Sunday, February 27, 2011

Laminating the USSR

When I was a child my two brothers and I played endless boardgames such as Dungeons and Dragons and Risk, and read endless fantasy and science fiction novels such as J.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune. This decidedly geeky comportment will surprise those of you who understand that writing a blog about Soviet intellectual history in one's more mature years is the quintessence of chic and modish behavior. One day, thirty some years ago, my brothers and I purchased a map of some mythical and quasi-medieval land that was redolent of the imaginary cartography of the Lord of the Rings. This was wonderful. My brothers and I gazed at the mountains and oceans for hours upon hours. Then, without warning, my father announced that as a high school teacher he had access to a lamination machine that would allow us to draw on our map with erasable marker, thereby moving elf and monster armies into complex and ever-shifting strategic displays. At that moment in time, my father's job seemed like the most important position in the world. Would a fireman or astronaut or president have access to a lamination machine like my father did? My father is now seventy. But this year, he and my stepmother gave me a map of the USSR for my birthday and, once again, it was laminated. The laminated map reminded me of how much I love my father and am awed by him. He may be a retired high school teacher rather than a movie star or army general, but there is dignity in all work, and I am reminded this year that not everybody has the privilege of working in a position that grants special access to laminating machine...

This map is of the USSR in its final years, in the era of Glasnost and Perestroika. It highlights the ethnographic, linguistic, political and features of the country, and contains some smaller sub-maps of historical periods in the history of Russia and its neighbors. The map explains that the USSR was made up of the following major linguistic groups: Indo-European (Baltic, Slavic, Iranian, Armenian, German, and Greek); Uralic (Ugric, Samoyetic, and Finnic--Estonian, Finnish, Karelian, Lapp ),; Altaic (Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungus); Caucasian (Georgian, Dagestan, Chechen, Ingush); Paleo-Siberian); Semitic; and Siberian. It also documents various historical eras, including that of Slavic expansion, Kievan Rus, the origins of the Russian state, the growth of Muscovy, Western growth, Eastern colonization, war and revolution, and Russia at the height of its power and influence in Asia and Eastern Europe.

The larger constituent republics, and some of their identity problems, are also featured. The National Geographic map makers say the following about the USSR republics: The Russians feel resentment for having paid for Soviet industrialization and modernization; the predominantly Lutheran Estonians regret their lack of independence but now share their republic with ethnic Russians who make up a third of the population; Roman Catholic Lithuania remembers its glorious history as one of the most powerful states in the 1700s; industrial, urban Latvia also recalls its inter-war autonomy; forested Byelorussia, which has never previously been independent in modern times, was a component part of the Soviet Union as its birth in 1922, and lost a quarter of its population during the Second World War; the Ukraine, the second largest republic by population, accounts for only three percent of the USSR's territory, but was enlarged at the end of the Second World War and in 1954 with the addition of the Crimea; ethnically Romanian Moldavia was forced to use a Cyrillic alphabet until 1989; Armenian identity revolved around the Armenian Apostolic Church; Shiite Azerbaijan maintains cultural affinities with Iran; Kirghizia only came under Russian domination in the 19th century; environmentally degraded Uzbekistan is the country's third largest ethnic group, and joined the USSR in 1924; Turkmenistan, suffering from a lack of national identity or ethnic solidarity, is 90 percent desert; Iranian-speaking Tajikistan has the highest population growth in the USSR; Turkic-speaking, ethnically Mongolian Kazakhstan was home to the Virgin-Lands campaign and grows one-third of the country's wheat.

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