Sunday, January 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Roads, Not a Lack of Them, Destroying Russia, Geographer Says

Paul Goble

Baku, January 14 – Russia’s lack of an extensive network of good all-weather roads has long cited as among the greatest obstacles to that country’s development or even survival, but now one of the founding fathers of contemporary Russian geography is arguing that road construction itself constitutes a threat to the future of the country.
In a presentation to the Bilingua Club last month, a transcript of which has now been posted online, Boris Rodoman argued that the construction of roads has had a negative impact on Russian life during virtually all periods of the country’s history (
Initially, he said, the construction of roads led to the depopulation and demise of the many villages and towns that were not linked to the highway system. Those without such connections simply could not compete. Then, the Soviet system built roads that reinforced the political divisions of the country rather than tying it together.
And the current expansion of the highway system, one simultaneously powered by and promoting the rapid growth in the number of cars, Rodoman argued, is harming the country’s ecology, undermining other forms of transportation, and intensifying the divide between the haves and the have not’s.
Rodoman, who has been writing and teaching about Russia’s unique geography for more than 30 years, began with the present and works backward. He said that if an extraterrestrial were to look at earth now, he would assume “the main living things” on it were automobiles rather than people, given how cars have transformed the landscape.
That humans should allow for such an impression is a tragedy, the geographer said, because the “automobilization” of the world has polluted the environment, destroyed natural features to allow for the construction of roads and highways, and created what he calls “an eco-phobic structure” of human settlement.
Nowhere have these negative consequences between greater than in Russia. “Before the appearance of motor transport,” Rodoman insisted, “Russia suffered from roadlessness less than it does in our days.” Peasants walked where they had to go, and what roads there were had a military-administrative rather than economic significance.
Thanks to its cold, snowy winters, Russia was able to extend “its area from the Baltic to the Pacific Ocean, but there were not enough people to settle and organize it in a European way.” But because population density was so low, new forms of transportation did not fill the country up even though all entailed some negative consequences.
“With the appearance of a small but powerful network of railroads,” the geographer noted, “the majority of Russian downs went into decline” because they lost their former trade and transportation functions” because they were not attached to the rail network.
And their decline in turn hastened the disappearance of villages in many areas that are not located on or near a rail line, a development that not only pushed more people into the cities faster than would have otherwise been the case but also led to the decline of much of the country outside the capitals.
That was a very different outcome than occurred in northern European countries with climatic conditions similar to Russia’s, Rodoman continued. “In Finland and Sweden, on the eve of mass automobilization there was a thick net of well-paved roads and the horse never disappeared from the peasant farmstead.”
Consequently, the car brought the city and countryside closer together in those countries. But in Russia, automobilization had just the opposite effect. It did not bring town and village together, “it did not raise the village up but finally destroyed it altogether.”
Indeed, Rodoman argued, “automobilization was the main cause of roadlessness and the decline of rural areas.” In be part, he continued, that is because motorized transport meant that “the great friends of Russia – snow and ice – became its enemies.” And thus began a self-destructive “struggle with nature.”
Trains had been less affected by snow and ice, but they did undermine river transport, a process that automobiles finished. And that meant that the rivers which had been the arteries of the country became “barriers, especially in those places where borders of ‘subjects of the Federation’ coincided with them.”
That is so, he pointed out, because “the network of automobile roads was subordinate to the administrative-territorial division” of the USSR and because their pattern was dictated by the routes the bureaucrats wanted to use themselves and thus insisted that others use as well.
Under communism, such attitudes were compounded by the notion that “the construction of roads and the improvement of transport” are “one and the same thing,” something that is simply not true. Building roads may generate more traffic even as it undermines other means of public transportation.
And this Soviet-era attitude, Rodoman said, was intensified yet again by the values of the post-Soviet market economy which typically raised “individual freedoms above collective responsibilities” to the community and the environment, thus reducing the chances that Russians can have decent environment within which to live and work.
In other countries, this is a problem too but a less serious one. There, Rodoman said, most people do some driving, some walking, and some use of public transportation. But in Russia, people tend to be locked into only one of these means, with cars becoming “the most important means of social isolation and segregation.”
Elite Russians sit in their automobiles while poorer ones are forced to walk or use public transport, and not surprisingly, the former have the ability to make sure that they are taken care of even if that leads to their own physical degeneration because of a lack of exercise or to the further suffering of the others.
Throughout Russia, Rodoman said, “service spheres the bosses don’t use are dying away. Sidewalks are decaying along with the population.” And because of the interests of the latter, the Russian government hasn’t faced up to the problems that building ever more roads are causing.
Unless public and government attitudes are changed and changed soon, the construction of highways near the central cities will continue to destroy Russia, while roads elsewhere will be allowed to decay because the current powers-that-be do not appear to care about any throughways that “do not lead to Moscow.”
Not surprisingly, Rodoman’s remarks sparked a lively debate, with many of his audience accusing him of attacking one of the most important “liberal values” – freedom of movement – and others saying that he appeared to be willing to tolerate an enlightened despotism if the rulers would only take his advice.
Bud Rodoman defended himself by making three points: First, he pointed out, in no area are property rights absolute – that is why zoning is so important -- and in many areas such as national parks and reserves the concept of private property is subversive of the interests of the nation and its future survival.
Second, he noted, no one seems to be angry that Russian television can shape mass opinion rather easily in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections. Why shouldn’t its power be harnessed to the more important task of changing minds about the role of the car?
And third, he said, radical arguments like his own are necessary to force senior officials to think about the long-term consequences of what their actions in building ever more roads will mean, reflections that he said his experience showed few if any of them are now engaged in.
Obviously, many reading Rodoman’s remarks, especially members of the Russian elite, will dismiss them as nothing more than the rant of a left-wing environmentalist. But even if there is something to that, Rodoman has performed an important service by challenging one of the most widely and tightly held views about Russian development.

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