Staunton, November 15 – Despite Vladimir Putin’s recent statements that Russians should more actively focus on geography, there is one kind of attention to that subject which neither he nor his Soviet predecessors has been interested in seeing develop: the study of local regions or as it is known in Russian “kraevedeniye.”
In “Izvestiya” yesterday, Vadim Shtepa, one of Russia’s most prominent regionalists, says that he welcomes Putin’s call for more attention to geography but argues that the best way to achieve that is by promoting a renewed focus on “kraevedeniye” because that is the geographic subject closest to where people live (izvestia.ru/news/579442).
Unfortunately, at present, the regionalist commentator writes, “geographic consciousness in the largest country of the world can only with difficulty be called widespread.” Instead, people focus on other things and treat an interest in “the geographic specifics of various lands at best as something exotic.”
In fact, among Russians, geography is often “subordinated to geopolitics and to a centrally established all-Russian mission,” something that deprives people of a knowledge of their own territories and has the effect of limiting the possibilities for conversations among people from different regions.
The reasons for this, Shtepa says, are not surprisingly to be found in politics.
Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, “kraevedeniye” was “a natural part of the cultural and social life of various guberniyas and cities down to the very smallest,” Shtepa notes. The zemstvos pushed this, and the number of activities and publications in that time was truly enormous.
For the first decade after 1917, this interest coexisted with the Bolshevik focus on the world revolution. And by the second half of the 1920s, there were more than 1700 local studies organizations and institutions “which organized expeditions and published precise maps and periodical journals.
But in 1929-1930, the situation changed dramatically. With the launch of industrialization and collectivization, Moscow increasingly viewed such interest as being in conflict with its unitary and “deeply utilitarian” policies and began to crack down. By the middle 1930s, “kraevedeniye” organizations were closed and many local museums shuttered.
For the next three decades, the very word “kraevedeniye” was almost completely forgotten, but beginning in the 1960s, people around the RSFSR began to take a new interest in its subject, as shown by the formation of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Nature and of Historical and Cultural Monuments.
That interest continued and even led to the appearance of local studies as an elective in many schools. But trying to make it obligatory won’t promote “kraevedeniye” but rather will alienate people precisely because it will reflect the typical top-down mandatory approach that kills off so many things.
“An active and lively interest in geographic knowledge can be awakened only by the development of local study projects,” Shtepa argues, and there are organizations and even websites which can help. Among those are “Zalesye” (zalesje.net/) and Merjamaa (merjamaa.ru/). There are also many wonderful films about local life, but so far, these have received more recognition abroad than in Russia.
Focusing on local histories do not set regions against one another, he argues. “On the contrary,” this respect for the past and present in each can be the basis for linking them together.
Unfortunately, in Russia, there is “a powerful worldview obstacle,” the tendency to think in terms of “a two-dimensional scheme of ‘the capital and the province.’”
As evidence of this, Shtepa cites his experience at a Moscow roundtable several years ago where participants were asked to draw a geographic map of Russia. “Alas, the result was predictable.” Most people drew the borders of the country and then put “a star where Moscow is.”
Such “schematism,” he says, “can be overcome only on the basis of a federative worldview, with the active popularization of various regional brands which in contemporary economics are becoming ever more an instrument of territorial development.”
“Kraevedeniye” must play “a key role” in this, Shtepa says, because the knowledge of one’s local area and the development of love for it lead logically to knowledge and love for the country as a whole. If Moscow insists on loading people up with more “geopolitical abstractions,” then this chance will be lost. And any maps will be useful only for drivers.