Tag Archives: russia

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from Dec. 2, 2016, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

You have no idea. 

Russia is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the 7-Eleven, but that’s just peanuts to Russia.

The largest nation by landmass on the planet, it covers 11 time zones (recently simplified — perhaps out of modesty — by the Russian government to 9 expanded zones) and 9 percent of the earth’s dry land. What remains of the former Soviet Union actually has more surface area than the former planet of Pluto. It spreads across the globe like Michael Jordan’s hand on a basketball.

The Trans-Siberian railway, from Moscow to Vladivostok, is the  longest single line in world; it would take 152 hours, 27 minutes to traverse — nearly a week — to go from one end to the other — that is, if it ran on time, which it notoriously never does.

Despite the hugeosity of the land — nearly twice the land area of the U.S. — Russia has less than half the population. In fact, it has a population density of less than 22 people per square mile, compared to 86 per square mile in the U.S. It is even less than half the population density of Arizona (57/sq. mi.). Yet, this figure is misleading, because more than three-quarters of Russia’s people live in the European one-quarter of the country. The population density of eastern Russia, aka Siberia, approaches that of the area in Arizona north of the Grand Canyon.

Even though the western quarter of Russia is just a sliver of the whole, even that western quarter occupies 38 percent of the land area of Europe. So, when we are talking big, we are talking big.

Most of the history of Russia, and most of its presence in the consciousness of the rest of the world can be found in that western quarter, the European Russia. Yet, even then, Russia has always had a whiff of the Asiatic about it. One thinks of those onion-dome churches or the long history of “Oriental despots” who have run things. For a large portion of Russian history, the land was ruled by the Mongols, a period known as “under the Mongol yoke,” controlled by that portion of them known as the Golden Horde, or the Tatars. Tatars remain a significant minority in the demographics of the Russian Federation.

But while the Tatars descended from the east to rule — or at least demand tribute from the Rus in Moscow, Kiev and Novgorod — in later centuries, the situation reversed, and Russian Cossacks returned the favor, invading and conquering the Russian East.

It is that huge expanse of sparseness that has fascinated me for many years; just what sort of land was it, what people lived there, what mythologies and religions did they live, how did they survive in the snowy emptiness?

It is this vast expanse of Russia that interests me, because hardly anyone ever thinks about it, except in terms of the Gulag prisons and the exiles of so many Russian artists, intellectuals and political dissidents to the wastelands of Siberia — a term, by the way, as indistinct and poorly defined as “the frozen north,” or “ultima Thule.” For most Americans, Russia is the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, Moscow and Vladimir Putin. If they have a sense of history, they may remember Krushchev, Stalin, the czars, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. The mass of Russian history concerns European Russia — Russia west of the Ural Mountains. East, though — east is a vast land of pagan history and limitless forests and tundra. It is the source of 75 percent of Russia’s wealth, primarily in oil and natural gas, and the home of those few remaining indigenous peoples.

In many ways, Russian history is the mirror image of American history. We moved west, they moved east. We appropriated Native American lands, they did the same to the Yakuts, Nenets, Chukchis, and scores of other tribal groups. They did it through military conquest and the spreading of disease.

Until the 16th century, Russia was confined to the European part of the Eurasian continent, but beginning in 1581, the Cossack leader Yermak  Timofeyevich led an army of 1,600 into what was then the Khanate of Sibir, in southwestern Siberia, and began to lay siege to its cities (although “city” might be too strong a word: Estimates for the primeval population of Siberia put the population of the entire area at something like 300,000). Yermak died during the siege of Qashliq (near the modern city of Tobolsk), but over the next century and a half, the vastness of Siberia was brought under the control of the Moscow czars. Their primary interest in the area was economic, and in that, primarily in furs. Just as in the American West, hunters nearly exterminated the bison, in eastern Russia, the reindeer herds of nomadic indigenous peoples were nearly gone. (Recent policy changes have brought back the herds, just as the bison have been revived in the U.S.)

Those tribal people who survived the genocide — there is no other word for it: At least 12 separate ethnic groups were wiped from the planet by the end of the 19th century — were forced to change their way of life, and learn Russian.

