Part III: Beyond Moscow: Into the Regions
It has been said that the real Russia starts beyond Moscow. In the "regions", Moscow's trends and political and economic ups and downs fade and replaced by a poorer but more stable way of life. Leaving Moscow meant saying good-bye to the Blue Light Specials, gaudy billboards, expensive clubs, inflated egos of the elites -- and almost any hope of finding an English speaker, which makes travel outside the big cities a huge challenge for non-Russian speakers. This detachment from Moscow spared most of the regions the epic dislocations arising from the 1998 economic crisis. When the Moscow banks went bust, most people outside the capital didn’t lose any money. They were too poor to save - money was to be spent quickly because of the uncertain future.
Russia is divided into 89 regions including 49 oblasts (provinces) or, closer to the border, 6 krais (territories). Most regions are named after their largest cities. For example, Belgorod City is the capitol of Belgorod Oblast. In addition to the oblasts and krais, there are also 21 ethnically-based “republics”. The 89 are both more and less powerful and autonomous than U.S. states. On one hand, they elected the upper house of parliament, the Federal Council, in the same way state legislators elected U.S Senators before 1913. During the late Yeltsin years, central rule had become very weak -- and some regions had become quite independence minded. Some regions dominated by non-Russians pushed the envelope by declaring that their “Republics” had Sovereignty. Any hope of actually declaring independence was dashed by the war in Chechnya. No one wanted to go through that kind of hell.
The inability of the regions to determine their fate underlies their fundamental weakness. Unlike U.S. states, Russia’s regions lack distinct powers that are respected under a constitution. This made it relatively easy for President Putin's to sharply cut back on regional autonomy when he came to power at the end of 1999. This weakness also enabled Putin to create a whole new set of “Super Governors” on top of the regions. In the end, Moscow held sway.
However, Russia’s enormity makes it impossible for the central government to control everything. As a result, local authorities remained tremendously influential and life varied markedly from region to region depending on the competence of local rulers. Although some regions are run like feudal fiefdoms, but there can be surprising pockets of enlightenment even in the poorest region.
Russians traditionally divide the regions into several groups: The Golden Ring, Northwest, Black Earth, Volga Valley, Caucasus, Siberia and the Far East. The Turkic regions of Tartarstan and Bashkortostan are treated separately because of their special history, political arrangements and ethnic composition even though they are located near the Volga River.
Note: This is only a partial excerpt of the book, which is available on request. I will be adding photos to this page in the near future.