Random stuff

I find it difficult to find the motivation to finish the half-finished drafts I have lying around, so this will have to do. Some random stuff below.


(15.000 views… In some sense that seems really ‘unfair’ to me, but on the other hand I doubt neither Beethoven nor Gilels care; they’re both long dead, after all…)

ii. New/newish words I’ve encountered in books, on or elsewhere:

Agleyperipeteia, disseverhalidom, replevinsocage, organdie, pouffe, dyarchy, tauricide, temerarious, acharnement, cadger, gravamen, aspersion, marronage, adumbrate, succotash, deuteragonist, declivity, marquetry, machicolation, recusal.

iii. A lecture:

It’s been a long time since I watched it so I don’t have anything intelligent to say about it now, but I figured it might be of interest to one or two of the people who still subscribe to the blog despite the infrequent updates.

iv. A few wikipedia articles (I won’t comment much on the contents or quote extensively from the articles the way I’ve done in previous wikipedia posts – the links shall have to suffice for now):

Duverger’s law.

Far side of the moon.

Preference falsification.

Russian political jokes. Some of those made me laugh (e.g. this one: “A judge walks out of his chambers laughing his head off. A colleague approaches him and asks why he is laughing. “I just heard the funniest joke in the world!” “Well, go ahead, tell me!” says the other judge. “I can’t – I just gave someone ten years for it!”).

Political mutilation in Byzantine culture.

v. World War 2, if you think of it as a movie, has a highly unrealistic and implausible plot, according to this amusing post by Scott Alexander. Having recently read a rather long book about these topics, one aspect I’d have added had I written the piece myself would be that an additional factor making the setting seem even more implausible is how so many presumably quite smart people were so – what at least in retrospect seems – unbelievably stupid when it came to Hitler’s ideas and intentions before the war. Going back to Churchill’s own life I’d also add that if you were to make a movie about Churchill’s life during the war, which you could probably relatively easily do if you were to just base it upon his own copious and widely shared notes, then it could probably be made into a quite decent movie. His own comments, remarks, and observations certainly made for a great book.

May 15, 2016 Posted by | astronomy, Computer science, history, language, Lectures, mathematics, music, random stuff, Russia, wikipedia | Leave a comment

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

A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors (II)

I’ve now read roughly two-thirds of the book so I figured I might as well post another post about the book, even though I’m not actually particularly impressed with the stuff I’ve read since the last post. My current goodreads rating is now much closer to two stars than three. Topics which I’ve read about since the last post include: The Geopolitical Position of Russia in the World (chapter 9); Demographics and Population Distribution (chapter 10); Cities and Villages (chapter 11); Social issues – Health, Wealth, Poverty, and Crime (chapter 12); Cultures and Languages (chapter 13); Religion, Diet, and Dress (chapter 14); Education, Arts, Sciences, and Sports (chapter 15); Tourism (chapter 16); Oil, Gas, and Other Energy Sources (chapter 17, the first in Part IV, about economics); and Heavy Industry and the Military Complex (chapter 18).

The author applies a data-centered approach most of the time, and I love that! …which makes it harder for me to be critical of the stuff than it otherwise might have been. However critical I must be, and some chapters are much better than others. In one specific chapter he includes numbers which anyone with two brain-cells can tell are complete bullshit, without adding many critical remarks – according to the crime per capita estimates provided in that chapter, Russia’s crime/capita numbers are less than one-fourth of those of the UK. Yeah.. On a related note, an implicit assumption often rearing its ugly head in the text is that the economic data provided towards the end of the Soviet Era accurately reflected economic conditions. Stuff like that – numbers and the problem of how to interpret them and when in particular to be cautious – cause a few problems along the way. Even (semi-?)valid numbers and estimates are not always put into the proper context, so for example 2002 numbers and 2009 numbers (or numbers from the early 90es and numbers from the 2000s) are given in consecutive paragraphs without attention to the problem that these numbers may not be comparable. I’m not sure the author knows what a standard deviation is, so I am not sure this is the kind of person you want writing a book with a lot of data. He’s far from always uncritical, this must be said, but there’s still a trust issue here for me to deal with in that I often don’t think he’s nearly as skeptical and precise as he ought to be; he draws conclusions not fully supported by the data he uses to support the conclusions in question more than a few times. It should be mentioned that at least in part the trust problem arises due to the scope of the book; as can be inferred from the topics listed above nobody can claim to be an expert on all of this stuff, so you need to take some things on faith. But the problem is surely aggravated by some of the more ‘soft’, not-too-data centered chapters, where he’s just in my view way too uncritical of Soviet material (/propaganda) and seem to try to make Soviet life out to be better than you’d conclude that it had been if you were to just judge by the numbers he provides himself and not ignoring obvious less-than-flattering interpretations. Here’s an example of the kind of stuff I find problematic:

“By and large, the [health] care was decent. A Soviet worker who came down with flu, for example, just needed to dial the local clinic’s phone in the morning and stay in bed; the physician on call would come and visit the worker at home, usually later that same day. Physicians were accustomed to spending about half of their workday making house calls.”

