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Altai or Altay (both: ăltīˈ, äl–, ălˈtī, Rus. əltīˈ), geologically complex mountain system of central Asia; largely in the Altai Republic, Russia, and in Kazakhstan, but extending into W Mongolia (where it is called the Mongolian, or Gobi, Altai), and into N China. In the northeast the Kuznetsk Alatau and the Salair Ridge adjoin the Altai and enclose the Kuznetsk Basin. The Russian Altai are bounded by the Sayan range in the west, the Mongolian Altai in the south, and the Tannu-Ola range in the east. The highest sections of the Russian Altai are the Katun, the Chuya, and the Sailyugem ranges. The highest peak in the Russian Altai, Belukha (14,783 ft/4,506 m), is in the Katun range. Meltwater from extensive glaciers feeds many rivers; the Ob and the Irtysh rise in the Altai. Lake Teletskoye, with an area of 90 sq mi (233 sq km), is the largest of the Altai's more than 3,000 lakes. Rich deposits of gold, silver, mercury, iron, lead, zinc, and copper are found in the mountains, especially in E Kazakhstan. Located in the center of the great Asian landmass, the Altai have a continental climate with a wide annual temperature range and receive c.40 in. (101.6 cm) of precipitation annually. Bears, martens, musk deer, and mountain goats inhabit the mountains. The first Russians entered the area in the 17th cent. and mined silver. In the late 19th cent., piedmont agriculture replaced mining as the main occupation. After the Soviet takeover in the early 20th cent., the area became both an important farming and mining region. Öskemen and Leningor are principal mining and industrial centers. The Mongolian Altai support little agriculture and are economically undeveloped.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(from the Turkic-Mongolian altan—golden), an Asian mountain region situated in the territory of the USSR, the Mongolian People’s Republic, and China. The Altai extends from the West Siberian Plain (81° E long.) southeastward to the Gobi Plain (106° E long.). The mountain system is more than 2,000 km long. It is made up of strongly dissected ranges which constitute the divides between the Ob’, Irtysh, and Enisei rivers and the rivers of the drainless basin of Central Asia. The highest peaks—including Belukha, 4,506 m—rise in the western portion. The Altai ranges are divided into the Altai proper, or Soviet Altai, the Gobi Altai, and the Mongolian Altai.

The Soviet Altai is situated within the boundaries of the Altai Krai of the RSFSR and the East Kazakhstan Oblast of the Kazakh SSR. It borders on the West Siberian Plain on the north and the Mongolian Altai, the Western Saian, and the mountains of the Lebed’ River basin on the east and northeast.

Geological structure and minerals. The Altai is a block-faulted and folded mountain region made up of thick sequences of folded clastic, carbonate, and volcanic rocks dating from the late Proterozoic and beginning Cambrian through the Carboniferous, inclusive. Paleozoic geosynclinal sandstones and volcanic sedimentaries are the most common rocks. Paleozoic intrusives of various ages and compositions cut these rocks. The Upper Proterozoic meta-morphic sequences, which constitute the basement of the Paleozoic Altai, are represented only in the cores of anticlines-for example, the Katun Ridge—or block-like inliers—including the Terek range. Continental coal-bearing upper Paleozoic and Jurassic beds also cover negligible areas, as do Paleogene-Neogene deposits which occupy isolated grabens and basins among the mountain ranges.

Geological characteristics and history point to a separate Caledonian, or Mountain, Altai, which occupies the northeastern portion of the region, and a region separated from it by deep Hercynian faults—the Southwestern Altai, also known as the Rudnyi (ore) Altai, and Southern Altai. Deep faults within these areas serve as boundaries between structural and lithofacies units. The rocks and geological structures of the Altai “become younger” as one moves from east to west. This is due to the fact that successively younger geosynclines developed from east to west. The oldest folded structures were produced by the lower Cambrian (Salair) orogeny, which terminated in mid-Cambrian time in the eastern portion of the Mountain Altai. Folding occurred between mid-Ordovician times and the end of the Silurian Period further to the west, in the Kholzun-Chuia and Talitsa fold belts. Geosynclinal development and folding in the Southwestern Altai terminated in lower Carboniferous times. This rule of displacement of geosynclinal subsidence undergoes some modification in the Mountain Altai where subsequent Hercynian geosynclines—the Anui-Chuia, Uimen’-Lebed’, Kurai, and Korgon—are superimposed upon Caledonian; this indicates that individual structures underwent prolonged development in a number of stages.

The Altai is rich in mineral resources; iron ore, mercury, gold, and rare metals are found in the Mountain Altai, and precious and nonferrous metals in the Rudnyi Altai. The development of major ore deposits was associated with upper Paleozoic tectonic and magmatic activity. Four groups of thermal springs are associated with the Cenozoic faults of the region: the Abakan Arzhan and Belokurikha springs, approximately 70 km south of the town of Biisk, and the Rakhmanov and Dzhumalin springs.

