
Another great mountain-range in Western Bussia, is that of the Caucasus, between the Euxine or Black and Caspian seas, almost at the southern extremity of the empire. The western part of the main central ridge slopes toward the Euxine; the eastern sinks into the Caspian in its southeastern peninsula. From this central chain numerous branches are thrown off. One of them, to the north, proceeds through the government of Caucasus into Astrakhan, and onward to the banks of the Volga, while the branches to the south traverse the greater part of the government of Georgia, and in the south of that government link on with the mountains of Ararat. The highest point in the range is Mount Elburz, which stands near the middle of the central chain, and has an altitude of about eighteen thousand feet. The next highest is Mount Kasbek, which is nearly sixteen thousand feet high, across which is the celebrated Eng Pass, which gives Russia her only carriage communication with her Trans-Caucasian domains. The north side ofthe range is much more abrupt than the south. Great part of the mountains still remains to be geologically examined, but an admirable section is furnished by the Eng Pass, and has been fully described, particularly by Wagner, who not only travelled over it, but resided several months among the mountains of Kasbek, and ascended them to the limit of perpetual snow, According to him, stratified rocks appear at the bottom* of the mountains, and rise to a considerable height on their sides. These rocks consist chiefly of thick beds of limestone, conglomerate, and clay slate. Higher up are seen immense crystalline masses composed of granite, sienite, serpentine, and gabronite. These masses, though higher in position, are evidently lower in the geological series than the stratified rocks, which in many places have been upheaved by them, and in consequence have a considerable dip. Highest of all is trachytic porphyry, which forms the great body of all the principal summits of the central range. That this trachyte isthe most recent of all the rocks is proved by the fact, that in many places it is seen piercing them, and throwing them into the wildest confusion.
Judging from the composition and general appearance of these great trachytic masses, Baron Humboldt and other celebrated geologists are of opinion that the Caucasus, and all the loftiest summits of the great mountain-ranges of both hemispheres, were upheaved contemporaneously, and within a comparatively recent period. The limit of perpetual snow in the Caucasus is eleven thousand feet, and hence, as some of the mountains rise from five thousand to nearly seven thousand feet above this, there is an extensive range for glaciers. It would seem, however, that the supply of moisture which the atmosphere affords, is far less than might have been anticipated. Scarcely a single lake of any extent is to be found in the Caucasus, and the scenery thus remains destitute of that which constitutes one of the most magnificent features in the Alps of Switzerland. Numerous cascades tumble down from the northern steeps of the Caucasus, but none of them are remarkable for either volume or height, and the only rivers of any consequence which are fed by them are the Terek, Kouban, and Kour.
The minerals of the Caucasus, so far as may be judged from the very imperfect examination of them which has been made, are not of great value. The only mineral which has yet been ascertained to exist in such quantities as to make it capable of being worked to profit is lead. Vegetation is very vigorous. Magnificent forest-trees clothe the higher mountain-slopes almost to an incredible height; lower down, all the finer fruit-trees of the climate are found growing in wild luxuriance; while lower still, where human labor can be made available, almost any degree of culture, however imperfect, is rewarded with an abundant crop. The ordinary cereals grow seven thousand feet above the sea level, while valuable shrubs, plants, and flowers, in almost endless variety, deck the valleys and lower plains. Animal is no less vigorous than vegetable life, and the forests abound with almost every species of game—among quadrupeds, wolves, boars, jackals, deer, goats, and hares—among birds, pheasants and partridges. A large species of wild cattle, called aurochs, roam at large, and the hares of the Caucasus have been famed from the remotest antiquity.
Siberia, or Asiatic Russia, consists principally of a vast plain, slightly inclining to the north. This plain seems to be almost entirely steppes and marshes, intersected by large, sluggish rivers, which roll down an immense mass of water to the Arctic ocean. The steppes differ somewhat from each other in nature and aspect. In some places they are like the American prairies, covered with abundance of tall, coarse grass; in others the soil is saline, the salt appearing in the form of an efflorescence mixed with the earth, or in ponds and lakes of salt water, but in general they consist of very loose soil, and contain many lakes, because the waters, finding no declivity, remain stagnant. In some places, particularly in the north and east, the plain is a bog, as level as the sea, covered with moss, which would be totally impassable, were it not that the ice, which never thaws deeper than a few inches, gives a firm underfooting. There are, however, in the south and west, many pasture and arable districts, where considerable quantities of oats, barley, and buckwheat, are raised, and also large forests.
