Archive for the ‘Russian Society & History’ Category

Russian History “Big Questions” Study Guide: The First & Ultimate Questions

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

This is the first in a series of lively, fun, and challenging study guides illustrated by my artwork about Russian history.  In addition to being an artist, I have a Ph. D. in Russian History from the University of Michigan.  My new paintings and mixed media works about Russia are collectively titled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.  

My Playground of the Autocrats art animates a framework for studying Russian history.  This framework explores how Russia’s present-day society and government are embedded its past, from the 13th century through the rise of Muscovy, Tsarism, Communism and post-Communism.  In the image below, the Tsarist godparents of a mustached infant Stalin bestow the blessings of their autocratic past on him, to his delight.

Stalin’s tsarist “godparents” bestow the “blessing” of Russia’s past on Soviet Communism.  Detail of central panel from “Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

In these Study Guides, I’ll suggest “big questions” for discussion.  I’ll take a long perspective, not focusing on fine details: less on trees and more on forest.  Actually, I’ll take another giant step back from the forest to see it in wider perspective, to ask what forest conditions cause certain trees to grow there but not others, one forest ecosystem to develop instead of another:

What caused an autocratic state to grow on the vast territory that became Russia, rather than another form of government?  Was it pure chance, or were there particular conditions that engendered it?

Three Quotations

Detail of center panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

From Chester Dunning and Norman S. Smith, “Moving Beyond Absolutism: Was Early Modern Russia a ‘Fiscal-Military’ State?”  Russian History, 33, No. 1 (Spring 2006) pp. 38-40 (my bold):

“The origins of Russian autocracy are complex and controversial… [They] resulted in the rapid development of a service state…in which he performance of duties that directly or indirectly bolstered the country’s security were required from virtually everyone.  As a result, Russia’s tsarist system became ‘one of the most compulsory in Europe….’

“Coming into the sixteenth century, Russia was, more than any other contemporary society, ‘organized for warfare.’  During the sixteenth century Russian military forces fought almost constantly, and Russia actually emerged as a major military power before the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-84), the founder of the Russian empire.  The sixteenth century also witnessed the rapid development of a powerful Russian central state administration….  As in other fiscal-military states, that led to extremely coercive efforts to harness Russian society to the task of paying for the prohibitively expensive costs of early modern warfare.  The extraction of domestic resources was greatly facilitated by the fact that nowhere else in Europe was the principle of service to the state pressed as far as in Russia….

“Generously rewarded for life-long service, the tsar’s bureaucrats were incredibly loyal and hardworking, and they succeeded admirably at imposing the central state’s authority.

“From the very beginning, Russia’s bureaucrats were primarly oriented to the task of raising, financing, and supplying the tsar’s military forces.  They were not hampered by the concerns of bankers or merchants and were therefore basically free to extract resources from the economy with no concern for or understanding of the impact of their actions.  Taxes were imposed with zeal to pay for the cost of war….  Over the course of the [16th] century taxes for many Russians rose 600 percent….”

Detail of center panel of “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Why was the 15th and 16th century Russian state so continually focused on war, devoting more of its resources to military mobilization than did any other society?  Research over the last decade or so indicates that Russia’s vast open southern steppe frontier forced the country to mobilize militarily from top to bottom. Virtually every year, semi-nomadic Tatar raiders, in small groups and large, galloped across the wide open plain to plunder and “harvest the steppe” of humans to sell into slavery in Crimean slave markets. Over several centuries, hundreds of thousands of Russians were abducted and marched in chains across the steppes to be sold into bondage.  No population except Africans has been enslaved more than the Slavs.

Some of the historians who have researched Russia’s southern steppe frontier are Carol Belkin Stevens, Michael Khodarkovsky, and Brian L. Davies, who wrote in his Warfare, State and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500-1700 (pp.1, 17, 23):

“For nearly four centuries – from the reign of Moscow Grand Prince Vasilii III through the reign of Russian Empress Catherine the Great – the Russian government, army, and people confronted the threats of Crimean Tatar invasion and raiding on their southern frontier….

