Russia: Tsarist and Communist

By Anatole G. Mazour | Go to book overview

1
The Geographical Background

THE IMMENSE Eurasian territory occupied by the Russian people constitutes a legacy of centuries of national expansion. The map of Russia, according to a Soviet geographer, is the 'handwriting of history'. As in the history of the westward movement in the North American continent, so in the Eurasian plain, powerful impulses combined to drive men eastward and southward. There was the lure of gold, the pelt of the sable, the promise of rich soil; there was the desire to escape--from social oppression, political tyranny, religious persecution, or economic injustice. The vast Asian area within Russia served the same purpose as the West for the United States: it absorbed the excess population, the socially restless, the politically discontented elements, the economically disgruntled members of society who sought better opportunities. But the new settlers who tried to escape civilization did not remain unmolested by the long tax-collecting arm of the government. The pioneer who reached out to the wilderness was in turn reached by civilization.

The Slavic tribes originally came from an area neighboring the Carpathian Mountains and along the Dnieper River. Today the territory claimed by Russia extends from about 30 degrees to 119 degrees east longitude, embraces more than eight million square miles, and constitutes one-sixth of the land surface of the world. There are two striking features of the map of Russia: first, the immensity of the area, and second, the peculiar distribution of land and water. To cross Russia from the western border to the extreme border of the east a traveler must cover nearly 7,000 miles. This huge stretch of territory includes two parts--one customarily called European, the other Asian Russia, though any attempt to delimit the two sections topographically or ethnographically is bound to be arbitrary and fruitless. European Russia, so-called, is really, a huge and slightly elevated plain constituting the older, more populous, and more advanced part of the country. Asian Russia--an extension of European Russia--is the great Siberian land, less densely populated and more recently falling under the light of history. Although territories such as Kazakh or Kirghiz Republic may be singled out as a separate complex, the fact remains that any lines of demarcation drawn between components of the single Eurasian plain prove artificial. The immensity of this plain has influenced in no small degree the formation of a centralized national administration as the cohesive force in the land.

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