My first thought: F..¤#$£ inefficient as hell, and probably hellishly expensive! Here’s a related observation:

“The Soviet Union also had one of the longest average hospital stays in the world, because home care was viewed as inherently inferior, while hospital beds were free. A typical hospitalization would last for 2–3 weeks, and frequently over a month.”

Given this kind of information, it really should be no surprise that:

“By the end of the Soviet period, the U.S.S.R. had the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the world”.

But here’s the thing – the word ‘inefficient’ isn’t mentioned once in that chapter. The lots of doctors/capita is interpreted as a great thing, not a serious problem indicating severe inefficiencies in health care delivery. The same chapter started out with some pure gold which really set the pace for the rest of that chapter:

“The Soviet Union had what was arguably one of the best health care systems in the world. Surprised? If you have seen Michael Moore’s film Sicko, you may not be: Moore depicts Cuba as an example of a socialist state with a free, universal health care system that has produced impressive results. This is something many Americans and even some Europeans have a hard time imagining.”

(Naturally) I was very close to stopping reading altogether there – ‘arguably’ indeed. He’s talking about a country where the life expectancy was below 70 years (in 1990), far from the top 10 percent of the world (but ‘within the best third’, which is the only observation regarding the relative performance he includes..). Instead of stopping reading there I decided instead to adjust my expectations downwards and to just start paying a lot more attention to the raw data (and where it was coming from) and a lot less attention to the author’s observations and interpretations of said data. I think this was a good decision. I don’t think the author always understands what he’s talking about although I’m sure he does sometimes. What I’m also sure of is that his standards of evidence are different from mine.

Another illustrative quote and some related observations from chapter 12 below:

“The health care system went through a major restructuring on short notice [in the 90s], with support from the state abruptly declining to a fraction of its former amount due to rising inflation rates and to unwillingness or inability to pay more.”

In light of the data above it probably wouldn’t be outrageous to assume that said ‘unwillingness’ was presumably at least a little related to the fact that the system which was set up was inefficient and provided far from impressive health outcomes. Of course there were other reasons as well, relating to political economy stuff and so on. But he never comes close to even saying this. Even weirder, he talks about “fewer doctors” being one explanation for the worsened health outcomes during the post-Soviet period on the very same page that he provides data making it very clear that the number of doctors was not the problem. Judging from the data he provides himself on that page, the raw number of physicians in Russia was pretty much identical in 1990 and 2000 (though it was a little lower in 1995), and it was notably higher than both years in 2005 (and so the number of physicians/1000 people was if anything higher in 2000 than in 1990 judging from that data, as the nation underwent a significant population decline during the period – something he documents himself in the book and talks about in some detail).

Obvious conclusions from the data are not always drawn, and questionable conclusions from the same data sometimes seem to be. But there’s a lot of data and there’s a lot of good stuff as well, and so I felt I should add some data from the chapters mentioned above below. The book is a mixed bag at this point. I’m learning a lot, but I feel like I have to be a lot more cautious about trusting the information provided than I usually need to be when I’m reading a book. I have never felt any need to worry about the author lying to me about how kidneys work while reading McPhee et al, or about the author using very questionable data to draw conclusions without pointing out that there’s some uncertainty here. Blinnikov isn’t uncritical, but compared to some of the publications I have made a habit of reading at this point reading this book occasionally feels a bit like reading an elephant’s account of his brother’s trip to the porcelain shop – this stuff seems too close to politics for comfort, and the author isn’t as careful and unbiased in his coverage as I’d have liked. Anway, quotes below (my bold):

Since 1992 […] Russia has been steadily losing people to the tune of 500,000 or so per year, and this has become a firmly established phenomenon. […] the average Russian man is expected to live only 61 years, and the average Russian woman 74. The reasons for this discrepancy are complex, but the factor most commonly cited is the high rate of alcoholism among Russian men […] only about 100,000 legal migrants come to Russia each year, while about 500,000 people are lost per year due to the fertility–mortality imbalance. […] About 16% of the Russian population has completed a college education (vs. 28% in the United States) […] Only three-quarters of all households in Russia have running water, while only 71% have flush toilets. […] 82% of urban dwellers have central heat provided by a power plant, while 50% of rural dwellers depend on wood-burning brick ovens or on coal boilers.” […]