Toward the south and east, Siberia is in parts mountainous, being separated from the Chinese empire by the Altai range, extending from the eastern banks of the Irtish, a tributary of the Obi, eighty degrees east longitude, to the shores of the Pacific, at the southern extremity of the sea of Okhotsk, opposite the island of Tarakai, one hundred and forty-two degrees east longitude. Its length, therefore, is little short of twenty-five hundred miles. The several chains which compose this mountain-system are chiefly found between forty-eight and fifty-two degrees north latitude, but some detached ridges advance to forty-five and fifty-seven degrees north. The breadth of the whole system is probably nowhere less than three hundred and fifty miles, and at some places it widens to seven hundred miles and upward. It is, however, not possible to determine it with any degree of exactness, since only the northern declivities of the range have been visited by travellers, the southern declivities lying within, the territories of the Chinese empire being inaccessible to Europeans.
The most westerly portion of the system, between the river Irtish and the river Tshulyshman, the upper branch of the Obi, is properly called the Altai mountains, which name has been afterward used to indicate the whole system. This portion also bears the name of the Ore Altai, because it contains numerous veins of the precious metals. It consists of several ridges, which mostly run west-northwest and east-southeast. These ridges advance their western extremities "close to the banks of the Irtish, where they are five or six hundred feet high; but 'ht a distance of about fifteen miles from the river, they attain from three to five thousand feet, which elevation may be considered as the mean height of the greatest part of the ranges: only where they approach the lake Teletzkoi and the river Tshulyshman, they rise still higher, and this part of the range is always covered - with snow.
Between the Tshulyshman and the great lake of Baikal, the mountains appear to form two great chains, running east and west. Both chains unite at about one hundred degrees east longitude, a considerable distance west of the lake Baikal, at the sources of the Selenga, the most considerable river which empties itself into the lake. The united chain is here called Ooorbi Uhden Dzong, which name it preserves to one hundred and eight degrees east longitude, running in general east. On the east side of the meridian of one hundred and eight degrees east longitude, and the river Selenga, the direction of the mountain-chains composing the Altai system is changed ; they run northeast, and form a very extensive mountain region east of the lake Baikal. This region is called the Baikalian or Daurian mountains ; but the highest chain belonging to it, and lying within the Chinese empire, bears the name of the Great Khing-Khan. The most easterly portion of the Altai mountains, between one hundred and twenty-two and one hundred and forty-two degrees east longitude, lies again nearly due west and east; but here it advances to fifty-six degrees north latitude, and is called by the Russians Yablonoi Kherbet, and by the Chinese Khing-Khan Tugurik.
The Aldan mountains may be considered as a continuation of this latter chain. They separate from it at the sources of the river Aldan, a tributary of the Lena, enclose the valley in which it runs on either side, and continue on the east side along the shores of the sea of Okhotsk up to the bay of Pershina, the most northerly corner of that sea. From this bay one branch runs northeast, and terminates at Behring's strait, with the East cape and the cape of Tchukotshoi-Noss. Another branch turns abruptly south, and traverses the peninsula of Kamtschatka, terminating at Cape Lopatka. The highest summit of the Aldan mountains, adjacent to the road connecting Yakutsk with Okhotsk, was found by Erman to be a little more than four thousand feet above the level of the sea. But the chain traversing the peninsula of Kamtschatka contains several volcanoes, some of which rise to a great elevation. Erman measured three of them. The highest peak of the volcano of Shivelutsk (fifty-six degrees forty minutes north latitude) rises to nearly ten thousand six hundred feet; the volcano of Kliutshuvsk (fifty-six degrees four minutes north latitude), about fifteen thousand eight hundred feet; and that of Tolbatshinsk, a little upward of eight thousand three hundred feet above the sea. If the Aldan mountains and the range traversing Kamtschatka be considered as a continuation of the Altai chain, more than fifteen hundred miles must be added to its length..