Brian Davies, book cover

“There were forty-three major Crimean and Nogai attacks on Muscovite territory just in the first half of the sixteenth century….  Large Tatar forces were able to penetrate into the heartland of Muscovy even in years when…the Russians [were able] to increase regimental strengths along their southern frontier.  In 1571 Khan Devlet Girei invaded with an army of 40,000 Crimeans, Nogais, and Circassians and burned much of Moscow, allegedly killing 80,ooo and carrying off 150,000 captives.  The Tatars burned the suburbs of Moscow again in 1592 while the bulk of Russian forces were busy fighting the Swedes on the northwester frontier.  In 1633, while the tsar’s army was preoccupied in a western campaign…the Crimeans and Nogais launched devastating attacks upon the interior districts of Kashir and Serpukhov….

“[S]laveraiding was essential to the economy of the Crimean Khanate.  And if Tatar slaveraiding was a lower-intensity threat than invasion, it was also a nearly constant threat and inflicted heavy costs….  Tatar slavers raided the southernmost Muscovite colonies almost every summer, capturing servicemen and peasants working in their fields, driving off herds of livestock, burning villages and town suburbs, and ambushing patrols and merchant caravans.  Most of these raids were undertaken by chambuly of a few hundred men yet were able to do a great deal of damage.”

Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy

Richard Hellie book cover

Every member of the Russian gentry was obligated to mobilize for half of every summer along the frontier to defend against raids.  This put huge a burden on gentry members who also had to maintain agriculture on what were often small estates.  Wrote Richard Hellie in Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy (p. 29),

…it was not a standing army.  Usually one half was called up in the spring, to await an expected Tatar invasion on the frontier, and served to mid-summer.  Then it was replaced by the other half, which served until late autumn.  During either offensive or defensive emergencies, which were frequent throughout this period, both ‘halves’ were summoned simultaneously….  The success of any mobilization call was highly dependent on the condition of agriculture at the moment of the summons.  If a serviceman’s lands could not provide the wherewithal for his service, he would not report for duty.

Russian Peasants in Detail of “Still With You,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

To the extent possible given the immense drain on resources, all of Russian society was organized like an army ready for war.  The Tsar was commander in chief.  Independent organizations and institutions were not allowed, just as in armies the chain of command from must always to be obeyed.  While Tsar and elites benefited most from this system, the general populace acquiesced in order to be protected against constant threat from across Russia’s great flatland.

Discussion Question 1:

A.  Are there factors beyond human decisions that shape the development of societies in general and in particular Russia?

B.  Or are human beings and their free choices the primary drivers of history, including in Russia?

C.  Can you think of a different position altogether, or some combination of A and B?

Discussion Question 2:

A.  Once an autocratic “garrison state” was formed in Russia, could it have been eradicated in later periods when the country was less vulnerable to outside attack?

B.  Or were elites able to maintain themselves in power even after the “garrison state” was no longer as necessary?

    1. Was the psychology of the majority of people so molded by autocracy that most couldn’t envision an alternative?
    2. Did the lack of development of institutions and power bases independent of the government block the possibility of transformation to a less autocratic state?

In other words, is my triptych godparent image accurate or not?  Is the past the godparent to the future, no matter how revolutionary that future seems superficially?

These are very big questions that you won’t be able to fully answer at the beginning of your Russian history study.  As you read and hear more about Russia, you’ll gather more evidence to form your own opinions about them.

Additional Links:

On the similarities between the trade in Slav and African slaves: Britannica.com.

Robert O. Crummey, The Formation of Muscovy, 1304-1613

Chester Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty.

Dunning, Russia's First Civil War

The beautiful cover of Chester Dunning’s book RUSSIA’S FIRST CIVIL WAR, THE TIME OF TROUBLES AND THE FOUNDING OF THE ROMANOV DYNASTY, published by Penn State University Press, 2001, shows “The Rebel Siege of Moscow, 1606”

 

What If We Had a 9/11 Every Year for Centuries?