“sanitary norms set in 1922 dictated the size of the minimal livable space at 9 m2 […] per person. This remained unchanged over the entire Soviet period and without respect to local needs […] As illustrated in Bater (1996), the actual space available toward the end of the U.S.S.R. ranged from 13 m2 in Estonia to 7 m2 in Turkmenistan, with 10 m2 being the national average. […] On average, one person has 19 m2 in which to live [today]. […]

The level of urbanization rose through the 20th century: In 1900 almost 80% of the Russian Empire consisted of peasants; in 1950 the U.S.S.R. had an urbanization level of 52%; in 1970 it was 62%; and since 1990 Russia’s level has been 74%. […] Even by 2005, only 7% of the total agricultural output in Russia was produced on private farms. The kolkhozy were restructured into joint-stock cooperative ventures, but their management practices remained essentially unchanged. Although the workers collectively own each enterprise now, the head manager typically has the controlling vote, and the enterprise continues to be inefficient. In 2005, the output of the Russian agricultural sector was 40% less than in 1990; the sown acreage had decreased at least 30%; and the number of cattle had decreased by 46%. Russia today imports a little less than half of the food it needs to feed its own population—one of the highest rates of foreign-food dependency in the world” [at least he commented upon the inefficiency here, otherwise I would have. I’ll add here that it’s likely that the 1990 numbers can’t be trusted, so although this is not the impression you get from reading the book the extent to which this is a ‘true decline’ is probably still to some extent an open question.]

“there were 31,800 murders and attempted murders in Russia in 2000, versus only 22,200 in 2007. The majority of contract killings were perpetrated by the mob against prominent businessmen and journalists in the mid-1990s (Volkov, 1999); such attacks are now rare. Most domestic homicides happen between spouses and involve alcohol.” […]

“Russia had over 1 million prisoners in 1995, and about 872,000 10 years later. Seven percent of the inmates in 2005 were women, and about 17% were repeat offenders.” […]

“The Transparency International organization’s global Corruption Perception Index for 2007 ranked Russia very much near the bottom, in 143rd place out of 179 countries—right above Togo” […]

in Russia about 80% of people have been baptized in the Orthodox faith, but only 44% profess belief in a God, and merely 12% attend church on a monthly basis.” […] 22% are agnostics who are not sure whether there is a God, and about 22% call themselves atheists. By comparison, in the United States about 75% of people consider themselves Christians, and about 40% attend a religious ceremony at least once a month.” […] About 25% [of Russians] embrace a vague syncretic worldview that recognizes the existence of spirits, karma, and reincarnation, and affirms divination, talismans, tarot, and yoga as legitimate practices, while simultaneously professing adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church (which vehemently condemns all of these things).” […]

“many universities are located in Moscow and St. Petersburg: In 2000, 171 (19%) were found in Moscow and 77 (8%) in St. Petersburg, with a total of 914 colleges and universities, public and private, in the entire country.” […]

In the late 1970s, over 150 full-length movies were made in the U.S.S.R. per year. Russian film production practically ceased in 1992–1996 due to lack of funding, with merely 20–30 produced per year; it began again in the mid-1990s with Hollywood-wannabe gangster flicks sponsored by shady businessmen. […] By comparison, Hollywood produced over 400 movies in 1996. […] About 120 new movies come out every year in Russia now […] The number of modern multiplex cinemas in Russia went up from 8 in 1995 to 185 in 2001″ […]

In real terms (after adjustment for inflation), the salary of a PhD-level senior researcher decreased by a factor of 10 between 1989 and 1999, whereas many other professions supported by state budgets did not see a comparable decline. Thus, if in the late Soviet period a Moscow city bus driver had a salary slightly lower than that of a physics professor, by the end of the Yeltsin period the bus driver was making five to seven times more than the professor. The result, predictably, was a drastic reduction in the number of scientists. […]

By the end of the Soviet period, about 30 million people per year took advantage of resorts and sanatoria in the Russian Federation alone, not counting the other republics. Most were domestic tourists. The number of organized tourists in Russia abruptly plunged to a mere 8 million per year following the economic collapse of 1991, however. […] In 2008 36.5 million Russians crossed the nation’s borders; 11 million of these crossings were for tourist trips, and 2 million business trips. […] Russia sends five times as many tourists abroad as it receives.” […]

