Saturday, 20 November 2010

Urals Federal District - здравствуйте!

Russia is a country that is very close to my heart.  I have a Russian partner, I speak Russian and lived in Moscow for two years, so I've read a lot of books about Russia, eaten loads of Russian food, watched movies and become immersed in Russian culture to the point that it will be quite a challenge to find 'new' stuff for this blog.  That's why I'm starting with the Urals - I've travelled a lot in European Russia, but the furthest east I ever got was to Tatarstan, in the Volga region.  The Urals are my natural next step in terms of learning about Russia and a region that I know very little about, as I'm sure is the case with most of you reading this blog!

One thing I learned about Russian officialdom is their love of bureaucracy.  It would seem that the more complicated the process is, the more it is perceived to be efficient.  Russia is the biggest country in the world, by land area, and all this bureaucracy stems from an effort on the part of civil government to control this massive land and bring it under the centralised control of Moscow, often thousands of miles away from where Russian citizens live. 

This intense bureaucracy is recognised in modern times by the phenomena of 'federal subjects'.  Russia is a federation, made up of a complicated array of 83 legal 'subjects' including:

21 republics
46 oblasts (or regions)
9 krai (which were historically 'border regions')
1 autonomous region, a legacy of Soviet times, this is the autonomous Jewish state in the Far East.
4 autonomous okrug (or districts) - the main difference between these and the regions is that they tend to be located in the far north, near the Arctic circle - they are nominally recognised as being the homelands of a native minority and they have less independence than republics.
2 federal cities - Moscow and St Petersburg

I think it's hard for someone in Western Europe to understand the nature of the Russian Federation, when we have a really strong concept of a unified nation, but I guess it's similar to the federal system in the United States of America, where states can make their own laws but belong, ultimately, to a greater nation.  Again, it's a wee bit more complicated in Russia. 

Something I realised when I was living in Uzbekistan was that, whereas I had been brought up to think of the Soviet Union being more or less synonymous with 'Russia', in actual fact, it was indeed a union of soviet states, which is why, when the union fell apart in the early 90's, countries like Uzbekistan suddenly found themselves independent, whether they liked it or not. 

The Soviet Socialist republics were like the top layer of bureaucracy - from a legal point of view, the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was no more than an equal partner in this union.  Of course, the reality is that Russia did dominate the governance of the Soviet Union, although I'm sure most of my Russian friends would disagree with this assertion.  I can understand why, for most people in the West, Russia and the Soviet Union was one and the same thing. 

It also explains why the Russians fought so hard to keep Chechnya in the Russian Federation.  Bizarrely, from a Western point of view, they gave up the Baltic states and countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan, without so much as a whimper, knowing that, legally, Russia had no claim on these independent soviet states.  With Chechnya, it was a whole different ball game.  As Chechnya is a republic within the Russian Federation, letting Chechnya become independent would set a precedent for the other 20 republics in the Russian Federation (eg Taterstan, Dagestan, Karelia) and would leave the Russian Federation in danger of simply falling apart. 

The reason I've chosen to divide my blogging about Russia into federal districts, is because I believe these more or less accurately divide Russia into parts with very different historical and cultural experiences.  European Russia is made of up five federal districts:

Northwestern Federal district - centred around St Petersburg, with its history linked to Karelia and Finland, Peter the Great's window on Europe and its proximity to the Baltic states and (nowadays) the European Union.

Central Federal district - the federal subjects around Moscow.  I don't care what anyone says, to me, the Central Region and Moscow is the heart and soul of Russian identity. 

Southern Federal district - is the heartland of border tribes such as the Cossacks, but also my partner's nation, the Kalmyks.

North Caucasian Federal district - which is made up of several Caucasian republics and is mostly known in the West as the scene of conflicts - Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan etc.  This district is a real thorn in the side of the Russian authorities and continues to threaten the survival of the Russian Federation.

Volga Federal district - the Volga is the blood that runs through the body of European Russia - it's an immensely fascinating region and contains a real mixture of people, languages and cultures.

Asian Russia is made up of three federal districts, each of which would rank top of the list of the world's biggest countries, were they independent states.  They are:

Urals Federal district - Russians believe that Asia somehow starts at the Ural mountains - it's a region which is famous for its natural resources and it is the source of a lot of Russia's wealth.

Siberian Federal district - Siberia has an incredibly strong identity within the Russian federation and, out of all the federal districts, it's the only one that could properly be identified as a 'nation' in its own right.  Certainly most people in the West have a greater sense of Siberia as a place, than they would do of most of the other federal districts.

Far Eastern Federal district - by all accounts, the landscape around Vladivostok is more like that of Japan or China than that of European Russia.  This is another massive district, nine time zones from Moscow, with places like Anadyr being on the same longitude as Auckland, New Zealand (170* East). 

It's a challenge, blogging about the world's biggest country, but I'm going to take it one step at a time, the first step being the Urals!

Image credits:

The map of the Russian Federal Districts is from Wikimedia Commons and is a derivative work by wikiuser SeNeKa - you can see more information on this file at it's information page
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