The physiognomy of the Altai mountains in their western and southern divisions is generally grand and interesting. The rivers, which are very numerous, flow rapidly with full streams; and the various forms of the stratified and metamorphosed rocks of the limestones, porphyry, and granite, with the Bielki (white or snowy mountains) in the distance, lend to the scene the charm of perpetual novelty. The banks of the Katunya, in the heart of the mountains, present a landscape of the most- impressive character; an immense wall of rock, extending from west to east, supports fields of perpetual snow and glaciers, from the midst of which rise numerous rocky points, pyramids, and truncated cones ; while in the distance are seen the two towering peaks named the Pillars of the Katunya. These peaks, which are supposed to be the highest summits of the Altai mountains, stand on a wide and elevated table-land, lying between the sources of the Katunya, the Bielaya (falling into the Chuya), and the Berell, which joins the Bukhtarma. Glaciers, spreading from the bases of the Bielukha, or snowy cones, supply the fountains of these three rivers. The absolute height of the Pillars has been estimated, by Dr. Gebler, at eleven thousand, seven hundred and twenty-three feet, or, by Tchihatcheff, at twelve thousand, seven hundred and ninety feet. To the east of these pillars, the peaks of Chenune-ouzoune and Arhhite increase in number, and present forms still more deeply serrated. " In the course of all my long wanderings," observes Tchihatcheff, " I do not remember ever to have admired a scene more grand or more magnificent." The accompanying view of these mountains (presented on the following page) is taken from the northern summit of the plateau of Saljar, a branch of the chain of the same name.
In the eastern part of the Altai, where the clay slate predominates, the aspect of the country is more monotonous ; the mountains lose all variety of form, and assume the character of long ridges. „ It is on these mountains of slaty'structure that the most disagreeable characteristic of the Altai is chiefly developed, namely, the great extent of deep bog and morass, through which a horse crossing the hills must wade belly-deep even in the middle of summer, and not without the danger of breaking his legs, if he gets entangled in the boughs of the trees which lie buried beneath.
The vegetation of the Altai is varied and abundant, and often vigorous. The local flora, to which ample justice has been done by the labors of Drs. Ledebour and Bunge, assumes the Asiatic character; the European type prevailing from the Ural mountains to the banks of the Irtish. The mountain-forests are composed of birch, alder, aspen, acacia, willow, larch, fir, and the Siberian stone-pine (Pinus cemhra). This last tree flourishes at an absolute height of nearly seven thousand feet; and at an elevation of six thousand feet, where the snow rarely disappears before the end of May, it attains a great size, often measuring fourteen feet in circumference. The highest limit of the birch is about four thousand eight hundred feet; the dwarf-willows, and other underwood, cease totally about one thousand feet higher.
The Altai mountains, and the adjoining ranges to the eastward, are the native home of the wild sheep (Ovis argali), which occupies the crags and most inaccessible rocky heights, leaving the hillsides and elevated valleys to several kinds of deer (Cervus elaphus, C. alces, C. pygargus, &c). A marmot, peculiar to these regions, abounds in the vicinity of the snow." These animals are preyed on by the glutton and the bear. The royal tiger prowls through the steppes on the south, and haunts particularly the reedy shores of Lake Balkhash; it is not unlikely, therefore, that his predatory incursions sometimes extend into the Altai.
The most distinguishing feature in the appearance of Russia is her vast forests. Schnitzler, who estimates the surface of European Russia at about four hundred millions of deciatines,* supposes that one hundred and fiftysix millions are occupied by forests. They are so very prevalent in the governments of Novgorod and Tver, between Petersburg and Moscow, that it has been said a squirrel might travel from the one city to the other without ever touching the ground. The forest of Volkonski, at the source of the Yolga, is the most extensive of any in Europe. In the government of Perm, on both sides of the Ural mountains, containing eighteen millions of deciatines, no f§wer than seventeen millions are covered by forests! The forests of Asiatic Russia are also of vast size. In extensive districts, however, the surface is quite free from wood. This is particularly the case in the vast steppes or plains in the governments of Astrakhan and Tobolsk, which in many parts, indeed, are a mere sandy desert.
The northern coast of Russia is indented with immense gulfs and bays; and its vast inland seas and lakes penetrate the land, forming many remarkable localities; and the straits connecting them with each other, and With the ocean, form so many grand military defences against the approach of an enemy, and also limitations to external commerce. The White sea is a large gulf in the Arctic ocean, about two hundred miles in length, but varying in breadth, the narrowest part being only forty-five miles across. It is mostly covered with ice during four or five months of the year. In its northwestern portion it is named the gulf of Kandalask; and on its southwestern side are the bays of Onega and Archangel. The Tcheskaia gulf is another inlet in the Arctic ocean, separated from the White sea b} the Shemo-Rhonskian peninsula. The strait of Waigatz, still farther east, is formed by the mainland and the island of Waigatz. The gulfs of Pin-land, Bothnia, and Riga, are large inlets of the Baltic sea, and form together nearly the whole western maritime border of Russia.
