Chapter 2: Geography


…Russia, the dear, dreadful enormous territory at the edge of Europe which is as large as all Europe put together.
(Spufford, p.3; 2010)

A vast, flat landscape stretching as far as the eye can see - and beyond. This territory in the Russian Far East is so typical of much of Russia

Русский народкрайный народ, “The Russian people are a people of extremes”, the Russians love to say; and it’s not simply a platitude. It’s true. All of us who have joined Russians round the kitchen table will have experienced eating and drinking with friends who are laughing and joking one minute, weeping bitterly the next over some memory, then back to the laughter. Anyone whose business has involved working with Russians will know the sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach when the Russian client, having prevaricated for weeks about a decision, suddenly decides that they want you to deliver tomorrow.

This may not seem uniquely Russian; until you understand the frequency with which it happens – and with just about everyone you deal with. It struck me a long time ago that this is a direct result of the climate in Russia. The country has a classic continental climate. Most of it is far from the sea; so hot, dry summers and freezing, snowy winters are the norm. Moscow usually has around a week or so in the summer when the temperature is plus 35 degrees Celsius or more, and a similar period in the winter when the thermometer reads minus 35. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that in a country where the temperature can change by 70 degrees in just four or five months, the temperament of the people can swing so radically between extremes of behaviour. This is a theme noted by many writers over the years, such as Robert Kaiser and Laurens van der Post:

Climate [is] an overbearing fact in Russian life. It isn’t unusual for the last snowfall of a Russian winter to come eight months after the first. Spring and autumn usually amount to a few weeks stuck between the long winter and the short, green summer. Nature is more an enemy than an ally in the Russian north, a powerful enemy which traditionally has forced people into prolonged periods of inaction, which makes their food supply problematical year after year, and which must eventually influence their most basic reactions to life and fate.
(Kaiser, p.38; 1976)

Throughout my journey I had always the impression that Russians instinctively prefer to work at great pressure in prolonged concentrated bursts followed by periods of protracted almost irresponsible inactivity which perhaps correspond to the rhythms their climate imposes on them.
(van der Post, p.206; 1965)

Ironically, the socialist system of central planning lent itself to this pattern: workers could do little for the first three weeks of the month, then go all out to fulfil the plan in the final week. This led to situations such as a shoe factory in the last week of the month making only shoes for the left foot; they would then be put in pairs to say the plan has been fulfilled, even though the end result was useless.

George Feifer dwells on the effect that the Russian winter can have on people’s mood. It’s less a problem with the cold – unless the temperature is in the low 30’s (or even worse in parts of Siberia) you can always put on extra layers – than it is with the light, or lack of it.

Someday, I’ll write an essay about Russian winter. Russkaya zima, the great depressant of spirit and waster of life. We live in a no-man’s land, enveloped by the seamless, soundless mist. Isolated even from the sky: it’s been weeks now since enough sun has forced through to be able to guess its position.
(Feifer, p.70; 1976)

Murky Moscow winter afternoon

I’ve known weeks in Moscow where I’ve felt, as Feifer describes, “isolated even from the sky”, and not had a glimpse of the sun. As you go further north, the days become very short. A few years ago in January I went to a morning performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. When I emerged from the metro around 1100 it was just beginning to be light.
The compensation for that, of course, is to be in St Petersburg in the middle of summer, to experience “the White Nights”. In 1989, while in Leningrad (as it still was) gathering material for my radio programme on the veterans of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, I persuaded a local journalist with whom I was working to drive me to the beach in front of the Saints Peter and Paul Fortress on the banks of the River Neva at midnight. I took a newspaper – just to prove that you really could read a newspaper without artificial light at midnight. Many years later, I took some interesting photographs by natural light in the centre of St Petersburg in the small hours of the morning.

G Dobson, H M Grove and Hugh Stewart wrote books about St Petersburg, Moscow and Provincial Russia respectively early in the twentieth century, and a number of their observations appear in these pages; some to show how things have changed, but many to show how much has not. A simple truth about Russian history is summed up thus by Stewart:

Russian history is inextricably woven with its rivers.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.345; 1913)


The River Lena, heading north through Yakutia towards
the Arctic Circle. Yakutia (Sakha) is the size of India; but
its population is 1,000th that of India. 97% of its territory
is not only uninhabited; it is uninhabitable.