The conquering Russians, like their American counterparts, also used disease, if not consciously, at least to their benefit. According to historian John F. Richards, “New diseases weakened and demoralized the indigenous peoples of Siberia. The worst of these was smallpox because of its swift spread, the high death rates, and the permanent disfigurement of survivors. … In the 1650s, it moved east of the Yenisei, where it carried away up to 80 percent of the Tungus and Yakut populations. In the 1690s, smallpox epidemics reduced Yukagir numbers by an estimated 44 percent. The disease moved rapidly from group to group across Siberia.”

The Russian incursion into Siberia and the Far East (the official name for all of Russia east of the Ural Mountains) remains heaviest along the southern edge of the nation. The cities we think of in Siberia — Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk (I love those names: Saying them out loud is like chewing cabbage) — all hug the bottom of the map. Settlements that venture north tend to follow rivers, some of which are navigable in the summer and function as frozen roadways in the winter. The Trans-Siberian Railway follows that southern route. It has to.

But the north; the frozen, vast, icy, north, spreading to the Arctic Circle and east to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the end of the line at Vladivostok — is 1.5 times the area of the Sahara Desert and the largest sparsely inhabited region in the world. The north half of the Kamchatka peninsula features a population density of only one person per every 6.2 square miles. Talk about swinging a cat and not hitting anything.

When a meteorite (or comet or black hole) crashed into the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908, it hit with the force of 1,000 atom bombs of the size that destroyed Hiroshima, and flattened 770 square miles of taiga yet  somehow missed killing anyone at all.

Film director Werner Herzog fashioned a wonderful film about the area near the Yenisei River north of Krasnoyarsk, and the native Ket people, re-editing footage by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasukov into an atmospheric documentary that captures the vastness, drabness, emptiness and sublimity of the region, all to the soundtrack of his hypnotic voice-over. It is called, only half-ironically, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” I highly recommend it.

World Map 1689Stuart got a job recently. Well, a part-time job — as adjunct faculty teaching a history course. I’m not sure how he got it; he doesn’t have a degree in history. But he said he talked the department head into it by describing his take on world civilizations. He did his Stuart dance for his dinner.

“Well, I said I wanted to teach world history a different way,” he said to me over lunch the other day. “I wanted to look at it through the lens of geography. It explains so much.”

Mostly, he said, he just wanted to try organizing the Big Picture a different way, because looking at something differently opens a subject up for fresh insights. At least, that’s my stuffy way of saying what he was up to.
aegean sea map

“From even prehistoric times,” Stuart explained, “human cultures have organized themselves in two ways — either around a body of water or in the middle of a chunk of land. These two societies tend to approach the rest of the world differently.

“You can see this in the signal conflict of the classical world — the Persian Wars. We may think of Greece as a nation, like France or Argentina, but back then, Greek civilization was a constellation of cities and islands around the Aegean Sea. It was built facing the water, so to speak, and like the ancient Lake People of Switzerland, they looked across the pond and saw trading partners. They built ships and launched out across the water to find their likeness on the far shore.

“Rome was built around the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League was all about trade.

Persia satellite view“But Persia was a continental power, built on land, surrounded primarily by land, where other people may have been trading partners, but they were primarily a threat. All through the Middle East, you have one conquering nation after another invading their neighbors. Their gods told them to. Persia, like the standard model continental power, wanted to expand, to push its borders out farther, absorb the neighbors to nullify the threat.

“These are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the outer world, and those two ways govern so much of what happens in history.”

“And this is what you told the department head?” I asked. “And he bought it?”

“She did,” he said — which explained a bit more about Stuart’s persuasiveness. If you know anything about Stuart, you know he approached the world, not so much by riparian or continental cultures, but through the interaction of men and women.

“And so, now you’re teaching world history to students at a two-year school.”

“It’s great, although class is rather early for me: It starts at 10 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. But I can get up for it; it’s been really fun so far.”

“It’s always fun until the grading starts,” I said.

“I haven’t got there yet,” he said. “But I’ve assigned the first paper.”

