Russia often doesn’t make sense to the West. In 1939 England’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill famously said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma.” But considering the power in the hands of this nation, we should seek some understanding of what Russians call the Rodina or Motherland.
Russia is huge, spanning 11 time zones and thus stretching halfway around the world. It’s a rich land not only agriculturally, but in minerals, with enormous oil and gas reserves in Siberia.
In spite of its massive size, Russia has very poor access to the open seas and natural pathways to the rest of the world. This has played a critical role in the shaping of the Russian mindset. In his book Peter the Great: His Life and World, author Robert Massie described 17th-century Russia this way: “Like a giant closed up in a cave with only a pinhole for light and air, the great land mass of the Muscovite empire possessed but a single seaport: Archangel, on the White Sea. This unique harbor, remote from the Russian heartland, is only 130 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Six months of the year, it is frozen in ice.”
Peter the Great fought a war against the Swedes to gain another outlet to the world—seizing from them swampy land with access to the Baltic Sea and founding St. Petersburg there in 1703. However, even today ships from St. Petersburg must sail past Finland, Estonia and Poland, under a bridge connecting Denmark with Sweden, then past Norway and the United Kingdom to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
In the south, the Ottoman Turks long controlled the Black Sea. And when the Russians finally gained access to it, their ships still had to pass through the narrow Bosporus Straits, sailing under two Turkish bridges, then through the Dardanelles and the length of the Mediterranean Sea before passing through the Strait of Gibraltar to reach open seas.
Some of Russia’s greatest rivers flow nowhere. The Volga empties into the landlocked Caspian Sea. Great Siberian rivers flow north into the frozen Arctic. It’s a very awkward geography that has contributed to the frustration and aggressiveness of Russian rulers with ambitions of greatness on the world stage. (The geography of the United States and Britain, in contrast, is very different, with plentiful rivers and warm-water ports and harbors with full control of key naval gateways.)
These geographic shortcomings helped mold the Russian national psyche, fostering a xenophobic viewpoint—an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.