In my days as a military analyst, I remember well my friend and colleague, Chris Donnelly, seeing the reaction of British Royal Engineer troops to being told that they had nothing with which they could even contemplate crossing certain Russian rivers, so wide are they in places. Van der Post bears this out:

The river was so wide and the heavy rain had covered the flat earth with so much water that the road looked like a causeway across an inlet of the sea. Now I understood why so many people I had met told me that with such a river they felt no need to go to the sea for their vacations. This over-abundant water gave them all the sea they needed and on holiday they preferred to go to some village deep in the country.
(van der Post, p.187; 1965)

Being so far from the sea but having such vast rivers helps explains why Russians readily swim in rivers in a way which Britons don’t.

As Ronald Hingley points out, the sheer size of Russia is something which is very difficult to comprehend unless you come from North America or China.

Territorial size has conditioned the Russian mentality for many centuries. Consisting largely of a vast plain with no significant natural barriers between its western frontiers and the far-distant mountain ranges of central Siberia, the country has always lacked defensible frontiers such as might have saved it from becoming embroiled again and again in so many long, exhausting armed conflicts with its neighbours.
(Hingley, p.29; 1978)

And the problem of defending the country’s borders has indeed played large in the Russian psyche over the centuries, including in the twentieth century, when there was foreign intervention in the Civil War of 1918-1922, and when Hitler’s forces rolled so easily across much of European Russia in 1941 and 1942. The Soviet leadership used this to explain why so much money was spent on the defence of the borders of the Motherland instead of on consumer goods. This did, however, lay the country open to criticism when it used its armed forces outside the country’s borders, such as the following exchange heard at a diplomatic reception in early 1980, shortly after Soviet troops went into Afghanistan:

Western Ambassador: Tell me, Ambassador, how big is the Soviet Union?
Soviet Ambassador (muttering): Twenty two million, four hundred thousand square kilometres…
Western Ambassador: Ah. Not big enough for you, eh? (Turns on his heel and walks off)
(DalzielI don’t remember the source for this, but I do recall hearing of it when I was in Kiev in 1980, shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan.)

The idea that Russia’s borders had to be defended by massive forces was not an argument heard in the 1990’s. The country may have been in internal chaos, but few considered that the West was a potential enemy. Unfortunately, particularly following his incursion into Ukraine, this is a fear which Vladimir Putin has used once again to make excuses for the poor state of the economy. The question posed above could have been asked again after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Russia is not simply a huge country but the landscape is frequently tedious. In 1974 I caught a train from Kiev to Moscow at three o’clock in the morning and travelled virtually all day. This being my first trip to the USSR I thought it would be interesting to see the scenery. It was – for the first half hour of daylight. After that, it was relentlessly flat and dull. When you’ve gazed upon one lot of fields stretching as far as the eye can see and countless copses of birch trees, they do become tiresome. This is a theme to which writers – and, indeed, Russians themselves – constantly return.

“We have a saying that in Siberia 100 kilometres is no distance at all, 100 roubles no money and 100 grammes of vodka no drink!”
(van der Post, p.232; 1965. As told to the author by a travelling companion on the Trans-Siberian Express)

Like most of Russia, Siberia is a vast plain. Its only hills are gentle; even the Ural Mountains seem to have been depressed by some giant flattener. Out the window of the Trans-Siberian, a traveller sees only fields, woods of birch and pine, villages of wooden cottages and an occasional town or city. The scenery hardly changes from one end to the other.
(Kaiser, p.23; 1976)

Instead of offering dramatic scenery, Russia is a vast flatland, stretching beyond every horizon to fill a continent… It lacks the breathtaking vistas of Switzerland, the picturesque hills of Bavaria, or the hedgerows and stone walls that give the English countryside its charm. Russia is plainer, more rambling, wilder, undisciplined.
(Smith, The Russians, p.150; 1977)

First then, a word as to the appearance of the country, and this…applies to rural scenery in Russia generally.
Lenskiye stolby, Yakutia
 Sluggish rivers, with steep red banks, wind through broad plains. In the distance are dark woods of pines or birches, which in the evenings resound with the notes of nightingales. The unfenced communal fields slope gently towards the horizon, and through them, also unfenced, runs the broad stoneless road with deep ruts. There is no strongly marked feature in the landscape. The predominant colour is in summer grey or brown. In spring it is bright, almost dazzling, green, and in winter practically unrelieved white. The feeling of space, of distance, which the people call their great enemy, impresses itself strongly on the mind; all round for a thousand miles is Russia.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.295-296; 1913)

Occasionally, certain features break the monotony. Arkady Shevchenko talks of church domes:

There is no drama to the countryside of northern Russia, only an occasional gentle swell of the land and, even more rare, the bulbous dome of a once-lovely country church.
(Shevchenko, p.268; 1985)