“The U.S.S.R. was the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world by the early 1980s, surpassing the United States and Saudi Arabia with production from the giant fields in western Siberia […] [Russia] remains the world leader in natural gas production and is currently second in petroleum production […] The share of [the energy] sector went up from only 12% of the total gross domestic product (GDP) in 1991 to 31% in 2002. […] The distribution of energy production in Russia is very uneven. The oil and gas fields in western Siberia produce 69% of all the petroleum and 91% of all the natural gas […] In 2007, 4 companies in the top 20 in Russia were engaged in metal production, heavy machinery production, or other heavy manufacturing” […]

“Perhaps the heaviest legacy […] of the Soviet economy was its military–industrial complex, called in Russian the […] VPK. Its presence was pervasive: Entire cities were built around steel mills, aluminum smelters, tank manufacturers, chemical factories, or nuclear weapons facilities. Over 50% of the country’s industrial output in the 1980s was generated by this sector. […] According
to some estimates, in the late Soviet period about one-quarter of all industrial workers in the country (5 million people) were employed by the VPK, including almost 1 million researchers at over 2,000 institutes and factories, and the sector accounted for almost 20% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Hundreds of research labs, institutes, and factories were scattered over a few dozen small and medium-sized cities that did not appear on any maps […] They were largely declassified, renamed, and finally put on maps by 2000. Most remain closed to casual visitors, however, and even Russia’s residents (let alone foreigners) require special permits to enter.”

November 20, 2013 Posted by | books, data, demographics, Geography, Geology, Russia | Leave a comment

A Geography of Russia and Its Neighbors (I)

I’m currently reading this book, and I like it so far. The book has stuff on physical geography (relief and hydrography, climate, biomes, and environmental stuff), the history and politics of the area/region, cultural and social geography (demographics and population distribution/structure, cultural stuff including religion and language etc.), some stuff about economic factors of interest, as well as some chapters providing more details about the specific regions towards the end of the book. The book mostly deals with Russia, but there’s stuff about other post-Soviet states as well.

Reading it feels a little like reading a very detailed wikipedia article (~450 pages long) and I must admit that I’ve probably lost a little more respect for humanities students along the way while reading this; again it’s not that the book is bad, far from it, but I feel pretty sure you don’t add much value to an education by including courses such as ones dealing with material like this. The ability of a university student to read and understand a book like this will tell you very little about their abilities as nine out of ten high schoolers technically ought be able to do that without problems. Also, reading the book will take a normal person at most a couple of days, so if an employer has a position that really requires one to know stuff like what’s in the book I don’t see how it could ever be a big deal if the applicant doesn’t – the situation is a bit different if the individual doesn’t know multi-variable calculus and that is a requirement. A depressing point is that even though this is an easy read, a course dealing with the stuff in this book is probably potentially a lot more useful than are many other courses those students might have taken instead (art history, Hebrew studies, theatre research, Indology (“In this course, students will be introduced to the basic Indian systems of Yoga, both in its ancient texts and practices and in its modern practice and will pay particular attention to the development of Yoga in Denmark in the 20th century.”),…) (all examples in the previous parenthesis taken directly from the University of Copenhagen course catalogue).

This is not the first book about Russia/USSR I read, but most of the stuff I’ve read so far has only dealt with the history of the country/region; this book adds a lot of stuff because it deals with a lot of other things as well. I think he actually handles the history part quite well, but of course it’s not a very detailed account.

Below I’ve added some observations from the first third of the book or so:

“Russia has over 120,000 rivers over 10 km long, which collectively create 2.3 million km of waterways. Fifty-four percent of their flow enters the Arctic Ocean, with only 15% entering the Pacific. Another 8% of water flows to the Atlantic Ocean via the Black and Baltic Seas, and 23% to the Aral-Caspian interior basin with no outlet to the ocean. […] The [Volga] basin occupies only 8% of the country, but is home to 40% of its population. […] The Volga loses 7% of its annual flow to human consumption. Its flow has been reduced by about 20% in the last 100 years. The Siberian rivers primarily flow north to the Arctic Ocean, with the exception of the Amur, which flows east into the Pacific.”

