Episode #16 What is Russia made of
Warning! This episode contains explicit language and my personal feelings and opinions
Today I wanna talk about Russian geography, what parts is my country made of, what are they called and why. And also mention different nationalities that live here.
I probably should’ve made this episode earlier. But the thing is I don’t think it would’ve been as clear what I’m talking about before. For example, now I can say Mineral waters of the Caucasus from episode #4 are in Ставропольский край/Stavropolskiy krai.
I live in the main city of Саратовская область/Saratovskaya oblast. Which is Saratov.
So, what are those krai and oblast thingies? It’s a long story! Good thing I have the whole episode to tell you!
I don’t know if you are aware, but officially Russia is called Russian Federation. Which means it is a union of partially self-governing regions under a central federal government. So regions have more control over their own affairs then in a unitary state, like France, for example. (At least in theory they do). Other examples of federations are the United States, India or Brazil, to name just a few.
Officially regions are referred to as subjects of the federation – субъекты федерации/subjecti federatsii. As of 2014 there are 85 subjects of federation within Russia. Although two most recent additions are still parts of Ukraine to many foreign countries. And I’m soooo not going into details on that one in this episode or in the foreseeable future, if I can help it.
In any case, 85 parts sounds like a lot, until you remember that this is the biggest country in the world. So… it could’ve been more. I’m glad they decided to stop before they hit a hundred. Because it’s a bitch to learn them all in Geography class at school, let me tell you.
Division of Russia
Who decided how to divide the country? Well, a lot of the division is historic. Before the Soviet Union there was the Russian Empire, and it consisted of 101 parts. During the Soviet Era new territories became parts of the Union, but within Russia itself old parts just changed names, but a lot of them remained within their old borders.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 80-s – early 90-s a lot of its parts in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus region became separate countries. But again, what remained of the Russia proper (and it was a lot) retained its usual divisions. They just had Soviet names, not Imperial ones.
So, what are the names?
We have republics (yep, that’s officially in the name of some subjects of the federation), krays, oblasts, cities of federal significance, autonomous okrugs and one autonomous oblast.
There are 22 republics within the Russian Federation. The title does not depend on the size. Rather it’s about the fact that the population of the republic belongs to an ethnic minority. So they are a minority only in terms of the country as a whole. Inside their own republic/region they are a majority. And the name of the minority or majority is often in the name of the republic.
For example, during 2018 Football (that’s soccer for you Americans out there) world cup some matches were held in the city called Казань/Kazan. I’ve been there (not this year though), I liked it a lot and I’m working on the episode about it.
Anyway, it is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Or simply Татарстан/Tatarstan. The name is derived from the name of the ethnic majority – Татары/Tatari or Tatars.
And the -stan part you might’ve heard if you’ve ever been curious about Central Asia. A lot of countries there have the same ending in their name – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekhistan. It just means “state” in Turkic languages. Tatars are Muslims, by the way.
The second largest ethnicity in that republic is Russians, in case you’re curious. That’s often the case with national republics, especially the ones that are in the European part of the country.
However, Tatarstan’s neighbour is the Republic of Bashkortostan or Башкирия/Bashkiria. Where I’ve also been and which is seriously gorgeous. It’s called after the nation of Башкиры/Bashkiri.
But the largest ethnic group there is actually Russians. And Bashkiri is the second largest. But historically this is their land. So, the region is named after them. Not all of the names of the republics are derived from the name of ethnicity, but a lot of them are.
How does a republic within a federation work?
They function sort of like parts of the United kingdom. They have their own constitution and government. And their own ethnic language is the official state language along with Russian. It’s taught at schools and sometimes is used by their government.
And if you use public transport in Kazan, for example, you will hear the stops announced in Russian, English and Tatar.
By the way, the fact that there are national republics, doesn’t mean that people from certain ethnic groups can live only there. They can live anywhere in the country, there’s no limitations like that.
The most common type of federal subjects is область/oblast. The word just means “area”. There are 46 of them in the federation.
As I’ve said, I live in one of those. In Saratovskaya oblast, to be precise, in the city of Saratov.
So you might notice that the name of an oblast is derived from the name of the state capital. The -skaya suffix is what you use to make a female adjective from a noun. If the state capital is Saratov, oblast is Saratovskaya. If the state capital is Vladimir (that’s a legit Medieval Russian city I’ve mentioned in the episode #11 about the history of Moscow), the oblast is Vladimirskaya.
But you know, geography is a weird thing, it’s affected by history and all that. So the state around Saint Petersburg is called Leningradskaya oblast. Not Peterburgskauya oblast. Because the city was called Leningrad during the Soviet era.
Oblasts are not confined to the European part of the country. You can find them in Siberia too. They tend to have predominantly Russian population, but not necessarily. And the official language is Russian.
How do those work?
The state capital is usually the largest city. Oblasts don’t have their own constitutions. We choose our own legislative bodies. And in general oblast is almost like a state. Although… well, we used to be able to choose our own governor but several years ago it was changed by the federal government. And now the governor is appointed.
