Russia's Geography and Climate: John Etty Examines How Far History Has Been Moulded by Environment

By Etty, John | History Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Russia's Geography and Climate: John Etty Examines How Far History Has Been Moulded by Environment


Etty, John, History Review


Modern textbooks on Russian history often include an introductory chapter on the country's climate and natural geography. Writers, it seems, believe Russia's physical environment is either so significant or so widely misunderstood that students must receive an explicit description. Natural geography and climate are not always important in a region's history, however, and it is possible to overstate the impact that Russia's geography has had on its history. The winter defeats of Napoleon and Hitler, for instance, were more than just seasonal coincidences. Nevertheless, the nature of Russia's physical environment has undoubtedly had a significant impact on its history in recent centuries.

Russia's Size

Though Russia is now smaller (at 17,000,000 square miles) than both the Tsarist Empire before 1917 and the USSR in 1945-1991 (both around 22,400,000 square miles), since the expansion of Muscovy and the days of Ivan IV, the first 'Tsar of All the Russians', Russia has always been among the world's largest nations. Russia is presently the largest country in the world--almost twice as big as the next largest, Canada, and 70 times larger than the UK--and its size has always been the basis of its colossal potential strength.

Yet in fact Russia's size created certain significant weaknesses. Governing large countries is still problematic in the age of instant mass communication, but Russian government developed at a time (under Peter the Great, 1689-1725) when there was little alternative to centralised authority. Poor roads, no railways and unfavourable climate meant that mid-seventeenth century Russian messengers could expect to travel a maximum of 50 miles in 24 hours. Delivery of messages to and from the empire's extremities could thus take many days. Even improving communications did not alter Russian autocracy. In 1900 Italy and France spent more than twice as much per capita as Russia on policing the empire, and Russia possessed only four state officials for every 1,000 inhabitants. Lacking a network of state control, the government became reliant upon the Orthodox Church's infrastructure.

Russia's size and the length of her borders (nearly 40,000 miles today), combined with the difficulty of governing this huge area, has created many problems for its rulers. Despite the awkwardness of local control in a centralized system, Russia has never tolerated problems on its margins. Russification of non-Russians was attempted in the nineteenth century to avoid problems at the edge of the empire, notably in Poland, but the army has also often been used to strengthen, maintain or re-take control. Between 1883 and 1903 Russian troops were used almost 1,500 times to suppress local unrest. Given that Russia's European land borders are strategically weak and lack natural defenses, foreign attacks have come surprisingly infrequently. Nonetheless, border disputes brought war with Turkey (1853-6 and 1877-8) and Japan (1904-5). Soviet troops were used in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Indeed Russia today remains a jealous guardian of control in Chechnya.

Russia's Location

Russia's size and location have decided its strategic outlook since the Middle Ages. It inhabits land on two continents (European Russia being divided from Asia by the Ural Mountains), but since the reign of Peter the Great Russia's outlook has predominantly been westward. Thereafter Russians expanded south and east, first in search of furs and later as suitable agricultural land ran short. From around 1600 onwards, Russia's frontiers expanded north, to the east and west, largely unopposed, though wars against Sweden and Napoleon, for example, added small but significant territories to the empire. Despite her westerly stance, Russia has generally held an ambiguous attitude towards Europe. In the nineteenth century, Russian Slavophiles prized Orthodoxy as just one example of Russian superiority. Despite this, Russian rulers from Peter the Great through to Josef Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev have all looked to the West for inspiration, example or justification. …

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