A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors (III)

I finished the book. I ended up at two stars on goodreads – it didn’t improve towards the end. If I had to sum it up in just a few words, I’d say something like this: ‘You’ll learn a lot of stuff about the region from reading this book, but the book isn’t actually all that great.’ The first few chapters I’ve yet to talk about here covered economic factors, and the last ones were brief chapters about specific subregions, both regional entities of Russia (e.g. The Volga region, the Urals, Siberia, …) as well as other regional entitites of the FSU (e.g. the Central Asian republics, the Eastern European countries of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, a chapter about the Baltics, etc..). I’ve already talked a lot about the book here, so I’ll limit my coverage of the last part of the book to some observations from the remaining chapters which I’ve posted below.

“about one-third of all Russians now claim that they never read” […]

“about 5% of Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is produced by agriculture and another 5% by forestry […] In Russian society 100 years ago, 80% of the people were peasants. […] Today 15% of workers in Russia are employed in forestry or agriculture; this remains a much higher rate than in the West, where it is under 3% […] Because the collective farming was notoriously inefficient, people were tacitly encouraged by the authorities to take care of themselves and to grow their own food. Small plots of land (averaging 0.06 ha) were grudgingly given out by the Soviet authorities to the urban residents, so that some food could be grown around cities. […] Villagers had slightly larger plots of land (usually 0.10–0.20 ha) immediately next to their houses to grow their own food. […] These tiny plots yielded an astonishing 30% of the total agricultural produce in the country in 1980, and yield even more today. […] Fewer than 20% of all vegetables are produced on large farms. […]

“Because Soviet agriculture was so inefficient […], the Soviet Union had to import about one-fifth of its total calories by the early 1980s, making it the largest single importer of food on earth […] About one-quarter of all economic expenditures in the Soviet Union were on food. […] In 2005 over $16 billion was spent by Russia to import food — almost 17% of all imports for the year. The cost went up to $35 billion by 2008 […] Although for some African nations food constitutes one-third of all imports, for a typical European country food accounts for under 10% of imports (under 5% in the United States)”

“Russia is a country of heavy smokers; 65% of its men smoke, as compared to 35% in France or 22% in the United States. Fewer Russian women smoke (about 10%), but their number is increasing (World Health Organization, 2007).”

“The service sector was greatly underdeveloped in the Soviet Union, because the government always gave the highest priority to heavy industry. Although mass transit was well developed, other services lagged far behind Western norms. After World War II only 10% of all workers were in the service sector, and by 1990 only 25%, as compared to over 70% in the United States at that time. […] recent years have seen a massive increase in the relative importance of services”

“about 80% of all those commuting to work in Russian cities do so by bus […] In Russia only 14% of travel happens by plane, as compared to 40% by automobile and 33% by train. The proportion of air travel is higher than in the United States because a lot fewer people travel by private car in Russia (under 10% of all passenger-kilometers, as opposed to almost 85% in the United States).”

“Russia had over 44,000 km of petroleum pipelines and over 150,000 km of gas pipelines in 2008. […] Although less glamorous than trains or planes, pipelines move more freight, about 55% of the total […] Of these, 59% move natural gas and 41% move petroleum.”

“About 27% of the Russian population had online access in 2008 (38 million users) […] Internet access is about as common in Russia now as it is in Turkey or Brazil, but not nearly as common as in developed Asia or Europe.”

“Not only were goods not necessarily available at the Soviet shops, but entire categories of stores simply did not exist. For example, there were no shopping malls with brand-name stores, because there were no brands; all clothing was made by the state, with minimal differences among the available models. There were no craft stores, no car dealerships, and no home improvement stores.” (reminded me of this)

“In Northern Eurasia or the former Soviet Union (FSU), there are 15 countries in four groups: the Baltic states; Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; the three states in the trans-Caucasus; and the five states of Central Asia. Russia is presently divided into seven regions, distinguished on the basis of political units.” Here’s a brief overview from the book, click to view full size:

Table 22.1
[Again an illustration of why I don’t always trust the author’s numbers: The population figures here are completely off, as a lot of people seem to have been left out. If you add all the population figures they only add up to 84 million, even though the country has more than 140 million inhabitants. There is no explanation in the text for why these numbers don’t add up. My motivation for including the table above both derived from my desire to once again illustrate this aspect and from the fact that it was easier to add the table than it would have been to list the Federal districts myself.] […]