“Climatologists generally consider the following factors important in producing a particular climate type: Latitude, […] Elevation above sea level […] Proximity to the ocean […] Presence of ocean currents […] Prevalent wind direction […] Position relative to a mountain range […] Cloud cover and dust […] Human infrastructure.” [there are further details in the book about how these factors impact the climate of the FSU, in broad terms, but I won’t go into the details here…]

“Only a fraction of the Russian population (8%) lives near a seacoast […] Compare this to the United States, where two-thirds of all people live within 200 km of a coast” […] [I’ve previously blogged this map, and it’s pretty handy if you want to know more about the details of where people live –  more than three out of four Russians live in the European part of the country, and so Siberia is relatively empty. If you want to know more about the population density of the US, I’ve blogged that stuff before as well here.]

“The biomes of Northern Eurasia are similar to those of Europe or North America: tundra in the north; taiga and deciduous forests in the middle; steppe and desert in the south. The extreme south has deserts or subtropical Mediterranean-like shrub vegetation. […] For millions of years, Northern Eurasia and North America were connected to each other […] This resulted in an array of animals and plants that are shared by these two regions. […] The flora and fauna of India (which is on the same continent as Russia), on the other hand, are completely dissimilar to Northern Eurasia’s; they are more like Africa’s. […] Many animal genera or even species are identical in North America and Northern Eurasia […] If an exact match is missing, there is usually a pretty good substitute/vicariant species” […]

“The overall diversity of the plants and animals in Russia is not great, because of its northern location. For example, there are 11,000 species of vascular plants, 30 of amphibians, 75 of reptiles, 730 of birds, and 320 of mammals in the Russian Federation. By comparison, the United States (a more southern country half the size of Russia) has 19,000 species of vascular plants, 260 of amphibians, 360 of reptiles, 650 of birds, and 360 of mammals.”

“In Northern Eurasia, the taiga is a huge biome (covering over half of all Russia) […] The boreal forests of Eurasia make up about 21% of the world’s total tree cover on 5.3 million km2 […] Soils of the taiga are poor in nutrients and acidic […] Steppe forms in areas with moisture deficit that precludes tree growth. Although steppes are on average warmer than most of the forested biomes to the north, it is really the lack of water that determines the tree boundary. […] The classic Eurasian steppe is treeless […] There are few places where virgin steppe can still be seen. As in North America, over 99% of this biome in Eurasia was plowed under in the 19th and 20th centuries.” […]

“With its spacious, rainless interior, Eurasia is home to the northernmost deserts in the world. […] The main deserts in North America are found at latitudes between 25º and 35ºN, whereas in Eurasia they occur between 38º and 44ºN. […] Altogether, the Central Asian deserts occupy 3.5 million km2 — an area as large as Saudi Arabia and Iran combined.” […]

“The exact sequence and elevation of the vegetation belts [of a mountain range] are determined by the direction of the slope (north-facing slopes are always colder and have a lower treeline) and by local climatic and biological factors. The treeline, for example, occurs at 300 m in the polar Urals and the Khibins in the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic, but at 2,000 m in the Carpathian mountains, 2,500 m in the Caucasus, and above 3,000 m in much of Central Asia” […]

“The U.S.S.R. was one of the largest polluters of air on the planet, and Russia still is today […] Between 2000 and 2005, an average big city in Russia saw a 30% increase in air pollutants. […] Although there has been some increase in production since 2000, Russia generally pollutes less today than it did 20 years ago. However, a major new contributor to air pollution is car exhaust. Moscow, for example, had only 500,000 automobiles in the late 1980s. Today there are about 4 million cars and trucks in the city […] In 2007, Russia as a whole had 195 passenger cars per 1,000 people […] In the late Soviet period, Russia had only 50 cars per 1,000 people.” […]

“Every spring, Moscow faucets run with brownish-tinged water smelling faintly of manure; it enters the Moscow water supply system from agricultural fields upstream.” […]

“At the end of the Soviet period, the U.S.S.R. boasted over 40 [nuclear] reactors at 15 sites (today Russia has 31 reactors at 10 operating plants), not counting a few dozen small research reactors at scientific institutes. By comparison, the United States has slightly over 100 commercial reactors, Japan has 63, and France has 59. […] Nuclear pollution is unevenly concentrated in the FSU, and much of the information about former accidents is still classified. […] the highest levels of such pollution are found in and around Chernobyl (northern Ukraine, southeastern Belarus, and southwestern Russia); in the Novaya Zemlya islands and Semey, Kazakhstan; and at the production facilities in Sarov, Kyshtym, and a few cities near Krasnoyarsk. Furthermore, there are several submarine staging areas where offshore dumping of nuclear waste took place in the Far East and off the Kola Peninsula. Beyond these areas, there are a smattering of sites polluted by radiation—for example, in European Russia in Ivanovo and Perm Oblasts close to Moscow, as well as in the Komi Republic […] Unlike in the United States, information on the actual location of [toxic waste] sites in Russia or other post-Soviet states is not readily available. […] These sites number in the hundreds, if not in the thousands” […]

