Landscape as Foundation: “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth”

July 15th, 2009
Playground of the Autocrats Triptych 1:  The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

Playground of the Autocrats Triptych 1: The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth . 24" x 48"

For an introduction to this topic, see What is Playground of the Autocrats?

I named my series of triptychs Playground of the Autocrats in part because a playground is typically flat. Sure, there are vertical structures built on it. But the ground itself is usually flat, providing unhindered opportunity to play.

The foundation of Russian society was literally its ground: the endless, flat Russian steppes. We often don’t give enough consideration to the ways in which different landscapes can shape the societies that live on them. We’re all aware that given natural resources are available only in particular geographic areas. Given crops can grow only in certain latitudes. Rivers facilitate travel. Coastlines and good harbors present opportunities that don’t exist for landlocked countries.

Beyond that, though, the very shape of the landscape can have a profound impact on how people live on it. We see this most easily in extreme landscapes. In the eons before motorized transportation, extremely rugged mountains often produced uncohesive social systems made up of very independent subunits. When it’s hard to get to the neighboring village because there are steep ravines and cliffs between you, there will be less communication and joint activity than if the intervening ground were flat.

Mountains also form barriers that protect against enemies. For most of human history – before we had motorized vehicles and airplanes – a high mountain chain made it very hard to get your army up and over to attack people on the other side. Even today, we see the impact of rugged terrain in Afghanistan: it has defeated many modern foreign armies that have sought to control it.

Throughout history, armies have chosen the highest points in the landscape for their forts and castles. Think the ubiquitous Italian hilltop castles. Think Masada. Think Dracula’s Bram Castle.


In the millenia before airplanes, the highest point in a landscape enabled inhabitants to see the approach of invaders from far off. The enemy would have a hard time trying to climb up a cliff to attack people ensconced above. Heights gave gravitational advantage to the residents whose arrows and hot oil could gather momentum falling downward, while the enemies’ arrows had to fight gravity on their way up.

At the other extreme, what about countries where the land is completely flat? What if you had no mountains forming a protective barrier around your country? What if there were no high cliffs to build your forts atop? In those cases, the inhabitants had to devote great energy and resources to coming up with other means of defense.

Of course there have been many castles and forts built all over the world on level ground when there was no other choice. This high-ground thing is a matter of degree, not absolutes. But in general terms, a vast, flat landscape was harder to defend than a mountainous one.

And if we look at relief maps of the world, we can easily see that Russia encompasses by far the largest flat expanse on earth: 3500 miles of open land.

In case you doubt this particular relief portrayal, here’s a different one:

And another:

Westerners often mistakenly think the Urals formed a barrier protecting European Russia. But in fact the Urals are for the most part low and easily-traversed. In addition, their southern end peters out in the open steppes: it’s easy to enter European Russia via the steppes at the southern end.


I believe that the openness of Russia’s terrain has had a profound impact on its development of a highly centralized state, beginning with the traumatic 13th century Mongol invasion and centuries-long occupation. I’ll talk more about the reasons why in another post.

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