“The Russian Caucasus is included in the South federal district, which occupies 600,000 km2 and contains 23 million people in 13 subjects of federation […] the South district of Russia is the second most densely populated territory after the Central district, with an average density of 40/km2. It is also the least urbanized region, with only 58% of its population living in cities. It leads the country in fertility […] it is also the poorest region among the seven federal districts, with only half of Russia’s average gross regional product (GRP) per capita. […]  The poorest three republics in Russia are war-torn Chechnya (GRP unknown) and its neighbors Ingushetiya (about 15% of the national average) and Dagestan (about one-third of the national average). These are also the areas with the highest unemployment (24%), highest poverty rate, and highest fertility […] Chechnya is years away from being a prosperous and stable society, and this is one area in Russia where travel is not advisable.”

“The Ural Mountains are a treasure trove of resources: coal, iron ore, manganese, titanium, chromium, gold, copper, nickel, vanadium, marble, and many other minerals. This is the richest area in all of Russia with respect to nonferrous metals and gemstones. Over 1,000 minerals are found in the Urals […] Now that Tyumen Oblast and the two autonomous okrugs are included in the Urals district, the region has also become by far the richest area in Russia with respect to petroleum and natural gas, accounting for over 70% of all Russia’s oil and more than 80% of its natural gas reserves. […] The oil and natural gas fields of what was then the West Siberia economic region were discovered in the 1960s and developed in the 1970s. In 1965 this area produced only 1 million metric tonnes (mmt) of petroleum, but by 1985 it was […] 400 mmt […] The production of oil in this area dropped dramatically in the 1990s because of the economic downturn, to about 200 mmt per year in 1995, but has since risen to about 320 mmt. This number is unlikely to increase farther, because the oil fields are rapidly being depleted.”

“Siberia is pivotal to Russia’s economic might. It is part of Asiatic Russia and is usually defined as [I thought this choice of words was problematic. See the wiki] the land east of the Urals and west of the Lena River, sometimes including the entire watershed of the Lena. Thus the territory west of Siberia is European Russia, and the land east of it is the Far East, also called the Russian Pacific. […] Siberia thus defined (5.1 million km2) is just a little smaller than the largest (Far East) federal district, and is bigger than the European Union (EU) in size. Although it accounts for about one third of Russia’s territory, it has only 20 million residents, giving it an average population density of only 3.9 people/km2. […] It has few people, plenty of natural resources, and a very cold continental climate. Like the rest of Russia, Siberia is losing population fast […] The overall decline is about –0.6% per year, among the fastest in Russia.” […]

“The [Russian Far East] has merely 6.7 million residents [spread out over 6.2 million km2], giving it a population density of 1.1/km2— the lowest average density in Russia, and only one-third of Canada’s density. To put it another way, this huge region is settled by only about half as many people as live in Moscow. […] With respect to economic development, the southern part of the region along the Trans-Siberian Railroad is more or less contiguously settled. In the north, there are three isolated clusters of development (around Yakutsk, Magadan, and Petropavlovsk), with virtually untouched wilderness in between. […] The Far East has lost about 1 million people since 1991.”

“The history of Ukraine’s statehood is a long and convoluted one, but essentially centers on internal struggles between pro-Russian and pro-Polish groups and on its emerging nationalism since the mid-18th century, with perpetually shifting affinities and borders. Areas of western Ukraine have seen hundreds of border adjustments in the past five centuries […] Ukraine in this sense is a classic example of a political transition zone in perpetual search of an identity. Post-Soviet Ukraine remains in the same position today” […]

“Close to a million Moldovans have left the country for employment in the construction, retail, food, and textile industries of Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Italy, and France. [The current population of the country amounts to ~4 million people…]

