Willard Sunderland
(PhD, National Research University Higher School of Economics, University of Cincinnati, USA)
The Trouble with Regions: What, When, How, Why?
This paper offers a reflection on region as a category of historical analysis. I start by noting the deceptive simplicity of region as a geographical category. According to the US National Geographic Society, a region is "an area of land that has common features." In fact, however, many regions have little or no geographic commonality but instead are better defined by culture and/or their complimentary, oppositional, or overlapping relationship – real and imagined – to other regions and states. In addition to their contingency, regions also shift over time, either by growing, shrinking, or simply repositioning themselves. Not everyone sees a region the same way, or uses the same terms to describe it, either from the inside out or from the outside looking in. Some people in certain regions in modern times have insisted that their regions are nations and deserve to be states of their own. Others have been content to remain regions within states that might or might not be identified simultaneously with a nation, but even these aspirations are historical. They change over time, and the relationship between region and nation is at best fraught and indeterminate.

The trouble with Russian regions is simply a variation on this broader reality. The list of entities that could be described as regions in the Russian context is staggering. The terms to describe them are likewise diverse – zemlia, oblast', krai, region, for starters. But a region can be a region without a word for "region" appearing in the title. Often a proper name will do, sometimes with a prefix, sometimes not: Podmoskov'e, Pribaltika, Predkavkaz'e, Zakavkaz'e, Sibir, Chernaia Rus'. Some regions are highly geographical. The regions of Crimea and the Carpathians, for example, are the peninsula and the mountain range. No more, no less. Other regions are geographical yet far less precise – the North (sever), for example, or Aziatskaia Rossiiaor Tsentral'naia or Sredniaia Aziia, all of whose component parts have varied over time. Other regions, for a while at least, have doubled as provinces or collections of provinces. In other words, their regionality has been closely tied to dictates and definitions of administration: the region of Novorossiia, for example. At the same time, an association with administration isn't the only meaning these regions carry. Other notions of region are more general. A pogranich'e, for example, is a region around a border, while an okraina is a region that lies metaphorically or physically near the edge of the state. The center (tsentr) is also a region, though its exact location varies from observer to observer. Some territories might also be described as regions despite the fact that they're usually not. For example, the "region" of the Trans-Siberian Railway. This sounds odd, I admit, but if the Volga is a region – Povolzh'e – why couldn't one speak of a Pomagistral'e?