It’s a thing to keep in mind while I’m telling you all that stuff about parts of the country. On paper they have some autonomy. In reality Russia is a very centralized country. And it’s center is Moscow.
It has always been this way (except for two hundred years when the center was in St Petersburg), and changing names of the country throughout the history did little to change that.
That was my annoyance with Moscow seeping through, btw. I’ve got a full blown rant about it in the episode #7.
The type of federation subject that is identical to oblast is край/kray. The word means the end as in the end of the land, frontier. So krais are regions that were the end of the country at certain periods of history. Most of them are not anymore.
There are 9 of them in the Federation. As I’ve said in the very beginning, Mineral waters of the Caucasus from episode #4 are in Ставропольский край/Stavropolskiy krai
Which means that the main city in the region is Stavropol. And the suffix is -skiy, not -skaya because we have gendered nouns like French do. And our nouns affect our adjectives. The word край/krai is male, and that’s why Stavropolskiy (which is essentially an adjective) has male ending. And oblast is female, hence Saratovskaya oblast, not Saratovskiy.
Wow. That turned into a Russian Language lesson real fast. Errm. I hope you like them!
Another example of krai is Краснодарский край/Krasnodarskiy krai. That’s a region where the city called Sochi is (But the capital is Krasnodar). And Sochi is the place where Russia housed 2014 Winter Olympic games.
Ok, next weird name for the type of region is autonomous округ/okrug. Okrug is very close in meaning to the word district. We have four of those in the country.
This type was created during Soviet times for indigenous people of the north. So all the autonomous okrugs that exist in Russia now are in the north and one of them (rumour has it) can be seen from Alaska. That’s Чукотский автономный округ/Chukotskiy avtonomniy okrug.
Again, indigenous people are not held there against their will. They can come and go where and when they want. They are just the titular nations and in those places they can lead the traditional way of life. If they feel like it.
At least, I think they can. They have hunting quotas and some of them do actually herd deer.
But to be completely honest I’ve never been that far north or north-east… Because Chukotskiy autonomous okrug, for example, or Chukotka as it’s also called, is half the world away from me. It’s easier for me to get to Africa, actually. I’m not kidding.
There used to be more of okrugs 20 years ago. Ten, in fact. But six of them were abolished when the number of indigenous people in the region dropped to less than 30%. Now former okrugs are parts of the bigger regions.
Actually, all existing okrugs but one are subordinate to bigger regions. I’m not sure how precisely that works. But those are northern regions, they are scarcely populated. So maybe it makes sense in their circumstances.
Jewish autonomous oblast
Anyway, moving on. We have one and only autonomous oblast – Jewish autonomous oblast. And it’s in the Russian Far East and borders China.
How does that even work considering where Israel is? And how did that happen? Oh, it’s too big of a story for one episode and I’ll save it for some other time. And probably I have to visit the place too. But I’ll leave the link to the page about it in the shownotes.
For now I’ll just say that it’s one of the two existing autonomous territories in the world. The other one being Israel. But these day there aren’t that many Jews there because a lot of them emigrated to Israel. That’s called Aliyah. Or just moved to other regions because that part of Russian Far East is not especially human friendly place. Which may give you a hint about their life there.
Federal cities of Russia
The last type of federation subject is federal cities. There are three of those: Moscow, St Petersburg and Sevastopol. The capital and the former capital make sense because they are the two largest cities in the country. So it makes sense they would need special treatment, more administrative forces and all that.
Sevastopol however… It’s in Crimea. Which a lot of the countries still consider Ukranian territory. And I’m still not talking about that one. Either literally or figuratively.
Why the f is Sevastopol the city of federal significance when it’s population is less than half a million? Hell if I know. I’m just guessing it’s an image and status thing. Which is… annoying. But unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about it.
Why you might wanna know this?
And I think that’s just about everything I wanted to say on the subject for now.
Why did I create this episode at all? So that the next time I mention that some place is in such and such republic you wouldn’t think it’s not a part of Russia. And also so that words like oblast and krai won’t confuse you. Or maybe just in case you’re curious about how such a huge country even functions.
And now it’s time for the segment:
How do you say it in Russian?
I’ve realised recently that I’ve never mentioned how to ask someone how are they doing. It’s Как дела?/Kak dela? Literally “how’s business?”
That’s not a very formal version. You could ask a friend that. Or a friendly acquaintance. There are more formal versions but they are harder to pronounce. So I think I’ll just tell you two variations on kak dela – the formal and informal ones.
Как ваши дела?/Kak vashi dela? – formal or plural. Because ваши/vashi is derived from вы/vi – you. Which is how you address a person to show respect. And also plural.
Как твои дела?/Kak tvoi dela? – informal. Because твои/tvoi is derived from ты/ti. It’s the singular form, like thou. That’s how you address friends or kids because they are younger.
Beware! Russians might take that for a real question and answer it. It’s not always a completely meaningless pleasantry here. But it really depends on the person and the situation.
And that’s all for now. If you like the show, please, rate it and leave a review however and wherever you listen, cause apparently it’s very helpful! And would be ever so pleased!
Till next week.
Gigi, from Russia with love from all its 85 parts!