Staunton, Oct. 6 – Because of the Kremlin’s promotion of hyper-centralization, Vladimir Kazansky says, its effective control of many parts of the country is declining rapidly with regional and business elites and the population as a whole increasingly defining what is taking place rather than simply accepting whatever Moscow orders.
The senior researcher at the Moscow Institute of Geography says that like its Soviet predecessor, the Russian landscape remains overwhelmingly defined by the state rather than by its natural and cultural features but that this is rapidly changing (svoboda.org/a/istselyayuschiy-landshaft-postsovetskaya-rossiya-glazami-geografa/31462101.html).
But at the same time, since 1991, the Russian landscape “has become less totalitarian. Perhaps the most essential thing is not the privatization of the economy … but the privatization of the cultural landscape itself. With time, alongside the state, ordinary people have begun to act,” Kazansky says.
In the first half of the post-Soviet period, the Russian state was not in a position to maintain its symbolic and effective control; in the second, it lost ground in that regard precisely because it has sought to recentralize. Given the availability of resources, Moscow has pulled them out of the regions and thus opened spaces for others to act.
Thus, in disbanding the collective farm system, Moscow lost the ability to put its stamp on much of the country; and then in recentralizing, the Russian government found that it did not have the resources to impose its will everywhere it had in the past and thus effectively retreated even as it proclaimed it was advancing.
As a result, internal tourism and regional studies have boomed, and Moscow has ceased to define the toponyms and cultural values of the regions according to a common template as it was largely able to do in Soviet times. That has led to a rise in diversity even as Moscow talks ever more about uniformity.
Urbanization has left much of the country without people, and the cities are surrounded by empty areas without adequate infrastructure. And in this situation, “Moscow is very ineffectively fulfilling its central functions,” being unable to either impose a common ideological framework or maintain direct control.
There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that Moscow like most Russian cities has ceased to be an industrial center. And that means that the reasons for the capital to exert influence other than political are ever less important and Moscow is thus ever “weaker.”
There simply isn’t enough infrastructure for Russia as a whole. The country covers 17 million square kilometers, but only 170,000 square kilometers – the area of major cities – have modern infrastructure; and Moscow itself has nearly a third of that total. That pattern has reduced everywhere else and not just the regions east of the Urals to the status of a periphery.
And despite the boom in automobile ownership, large parts of Russia remain inaccessible and thus beyond the effective control of the centralized state, Kazansky continues. In response, local people are stepping up and imposing their own control symbolic and sometimes actual over the areas around them.
The population is playing an especially growing role because of the boom in dacha ownership. “More than half of urban residents have dachas,” and these have a total value of one to two trillion US dollars, “more than the capitalization of the entire Russian economy.” And this has been accompanied by the fencing off of more of Russian by people rather than the state.
The total length of fences in Russia today now exceeds a million kilometers. And most of these have been put up by the population rather than by the state, an assertion of control that matters enormously in how people view the land around them. Moreover, there has been a toponym revolution with locals increasingly taking control of place names.
Most people are simply trying to survive, of course, but an active minority of several percent of the population is pursuing larger goals involving the reidentification of themselves and the places where they live, a process that is proving as transformative as it is traumatic for many Russians.
According to psychotherapists with whom Kazansky has spoken, the combination of factors affecting the landscape of Russia is “characteristic for a space in transition, and in this sense, the crisis of the transition from the Soviet era to something other has still not been completed.” What is will look like will be decided not by Moscow alone.