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republic in southwestern Russia, lying northwest of the Caspian Sea and west of the lower Volga River. On the east it reaches the Caspian shore, and in the northeast it touches the Volga. Most of the republic lies in the vast lowland of the northern Caspian Depression, the greater part lying below sea level. The Yergeni hills and the Salsk-Manych ridge rise to a maximum of 725 feet (221 m) along the republic's western boundary. A long panhandle of the republic extends westward through the Manych Depression, containing large salt lakes by way of which the Caspian was formerly linked to the Black Sea. East of the Yergeni, the republic stretches to the Caspian as a level plain, broken only by small hollows and by ancient burial mounds. The Yergeni has steppe-grass vegetation and groves of deciduous trees (willow, elm, and poplar) in the valleys; elsewhere the republic is semidesert. The climate is characterized by hot summers and low rainfall, which often comes in torrential downpours causing flash floods in the valleys.