Why is Russia So Big?
If you visit russianrailways.com, you can buy a ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok. It’s a journey of almost 6,000 miles that takes you across eight time zones all the way to the Pacific Ocean in seven days.
Russia is much larger than any other country. The next three biggest—Canada, the USA, and China—are less than 60% its size. How did it get so big?
Russia hasn’t always been so large. It began back in the 800’s as a small kingdom centred on Kiev (the capital of modern Ukraine), and stayed small for the next seven hundred years. For much of that period, they were ruled by the Mongols.
Eventually, the Russians defeated the Mongols. But then they had a problem. As they gazed East from their new capital in Moscow, there were no natural borders between them and China. The lands in between, known as the steppe, were flat and hard—perfect for warriors on horseback like the Mongols, but a nightmare to defend. It was a conquer or be-conquered world. Thus Russia’s leaders, or tsars, began a series of wars against its neighbours that put them in control of most of the steppe lands of Asia by 1700.
Russia also conquered Siberia, the frozen northern lands of Asia. Here, the initiative belonged not to the tsars but to hunters and merchants drawn by ermine, bear, and mink. The furs that protected these animals against the cold fetched high prices in European capitals. The people who lived in Siberia weren’t Russian and didn’t speak Russian, but they were weak and thus easy prey. As Russia swallowed Siberia, however, the country changed. It became a multi-ethnic empire—with enormous consequences for Russia to the present day.
Next, Russia expanded West, absorbing Ukraine, Belarus, and much of Poland. Then they went South, across the Caucasus mountains to take the ancient kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia. They finished by conquering Central Asia, which they grabbed because they worried that the British would if they didn’t get there first.
By 1900, Russia had an empire of more than 8 million square miles. There were dozens of major ethnic groups, with their own languages, and many different religions, too. In fact, it was very much like the British and French empires of the day, but with the big difference that the Russian empire was a single territory. Like the British and the French, however, the Russians took advantage of their subject peoples and territory. The sheer diversity of their domains made it hard to build a democracy. Rather, the Russians held their people in line with force or the threat of force—which is how it works in most empires.
This didn’t change much when the Russia of the tsars gave way to the Communist Soviet Union in the 20th century. In theory, the different nationalities had equal rights in the new country—fifteen of them became the republics that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But the government in Moscow became more ruthless in its exploitation of the natural resources scattered throughout its vast domain. Prisoners cut timber and mined gold in the frozen tundra, women picked cotton in Central Asia, while state companies pumped oil from under the Caspian Sea and Siberia. Russia became richer and stronger—a superpower and scientific leader. But it did so at the expense of its people, who lived in fear of being sent to a labour camp, or worse.
When Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, decided to end the state violence, it proved impossible to hold the country together without it. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The fifteen republics became independent countries. Russia was one of them—by the far the largest but 2 million square miles smaller than the Soviet Union (an area equivalent to the USA minus its 10 largest states).
In theory, Russia could become much smaller. It could let go of the areas that aren’t historically Russian, just as Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. But there’s no way Russia’s leadership will let that happen. The country’s vast size allows it to touch Europe, the Middle East, China, and the Pacific and has always been a central part of its claim to be a top ranking nation. Siberia, with its massive oil and gas reserves, is the source of most of the country’s wealth. That makes the Russian people richer than they would be otherwise.
Russia is unlikely to become a democracy. The government has to do enough to keep the people quiet and hopefully content. But the country is still an empire, whose leaders are willing to limit freedom so they can exploit their country’s wealth for their own benefit.