Sunday, May 27, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Do Russia’s Provinces Start at Moscow’s Sadovaya Ring?

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 27 – “Province” is in the Russian lexicon a word like what Justice Potter Steward once said about pornography in the American one – a term no one can precisely define but which everyone recognizes when he sees it and therefore feels comfortable about using.
Those difficulties of definition have not stopped Russian scholars from attempting to define just what Russians are referring to when they speak of that country’s “provinces.” And now one of them, Irina Shmerlina of the Moscow Institute of Sociology has presented the results of a survey she carried out on just that subject.
Her findings, presented in the third issue for 2007 of the Internet journal, “Sotsial’naya real’nost’,” show that Russians define this word, which refers to a phenomenon that exists only on their mental maps, in a wide variety of ways (
Shmerlina, who also works for the Public Opinion Foundation, suggests that the definitions of “province” Russians gave in the course of her open-ended survey last fall can be grouped in six broad sets, some of which contradict each other but all of which taken together suggest what this emotionally loaded term in fact now means.
The first set of definitions, she says, treated provinces in terms of their relationship to Moscow, with 15 percent of all Russians saying that “all of Russia except Moscow is a province” and a few insisting that the country’s provinces include “everything beyond the borders of the Sadovaya Ring” of the Russian capital.
The second set defines provinces in terms of urban and rural life. For 24 percent, the provinces are places outside of cities, “something between a city and a village.” The respondents divided on whether the provinces were better or worse places to live than the cities.
The third defined provinces in terms of the availability of resources. Four percent of the sample said that provinces were places cut off from culture and civilization; five percent said that the provinces were generally poorer, lacked the infrastructure and amenities of life in urban areas and were dependent on the center.
The fourth set of definitions (held by 14 percent) used formal criteria such as the status of a city, oblast, or rayon. The fifth simply involved respondents pointing to particular concrete examples: “Arkhangel’sk is a province,” “all small cities like our Ul’yanovsk are provinces,” and “we in Buryatiya” are provincial.
And the sixty involved what Shmerlina calls “romantic definitions.” Some two percent of the respondents said they viewed the provinces as that part of Russia “where life is peaceful,” “quiet” and where one can live without the pushing and shoving of urban existence.

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