Friday, July 15th, 2011

“Home Security At Any Crazy Price” 

Long before 9/11, I had written early drafts of lyrics for what would become one of my mixed media artworks about Russia, Home Security at Any Crazy Price.

At the time I thought my theme was very specific to Russian history, a bit too esoteric for most Americans.  It was about Tsars building their dictatorship by taking advantage of popular fears from centuries of brutal enemy onslaughts.  I planned to paint Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great singing to each other:

Darling Ivan, our Founder (Darling Peter, my Scion),
How fortunate it has been
That the Russian populace is deeply traumatized
‘Cause barbarian onslaughts lay waste their paradise.
Now folks want home security at any crazy price.         (Continued below image)

“Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal . 36″ x 40″ .  Acrylic and digital images on canvas and board . 2009

Then came 9/11.  Many Americans’ response – their sudden willingness to give up personal freedoms if the government could only keep them safe – revealed that a similar dynamic to Russia’s can play out wherever people come under attack and feel profoundly threatened.

All at once, my planned artwork seemed absolutely current and relevant to the US today.                                                                                                                    Continued below image

Detail of center panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Americans have relaxed a bit since 2001, having experienced no further attacks on the scale of 9/11.  We’re no longer as ready to trade our civil liberties for a strong government to protect us from seemingly imminent terror.

But what if…

Detail of right panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Haja

But what if the US had had repeated assaults every year since 2001, in which thousands of Americans were killed?  And if yearly onslaughts continued indefinitely?

What if we lived in a land so vulnerable that we had a 9/11 every year for over five centuries?

Then what kind of government would we be willing to tolerate?  One that abridged our personal freedoms constantly in order to keep us ever-mobilized and battle-ready?  Would we accept our entire society being organized like a military hierarchy, with a single tsar at the top commanding us into position to survive our unending state of emergency?

What can our 9/11 experience help us fathom about Russia?

Few Americans are aware that Russia was born and forged in terror from outside its borders: constant devastation by enemies and the kidnapping into slavery of hundreds of thousands of Russians, from the 13th century till the 18th.

Detail: Right upper panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

First, ferocious, brilliantly-skilled Mongol raiders pillaged, sacked, brutalized, and occupied Russia for a couple of hundred years.  For centuries after that, the Mongols’ descendants, the Tatars, swept across Russia virtually every summer, abducting 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 or more people each year to sell in the Black Sea slave market, a straight shot across the steppes to the south.

In fact, our word “slave” derives from “Slav.”  No population in the world other than Africans have been enslaved more than Slavs.  (For more on the reasons, see “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth.”)

In short, Muscovites were traumatized by terror, as were New Yorkers on 9/11.  But  Russians were terrorized again and again for hundreds of years.

Well, haven’t all countries been attacked throughout history?

Every country in history has been repeatedly attacked.  Their people too have had to drop normal life to run inside inside the walls of their local castle for protection.

What was different about Russia was the frequency of assaults.  Slave raids occurred not once in 10 or 25 years – but every year.  Because these raids occurred every year, they earned the moniker “the harvesting of the steppe.”  Every member of the Russian gentry was responsible for military duty at the frontier for one half of every single summer to protect the vast southern border against raids.

Detail of center panel from “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

The frequency of attacks on Russia was partly due to its lack of natural protective barriers along a longer open border with powerful enemies than anywhere else on earth.

The only geographic area comparable with Russia’s southern frontier might be the American Great Plains frontier (north/south orientation) in early US history.  But next to the US frontier lay the remnants of native tribes nearly wiped out by disease spread from Europe to the New World.  Next to the Russian frontier, in contrast, were large, flourishing, major powers of the day: the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire.

It would be as if the early United States had had the equivalent of both El Qaeda and Akhmedinezhad’s government living along its frontier.