I remembered my time teaching, and the surprising papers that were turned in. I used to read the really bad ones at dinner parties for fun; we all had a good laugh. Bad grammar, misunderstood concepts, lazy ideas. Once, in an art history class, I had 16 students and 16 different spellings of “Coliseum,” and not one of them correct — despite the fact there were two acceptable spellings: “Coliseum” and “Colosseum.” I knew Stuart was in for a disappointing surprise when those papers were turned in. Indus river map

“Think of all the early civilizations,” Stuart went on. “Egypt on the Nile, the Indus River civilization, the Chinese living along the Huang Ho and Yangtze. Later, you have Vikings around the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic. China is interesting, because it starts as a riparian civilization, but as it grew, it turned continental. It gives a distinct flavor to Chinese history.”

“And the continental?” I asked.

“Think of the Mongolian Hordes,” he said. “Or early American tribes conquering each other. Persia, the Ottomans, Moguls.

“If you look at pre-colonial Africa, you see some cultures are riparian, like Ghana, and some are continental, like the Berbers. The distinctions have been blurred over by the pie-slicing of the continent by its colonial powers into supposed nation-states mimicking those of Europe. Quite unnatural. But they were there: riparian and continental ways of looking at the world.

thirteen colonies“I thought, this explains a lot about us,” he said. “About America. When we were founded, we were an outpost on the other side of the pond. We looked across the Atlantic and saw our compadres there. Europe and the New World were built around the ocean, whether it was England and the 13 colonies, France and Quebec, or Spain and Latin America. It may be a distortion to consider the interrelation between the Old and New Worlds as trade, considering we didn’t really give the native peoples a choice in the matter, but from the point of view of the colonizers, who really didn’t take the original inhabitants seriously, they saw themselves as Europeans trading with their parent nations.

“And for the 13 colonies, when they were still colonies, they were Englishmen trading with England, later making alliance with France. We began, like China, as a riparian society. There were even laws passed to prevent settlers from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains, to keep it a riparian culture.

“But we expanded anyway and became, over time, a continental power. Expansion was seen as not only good, but necessary, even ordained by God. This change explains the current political landscape.”

“How so,” I said, innocently, while waiting for the and blue

“Think about it. Where are the blue states and where are the red? By and large, the blue states are on the edge of the continent, both on the Atlantic and and on the Pacific, or around the Great Lakes. The red ones are in the center, where they remain continental in outlook, fearful of foreigners and the core of isolationism.”

“I thought the difference was between the agrarian states and the urban states,” I said.

xi jinping 2“Certainly. My outlook isn’t the only factor in this. But it is there, not often mentioned, and is in part also the reason the coastal states built their economies on trade and the interior states on farming and ranching. I’m not making the case that this theory explains everything, or that it is the only thing that made us what we are, but I am saying that it helps explain it, and that you can see the same forces acting out elsewhere in the world. Maoism was continental in China, but the coastal cities of China were built on trade. The new China of Xi Jinping has grown as it has seen its place in the larger world — and as a riparian economy, not a continental one. The burgeoning economy is largely a coastal event. The Chinese poor are largely in the interior.

“And so, blue states look outward to the world, the red states are xenophobic.eurasia

“Look at Russia,” Stuart said. “They are a quintessential continental power, hunkering down in the middle of Eurasia. Invaded by Tatars, Verangians, and Teutonic Knights, they came to fear the outside and built a national identity on creating a fortress mentality, and conquered neighboring lands to make redouts to protect the national core from attack. Peter the GreatPeter the Great attempted to turn Russia into a riparian culture by building his capital on the Baltic, hoping to become part of the European world of trade. But since then, the country has retreated to Moscow and glowered out at the rest of the world. It’s how the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics accrued, and after a brief period of glasnost, why PutinVladimir Putin has resumed the essential Russian inwardness, and his need to expand the borders again to build up those protective buffer nations around the national heartland. Lookout, Ukraine.”

I wondered if Stuart taught any of this chronologically, or was the whole course built around this theory. Were there any parts of history unrelated to his bifurcation of world outlooks.

“Oh, I fit all that other stuff in, too,” he said. “But mainly I wanted to explore this idea for myself. Teaching is the best way to learn.”

I couldn’t argue that.

“And your department head thinks this is OK? To use your class for you to explore your ideas?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I moved in with her last week. We’re good.”