This edited article about Russia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 725 published on 6 December 1975.
When author Ian Fleming pitted secret agent James Bond against the sinister Russian spy organisation SMERSH, he was writing the kind of story that had been popular with readers of thrillers for the best part of a century.
It had all started with “The Great Game”, which was the storybook name for the storybook world of spy and counter-spy that existed in the frontier lands between India and the Caucasus during Victorian times. In those days there were probably just as many British officers dressed up as Pathan tribesmen as Russians, but because a character with a name ending in “ski” sounded a good deal more sinister than someone called Smith, Russian spies became a “must” for tales of adventure.
By World War I, London had been visited by the Imperial Ballet, and audiences were surprised to discover that Russians weren’t neccessarily fur-hatted spies, but that some of them were obviously the finest dancers in the world. And when during World War II the Russian armies began their epic defence of Stalingrad, people remembered that they were formidable fighters too, even though it was still hard to imagine what their country was really like.
The trouble with Russia in those days was that many people were reading about it, but hardly anyone had ever been there, so that few people had any real idea of what kind of a place it was. If maps were anything to go by, it was an enormous country, full of strange, onion-shaped church spires and almost permanent snow. Surely there had to be more to it than that?
Well, Russia is enormous. It is, in fact, the largest country in the world, twice as wide as the United States, with a population of 240 million people spread over almost nine million square miles. (2,431 million hectares). A country where it takes a week for a train to travel from Moscow to the eastern port of Vladivostok.
But what is far more important is not so much the sheer size of the place as that the U.S.S.R. (the United Soviet of Socialist Republics) is made up of more than 100 different nationalities, each with its own language and living in its own area. We may speak of Soviet citizens as just “Russians”, but it’s worth remembering that they regard themselves as Uzbeks, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukranians and so on, depending on whatever region to which they belong. These widely different people are of very different origins, so whatever may be true of a single, individual Russian most certainly isn’t necessarily true of them all!
Just how Russia came to gather up so many races is a story that has to depend largely on guesswork. Russia has no written history that dates back beyond the 12th century, so what happened in the very early days has to be more legend than fact. We do know that the adventurous Scandinavians visited the country on their way to Baghdad. A more important arrival was that of the Slavs, who settled down in the area around what is now Kiev and adjusted themselves well enough to found a civilization.
Over the centuries the Slavs were to suffer invasions themselves, but few brought with them any of the skills that were becoming commonplace in the rest of Europe. Russia was so vast that it just went on living its own kind of life, so that even as late as World War I, the Tsar ruled what was still a feudal country of great landowners and penniless serfs.
Tsarist rule ended little more than half a century ago, yet today, when you step out of one of Aeroflot’s big jet liners on to Moscow airport you can see for yourself just how hard the Russians must have worked to accomplish so much in such a short time. In fifty years they have left the past behind and become one of the leaders in the space age, in spite of the fact that their country suffered heavy industrial damage during World War II.
This is a land where everyone is understandably proud of the progress that has been made. Everyone has played a part in this, and women in the Soviet Union take it for granted that they work on completely equal terms with men, which includes all activities from heavy road work to space flight!
The fact that Russians take their industrial projects seriously does not mean that they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. Almost everyone seems to be interested in sport, and the theatre and cinema have a huge following. Literature and art get more attention than pop music, perhaps understandably, as this was the home of some of the greatest writers and musicians of all time.
In the great cities, such as Moscow and Leningrad, there are plenty of magnificent and well-preserved palaces and churches that give a visitor a very good idea of how Old Russia must have looked. Many of these buildings are kept as museums, where you can study the barbaric splendour that went with such storybook characters as Ivan The Terrible, Alexander Nevsky and Boris Godunov.
The more you see of Russia the more you realise that it is different. As a country, it is huge, and much of it consists of one enormous plain. But this tremendous area of land is not easily useable, as much of it is either near-desert or bitterly cold. There are no mountain ranges to stop the terrible winds that sweep down from the Arctic, and no Gulf Stream to take the edge off winter.
The numbing cold that closes down over the steppes for the greater part of the year has always been Russia’s strongest defence, as Napoleon’s invading armies in 1812 and the German forces in World War II discovered to their cost. After all, when the temperature gets so low that you can throw a bucketful of water into the air and watch it freeze into ice particles before it hits the ground, you are in a climate that deserves to be treated with respect!
In spite of her unwelcoming climate, Russia has almost unlimited natural resources, and is the world’s largest producer of such varied items as iron ore, cement, cotton, books, wheat, butter, manganese and chromium. Output of all of these will almost certainly go up as communications improve, and already expanding airlines, roads and railways are making it possible to market the products of places that only twenty years ago would have been thought hopelessly remote.
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