Tsarist autocracy was military rule

The tsarist state was military hierarchy writ large (above).  The entire society could never relax from war preparations and fighting.  Centers of power independent of the tsar couldn’t develop because the military chain of command always had to be in effect society-wide.

Home Security At Any Crazy Price visualizes the impact on civil liberties of the unending threat of attack.                                                                                       Continued below image

Detail of lower left panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Why didn’t civil liberties blossom after the slave raid threat ended in the late 18th century?

Institutions which have been forged over a period of five centuries don’t change overnight.  New autocrats make use of earlier institutions – controlled press, secret police, patronage – to maintain and strengthen their power.

Detail of right panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Since the fall of Communism, Russia is again becoming more centralized.  Putin has asserted control over the media.  No non-Kremlin newspaper can garner significant circulation.  Journalists who report stories the government doesn’t like are murdered.  Real opposition political parties aren’t allowed to run candidates.

Will Russia ever become a fully pluralistic society?  I don’t know, but I’m interested in watching to see.                                                                                                       Continued below image

Detail of lower right panel, “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal.

What can Russia and our own experience of 9/11 teach us about ourselves?

The US experience of terrorism on 9/11 can help us better grasp why Russia developed an autocratic state.  A nation of people who experienced almost yearly trauma for centuries adapted to their society’s being permanently organized like a military chain of command with no insubordination from the ranks.

We can also learn from Russia’s experience the terrible consequences of sacrificing civil liberties for security over the long term.  Russian history can serve as a cautionary tale for what could happen to us if we’re too ready to trade personal freedoms for powerful government. ■

Below image are links to more posts about PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS triptychs.

Detail: Top center panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

An introduction to the PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS series is here.  Other posts about these triptychs are:

Portraying the Vast Flatland of the Playground

The Most Exposed Terrain On Earth

Designing the Character of Peter the Great

Catherine the Great: A Satirical Visualization of Russian History and Society

What is Catherine the Great Singing in Her Triptych?

How I Painted and Composited Catherine the Great (and Stalin)

“The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth:” A Satirical Visualization of Russian History

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

How does an artist portray a grand sweep of centuries?

Detail of center panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Russian history is full of high drama.  Mongol raiders thundering across the endless steppes toward small Muscovite towns.  Human terror and suffering.  Tsarist defenses and brilliance, ambition and intrigue.  Russian culture’s astonishing splendor and beauty.

It all makes a perfect subject for art.

But how can a painter visualize a grand sweep of centuries?  What recipe can be cooked up to entertainingly portray a millenium of Russian history?

That’s the challenge I set for myself in my series of triptychs collectively entitled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.  The first in the series is The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth.

A detail of my “recipe” to convey this triptych’s story is to the right.  I use satire, color, action – and song lyrics (see images below).

But my most important ingredient for each triptych is visualization of a historical process.  The centerpiece of my visualization of The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth is a tsar-type figure (above) lifting his skirts to gather in lots of Russians underneath.

Hmm, the viewer might ask.  Who is this guy labeled “AUTOCRACY,” and why is he grinning with malevolent glee?  And what’s going on with all those frantic people running to hide inside his robe?

Just what historical process am I visualizing here?

"The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth" . 24" x 48" . Acrylic and digital images on canvas

The true story behind my triptych

Detail of Mongols in middle panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Muscovy – later Russia – arose and was forged in an inferno during the 200 years when ferocious, brilliantly-skilled Mongol warriors pillaged, sacked, brutalized, and dominated it – and the centuries following, when the Mongol’s descendants – the Nogay Horde, the Crimean Khanate and others – continually raided and plundered it.

The Mongols’ war organization, tactics, and composite bows were the great military advances of their day.  “The level of organization of the Mongol army was not seen elsewhere in the Middle Ages and stands in marked contrast to that of the feuding Russian Princes.”

