In the waning days of the Cold War, a first-rate team of American and Russian geographers began to ask whether the Soviet Union and the United States could be compared on common geographical principles. The team speculated that geographic similarities–such as the tropics of Florida and of the Black Sea coast, the Appalachians and the Urals, and the Mississippi and the Volga basins–reflected fundamental similarities between the two historically feuding superpowers. They wrote a book called Beyond Borders to explain their remarkable findings, but at the last minute their publisher was sold and publication of the book was cancelled. Now, 18 years later, the team has made the book available online in its entirety, for free.
The researchers’ objective was to develop a rubric for comparing Russia and America based on their geographic regions and common history:
While we do not try to minimize the differences between Russia and America, we observed that people in the two countries have many similarities in the way they spread across the continents, adapted to various environments, conquered or absorbed indigenous people, and molded their respective geographies into a set of regions.
The team identified eleven regions on which to base their analysis:
The Core: In America, this roughly corresponds to the Mid-Atlantic Region; in Russia, it means the areas around Moscow and the Upper Volga–the regions that are “what would become all that one could define as uniquely American or Russian.” This is the traditional “homeland”–Philadelphia, Washington, and New York City in America; and Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, and Tver in Russia. This is locus of national cultural origin.
The North: In America, this is New England and the northern parts of the Midwestern States on the Canadian border, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In Russia, this includes Novgorod, St. Petersburg, and the coast of the White Sea. This region is home to Puritanical and Orthodox traditions–an original national ideological home that has since been outpaced by the development it inspired elsewhere.
The South: In America, this roughly means the states that seceded during the Civil War–from the Potomac in the north to central Texas in the southwest. In Russia, this means central Ukraine into south-central Russia, bordering the Volga. These regions are defined by their warm weather and arable land, but also by their history of forced servitude through serfdom and slavery.
The Heartland: In America, this area corresponds with most of the Midwest, from Milwaukee to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to Buffalo. Russia’s “Heartland” centers on the junction of the Volga and Kama rivers, near Kazan, Samara, and Ufa. This is the traditional industrial backbone–a land of factories, labor, and hard work, turned to rust in more recent years from economic depression and a changing economy.
The Crossroads: In America, this is the area around the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, near St. Louis and Nashville, and into the Ozark Mountains in the west. For Russia, this actually means Belarus, but also Smolensk and other parts of western Russia. This is the area where cultures meet and clash, nestled between the American North and South, and between Russia and Europe, integrating and meshing opposing ideologies.
The Breadbasket: In America, this is the Great Plains and part of the Midwest, from North Dakota to Indianapolis to Oklahoma; and in Russia this means the Black Sea littoral and as far east as Orenburg. The Breadbasket is exactly what it sounds like–the “fertile triangle” and source of food for a hungry nation.
The Old Mountains: In America, the Appalachians; in Russia, the Urals. These mountain ranges define the boundary between the old homeland and the new areas of expansion, and reflect the first traversal point on the road to national expansion and manifest destiny toward the Pacific.
The Tropical South: In America, this is clearly the Deep South and South Florida, a land of palm trees, lazily hot weather, and sultry culture. But in Russia, this means The Crimea, southern Moldova, and the northwest tips of the Caucasus–a region similar in climate and, as in America, a recent boom of luxury and wealth built by a “sun and sin” economy.
Mexistan: This is the alien yet internal culture–a fusion of foreign and domestic. In America, this is the Southwest; in Russia, Central Asia–lands conquered in foreign conflicts, generally far-removed from the ancestral homelands, and harboring a people different from those who founded the nations.
The Land Ocean: This is the vast peripheral expanse–in America, the West; in Russia, Siberia–that forms the backdrop for each nation’s plunge into manifest destiny toward the Pacific Ocean. The Land Ocean is a region defined by frontier mythology and by the subjugation and elimination of its native peoples.
The Pacific Gateway: In America, this region stretches from San Francisco to Alaska. In Russia, it surrounds the Sea of Okhotsk, from Vladivostok to Petropavlovsk to the Bering Sea, where America and Russia’s Pacific Gateway Regions meet. This area is marked by its extreme distance from the national homeland, as well as by its similarly extreme geography of volcanoes, mountainous peaks, and lush forests.
The authors have made their entire book available online, including all the comparative regional analysis of history, peoples, and culture. They also include maps of the regions within both Russia and the United States, showing how these regions transcend state or national borders as unique geographic identifiers.
Click here to see the book in its entirety. Click here to see an index of the maps for America and Russia.
The book concludes with a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville that I remember well from my college political philosophy courses–one of his more prescient quotes to be sure, but also one that strikes at the heart of two of the world’s great nations:
There are at the present time two great nations in the world which seem to tend toward the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and Americans…their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.
Thanks to Claire for another great recommendation!