Geography of the Soviet Union:
Siberian Rivers (Ob, Enisei and Angara, Lena, Kolyma)

Siberia is crossed by a number of very large rivers; all of which flow north, eventually emptying into the Arctic Ocean. From west to east, they are the:

See how these Russian rivers compare with some of the World's Largest Rivers, based on average annual discharge (km3/yr):
1. Amazon (6,923)
7. Enisei (618)
8. Lena (539)
9. Mississippi (510)
12. Ob (404)

If river size is based on the area of the river's drainage basin:
1. Amazon
5. Ob
6. Mississippi
8. Enisei
9. Lena

So, these are all large rivers, but they flow north into the Arctic, and they were/are icebound too for large parts of the year. Stalin, in his grandiose way of thinking, thought that maybe some of these rivers might be more useful if they flowed south. Thus, they would then be able to irrigate large portions of Central Asia. This idea was expressed as the Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature (Сталинский план преобразования природы, Stalinskii plan preobrazovaniia prirody, Pravda, October 1948), which involved irrigation project, vast canals, dams, hydroelectric plants and drainage projects. One idea floated was to change river direction by a series of nuclear explosions. The plan was never carried out.

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Ob River

The Ob (Обь) is the main river of Western Siberia. It originates far to the south in the Altai Mountains and winds its weigh northward until it empties into the Kara Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean). There is a large hydroelectric dam, built in 1956, at Novosibirsk, which created a huge reservoir on the river. Some of Russia's largest oil and natural gas deposits are found in the river's middle and lower sections.

Ob River, source is
The Ob River in winter.

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Angara River, main tributary of the Enisei

The Angara (Ангара) River is the outlet of Lake Baikal and flows through the major cities of Irkutsk and Bratsk before joining the Enisei River at Strelka. The river is one of the world's greatest sources of hydroelectric power with four major dams on the river at Bratsk, Irkutsk, Ust-Ilimsk and Boguchansk. Soviet authorities decided to build the dam at Bratsk in 1954. By the time the hydroelectric station was completed in the early 1960s, it was the world's largest hydroelectric dam (approximately 4,500 MW).

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Bratsk Dam on the Angara River.

The hydroelectric dam on the Angara at Irkutsk, a little more than thirty miles northwest of Lake Baikal, was the first built on the river. Construction started in 1950 and finished in 1959 on the 660 MW facility. "The dam was designed to be especially robust and stable, capable of w withstanding a water column forty-two meters high; it would raise the level of the Angara up to that of Lake Baikal and then raise the level of the lake itself one and a half meters."

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Irkutsk with the Angara River and dam

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Lena River

Lena River, source is
The Lena River at Mokhsogollokh (July 2005), photo courtesy Alexander Khrabrov (

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Lena Rive Delta

The Lena (Лена) River in Siberia is one of the world's longest rivers. It originates in the Baikal Mountains, west of Lake Baikal, and flows first northeastward and then almost due north to the Laptev Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean). At the mouth of the Lena River is a large delta that is about two hundred and fifty miles wide and traversed by seven major branches of the river. The delta is frozen tundra for about seven months of the year, but from May through September it is a lush wetland; part of which has been designated the Lena Delta Wildlife Reserve.

The Lena river is an important waterway and is navigable almost its entire length; it is a prime tourist location for steamship excursions. The river freezes at different times of the year along its length, generally the Upper Lena begins freezing in the middle of October, and in early November--the Lower Lena. The spring ice break-up is accompanied by ice jams and a sudden rise in water levels often with very destructive flooding. The river level has been known to rise as much as thirty feet in one day as a result of an ice dam.

Tradition has it that Lenin (Vladimir Il'ich Ulianov) took his aka of "Lenin" from the Lena River, but that has never been conclusively proven. Most of the pre-1917 Marxist revolutionaries used all sorts of aliases, some connected with geography, others devised from other animal, plant or other personal sources. Maybe all the other good aliases had been taken, so Lenin opted for "Lenin."

The Lena River was the location of substantial gold mining operations in Imperial Russia and the site of the Lena gold fields massacre of workers by the Russian army in April 1912 (See the book by Michael Melancon, The Lena Goldfields Massacre and the Crisis of the Late Tsarist State). Workers originally struck the mining operations over their poor working conditions, foul food and low wages. The companies involved, which had close ties with influential government, foreign and imperial family officials, refused to negotiate. After all, strikes were technically illegal in imperial Russia. The arrest of the strike leaders provoked a demonstration by the striking miners. Soldiers opened fire and hundreds of workers were killed and wounded (note the resemblance to Bloody Sunday of January 1905). Public outcry over the shootings led to increased opposition to the tsarist government and a growing strike movement on the eve of Word War I. There is still some gold mining along the river.

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Kolyma River

The Kolyma (Колыма) River, a bit over two thousand kilometers long, is located in far northeastern Siberia. It empties into the East Siberian Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. The Kolyma is solidly frozen to a depth of ten feet or so for much of the year; free of ice only from mid-June to mid-October.

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The town of Debin, Kolyma District, Magadan Oblast viewed through the morning mist over the Kolyma River, 8 September 2004; photo by Oxonhutch.

The Kolyma region is also notorious for the Gulag labor camp system established there in the 1930s by Stalin. Millions of imprisoned died in the area in the gold mining, lumber and other forced-labor camps. Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) wrote his book, The Kolyma Tales, to document what went on in the Gulag. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his three-volume work The Gulag Archipelago, also wrote about those who toiled and died in the camps of Kolyma. There is now a monument to those who suffered in the Kolyma camps. The Mask of Sorrow is located on a hill above Magadan, Russia. Ernst Neizvestny, the famed Russian sculptor, designed the statue--he also designed Khrushchev's tomb.

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The Upper Kolyma region from the air; photo A.V. Lozhkin.