If Russia was to survive, its fractious princes needed to whip themselves into a unified fighting force under a single central command, and fast.

Painting the Mongol peril to Russia

To portray Mongol attacks, I painted a battle scene filled with fierce Mongols terrifying Russian peasants and nobles.                                                   Continued below image.

Detail of center panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

 

Detail of center panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

 

For the models I needed to paint from, I collected photos of present-day archers shooting Mongol-style bows from horseback, and drawings of Mongol battle-wear.

I painted Russians of all classes running for their lives, and used color to differentiate between them and the invaders: indigos, purple, blue for the Mongols, and warm oranges, reds, yellows for the Russians.  This make the two combatant sides immediately “readable” by the viewer.

I wanted to convey the tragedy and terror experienced by individual victims, so I conceived a Russian peasant woman (right) and a noblewoman (above) each holding a wounded child.  I balanced color and composition in such a way that the peasant woman stands out from the crowds of people running and shooting.

But what does that red-robed guy labeled “AUTOCRACY” represent?

The necessity for Russians of all classes to unify beneath a single commander presented the tsars with an opportunity to amass vast power and wealth for themselves. Russians of every level of society, desperate for protection against enemies, ceded independent power bases to their defender, the state.

The state leveraged this situation to its own fullest benefit.

Detail of central panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

So my triptych’s AUTOCRACY character is a satirical visualization of how the tsars as a group took advantage of five centuries of nonstop attacks on the Russian people to secure their absolute rule: autocracy.

But wait a minute…

Europeans, too, sought protection against enemies from their monarchs.  Yet tsarist dictatorships didn’t develop there.  What was different in Russia?

A land wide open to Mongol pillage and Tatar slave raids

Even after the Russians threw off the long Mongol occupation, they were far from safe.  The economy of the neighboring Crimean Khanate and other nearby Hordes was based on the slave trade: abducting and selling Slavs.  So virtually every summer, Tatar raiders rode north across the steppe into Russia, kidnapping thousands of people to sell into slavery in the Black Sea slave market.

These raids occurred not every 10 or 20 years, but essentially every year. Over several centuries, hundreds of thousands of Russians were seized as slaves.

Geographic relationship of Russia to Crimean Khanate and Ottoman Empire

Our very word “slave” derives from “Slav.”  No population in the world other than Africans have been enslaved more than Slavs.

Why was Russia so vulnerable to these raids?

A glance at a map (right) shows why Russia was so vulnerable to yearly attack.  There was nothing but wide open steppe between Russia and the Crimean Khanate with its slave market (and Ottoman slave-purchasers directly across the Black Sea).  Highly mobile, skilled raiders could pour across the steppes each summer, capture thousands of Russians, and head back to the huge international slave market, Caffa, a straight shot across the unobstructed plain.

Russia is by far the largest wide-open plain on earth.  Glance at the world maps toward the end of this post if you have any doubts.  No mountain barrier protected the Russians.  For their state to survive, they had to build their own human barrier.

Details of left panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

In short, Russians lived in the most exposed terrain on earth.  They could never stand down from battle-readiness.  Their society had to be permanently organized like – indeed it was – a military chain of command.

Portraying the most exposed terrain on earth

One way I’ve visually conveyed the relationship between landscape and autocracy is through painting the Mongol battle raging on a flat plain. And I painted AUTOCRACY towering in the midst of this wide-open battlefield, skirts held open to receive the terrorized Russian people.

Another way I conveyed the flatness of Russia’s endless steppes is through song lyrics “sung” by characters I designed for Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible.  I wrote these lyrics to the tune of the ubiquitous folksong, Kalinka.  Images of the lyrics are above and below.  (For more about the characters who sing the lyrics and how I designed them, please see here, here, and here.)

Detail of lower left panel of "The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

A last way I conveyed the endless, wide-open flatness of Russia – the largest on earth – was through a border around the center panel of the triptych.  I created this border from digital images of paintings by the great 19th century Russian painters called the Peredvizhniki.  You can find much more detail on my process of building this border here.

