Saturday, November 14, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Many Russians Likely to Find Medvedev’s Time Zone Proposal Offensive

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 14 – President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal in his address to the Federal Assembly to cut the number of time zones in the Russian Federation from the current 11 to four could have some positive consequences for state administration, but this suggestion almost certainly will offend many Russians.
On the one hand, Russians have long been accustomed to stressing the enormous size of their country by pointing out that it is 11 time zones across from Kaliningrad to Chukotka. Any reduction in the number of such zones, even if it simplifies some arrangements, is thus likely to appear to be yet another way in which the current powers that be are “reducing” Russia.
But on the other hand, Medvedev’s proposal almost certainly will be viewed by many Russians both as yet another example of kowtowing to foreigners, the Americans in the first instance who have four time zones in the continental US and the Chinese who have only one, and at the same time of a case of Moscow’s arbitrariness on such questions.
In making his proposal, the Russian president admitted as much. He noted that Russians “traditionally have been accustomed to be proud of the number [of time zones] because this seems to us a clear illustration of the greatness of our Motherland.” And he added, “this is really so” (
However, he continued, he said it was time to “reflect seriously” on the ways in which such a large number of divisions makes it more difficult to “administer” Russia “effectively.” Reducing the time zones in Russia from 11 to four, Medvedev suggested, would make it easier for Moscow to deal with the most far-flung regions.
The leading proponent of this idea, Gennady Lazarev, a professor at the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service, has made the same point: “Our working day [in the Russian Far East] is ending when it is beginning in Moscow. This is inconvenient not only for us but also for Moscow.”
And “if we take the extreme points of the Russian Federation – Kaliningrad and Kamchatka, where the difference between them is 11 hours,” Lazarev continued, “what kind of ties between these regions in general can we talk about?” To bring them together, the clocks must be changed, preferably step by step through transitions from summer to winter time.
Vladivostok, he suggested, could go on winter time together with the entire country and in the spring not go back to summer time. Then the difference with Moscow would be not seven hours but six. After two years, we will see what an impact that has biologically and whether it is economically useful, [If it works,] then in the third year, we won’t go on summer time again.”
Scholars at Moscow State University have promised to study the situation, “Komsomolskaya Pravda” reports. Aleksandr Levich of the Moscow Institute for the Study of the Nature of Time, said that “it is possible to reduce” the number of time zones by half, but if this is done, it will affect many residents (
Some of these changes will be positive but others will be negative, he suggested. Which will be greater “is difficult to say.” Another scholar, speaking on condition of anonymity, however, expressed skepticism about the step: Moscow can cut the number of time zones but it can’t change the shape of the earth or the speed of its rotation relative to the sun.
There is such a thing as “Coordinated Universal Time (UTC),” he pointed out, which divides the earth into 24 time zones. Russia is divided into 11, and these lines roughly follow the UTC pattern, although they have been modified to run along the borders of the federal subjects -- except for Sakhalin which is in two time zones and Sakha which is in three.
The UTC was the product of ideas offered by Stanford Fleming, a nineteenth century Canadian communications engineer. In 1883, his proposal for dividing the globe into 24 time zones was accepted by 26 countries. The Russian Empire refused to go along, citing its “holy uniqueness.” Russia gained such time zones only in February 1918 by Soviet decree.
For many Russians now, Medvedev’s suggestion will recall two things, neither of which is likely to boost his reputation. On the one hand, Medvedev’s proposed four time zones appear to ape the US in much the same way that the Decembrists proposed dividing Russia into 13 states and Gorbachev called for dividing the USSR into 50 states.
And on the other, those who remember Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” will certainly recall Ivan’s amazement in finding out from a fellow zek that when the sun is at its highest point, the time is not noon but 1:00 pm because Moscow has ordered that. Could that mean, he appears to reflect, that Stalin controls even the sun?

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