Terrain. The mountainous terrain, which was formed after the Hercynian orogeny, underwent a leveling accompanied by the formation of a weathering crust during the Mesozoic era. At the end of the Paleocene, a weak, gradually developing arched upheaval resumed and intensified at the end of the Neogene and the beginning of the An-thropogene. Along the old and new lateral and longitudinal faults great block shifts and slides occurred, leading to the formation of the complex topography of modern Altai. Quaternary glaciation and intensive river erosion played a conspicuous role in the modeling of the topography. The highest mountain ridges (over 3,200 - 4,000 m)—the Katun, Southern Chuia, Northern Chuia, and others—are located in the central and eastern part of Soviet Altai and have an almost lateral course. They have an alpine terrain, with heights of great amplitude, steep slopes, craggy summits, and numerous almost inaccessible peaks. In the north and west the ridges become lower, and their direction changes to northwesterly or even meridional; the Altai’s characteristic medium-sized mountain ridges and massifs—1,500–2,500 m high, with weakly separated peaks—which are the remains of ancient surfaces of alignment, and steep cliffs separated by young erosion-formed valleys are located here. Many mountain ridges possess the Altai’s characteristic large tectonic intermountain hollows, which are usually called steppes—for example, the Chuia, Kurai, Uimon, and Kansk steppes; their floors are usually 500 -2,000 m high and formed by friable Cenozoic sedimentation.

Climate. The climate of the Altai is continental and rather severe. High pressure (the Altai anticyclone) dominates conditions here during the cold long winter. The mean January temperature varies from - 15°C in the foothills to -28° or -32°C in the deep valleys of the Central Altai, where a strong inversion is predominant—the minimum in the Chuia “steppe” is -60°C. The summer is short and cool in the uplands; the mean July temperature at an elevation of 1,000 m does not exceed 14–16°C. The Altai is a great moisture condenser; between 800 and 1,200 mm (occasionally up to 2,000 mm) of precipitation fall on the western and northeastern slopes, which are exposed to moist winds. Annual precipitation in the southwestern portion of the mountain system decreases to 200 -300 mm and to 100 mm in the Chuia “Steppe”; summer rains are predominant here, and the winter snow cover is very thin. Valley winds—specifically fohn winds—are a characteristic feature of the Altai climate. More than 1,000 glaciers with an area greater than 800 sq km are found in the Altai. The most significant valley glaciers, 8–10 km long, are those associated with the Katun and Chuia peaks.

Rivers and lakes. The Altai is cut by a dense network of mountain streams with steep gradients and rapidly flowing water. They belong to a distinctive Altai type of regime, fed by waters from melting snows and summer rains and distinguished by prolonged spring and summer floods. The largest rivers, giving the greatest discharge, are the Katun, Bukhtarma, Biia, and Chuia. There are more than 3,500 lakes in the region; most of these are in cirques or morainal depressions. The largest lakes—Teletskoe and Mark-akol’—occupy tectonic depressions.

Types of landscapes. The subalpine steppe, alpine forest, and nival landscapes, found within the boundaries of the Altai, form distinct upland landscape tiers.

The subalpine steppes, in the main, are characteristic of the foothills and lower upland of the marginal areas in the Altai. They develop in relatively high summer temperatures (mean July temperature is 18–22°C) and small annual precipitation (200–450 mm). The mountain steppes rise to elevations of 500–600 m in the north and 1,000–1,500 m in the south. Meadows of grasses and herbs generally develop on the ordinary and leached chernozem soils of the northern and western foothills. Considerable areas in the foothills are also occupied by scrub vegetation—Siberian pea tree, sweetbrier, cinquefoil, and Altai sibirca. The lower slopes in the drier southern Altai are covered by a wormwood and fescue steppe on light chestnut soils, and they pass over into bog grass and scrub only at elevations greater than 600–700 m, where thin ordinary and leached chernozem soils develop. Small rodents—including gophers, voles, hamsters, and badgers—are common in the subalpine steppe. Birds include the steppe eagle, kopchik, and kestrel. The steppe landscape is also characteristic of the deep valleys of the Central Altai, where the surfaces are generally covered with herb grass vegetation. The higher Chuia and Kurai “steppes” (1,400–2,200 m) are quite different and are distinguished by a drier and strongly continental climate. A rather sparse scrub and wormwood vegetation has developed on dark and chestnut soils. These steppes are similar to the dry plains of adjacent Mongolia and are the habitat of Mongolian fauna, including Mongolian gazelles, marmots, and manuls.

