On old Tsarist saying goes, “Russia is not a country, it is a world!” Russia is the largest nation on earth in physical size. The scope of Russia is almost beyond comprehension. Just imagine if you could get on a train in San Francisco and remain on the train straight across the United States, through New York City, then out across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving one week later in Paris, France. Such an imaginable journey would give you some idea of the distance by train on the Trans Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok. Another way to look at just how big Russia is would be to compare it in size to all of the United States, including Alaska plus nearly all of Canada combined.
Despite its vast size, the physical environment of Russia in many ways has been a handicap to the nation. With a population only half that of the United States and a landmass over twice our size, distance becomes a tyranny rather than being helpful. In other words, Russia is just too big for its own good. Also the far northern location of most of the nation means that the winter season is most dominant, making so much of the country too harsh for development.
Prior to 1991, the former Soviet Union was even larger than present day Russia. The breakup of the Soviet empire meant a loss of over 1,000,000 square miles in territory and nearly 100,000 people. These former populated territories now comprise 14 new nations, each totally independent of Russia.
The history of this vast nation is one written in blood. Throughout the centuries, the Russian people have either been conquered or have been the conquerors. From the 1600’s onward, Russia expanded both to the east and south, absorbing many people into its realm, and often ruling over them in a harsh manner. Even today, within Russia there have been uprisings by people still clamoring for independence. The most violent of these has been the ongoing revolt in Chechnya.
In geography we often refute the old argument that the environment has played a major role in shaping the culture. This notion of “environmental determinism” was the primary mode of thinking during the early 20th century. By the 1930’s, it has been replaced by “cultural determinism,” which stated the complete opposite. However, when looking at the core culture of Russia, it is hard to omit the environment. Winter figures so prominently in the social life and customs, art, music and literature that it cannot be overlooked. The combination of a harsh environment and the ongoing threat of outside invasions has produced a culture that is often called “somber” as well as one that is somewhat suspicious of outsiders and their ways. It was these qualities that helped give the Communist dominated Soviet Union such a sinister image to those of us in the West not familiar with the roots of Russian thinking.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Russia entered a state of turmoil. Democracy was a concept new to the people and it was being received with mixed reviews. There were many who would have loved to see either the return of Communism or the domination of their land by a strong central figure, even one with dictatorial powers. Freedom brought a measure of chaos. And economic freedom after years of Soviet state control brought massive corruption, a rampant black market and a crime wave that is almost reminiscent of the era of prohibition in the United States. These “growing pains” were part of the evolution from a totalitarian regime to one in which the people have learned the responsibilities of democratic self-government. Outside political scientists and social historians just hope that Russia can continue to grow and prosper.
Despite all of these early problems, the people of Russia deserve our attention. They are a reserve, but warm people, very loving and giving of themselves. The Russian culture offers us much in the way of art, architecture, music, literature, cuisine and a rich folklore. There is so much to be appreciated if only we Americans take the time to learn about this giant of a nation. An old Tsarist saying proclaims, “Russia is not a country, it’s a world.” And in many ways it is. This travel companion is designed to help you understand this vast and exciting nation.
The study of Russia is quite complex because of both the size of the country and its cultural diversity. This travel companion is designed to introduce you to Russia before and during your visit by providing you with more finite detail on the land, its economy and its cultural composition.
Why learn about Russia? Very simple, Russia is still one of the world’s most important countries. When it was the Soviet Union, the study of its geography, history and politics was considered to be a matter of survival. We Americans were facing a major nation that was a nuclear power and whose government advocated a system of operation that was in total opposition to our own. The spread of global Communism was seen as the greatest threat to our own way of life and the Soviet Union made it known that their aim was to spread Communism worldwide. The Soviet system collapsed in late 1990, ending the years of tension and threat. Today it is important to learn about Russia before embarking upon a visit, thus you become an informed and more welcomed traveler. And despite political tensions between the Russian government and the West, you will be welcome as a visitor. I have been to Russia 31 times and have never found the people to be anything less than polite to me as a foreigner. Russians on a person-to-person basis actually have a deep affection for Americans. Historically the Russian government was the second to recognize the new United States after the American Revolution. France, our ally in the war, was the first nation to give us diplomatic recognition.
Russia’s economy is making a comeback after the fall of the Soviet Union. The government is still in possession of nuclear materials and other weapons of mass destruction. They are no longer in direct confrontation with the United States, but the danger lay in the fact that to bring in badly needed foreign currency, the government or individuals within the government or military placed us and the rest of the free world at risk by selling off some of their vast stockpiles to nations or terrorist groups that are a direct threat to the American way of life. Fortunately that era has passed. But now Russia is struggling again because of falling oil prices and sanctions because of its actions in dealing with the Ukraine.
The Russian government still takes a somewhat skeptical view of American foreign policy and is not always willing to either agree with or support our position. Since the country represents itself as an emerging democracy, third world nations listen to what the Russian leaders have to say. Their condemnation of the American involvement in Iraq is an example of how Russia can undermine the United States image in global affairs without any direct intent at doing us harm. Further there is an element of envy combined with wounded pride in that they have seen foreign investment from United States into its industrial corporations, but this has given the economy a major boost.
You must remember that many of the powerful leaders in Russia are former Communists, who for decades considered us to be the prime enemy. And likewise, many of our leaders became accustomed to thinking of them as the enemy. It will take a generation before some of these old suspicions disappear. Considering all of these factors, you can see why the study of Russia is important for all Americans, especially those of us who plan to visit the country as tourists.
If you like this introduction, my entire book plus many other traveler’s companion books are all available here.
I would also invite you to join me in 2015 and 2016 during the summer months, as I will be cruising the Baltic Sea with Silversea Cruises.
For more information about joining Dr. Lew Deitch on one of these cruises, contact us.
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