“The eventual rise of Moscow to the preeminent position among Russian cities had to do with some pure luck and the political talents of the early princes there, but it also owed a good deal to geography: Originally an insignificant wooden fort (established in 1147), it was located at a perfect midpoint between the sources of the Dnieper and the Volga. It was situated on a tributary (the Moscow) of a tributary (the Oka) of the Volga—not on the main water artery, but close enough to Smolensk (100 km to the west in the Dnieper basin) that the Dnieper headwaters could be easily reached. In the age before highways, all transportation of goods took place by rivers. […] The main exploratory push and the expansion of the Russian frontier across Siberia came in the mid-17th century with the new Romanov dynasty […] in less than one century (from 1580 to 1650), the Russian state was extended from Tyumen in western Siberia all the way to Okhotsk on the Pacific Coast! Of course, this vast area was not fully settled by any means, but about two dozen forts were built at strategic locations. […] Every major Siberian city that was established during this period is situated on a big river. The movement was somewhat analogous to the opening of the American West, except that it was driven less by farmers and more by fur traders […] The early settlers were a highly mobile force, not interested in farming or other sedentary pursuits. […] In comparison, the movement to the west, north, and south was much slower, because more developed states and tribes there made rapid expansion impossible.”

“By the start of World War I in 1914, the Russian Empire included most of Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova (Bessarabia); Finland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia; the Central Asian states (Russian Turkestan); Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; significant portions of Poland; and some Turkish cities in the Balkans. Only about 45% of its population consisted of ethnic Russians. The total population was 125 million in 1897, the time of the first Russian census. Alaska was sold in 1867 to the United States […] After a bitter civil war […] in 1917–1922 […] U.S.S.R. […] reconstituted itself within the former borders of the Russian Empire, with the
exceptions of Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, much of western Ukraine and Belarus, and Moldova. This may be explained by not only political and cultural but also geographic factors. […] northern Eurasia forms a large, easily-defensible area bounded by some of the highest mountains in the world on the south, by the frozen Arctic Ocean on the north, and by the Pacific Ocean on the east. It is much more open and vulnerable in the west, and this is precisely where all the major wars were fought. Once these boundaries were reclaimed by the Soviets in the 1920s, there was relatively little change for 70 years.” […]

“It is important to understand that the Russian Federation today is not merely a smaller U.S.S.R. It is qualitatively different from either the Russian Empire or the U.S.S.R. The latter two had fewer than 50% ethnic Russians and had external borders with nations of very different cultures (e.g., Hungary, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan), whereas Russia is over 80% ethnically Russian and mainly borders other Russian-speaking territories in Ukraine, Belarus, or Kazakhstan […] Although Russia remains the biggest state in the world by area, it is half of its original size and is now only 9th in terms of population” […]

“The average Soviet citizen had less than 20% of the square footage available to the average American, and perhaps about 40% of the level available to the average European. In addition, over half of the country’s population had no access to indoor plumbing. […] In the late 1980s, over 60% of the Soviet Union’s industrial output was in the form of heavy machinery (tractors, turbines, engines, etc.), thought to be necessary for the production of better goods and weapons. Less than 30% was accounted for by consumer goods.” […]

“The important geographic outcome of 1991 was that a single, unitary state, the U.S.S.R., with its capital in Moscow, was replaced on the world maps by 15 newly independent states (NIS), each with its own capital, president, parliament, and so on. Twelve of these would soon form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a military and economic alliance; three others, the Baltics, would be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) in 2004. From 1991 on, the political and economic changes in each NIS were decoupled to a large extent from those in others, and proceeded along individualized trajectories. There were very rapid reforms in the Baltic states, almost no reforms in Uzbekistan and Belarus, and intermediate levels of reforms in others.”

