Feb 262012

This is not a course in Russian history, even though I’ve chosen to follow a more-or-less chronological structure. However, it’s impossible to ignore history and study culture, just as culture is an integral part of history. Let’s take this course then as a Story, a journey in time and space.

No, I’m not going to introduce any cute characters like Ivan and Natasha who might change looks and clothes and attitudes throughout the centuries. Sorry, but if I had the time to do this, I’d write a book and make a lot of money.

Let’s just start by looking at the landscape.

When you think of Russia, you may still picture the shape of the old Soviet Union.

But since 1991, the Russian Federation has a new shape. It has lost

  • Estonia
  • Lithuania
  • Latvia
  • Belarus
  • Ukraine
  • Georgia
  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Tajikistan
  • Kyrgystan


Now if we go back in time, we’ll start losing the Asian side of what we imagine as Russia (then the Russian Empire).

And now we find ourselves at the beginning, strictly within the geographical boundaries of Europe.

We are in the 600s to 800s, before there was any kind of Russian state, any kind of state at all. Russia, like most of what would become European kingdoms and city-states, was a land inhabited by scattered tribes, united by a common ethnicity, and therefore a shared language: the East Slavs.

Who are these Slavs and where did their language come from?

The Slavs and the Slavic languages are today divided into East, West, and South Slavs (and Slavic languages). The further back in time you go, the less these distinctions mattered. To give you an idea, West is Polish and Czech, South is Bulgarian, Croatian, and Serbian, and East is Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian.

But back in the mid-first millenium, we didn’t have these linguistic divisions, we had tribes. However, these tribes were territorial enough that the boundaries later became, more or less, the boundaries of the Russian Principalities.

These tribes lived in a land that was rich in rivers and sat on the crossroads of several major trading routes that linked East, South, West, and North – and I mean Northern Europe, Asia, Western Europe, Central Asia, and even to Africa. In other world, people from all over the ancient world passed through one or more parts of Russia from is very beginning.

There was the famous Route from the Varangians (ie Vikings) to the Greeks, or from Scandinavia to Byzantium and parts beyond. There was the Great Silk Road. There was the Hanseatic Guild connection.

The climate played a very important part in Russia’s life. The ancient and medieval trade routes lay along the major rivers, and were usable in summer and winter, when the water was clear, and conversely, when the ice was strong and thick. But also when the portages between the rivers, where boats had to be taken out of the water and carried overland, were also accessible.

This made spring (when snowmelt turned roads into mud flows and rivers into raging monsters), and fall (when rains swelled the rivers to dangerous levels, and again made the roads impassable, and the frost wasn’t strong enough to harden either road or river), the seasons to be waited out.

Another significant aspect of the Russian landscape is its relative flatness. From the Carpathians to the the south, to the Urals in the East, and to the Caucasus, Russia is an uneven plain. There are no Alpine elevations, no significant mountains anywhere in European Russia. It’s just rivers, plains, and forests. Even the Ural mountains aren’t much of an obstacle between the Asian and the European side: they’re very crossable.

And in the south, the these plains are completely opened to invasions by Asian nomads. In the north and west, the thick forests created a boundary that stopped the nomadic invasions and provided furs and honey, but they also represented the wilderness, the mystery of the unknown where beasts lived hidden in the shadows, feared by city-dwellers and villagers.

The abundance of rivers meant that fish was a plentiful food source, boats were a common means of transportation, and the rivers themselves were both roads and boundaries.

The 15-th century expansion into Siberia didn’t really change this perception of the world. Beyond the Ural Mountains, it was once again a vast land of plains, forests, rivers, lakes, cold and heat. Whereas the Asiatic visitors were once invading nomads, now they were the perennial dwellers of a land where the Russians were the strangers. And a new boundary appeared in the south: the Caucasus, but this time it was a barrier Russians would stumble upon.

The landscape has defined a lot of cultural elements, from food (a lot more fish in the diet than you’re used to here in the US), to imagination (you’ll see how in tales and epic songs the forest and the steppe become significant, often symbolic elements), to everyday life (you have to adapt your schedule to long nights and short days, especially cold, short, and snowed-in days). The land, the rivers, even the trees are part of the culture, the folklore, the symbolism of Russia. From religion to folklore, to literature and music, land and people and imagination create the mix we call culture.

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