And Vladimir Soloukhin of windmills:

It is known that windmills were once an obligatory part of the Russian landscape, especially towards the south, in the areas around Orlov, Kursk, Voronezh and Ryazan… In our parts, admittedly, watermills were preferred because we were surrounded by a dense network of quiet, clear rivers. On the Koloksha alone between Yuryev-Polsky and Ustye, a distance of some seventy versts, there were twelve watermills. Twelve dams, twelve millponds – a real cascade, as they might say now. Yet what a beauty it was, the Koloksha! Its water was kept high by the dams and it was clear and full of fish; but now it is really shallow, sickly overgrown and covered in slime.
  Yet there were windmills, too. Are there any records giving the overall figures for watermills and windmills in Russia? It would be interesting to know, because that would give us the number of peasant households that once owned those watermills and windmills, only to be smashed to pieces, as well as the number of peasant families that were subsequently dispersed far and wide or, more commonly, annihilated.
(Soloukhin, pp.62-63; 1989)

Nowadays the bulbous dome of the country church of which Shevchenko writes is less rare; in fact, more and more are appearing. They are the visual manifestation of the consciences of thousands of Russians who have got rich in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and on the backs of their fellow countrymen. But also more common is the sight of the dilapidated ruins of homes and outhouses left to rot as people move away from the countryside to the towns and cities. I recall driving with my wife through a dilapidated village in Ryazan Oblast where the houses were literally falling down, and seeing a beautifully painted church with a gilded dome. I described it at the time as “an oligarch’s conscience”.

It is not only the natural geographical features which change little as you travel across Russia. Under both Tsarism and Soviet rule the centre imposed a rigid uniformity on the country. Peter Pomerantsev talks of landing in Vladivostok:

When we finally landed in Vladivostok…I expected to see the Orient; we were, after all, a thousand kilometres east of Beijing, where Russia meets the Pacific…But instead it looked like more of the same Russia, the same green-brown blur of hills and thin, unhappy trees.
(Pomerantsev, p.27; 2015)

I had a very similar experience when I flew in to Blagoveshchensk in the Russian Far East in 2009. Look across the Amur River and you are looking into China; but look around you and you could be in the suburbs of St Petersburg. Making such a trip the vast size of the country is again brought home to you. I had flown non-stop for nine hours, yet I hadn’t crossed one international border. Before the age of air travel, Stewart remarked on how similar life was in Russia, north to south as well as east to west:

…the traveller in Russia will notice a certain sameness in peasant life from Archangel to Astrakhan, the same village plan, the same type of houses, of clothes and manners, a sameness which is accentuated by the similarity of the scenery.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.294-295; 1913)

Nonetheless, travelling around Russia does perhaps have a romanticism about it, as the former British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Hayter noted:

Uncomfortable though it sometimes is, there is no travel like Russian travel. Old towns like Novgorod and Rostov Veliki, little white churches with gold domes, on tufted green hills by wide lakes; the Volga, in a steamer with a rhythmic vibration suggesting the cygnets’ dance in Swan Lake, a placid, immense stream, the European bank a cliff, the Asiatic bank a swamp, Kazan, Samara, Stalingrad gleaming on their little hills…
(Hayter, p.17; 1966)

Many Russophiles would agree with this sentiment, at the same time acknowledging the truth of Kaiser’s comment about the poor condition – or indeed, lack – of the roads when travelling.

Though known as a super-power, the Soviet Union lacks many of the attributes of Europe’s smaller countries – a basic network of good roads, for example.
(Kaiser, p.420; 1976)

'Peasants'
(from Dobson,
Grove, Stewart)
And despite the undoubted progress made in the twentieth century and the growth of cities, Stewart’s assessment of the provincial towns of a hundred years ago remains largely true.


Russia is primarily an agricultural country, and there are few great cities. The ordinary provincial town offers very little of interest either in appearance or life.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.390; 1913)


The desperately forsaken Russian countryside is still so much a part of the life of Mother Russia.