“Uzbekistan’s leading export is not oil [like Kazakhstan], but cotton; its major industry is not machine building [-ll-], but textiles. It does have limited natural gas supplies, but very little petroleum. In short, it has relatively little to offer to the world […] Uzbekistan has some of the worst corruption in the world as measured by Transparency International, and it also has one of the most brutal and least transparent judicial systems. In particular, opposition journalists are persecuted and sometimes disappear without a trace. […] Kyrgyzstan is another struggling economy in the region. Although it was the first Central Asian state to launch market reforms and political democratization in the early 1990s, it soon fell out of pace with Kazakhstan and Russia because of internal political tensions. […] a bloody revolt […] deepening economic crisis […] pervasive corruption […] Tajikistan is the least developed, poorest, and most mountainous country in the FSU. […] a bitter civil war […] Islamist movements […] an increasingly vocal Muslim population […] unresolved border disputes […] frequent border closures […] Turkmenistan is the most closed society of Central Asia. Its development was severely hampered by 15 years of […] autocratic rule […] Its economy […] is one of the least privatized in the FSU, with about 70% of all assets still state owned. […] Central Asia remains one of the remotest areas of the world, far away from the economic powerhouses of Asia, Europe, or North America, and is entirely landlocked.” [Sounds like a great place to visit!]

November 23, 2013 Posted by | books, communism, data, demographics, Geography, history, Russia | Leave a comment

Joke of the day

Two men are talking on a Pyongyang subway train:

“How are you, comrade?”

“Fine, how are you doing?”

“Comrade, by any chance, do you work for the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Have you worked for the Central Committee before?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Then, are any of your family members working for the Central Committee?”


“Then, get away from me! You’re standing on my foot!”

There’s more along the same lines at the link, via MR.

May 4, 2010 Posted by | communism, North Korea | Leave a comment

Quote of the day

I had almost the exact same experience in April of 1989. I drove across from the crossing near Hannover, and was struck by the nastiness of the border procedures (even though I’d expected them). Then I was deeply disturbed by my first sight of the Wall, even though I knew its history well. I got to it near midnight, which didn’t help, but still, I was struck by how furious and disgusted I was at the sight of the thing – and the accompanying searchlights, razor wire, guard towers, and so on. How anyone could look at it and not immediately think “horrible high security prison camp”, I couldn’t say.

And I crossed on foot through Checkpoint Charlie the next day, was similarly robbed of 30 West-marks, and couldn’t spend them, either. I had a foul bratwurst for lunch, and thought that on that evidence alone there must be something seriously off when the Germans were unable to produce a decent sausage. I saw the goose-stepping guards at the Unknown Soldier tomb (in the company of some appalled Brits who swore under their breath), and at the Friedrichstrasse U-bahn platform (an island inside an island) I watched in shock as the booted, armed, long-coated guard went strolling along the catwalk above us, watching the crowd. “I’ve seen this movie”, I kept thinking.

I ended up buying a book in the Volksbuchhandlung as a souvenir, after similar being yelled at by the cashier woman for trying to shop without a hand basket, the way the sign said I had to. I dropped a copy of “Amnesty International: A Biography of Lies” into it, and the handle fell off.

And at the end of the day, the guard back at the checkpoint informed me that I could not leave with any DDR currency. “Was soll Ich denn tun?” I asked him, and he replied flatly in thickly accented English: “Enchoy a ress-taurant”. I walked out a couple of blocks away and gave my currency to the first East German couple pushing a baby carriage I saw.

I, too, thought that I’d definitely seen evil right in front of me. I’ve never had reason to think differently.

Derek Lowe’s comment to this post. Read the original post as well.

I’m too young to remember the fall of the Wall, I was 4 years old at that point in time, and it didn’t stick even if in retrospect I’d have liked it to (and even if I do remember personal events that took place before that, which I do), however I did spend a little time, not much; a couple of days at most, in Berlin sometime at the beginning of the 90’es. I don’t remember the exact year, but it was almost certainly less than 5 years after the Wall had fallen. My family went to Poland that year – in car – and on the way I saw both the remains of the Berlin Wall and Auschwitz. I have never been to Berlin since then, but what I took with me from that trip could probably be boiled down to the thought that Berlin was just an ugly, battered big city – probably due to the fact that we spent most (/all?) our time in the Eastern parts of the city. A lot of the inefficiencies and quirks of ‘the old system’ was still in place in Eastern Europe at that time: For instance, it took us more than four hours to cross the (German-)Polish border, and my dad twice had to bribe (‘pay a fine to…’) policemen from the traffic police with cash in order to avoid ‘spending the night in jail’ – the last time it happened was very close to the (…again German-Polish-) border on our way home, and my dad had a pretty good idea how those policemen made most of their income. He was furious; they demanded a lot of money. One other thing I remember from that trip is the fact that the roads in Eastern Europe at that time were in a horrible shape: one road in particular stood out because it was made of concrete, not asfalt. Every 100 yards or so there would be this ‘thunk’ sound, as the tires passed from one ‘chunk’ of road to the next. The road was probably first established during Hitler’s major infrastructure projects, and it didn’t look like much had happened since the war. And anyway, how and why would you even try to make a trip in a car like this one ‘convenient’ – most people driving that kind of car would probably be (almost) happy if it didn’t break down altogether while they were driving…