November 18, 2013 Posted by | books, data, demographics, economic history, Geography, Geology, history, Russia | Leave a comment

The First Circle (1)

I have quoted from the book before, here are two other quotes from the book. The first one is from a conversation between two students living in Moscow (one of which is Nadya, Nerzhin’s wife from the first quote):

“Well, forgive me, I’m completely worn out. I don’t have the strength to revise it again. How many times can you revise a thing?”
With this, Olenka’s anger completely disappeared, and she said in a friendly way, “Oh, you’ve got to throw out the foreigners? Well, there, you’re not the only one. Don’t let it get you down.”
“Throwing out the foreigners” meant going through the thesis and replacing every reference to a foreigner: “Lowe demonstrated,” for instance, would have to read, “Scientists have succeeded in demonstrating”; “as Langmuir demonstrated” would become “as has been shown.” Or if a Russian, or a Dane, or a German in the Russian service had done aything at all to distinguish himself, then you had to put in his full name and duly emphasize his high patriotism and immortal services to science.
“Not foreigners. I got rid of them long ago. Now I have to throw out Academician B—–.”
“Our own Soviet?”
“— and his whole theory. And I’d built the whole thing on that. And now it turns out that he — his –”
Academician B—— had fallen into the same abyss as Nadya’s husband.
“Well, don’t take things so hard!” Olenka was saying. “At least they’re going to let you revise it. It could be worse. Muza was telling me—”
But Muza did not hear her. She was buried in her book now, and the room around her did not exist.
“— Muza was saying there was a girl in the litterature department who defended her thesis on Zweig four years ago, and was made assistant professor. Suddenly they discovered that she had said three times in the thesis that Zweig was ‘a cosmopolitan’, and that the thesis supported it. So they called her in to the Highest Credentials Commission and took her degree away. Awful!”


In freedom Isaak Kagan, who had never completed his engineering course, had been head of a stockroom of materials and parts. He had tried to live an obscure life and pass through the Era of Great Accomplishments sideways. He knew it was more peaceful and profitable to be quietly in charge of a stockroom. In his seclusion he concealed an almost fiery passion for gain, and this was what occupied him. Yet at the same time, as far as possible, even in the stockroom he observed the laws of the Sabbath. He was not drawn toward any sort of political activity. But for some reason State Security had selected precisely this Kagan to be hitched to its chariot, and they had dragged him to closed rooms and conspiratorial assignations, insisting that he become a secret informer. That proposal was repulsive to Kagan. He had neither the candor nor the boldness – who did? – to tell them to their faces that what they were suggesting was vile. But with inexhaustible patience he kept silent, mumbled, dragged things out, demurred, fidgeted on his chair – and never did sign an agreement to work for them. It was not that he was incapable of informing. Without a tremor he would have informed on anyone who had harmed or humiliated him. But it would have nauseated him to inform on people who had been good or even indifferent to him.
But because of this stubbornness he was in the bad books of State Security. One cannot protect oneself against everything in this world. There was talk among the people in his own stockroom. Someone cursed out a tool. Someone complained about supplies, someone else about planning. Isaak said nothing and went on writing out his invoices with his indelible pencil. But it became known – indeed, it had probably all been prearranged anyway – and everyone told on everyone else, and all of them received, under Section 58, Paragraph 10, ten years each. Kagan underwent five confrontations, but no one proved that he had said a word. If Section 58 had been tighter, they would have had to let Kagan go. But the iterrogator knew that he had a last resort, which was Paragraph 12 of the same section: failure to inform. So it was for failure to inform that they gave Kagan the same astronomical ten years as the others.


I’m not finished with it yet, it is a long book, but I’ve read enough to know that I highly recommend it.

Btw. I’ve also completed Stjernfeldt & Thomsen. I thoroughly enjoyed Stjernfeldt’s contribution, whereas I was a little bit disappointed with Thomsen’s part of the book. I might write more about it later in a separate post, but I make no promises.

February 4, 2009 Posted by | books, quotes, Russia | Leave a comment

August 1914 (II)

Ok, so now I’ve finished the book. Some more quotes:

“You must realize that the grand-duke is simply waiting for the arrival of the telegram announcing the capture of Lvov. They’re all waiting for that telegram,” Svechin went on insistently, unsmilingly, with irrefutable logic, his eyes glaring ferociously as he pressed the point home. “And that telegram will simply be used to obliterate the whole Samsonov affair. They’ll set the bells ringing all over Russia to celebrate our own incompetence – because the truth is we had the Austrian army in the grip of a pincer movement and let it go, so that when we captured Lvov it was empty.” […] “Russia is doomed to be governed by fools; she knows no other way. I know what I’m talking about.”

