The Ural Mountains, running north to south and stretching from the Arctic ice to the Central Asian steppe, are one of the world’s oldest mountain chains, the geological consequence of a colossal continental collision that occurred over 300 million years ago. Today the range marks the borderline of these once separate landmasses – Europe and Asia.
Before the arrival of Slavs, the region was populated by Uralic tribes, whose contemporary descendants include the Khanty and Mansi peoples of Western Siberia as well as the Finns and Hungarians of central Europe.
In the 16th century, the rising Muscovite principality won a series of strategic battles against its tribal foes that finally opened the way for eastward expansion. Russian settlement of the Ural Mountains was led by monks, merchants and Cossacks.
Russia gained control over the lands between Moscow and the Ural Mountains through the work of St Stephan, the bishop of Perm, who built a string of monasteries and converted the native tribes. Seeking to exploit the natural wealth of the taiga (northern pine), pioneering merchants followed the clergy. They set up markets next to the monasteries, erecting great churches with their profits from the fur trade. Industrial families such as the Demidovs and Stroganovs began establishing factories in the region.
The discovery of mineral wealth in the Ural Mountains during the reign of Peter the Great led to the first large-scale Russian settlements. Yekaterinburg, founded in 1723 and named for the Empress Catherine I (Yekaterina), wife of Peter the Great, emerged as the region’s economic centre. Rich deposits of coal, iron ore and precious stones gave rise to a mining industry, including science and engineering institutes. By the early 19th century the region’s metals industry supplied nearly all the iron produced in Russia and exported to European markets. The Statue of Liberty in New York and the roof on London’s Houses of Parliament were made from copper and iron from the Ural Mountains.
In 1917 the Russian empire was consumed by the outbreak of revolution and civil war. Red revolutionaries and White loyalists fought back-and-forth battles across the Ural Mountains. Yekaterinburg became the site of one of history’s most notorious political murders when Tsar Nicholas, Tsaritsa Alexandra and their children were shot in the middle of the night and disposed of in an abandoned mine.
The region figured prominently in the Soviet Union’s successful industrialisation drive in the 1930s. Some of the world’s largest steelworks and industrial complexes were built there, including Uralmash in Sverdlovsk (modern-day Yekaterinburg), and in Magnitogorsk in Chelyabinsk.
During WWII more than 700 factories were relocated to the region, beyond the reach of the advancing Nazis. The Ural Mountains became a centre of Soviet weapons manufacturing: Kalashnikov rifles from Izhevsk, T-34 tanks from Nizhny Tagil and the quaintly named 'Katyusha' (Katya) rockets from Chelyabinsk. During the Cold War, secret cities, identified only by number, were constructed in the region to house the military nuclear and biochemical industries.
The Urals after Communism
In the late Soviet period, a Urals-bred construction engineer turned anticommunist crusader was instrumental in toppling the Soviet system. Boris Yeltsin had gained a reputation as the energetic and populist-leaning communist governor of Sverdlovsk when the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev first introduced him to the national political stage, a move that Gorbachev would soon regret.
In his political fights against the old Soviet order and the neocommunists of the post-Soviet transition, the region provided Yeltsin with strong support. Despite the hardships that radical economic reform inflicted on the heavily subsidised industrial sector, the region remained a strong power base for Yeltsin.
As elsewhere in Russia, the postcommunist transition in the Ural Mountains did not go according to the early optimistic plans. The region suffered the severe collapse of its manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Public employees went without wages. Rocket scientists became taxi drivers. Mafia turf wars were waged over the right to ‘protect’ the nascent private business sector.
Today the region has recovered to become an economic powerhouse in Russia, and the main town of Yekaterinburg is the most economically dynamic and politically liberal town in the Urals.