The Baltic is enclosed by the shores of Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, and Mecklenberg, and communicates with the Kattegat by three passages—the Sound, the Great Belt, and the Little Belt. Its greatest length from north-northeast to south-southwest is nearly nine hundred miles. Its breadth is very irregular, and varies from forty to two hundred miles. Its area, including the three gulfs of Bothnia, Finland, and Riga, has been estimated at one hundred and sixty thousand square miles ; and its basin, which receives the drainage of more than a fifth of the surface of Europe, is at least nine hundred thousand square miles. The shores of the Baltic, proceeding from the Little Belt in the west, and along the south and east as far as Dome's point, at the entrance to the gulf of Riga, are flat and sandy; .and even toward the north, where the coast assumes a rocky character, the beach seldom attains a height of fifty feet. The sea itself seems to partake of the character of its shore. It shelves very gradually, presenting scarcely any harbors which vessels of above three hundred tons can enter. Its depth .nowhere exceeds one hundred and sixty-seven fathoms ; and, in general, is not more than forty or fifty. Owing to the general flatness of the coast, the Baltic is much more exposed than inland seas usually are to distant influences. The warm moisture accumulated over the Atlantic, and wafted along by the prevailing west wind, meets with no interruption till it arrives at the Baltic, when it encounters the keen blasts of the Ural mountains, and of the steppes extending to the north of the Caspian sea, and is precipitated in heavy falls of rain or snow, which materially affect the composition of the water of the Baltic, and reduce the quantity of salt contained in it to little more than a half of that contained in the water of the North sea.
This comparative freshness of the water of the Baltic, and shallowness of its bed, disposes it to freeze easily; and hence, though it rarely happens that extensive portions of it are entirely frozen over, its shores usually begin to be covered with ice before the end of December, and the navigation of its harbors thereafter continues interrupted till the beginning of April. The shallowness of the water along the shores of the Baltic is obvious, owing in a great degree to the immense quantities of mud and sand deposited by rivers and torrents, the number of which has been estimated at two hundred and fifty; but it was early suspected that other causes were in operation, and the Swedish naturalist Celsius, followed by the more celebrated Linnaeus, maintained that the water in the Baltic was gradually subsiding, at the rate of about three feet in a century. A more philosophical opinion, now more generally adopted, is, that the bed and the surrounding shores are gradually rising. Scientific measures have beenadopted, for the purpose of determining the point; but, until the result is known, it is still a question whether the amount of alluvial depos-ite is not of itself sufficient to account for the phenomenon.
The Baltic has no proper tides. Its surface is of too limited extent to feel the solar and lunar influences directly; and the passages which connect it with the ocean are too narrow to communicate the changes of level which the tides produce on the ocean surface. There is, however, a slight irregular change of level in the Baltic, of which no very satisfactory account has yet been given.
The gulf of Bothnia forms the northern portion of the Baltic, between Sweden and Finland. It has fewer shoals than any other portion of the Baltic, and its harbors are better. The gulf of Finland forms the eastern arm of the Baltic, having Finland on the north, and the governments of Esthonia, or Revel, and St. Petersburg, on the south. The length of the gulf, from east to west, is about two hundred and fifty miles.; breadth at the entrance, or narrowest part, forty miles; toward the head, where it is widest, about eighty miles. It receives but few rivers, and none of them, with the exception of the Neva, of any great size. The latter enters the head of the gulf, communicating with Lake Ladoga. The other riv.ers that maybe mentioned are the Luga and Narva, which. disembogue within a short distance of each other, near the head of the gulf, on the south side. It contains numerous islands, of which Kronstadt is the largest. There are various towns of considerable importance along its shores, St. Petersburg occupying its eastern extremity.
The Euxine or Black sea lies on the southern border of Russia, enclosed by the shores of Russia and Turkey. Its greatest length, from east to west, is about seven hundred miles ; breadth, about three hundred miles; extent of coast, upward of two thousand miles: its area is variously estimated at one hundred and sixty and one hundred and eighty thousand square miles. It receives some of the largest rivers in Europe, and drains a surface of nine hundred and fifty thousand square miles; its waters are, in consequence, only brackish. Its depth in general is great, no bottom having been found in some parts with a line of one hundred and forty fathoms, although, in a few places, as the strait of Enikaleh, it does not exceed ten, twenty, or thirty feet; while off the mouth of the Danube the water deepens so gradually from the shore, that the distance from the latter may. be ascertained within half a mile by soundings alone.
Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855