“Moscow is the façade; we’ve always needed façades. But the truth is still the village. Everything comes from the village and is the spirit of the village.”
(Feifer, p.15; 1976; as told to him by a student at Moscow University who was from the countryside)

Follow the narod into the countryside and the modern world peels away with astonishing suddenness. Not only the peasantry but the countryside presses in close around Moscow. It surprised me to see that just ten miles from the Kremlin, near the village of Little Mytishchi, city life and its conveniences simply come to an end. New apartment buildings give way to izbas, squat, low, peasant log cabins. Side roads are suddenly no longer paved but turn to dirt, often no more than two ruts or footpaths dribbling off among garden fences.
(Smith, The Russians, pp.250-251; 1977)
'A Summer's Day in the Country'
(from Dobson, Grove, Stewart)

In general the Great Russian villages are not picturesque. But when they are tree-shaded, and one looks at them in soft evening light from over a wide river or pond, they are steeped in a quiet melancholy beauty of their own.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.299; 1913)

The izbas of the present day show little improvement over those of the time of Peter the Great. They are as a rule draughty, insanitary, and insect-ridden, and it is not an unmixed evil that every six or seven years they are burnt down accidentally in a village fire or through private enmity, for the satisfaction of which “letting loose the red cock” is not an uncommon expedient.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.302; 1913)

These quotations have echoes of Hingley’s comment above (Chapter 1: Mother Russia) that, The poorer the mother and the harsher her conditions of life, the greater the devotion of her sons.” Still today, life in the Russian countryside is harsh and not pretty. The younger generation leave in their droves to find a better life in the cities. Many a peasant cottage, an izba, is not the pretty decorated place with hand-carved fretwork of picture postcards. It is a grubby dwelling and its ageing inhabitants frequently can barely eke out a living.

“What is Russia?” and “Who are the Russians?” might be questions that arise from the following quotations from 100 years ago:

There are few districts in Russia, “the land of forty races,” where there have not lived alongside with the Russian peasants peoples who differed from them in customs, language, physical type, and religion.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.362; 1913)

'A Dance in Little Russia'
(from Dobson, Grove, Stewart)

White Russia is the name given to the upper basin of the Dnieppr…The name is said to allude to the colour of the peasant dress.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.397; 1913)

To the south and south-east of White Russia lie the three governments of Tchernigoff, Poltava, and Kharkoff, which constitute the romantic and fascinating country known as “Little Russia”… The name originated in the fourteenth century to distinguish the land round Kieff [Kiev, or as Ukrainians now prefer, Kyiv – SD] from the Great Russia, whose centre was Moscow. The other title given to this district, the Ukraine, means properly “the border” or “the frontier”, a term one might have expected to accompany the expansion of Russian territory in every direction, but associated once for all with Little Russia, which was for centuries the border with Poland.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.413; 1913)

Stewart describes Russia as “the land of forty races”; in Soviet times the boast was that the USSR was home to over one hundred races and that they all lived together in harmony. The violence which broke out in some parts of the USSR as the country began to break up and, indeed, after the collapse, suggested – rather like in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s – that this “harmony” had more to do with firm control imposed from the centre, rather than genuine brotherly love and mutual understanding. “White Russia” which Stewart writes about is the literal meaning of Belarus (or Belorussia, as it was known before the break-up of the Soviet Union); and the point which he makes about “Little Russia” was used by some Russians in 2014 to justify the invasion of Ukraine. As one Russian said to me: “Stephen, you don’t understand; there is no such country as Ukraine!”

Kaiser underlines a problem which was encountered by geographers and travellers in Soviet times: that maps were not permitted to be accurate – strange, but true!

Geographers in the Soviet Union face an unusual occupational hazard. For reasons which must have something to do with national security, no published map of the USSR published in the Soviet Union can be accurate. Each river, city and town must be moved slightly from its actual location. Western geographers discovered this idiosyncrasy by comparing old and new maps of Soviet territory. It is hard to imagine the purpose of this subterfuge in the age of spy satellites.
(Kaiser, p.29; 1976)

Taking this one stage further, sizeable towns with populations tens of thousands strong which were completely associated with defence industries often did not appear at all on maps, and had obscure names related to a city which was perhaps a hundred kilometres away, such as Chelyabinsk-40. It was here in 1957 that the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred (since then, only the accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 have been more serious). Because the site of this plutonium production site officially did not exist, it took until 1976 and the publication of an article in New Scientist magazine by the Soviet scientist, Zhores Medvedev, for the details of the disaster to be known. To this day no-one knows how many hundreds – or likely thousands – of people died as a result.

In the light of this, it is perhaps appropriate to end this chapter on a sombre note, yet one which, in contrast to the upbeat tone of Hayter’s comment on the joys of Russian travel, underlines once again the extreme nature of Russia and its people. The plume of radioactivity which drifted across a large swathe of territory in the Urals Region from Chelyabinsk-40 was certainly “a long shadow of death and tragedy”.

The Russian lands are cold and morbid, and a long shadow of death and tragedy hovers over her people. The woeful cries of toil and grief and poverty fill her music and her poems; life is suffering, suffering is life.
(Uris, p.245; 1971)

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