What Are the Russian Steppes?

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The steppe regions make up the heart of Russia.
The steppe regions make up the heart of Russia. (Image: Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images)

The Russian Steppes cover a vast swath of land in the heartland of the Eurasian continent stretching from the western half of the North Caucasian Plain, eastward to the southern Volga valley, south to the Urals, and west to parts of Siberia. The region's central location reflects the central role its development has played in the history of Russia.

Environment

The Russian Steppes are a vast plain, sometimes rolling, sometimes very flat. The vast stretches of plain are broken naturally only by rivers like the Don, Volga and Ural and their tributaries. Steppe climate is semiarid, experiencing short, hot summers and long, cold winters. Minimal rainfall--the area receives less than 400 mm of precipitation per year--combined with routine hot, dry easterly winds from Asia render the region susceptible to periodic droughts.

Plants and Animals

In its natural state, the Russian Steppes' plant life consisted mostly of grasses, mostly feathergrass, herbs, wild flowers and shrubs with scattered tree groves. Surviving native animal life is equally sparse. Rodents, including marmots, hamsters, polecats and other weasels, mole rats, and five species of suslik, a type of ground squirrel, are today the most common species. Before human activity, the steppes were full of larger mammals such as bison, antelope and the Tartar fox, but these are now highly endangered.

Settlement

For centuries, the primary inhabitants of the Russian Steppes were Turk and Mongol nomadic pastoralists. As herders, they burned down trees to encourage the spread of grasses to give their flocks more room to graze, in the process pushing Slavic farmers deeper into the forests of the north and west. Once Ivan IV conquered the region for Russia in the mid-16th century, Slavs, most notably the Cossacks, took control of the region but did not farm it until the 18th century.

Farming

Once agricultural use of the steppes began in the mid-18th century, the region's population exploded from less than 400,000 to almost 15 million by the end of the 19th century. They plowed pasture into rich, arable land for growing cereals. Farmers' removal of already scarce trees led to soil erosion, climate change and devastating dust storms. As years went on, various proposals for strategic tree planting and irrigation techniques were proposed for exploiting the soil for growing grain. Today, the biggest concern is how to restore the heavily depleted soil to its former rich, fertile state.

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