To the forest-dwelling, inland-looking Eastern Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarus), the steppes of Central Russia and Eurasia historically were much like the oceans and seas to maritime civilizations. In song and verse, these vast grasslands were the dikiye polya (wild fields) inhabited by the equivalent of untamed, bloodthirsty pirates. Between 700 b.c.e. and 1600 .e., the steppes were the realm of marauding horse-riding nomads, scions of the Völkerwanderungen (peoples' migrations), such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Pechenegs, Polovtsy, Mongol-Tatars, and multi-cultural free-booting Cossacks. Indeed, until the invention of the steel-tipped, moldboard plow in the nineteenth century, Eastern Slavic farmers were unable to cultivate the rich black-earths (chernozems) of the steppes, and they confined their settlements mainly to the forest zones.
Steppe climates are sub-humid, semiarid continental types. Summer lasts from four to six months. Average July temperatures range from 70 to 73.5 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 23 degrees Celsius). Winter, by Russian standards, is mild, with January averaging between -4 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit (-13 and 0 degrees Celsius). It generally persists for three to five months. There is a distinctive lack of soil moisture. Average annual precipitation is 18 inches (46 centimeters) in the north and 10 inches (26 centimeters) in the south. Most of it derives from summer thunderstorms. The depth of snow cover in winter ranges from 4 inches (10 centimeters) in the south to 20 inches (50 centimeters) in the north.
Steppe ecology exhibits subtle diversity. Herbaceous vegetation abounds. The only natural forests follow the river valleys and ravines, but shelter-belts, planted since the 1930s, parallel the roads and farms to trap snow in winter. Salinized soils (solonets ) occasionally interrupt the predominant chernozems and chestnut soils. Small mammals typify the steppe, including marmots, hamsters, social meadow mice, jerboas, and others.
This zone and the wooded-steppe to the north yield Russia's best farmland. Between 1928 and 1940, most of the steppe was converted to state and collective farms. In the 1950s, long-term fallow lands (perelog and zalezh ) were plowed in Russia's Altay Foreland and in northern Kazakhstan (the "Virgin Lands"); thus most of the natural steppe is gone. Common crops are wheat, barley, sunflowers, and maize.
See also: climate; geography
Gregory, James S. (1968). Russian Land, Soviet People. New York: Pegasus.
Jackson, W. A. Douglas. (1956). "The Virgin and Idle Lands of Western Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan." The Geographical Review 46:1–19.
Shaw, Denis J. B. (1999). Russia in the Modern World: A New Geography. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Victor L. Mote