Staunton, March 19 – Russia’s enormous size is the first thing that strikes observers, a leading Moscow geographer says, but he points out that the implications of its size have varied over time and argues that while size matters, there is no reason to believe that its size necessarily precludes freedom or democracy.
In a lecture to the Higher School of Economics last month that was summarized by Slon.ru yesterday, Andrey Treyvish discussed the various meanings of space for Russia, the cyclical variations in its development, and the way in which varying conceptions of space have affected the country’s politics (slon.ru/calendar/event/920575/).
Treyvish made three intriguing points. First, he suggested that Russia, the largest country on earth, is not at all typical of the largest countries with which it can be compared. Second, he argued that the country has gone through a series of “pulses,” expanding and contracting, that have affected its social and political system as much as its overall size.
And third, he said the changing ways in which elites have conceived this space have played a key role in the impact that space has had on the country’s political culture, an observation that suggests the way in which today’s elites view space will play a key role in the way in which Russia as a polity will develop in the future.
With regard to its growth, Treyvish argued, Russia developed in a very different way than did other large countries such as Canada. Moscow built on the experience of Pskov and Novgorod and was thus able to expand far more rapidly than its North American counterpart. Moreover, its core population spread far more evenly over its space than did Canada’s.
Like other large countries, Russia has found that its size has both positive and negative consequences, the geographer suggested, and at the present time, size for it as for the others is a less significant factor of its importance than it was in the past, with population and GDP being more so, according to the World Bank.
Russia’s enormous size gave it access to enormous natural wealth and variety but at the same time, size alone had some negative consequences. It made transportation and communication more difficult and expensive, and such a giant country “often conducts itself in the world like an elephant in a china shop” insisting on its way and continually fearing collapse.
With regard to the pulses that have led to its expansion and contraction, Treyvish says these have been a key feature in Russian history. There are in fact “four historical Russias: Kievan, Muscovite, Petersburg, and Soviet,” each of which began and ended with “a time of troubles” and geographic change.
This historical pattern, the geographer continued, “is not a basis for predicting a similar new cycle in the future,” although he added that he would “not exclude” such a possibility. He noted that “Russia maximum” was “50 times larger and more numerous than the minimal historical Russia” and that the urban center of Russia had been “moving” to the east.
There has been a similar “pulsation,” Treyvish said in the economic relations of the regions and the center and in the movement of people, not only immigration and emigration from the country but within it and seasonally between the cities and the countryside. In short, he says, “the population [of Russia] is more mobile than migration statistics say.”
And with regard to his third point, the way in which geography does not exist so much objectively as in the minds of Russia’s rulers and intellectuals, the Moscow geographer argued that there have been dramatic changes from the 18th to the 19th to the 20th century to now and that these changes, more than those of the space itself, have redefined what is possible.
While sometimes, Russians at the center have viewed the country’s size as an oppressive factor, as something that limits freedom and the possibilities for democracy, Treyvish notes, at other time, reformers have seen its spaces such as Siberia as offering chances to experiment and to open the entire country up to greater freedom.
Thus, as important as the size of Russia is to the future of its social and political system, the geographer concluded views about that size and its implications are even more so because they determine how the Russian people and the Russian state approach that space and invest it with human meaning.