Most of the book describes the actions of the military, however there are also parts of the book that takes place very far from the front. One of these is the following passage, which I shall quote at some length, from a dinner-conversation between a middle-aged engineer and ex-revolutionary (Obodovsky) and two young arts students (Naum, Sonya). Words in bold are words that were emphasized in the original text:

Obodovsky smiled gently. “What is an exploiter?”
Naum shrugged his shoulders. “To my mind, it’s only too obvious. You ought to be ashamed to ask a question like that.”
“No one who earns his living in industry is ashamed to ask such a question, young man. The person who sits with his arms folded and pronounces judgment from afar is the one who ought to be ashamed. Today, for instance, we were looking at a grain elevator where not long ago there was nothing but long grass growing, and then we looked at a modern mill. I can’t begin to convey to you how much intelligence, education, foresight, experience and organization have gone into that mill. Do you know what it all costs? It costs ninety percent of the future earnings! The labor of the workers who laid the bricks and hauled the machines costs ten percent – and even that could have been largely replaced by cranes. And they got their ten percent. But then along come some young men, art students … You are reading the arts, aren’t you?”
“What difference does it make? well, yes.”
“Along comes a bunch of art students and they explain to the workers that they are earning too little, and that that little engineer over there in spectacles is earning God knows how much, and that it’s sheer bribery. And these simple, uneducated people believe it and they are indignant: They can understand the value of their own work, but they’re incapable of understanding or putting a price on somebody else’s.”
“But why should Paramonov, the mill owner, make all that profit?” Sonya shouted.
“He doesn’t get it all for nothing, believe me. Remember, I said ‘organization’. He works for his share too. And if anybody does get something for doing nothing, then we must gradually see to it that that money is channeled elsewhere, by rational political measures. We mustn’t try to take it away by throwing bombs, as we did.”
He could not have expressed his backsliding and apostacy more openly. Naum gave a scornful sneer and exchanged glances with Sonya. “Does that mean you have rejected revolutionary methods forever?”


He gave his concluding reply: “I would rather put it differently. Before, I was most concerned with how to distribute everything that other people had created without my help. Now my main preoccupation is how to create. The best brains and hands in the country should concentrate on doing that; we can safely leave distribution to the second-raters.”


“How impatient you are for this revolution! Of course it’s easier to shout and it’s more fun to make a revolution than to build Russia up. That’s too much like hard work. If you were older and could remember 1905 and how it all looked at the time…” […] A reasonable man cannot be in favour of revolution, because revolution is a long and insane process of destruction. Above all, no revolution ever strengthens a country: It tears it apart, and for a long, long time. What’s more, the bloodier and more long-drawn-out it is and the dearer the country pays for it – the more likely the revolution is to be dubbed ‘great'”.

September 23, 2008 Posted by | books, Russia | Leave a comment

August 1914

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy… Solzhenitsyn!

A few excerpts from the book:

Although every officer was supposed to have a map of the area on his map board, no one in their company did; and Grokholets was the only officer in the battalion to have one. Even this was a reprint of a German map; the place names were barely legible and it was inaccurate. Among the platoon commanders, Yaroslav was the one who hovered closest to Grokholets to take every opportunity to have a look at his map. The Germans had burned all the signposts, and as the names of villages were passed orally from officer to officer, they became more and more distorted

[English general Alfred…] Knox showed particular interest in VI army Corps on the right flank, because this corps had driven deeper than any other into enemy territory and was now not much farther from the Baltic Sea than the distance which it had already covered.
Yes, VI Army Corps should have occupied Bischofsburg yesterday, and by today it was probably already farther north.
It was shown on the map as being in that position, and for the Englishman’s sake, Samsomov had to pretend that it really was there; he could not admit to his Allied colleague that Russians marked their maps with information they did not really possess, that not all radio signals reached their destination, and that apart from radio there were no means of communication except dispatch riders, who were highly insecure since they were sent out unescorted across enemy territory. Blagoveshchensky’s corps had, in fact, strayed so far over to the right that it had ceased to act as a flank guard at all; it was no longer performing a screening role but had become a detached, independent corps, the victim of a quarrel…


What could he tell this uninvited guest? That all his units were under-strenght, and that XXIII Army Corps was still not mustered? That the force under his command was an army only on paper, that in reality it consisted of no more than two and a half army corps in the center, toward which he was now driving? And that he was not even sure of their positions either?
Knox was now interrogating him ad nauseam about the center corps. Where were they?
Samsomov pointed at the map with his large finger. ‘XIII Corps is here … approximately there … It is moving northward in roughly this direction, between these two lakes …’
‘Moving northward?’
‘Yes, it’s advancing northward … toward Allenstein. It should take Allenstein today.’ (it should have taken Allenstein yesterday, but had been too slow.)
‘And what about XV Corps?’
‘Well, XV Corps should be level with XIII Corps and also moving northward. Yesterday it should have taken Hohenstein.’ (Had it?) ‘And today it should have moved far beyond Hohenstein.’

September 23, 2008 Posted by | books, history, Russia | Leave a comment

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