In brief, the political geography of Russia is, as could be expected of a vast state formed over centuries and through myriad battles and wars, a product of its imperial history. From its 9th Century origins as Kievan Rus – seat of the present day country of Ukraine – to its present day configuration stretching from the Baltics in the west to the Pacific in the Russian Far East, Russia has evolved as a politically complex nation-state, although one considerably easier to grasp than during the era of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, when Russia sat at the center of a tremendous empire incorporating Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Ukraine, Belorus, and the newly independent nations of the Baltics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Today, Russia is divided into 83 distinct political regions, known as republics, oblasts, krais, and okrugs. These political boundaries or divisions, as with the nation-state as a whole, are the product of years of political maneuverings and conflicts, during which, under long-time dictator Joseph Stalin, entire ethnic populations were forcibly moved en masse as a means of facilitating greater control over them or as a way of “russifying” non-Russian regions. Also, Russia’s political frontiers reflect the expansion of its borders over time to incorporate ethnicities that are distinctly non-Russian.
Russia is divided into two main regions: European Russia, which runs from the western borders with the Baltics and Ukraine to the Ural Mountains to the east; and Siberia and the Russian Far East, which stretches from the Ural Mountains to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. With a 2,600 mile poorly defined border with China and a history that includes invasions from Mongol hordes, Russia’s Far East reflects that Asian influence. Similarly, the southern frontiers that border Central Asia and the Caucasus reflect the back-and-forth movement of Russians, Kazakhs, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, and many others.
One of the greatest recent changes in Russian political geography resulted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Ukraine as an independent state. Historically, as was referenced earlier, Ukraine was considered an integral part of Russia, and provided much of Russia’s most fertile agricultural terrain. The loss of Ukraine when the Soviet Union fell apart constituted as significant political, cultural, and economic loss for Russia. Ukraine, however, is a distinct country, with a similar but different language. Continued tensions between the two countries can be seen in Ukraine’s efforts at integrating with the West, while a vast ethnic Russian minority in the country’s east continues to agitate for reunification with Russia. The Crimean region serves as a microcosm of that larger conflict, as the Russian naval base at the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol continues to be a source of much tension.
Within ethnic Russian communities, there are distinct political differences, especially between the major metropolitan areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), with the latter traditionally more Western oriented, given its geographic proximity to the West, than Moscow, which was chosen as Russia’s capital due in no small part because of its interior location, making it both safer from invasion and more insulated from outside influences.