Russia Rising

by Chris Markham. 0 Comments

I’m sure I’ve said what I’m about to say in previous columns (sorry, Brenda)! But, ever since I was a lad, I’ve had a fascination with first the Soviet Union and then, after a period of revolution and uncertainty, Russia. A lot of my interest came from the same reason I was interested in sharks – both were scary, dangerous things that could kill you at any minute (well, with sharks it was whenever we were in the ocean, but still). One of my earliest memories was of the three major news networks breaking in to state that Brezhnev was dead, and how Armageddon was right around the corner.
I remember vividly the times that our grade-school classes had to walk quietly and carefully in a single-file line down to the school’s fallout shelter. The shelter had no food or water; heck, it wasn’t even entirely below ground. Upon further recollection, I think the whole purpose of the drill was to keep us kids calm and busy in the moments before we were vaporized. Duck and cover drills were pointless.
I was so interested in the USSR that I attempted to fulfill the requirements of a Minor in Soviet Studies. Tragically (for me alone, at least), during my junior year of college, the Soviet Union, along with the Warsaw Pact, imploded. Minor in Soviet Studies becomes Minor in Russian History in an instant.
Over the past several years, I have kept my interest in Russia and the former Soviet Union alive through reading. The Iron Curtain and Gulag are both very insightful resources into the minds of the Russian people and those that lead them. I have, sadly, stopped learning about sharks. As I don’t go in the ocean very much anymore, there really seemed to be no reason to keep up with the latest advances in shark studies. A few pictures on the internet here and there is my only shark-related indulgence.
I’m sure you’ve heard by now there’s a little donnybrook going on currently in that part of the world. No, I don’t mean Sochi (God, that two-week span felt like a century); rather there is an issue over the Ukraine and the Crimea. It’s very interesting to me to see what the major media outlets seem to miss about this situation. I know, it would appear to be a hostile act by the Russians over a somewhat sovereign nation. If one digs a bit deeper, one can see what the fuss is about, and why this area is so darn important in that part of the world, and for Russia itself.
First, the Ukraine – the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union – is not only an important economic center (we’ll get to that in a minute) but also an important spiritual region for Russia. Before Moscow became the capital of the country, most of Russia’s important activities occurred in this area. For Russians, it’s a key area for the entire country’s history and soul. It’s the “Rus” that the Russian people speak fondly about, and some worship.
Second, Russia has a LOT of coastal areas. But for most of the year, the waters around ninety percent of Russia are inhospitable – the shallow water freezes over and icebergs cruise around the open water. It’s not easy to get in and out of the country by water with one exception – the Black Sea – which is located in the Ukraine (more specifically, the area known as the Crimean Peninsula). You need to move goods or people in or out of Russia, chances are you need to go through the Black Sea.
Third, Russia is blessed with natural resources the rest of the world would kill for. However, given the geography and sparsely populated steppe of the country, where these resources can be found, extracting and transporting these assets is difficult and costly. It’s good to have neighbors – CLOSE neighbors – with whom to trade. That’s where Gazprom comes in.
Gazprom is one of, if not the, richest company in Russia. Most of the oligarchy has some tie or another to the business. Gazprom takes resources – mostly natural gas – and sells and transports it to their bordering countries – Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, etc., for prices that would make Enron blush. Without those captive audiences, who knows where Russia would be.
For those of us old enough to remember, there used to be one phone company – Bell. Then, deregulation occurred, and soon enough, there were dozens. During the late part of the 20th and early 21st Centuries, those “baby bells” all merged back again so there are only a few telephone networks to use for your landlines.
I think that’s where Russia is heading – to reclaim what was once part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This might be the first shot in the reformation. We should be concerned.

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