Musing on Geography

Glancing through the statistics for Guns, Germs, and Blogs, I noticed something strange. We got a visitor from St. Petersburg, Russia (здравствуйте!) recently, and this locational information was included in the logs:

Continent : Asia
Country : Russian Federation
State/Region : Saint Petersburg City
City : Saint Petersburg
Lat/Long : 59.8944, 30.2642

What struck me was the entry on the “continent” line: Asia.

Russia’s relationship to Europe — and its place in Asia — has long been a matter of some debate within Russian society. Portraits of Ivan IV (“The Terrible”), for instance, depict him dressed as an “oriental” despot. Peter I (“The Great”), by contrast, was known as a great “Westernizer,” famously going as far as forcing his subjects to cut off their beards in order to appear more “European.” The contrast between him and Ivan IV could not be more stark. Catherine II (“The Great”), of course, was a German princess, and a friend of Voltaire and a great admirer of Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Perhaps the apogee of Russia’s engagement with the West came after the armies of Alexander I (who might be mistaken for one of Napoleon’s generals) defeated Napoleon and helped to form the so-called Concert of Europe. Russia, largely due to the persistence of serfdom, remained a profoundly conservative power. Ever since Peter I, there had been a tension between the “liberal” and “Westernizing” forces in Russian society and the absolutist monarchy. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 laid this tension bare, when Russian officers who had absorbed certain “liberal” ideas during their occupation of France, refused to swear loyalty to the new Tsar, Nicholas I.

Later in the 19th century, Russia began to look east. The growth of the Slavophile and narodnik movements signaled a certain disengagement from the West and a growing emphasis on the civilizational uniqueness of Russian culture. A certain sense of “Asian-ness” — or at least “non-European-ness” — began to creep back into the Russian consciousness, or at least that of the intelligentsia. The monarchy, of course, remained closely tied to the rest of Europe, even in blood, as these pictures of Nicholas II, the last Tsar, and George V of Great Britain show amply. They were cousins, as was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, with whom Nicholas shared the infamous “Willy-Nicky” letters during the Great War.

The October Revolution of 1917 largely cut off Russia from the rest of Europe until the Second World War. Not only was the Soviet Union an international pariah, but the Bolshevik government wanted little to do with the “imperialist” powers in the West. After re-integrating most of the former Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, the Soviet government embarked on an ambitious and ultimately successful program of industrialization. This was accompanied by agricultural collectivization and mass state terror, which more or less distracted the Soviet Union from large-scale engagement with the rest of Europe. The later 1930’s, however, did see intervention in the Spanish Civil War and, more disastrously, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

In some sense, the Soviet Union during this period was trying to position itself as a “third choice” apart from the “capitalist imperialism” of the West and the “backwardness” of Asia.

After 1941, however, the Soviet Union had little choice but to re-engage with the rest of the world. By the end of the Second World War (the Great Patriotic War as Russians call it, and for good reason), the Soviet Union had established numerous buffer states in Eastern Europe. With the onset of the Cold War, the USSR became one of the two superpowers, and the history of the second half of the 20th century (and, arguably, the beginning of the 21st) was shaped by the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1992 however, Russia was suddenly in the position of trying to become a nation-state for the first time in history. This process has not been unproblematic. While roughly 80% of the population of the Russian Federation is ethnically Russian, it remains a very fragmented state, a legacy of Soviet nationality policies that granted (limited) territorial autonomy to numerous ethnic minorities. The Russia of today includes ethnic republics like Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan, Bashkhorostan, and Kabardino-Balkaria, among many others. Separatism in some of these republics — Chechnya being the most (in)famous example — have posed serious challenges to the cohesiveness of the Russian state, to say nothing of its identity. The government has invested a great deal of effort in promoting the growth of a rossiiskii identity — a national identity that ostensibly includes all of the nations that inhabit the Russian Federation, including the “Asiatic” and Muslim peoples that have lived in Russia for centuries — at the expense of a russkii identity formed around ethnic Russians at the expense of all others.

Russia’s geopolitical situation since the collapse of the Soviet Union has also prompted a great deal of soul-searching. The Soviet Union, of course, was a state guided by a particular — global — ideology: communism. By the end of the 1980s (if not before), communism was basically discredited in the Soviet Union. When Russia became independent, the ideological underpinnings of Soviet foreign policy were no longer valid, and policymakers began to search for a new rational basis for a foreign policy.

Initially, co-operation with the West was the central tenet of Boris Yeltsin’s foreign policy. However, even as early as 1993 there was a growing sense that Russian co-operation with the West could go only so far and so-called “Eurasianist” theories began to gain a great deal of currency. Modern Eurasianism goes back to late-19th and early-20th century ideas of Russia’s civilization uniqueness and its essential “differentness” from the West , as well as its importance as a “crossroads” between Europe and Asia. Many of these ideas are influenced by the geopolitical theories of Halford Mackinder, an early 20th century British geographer who mused about the geopolitical significance of the so-called “Heartland” of Eurasia.

The question of whether Russia is a “European” country or an “Asian” one is still in the air, I suppose. Maybe outside of Russian foreign policy debates it is a meaningless one. The Putin and Medvedev governments have both emphasized co-operation and engagement with the West while insisting on an independent foreign policy for Russia, one that recognizes, for better or worse, that Russia is far more than its European core.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued that St. Petersburg — historically Russia’s most “European” city — was described in Sitemeter’s statistics as being part of Asia. Something tells me that a lot of Russians might disagree.


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