Alpine landscapes are typical of the Altai and occupy almost 70 percent of the area. They are characteristic of mountain ranges with low and medium elevations in the Altai and develop in a cool temperate environment with adequate moisture—the annual precipitation is between 500 and 1,500 mm. Subalpine forests dominate the landscape, extending to elevations of 1,700 -2,000 m in the north and reaching elevations of 2,200 -2,450 m in the central and eastern portions of the Altai. A dark conifer moss taiga which develops on light gray podzol soils is dominant in the moist regions; firs are dominant in the western Altai and firs and cedars in the northeast. They are replaced by birch and aspen forests in the most developed areas. Larch forests, which have developed on weakly podzolic soils, frequently growing as parks, dominate in the drier central and southern Altai. Broad mountain meadows (“the great grassland”) are typical of the subalpine forest tier, while montane steppes are developed on the southern slopes and in the river valleys. Taiga animals are especially characteristic of the forests; these include bear, lynx, kolinsky, squirrel, musk deer, and maral. Birds include the woodcock, hazel grouse, nutcracker, woodpecker, and crossbill.

Nival landscapes are characteristic of only the highest ranges in the Altai and develop in severe climatic conditions—low summer temperatures and considerable precipitation in the form of snow. Nival meadow, podzol, and dark meadow soils are dominant at the high elevations in the western, central, and southern portions of the Altai; subalpine willow and birch scrub occupy the lower portions of the tier, and alpine dwarf grass meadows, used as summer pastures, occupy the upper portions. Various types of mountain tundra (scrub, moss, and talus) are more characteristic of the eastern and northern areas. Bare rocks, talus, snowfields, and glaciers dominate the landscape above the meadows and tundra. The characteristic animals of the upper alpine and nival tiers are Altai creepers, mountain goats, snow leopards, and deer. The Altai Preserve is situated near Lake Teletskoe in the northeastern portion of the Altai.

History of investigations. Scientific studies of the Altai by Russian scientists began in the first half of the 18th century, with the discovery of ore deposits and the construction of the first copper foundries in the western Altai. Gold placers were discovered in the Altai Mountains in 1828. Serious geological research was first carried out by P. A. Chikhachev (1842), G. E. Shchurovskii (1844), and engineers of the state mining agency. K. F. Ledebur undertook studies of the rich flora of the Altai in 1826. Important scientific results were obtained by the expeditions led by V. A. Obruchev and the research of V. V. Sapozhnikov, who studied the Altai’s botanical wealth and mountain glaciers for many years.

Research in the Altai was expanded in Soviet times and was carried out by geologists of the Ministry of Geology, scientists at the University of Tomsk—particularly M. V. Tronov, who was chiefly concerned with recent glaciers—and by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, which conducted numerous integrated field studies, for instance, the Altai Upland Study. The state carried out large-scale topographic and geological surveys, as well as surveys of various resources of the Altai, in connection with problems of the development of the mining industry, agriculture, and the harnessing of water power resources.


Petrov, B. F. Pochvy Altaisko-Saianskoi oblasti. Moscow, 1952.
Kambalov, N. Priroda i prirodnye bogatstva Altaiskogo kraia. Barnaul, 1955.
Gebler, I. V. Sovetskii gornyi Altai. Tomsk, 1956.
Agroklimaticheskii spravochnik po Altaiskomu kraiu. Leningrad, 1957.
Nekhoroshev, V. P. Geologiia Altaia. Moscow, 1958.
Nekhoroshev, V. P. Tektonika Altaia. Moscow, 1966. (Trudy VSEGEl, Novaia seriia, vol. 139.)
Kuminova, A. V. Rastitel’nyi pokrov Altaia. Novosibirsk, 1960.
Mikhailov, N. I. Gory luzhnoi Sibiri. Moscow, 1961.
Bolshoi Altai, vols. 1–3. An anthology. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934–36.
Sapozhnikov, V. V. Po Russkomu i Mongol’skomu Altaiu. Moscow, 1949.
Sushkin, P. P. Ptitsy Sovetskogo Altaia i prelezhashchikh chastei Severo-Zapadnoi Mongolii, vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938.
Tronov, M. V. Ocherki oledeneniia Altaia. Moscow, 1949.




(prior to 1948, Oirot), the language spoken by the basic population of Gorno-Altai Autonomous Oblast of the Altai Krai of the RSFSR. The number of speakers of Altai is 40,000 (1959). Altai belongs to the Kirghiz-Kipchak group of the eastern branch of the Turkic languages. It is divided into a northern dialect group (Tuba, Kuman’,and Chelkan) and a southern group (Altaic, Teleut, and Teleng). In the middle of the 19th century, a writing system was developed, based on the Teleut dialect and the Cyrillic alphabet. The development of the national culture of the Altaic people after the October Revolution required a revision of the dialectal basis of the Altai language and of the old writing system. The Altai-Kizhi dialect has been accepted as the basis for the literary Altai language since 1922. The writing system was developed from 1928 to 1938 based on the Latin alphabet; since 1938 it has been based on the Russian alphabet.


Verbitskii, V. I. Slovar’ altaiskogo i aladagskogo narechii tiurkskogo iazyka. Kazan, 1884.
Dyrenkova, N. P. Grammatika oirotskogo iazyka. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Baskakov, N. A., and T. M. Toshchakova. Oirotsko-russkii slovar’. Moscow, 1947.
Baskakov, N. A. Altaiskii iazyk. Moscow, 1958.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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