How Geography & Climate Impacted Russia's Early History

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Sure, it's cold in Russia. However, cold weather alone could not forge the type of civilization that the Rus developed. This lesson explains how geography and climate were actually on the side of the Russians throughout their early history.

Climate of Russia

When you think of Russia, you probably think of cold. After all, this is the land of winters that have defeated would-be conquerors and people wearing ushanka hats. However, the country does have some climate-based advantages for its natives. Yes, it is cold, but there is a long enough growing season to allow for crops to be grown quite easily in a band of the country reaching from its western border with present-day Ukraine all the way to Central Asia. In fact, this region continues to be a breadbasket for not only much of Russia, but much of Europe. For the first Russians who lived in the region from 700 AD onwards, known first as the Slavs and then as the Kievan Rus starting in 882, this meant that enough food could be grown to be stockpiled for the cold winter, whether as wheat in silos or vodka in bottles. Vodka provided a particularly portable way to sell their excess produce for a substantial profit.

Rivers, Rivers, Everywhere

In fact, the word vodka comes from the Russian word for water, and that is a good place to begin describing the landscape of Western Russia. From the Dneiper to the Volga to the Don, Russia has many rivers. This only helped the early Russians grow more food, due to the ease with which they could irrigate more land. This allowed many Rus settlements to grow to become quite large. In fact, Kiev, the main city of the Kievan Rus, had more people than any city in Western Europe during its height in the eleventh century. Other cities, especially Novgorod, grew to similar sizes.

Slavic region with rivers
Map of Slavs with Rivers

Early Agriculture

These early settlements were based almost entirely on agriculture. For the early Rus, land was plentiful. The Rus practiced slash and burn agriculture, meaning that they would simply chop down the forests that made up much of Eastern Europe whenever the land was no longer productive. After all, the Rus had plenty of land at their disposal. Remember, nutrient loss in the soil was a real problem for early farmers, and one that irrigation alone could not solve. This is in real contrast to other farming-intensive civilizations, such as the Egyptians, who instead relied on flooding to replenish nutrients, as well as the contemporary Western Europeans, who left a field unplanted every three years in order to allow nutrients to return to the ground.

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