The situation has changed a lot since then. Now’s as good a time as any to remember that, and be grateful for that. Even if you’ve never lived on the wrong side of the barbed wire.

November 9, 2009 Posted by | communism | Leave a comment

Quote of the day

“An old guy’s wife tells him to go to the butcher shop and get some meat. He goes to the butcher shop and stands in line for hours. Finally the butcher says, “We’re out of meat.” The old guy blows his top. He yells, “I am a worker! I am a proletarian! I am a veteran of the Great Patriotic War! I have fought for socialism all my life, and now you tell me you’re out of meat! What kind of a system is this?! You are fools! You are thieves! . . . ” A big man in a trench coat comes up to the old guy and says, “Comrade, Comrade, not so loud. In the old days you know what they would do if you said such things.” The big man in the trench coat makes a pistol motion with his hand. He says to the old guy, “Calm down and go home.” The old guy shrugs and leaves. He comes back empty-handed, and his wife says, “What’s the matter, are they out of meat?” “Worse than that,” says the old guy, “they’re out of bullets.”

P.J. O’Rourke, via Samizdata.

August 28, 2009 Posted by | communism | Leave a comment

Communism test

How much do you know about the atrocities that communist regimes have committed? Find out here.

My own score was 60% correct answers, but I could probably have done better if I had spent a little time preparing first. I’m pretty sure I own enough books on the subject to be able to answer almost all of the questions without google or wikipedia (not that I particularly trust the latter on these subjects, as I have mentioned before).

June 18, 2008 Posted by | communism | Leave a comment

Clips from North Korea

The guys from VBS have been to North Korea. They made 14 videoclips, all of which are available here. Highly recommended, this is probably the best piece on NK I have ever seen.

I know that when posting links only a tiny fraction of the readers actually follow them. In this case I can only say: Please, do click the link to the VBS-series. The only reason why I have not uploaded some of the clips here on the site, which I know would result in far more views than a link on its own, is because I have no idea how to do it (the format is not youtube or googlevid). If you have to limit yourself to one clip I recommend part 5, but of course you don’t and the whole series doesn’t last not much more than an hour, maybe an hour and a half.

HT: Samizdata.

March 25, 2008 Posted by | communism, North Korea | 2 Comments

A concise history of the Russian Revolution

I have hinted to the contents of the book a few times, now I’ve finally completed it.

Even if it is just a précis of The Russian Revolution and Russia under the Bolshevik regime, it is a long book, 400+ pages. I liked most of it, a lot of new stuff and only a few things I don’t yet know if I agree with (to the untrained eye they would appear to be nothing but insignificant technicalities; ie. I am not sure if I agree with Pipes evaluation of the impact of Stolypin’s reforms before the Revolution) – however one horrible thing really, really annoyed me: Sources! He pretty much doesn’t tell us anything about his sources in the book, there are only 13 references altogether. I assume they are saved for those who read the two aforementioned books – according to the introduction, they have a combined 1300 pages and 4500 references. But it is still very annoying if you don’t have them at hand and wish to dig a little deeper. I shall have to buy the other two…

If you don’t care about this, then the book is just great. I would say that some knowledge about World War One is an advantage (I have already mentioned where to start – by reading both you get more of “the full picture”), but it is not absolutely necessary.

July 29, 2007 Posted by | books, communism, history, Russia | 2 Comments

Quote of the day

of the foodstuffs consumed in Russian cities in the winter of 1919-20, as measured by their caloric value, the free market furnished between 66 and 80 percent.

From “A concise history of the Russian Revolution”.

July 24, 2007 Posted by | communism, quotes | Leave a comment