Introduction Russia and Post-Soviet Northern Eurasia

Russia is a country unlike any other. It occupies much of the world’s largest landmass, Eurasia; it stretches across 11 time zones and covers over 17 million km2. Its average climate is the coldest of any country on earth. Its land is extremely varied, with large plains and bogs, forests and deserts, rivers and lakes. Underneath its soil are thousands of tons of precious and semiprecious metals; millions of pounds of iron ore, bauxite, and coal; billions of barrels of oil; and trillions of cubic meters of natural gas. Its peoples are numerous and diverse, speaking over 130 languages. Its main language, Russian, is among the world’s 10 most common and has produced some of the greatest literary works. Russia is also home to world-class fine and performing arts. Its temples and museums display the precious heritage of countless generations, admired the world over. The two main religious traditions of its former empire—Orthodox Christianity and Islam—have had tremendous internal influence and are becoming more widespread in the rest of the world. Russia sent the first human-made object into space, as well as the first human to orbit the earth. In the 20th century it helped defeat fascism, but it also nearly destroyed itself in one of the bloodiest dictatorships ever known. This country remains an enigma to outsiders, and even to some people within its own borders. A full appreciation of Russia requires a firm grasp of geography. This book attempts to deliver a balanced presentation of the physical, historical/political, cultural/social, economic, and regional geography of Russia today. Although Russia is its main focus, the book also discusses other republics that were once part of the Soviet Union, so it should prove useful to a variety of courses on post-Soviet Eurasia.

What to Study: Russia or the Former Soviet Union?

Many teachers of college classes on post-Soviet geography face the question of whether to cover Russia only, or the entire former Soviet Union (FSU). In the United States during the Cold War period, courses on the region covered the U.S.S.R. as a whole. What do we do now, 20 years after the Soviet Union fell apart? Some professors no longer teach courses about the FSU. They may teach one course on Russia and another one on the emerging economies of Central Asia, for example. The Baltic states have joined the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and are now routinely treated as part of greater Europe, to which they rightfully belong. Ukraine is so large and complex that it might merit a textbook and a class of its own.

Nevertheless, although this book focuses mainly on Russia, it looks at all the FSU republics. All these republics were included for 50–70 years in one political entity that had a profound impact on them. Many of the processes that shaped these countries no longer exist, but the geographic patterns persist. There is still enough commonality among the countries in question to merit an overall discussion of what is going on in the FSU (which some believe may now be better referred to as Northern Eurasia). Besides the centrifugal tendencies that have forced these countries apart, there are also centripetal forces that have helped maintain some common identity for all 15 of them. One such force is the presence of numerous Russian speakers throughout the region. Another is heavy dependence on Russia for energy supplies, especially natural gas and electricity. Even the stubbornly independent Ukraine and Georgia are pragmatic enough to understand their reliance on their big neighbor. Economic patterns of production, once disrupted by the chaos of reforms, are likewise not all that different from the old Soviet ones. Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia remain particularly heavily interlinked with each other and are the most industrialized; the trans-Caucasian republics, Moldova, and the Central Asian states are more agricultural and less closely linked with either each other or the industrialized four, but remain somewhat interdependent.

In each discussion of a topic, this book addresses Russia first and in the greatest depth. Additional material on the other republics is included whenever this is necessary or appropriate. Part V of the book provides brief regional summaries about parts of Russia and various FSU republics, and may be used as a quick reference or as a guide for more in-depth reading in advanced classes. But first let’s discuss various terms referring to the region:

  • Rus was the ancient state of the eastern Slavs, centered around what is today Kiev, Ukraine. It existed before Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians had become separate peoples, between ca. 800 and 1250 A.D. Gradually power shifted to the north, toward Moscow, where the Muscovy princedom evolved into a new and powerful state.
  • The Russian Empire was the state centered on Moscow and St. Petersburg as its capitals; it existed from the 17th century until 1917.
  • The Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) existed between 1922 and 1991.
  • The former Soviet Union (FSU) consists of the 15 republics that now make up this region. The adjective to describe these would be “post-Soviet.”
  • The newly independent states (NIS) refers to the same area. NIS is rarely used now (they are no longer “newly” independent).
  • The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is a loose alliance of 11 republics (12 until Georgia quit in 2008), excluding the Baltic states.
  • Russia and the Near Abroad is an ambiguous term commonly used in Russia to describe Russia along with the other 14 republics (it is equivalent to the FSU), although geographically Finland or Mongolia could be added because they border Russia. Moreover, some FSU republics do not border Russia at all, so this term is best avoided.
  • Northern Eurasia is a good physical definition of the region; it is now frequently used by biogeographers, ecologists, and other geoscientists. It is politically neutral and clearly describes the position of the region on the world’s map. There is a problem with it, however: Few people who are not geography majors have any idea what or where it is.
  • The Russian Realm may not be a bad title for a documentary, but it is too Russia centered to be of much use. On the one hand, the Russian sphere of influence in the world today extends into Israel or the United Kingdom, for example, but this does not make those countries part of the region in question. On the other hand, some countries in the region—for example, Armenia and Turkmenistan—have very few Russians left and have little to do with Russia proper.
  • Siberia is a region within Russia, extending east of the Ural Mountains to the Lena River watershed. It is not a separate country. Everything west of the Urals is European Russia, while everything east of the Lena is the Russian Far East (or Russian Pacific).

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