*        *       *

Other posts about PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS triptychs

Posts about other tryipychs in the series are here:

Catherine the Great: A Satirical Visualization of Russian History and Society

What is Catherine the Great Singing in Her Triptych?

How I Painted and Composited Catherine the Great (and Stalin)

What If We Had a 9/11 Every Year for Centuries?  “Home Security At Any Crazy Price”

The Most Exposed Terrain On Earth

Portraying the Vast Flatland of the Playground

Designing the Character of Peter the Great

Playground of the Autocrats

What is Catherine the Great Singing in Her Triptych?

Friday, July 8th, 2011

An introduction to “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes” is here; the artistic process behind it is here.

“Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal. Triptych is 7 feet by 6 feet.

PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS is a series of artworks that – like comic books and graphic novels – tell stories through pictures.  PLAYGROUND’s tales are about modern Russia, “narrated” in song by the likes of Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great.

My whimsical imperial characters sound off through original lyrics I wrote to the tune of the famous Russian folksong, Kalinka. The lyrics are about the “gifts” Stalin received from Tsarist history, the foundation on which he built his country’s most powerful dictatorship ever.

If viewers wish, they can navigate their way through PLAYGROUND’s arias in sequence by following the numbers I’ve painted on each panel.

My most recent PLAYGROUND triptych, Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes (above), is “sung” by Catherine the Great, one of Stalin’s three “fairy godparents.” In Panel 1 below, Catherine gives her blessing from Russia’s past to the delighted, mustached baby Stalin.

Detail: center bottom panel (1) of “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

My inspiration for this scene was my childhood memory of a Sleeping Beauty picture book.  The story began with an illustration of Sleeping Beauty as a baby princess, her three fairy godmothers flying in a circle above her cradle.  Each fairy godmother bestowed a personal blessing for some life bounty for the little princess.

This fairy-godmother memory came to me as I was originally pondering how to visualize Russia’s past as godparent to its present. So I imagined that in each PLAYGROUND triptych, my whimsical Russian “godparents” – Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great – would bequeath historical blessings on the infant Stalin.

I’ll let my character Catherine speak for herself through her lyrics in the following images, beginning with Panel 2 in which she sings:

You’ll want to bring back serfdom quick so you can reign non-stop!
But you can’t call it serfdom, Joe, ’cause that would be a flop!
So dress it up in resplendent clothes to hide the hideous facts.
I know about espousing good that veils your nasty acts!

Detail: top center panel (2) of “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Catherine advises Stalin (Panels 3 and 4) that new European ideas championing the lower classes can be used to muddy popular consciousness of what the ruler is really doing (a closeup of the Russian peasants is in this post).

You’ll spout ideas from Europe
About the people’s smarts.
In my day it was Montesquieu,
In yours it will be Marx.

Detail: Left lower panels (3 & 4) of “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Catherine counsels Stalin in panels 5-6 about serfdom, the fundamental economic engine of Russian society – or as Stalin renamed and reinstituted it, “collectivization.”

You’ll dub it collectivization.
You’ll never call peasants serfs.
Just bind them to the land by law
And take all their grain to your turf!

Detail: Left top panel (5) of “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Collectivization was essentially serfdom by another name – with the addition of tractors, as in Panel 6 below.

Detail of upper right panel (6) of “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

The last verses:

You’ll promise people’s sovereignty and say that they’ll get rich.
But then you’ll screw the people!  It’s one big Bait and Switch!

Don’t call it tsardom!  Say their boss is the mighty Workers’ State.
That so-called Worker’s State in fact is JOE, our POTENTATE!

Detail of right panels 7 & 8 of “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” by Anne BobroffHajal

Details of other Playground of the Autocrats triptychs are here and here:

Home Security At Any Crazy Price

The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth

 

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

Wednesday, 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.

hilltopcastlesimages2

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.

russiamapwispyurals

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.