Russia, Ukraine and the Revenge of Geography
The ancient Romans believed every place — from a street corner to an entire nation — possessed a genius loci, a presiding spirit that animated it, watched over it. Today, we dismiss such fanciful notions, and in fact, gleefully pronounce the death of geography itself. Digital technologies have dissolved the inconvenient confines of the physical world, leaving us free to frolic in a placeless present. Or so we’re told.
Rumors of geography’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Not only is geography distinctly undead, it is more alive than ever. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drives this point home. War, it is said, is the best geography teacher.
What is geography? There are different branches, from physical (think climate, soil, and atmosphere) to geomatics (using computers to aid in mapping), but at its heart, the discipline is profoundly human and humane. “Geography is the study of earth as the home of people,” says Yi-fu Tuan, perhaps the greatest geographer of our age.
Getting inside Putin’s head demands the skills not only of a psychologist and historian but of a geographer. Yes, Putin is obsessed with history, but it is maps, not history books, that keep him up at night.
Geography also has real-world consequences. What Napoleon Bonaparte said more than two centuries ago still holds true today: “If you know a country’s geography, you can understand and predict its foreign policy.”
Getting inside Putin’s head, as much as that is possible, demands the skills not only of a psychologist and historian but of a geographer. Yes, Putin is obsessed with history — his warped version of it, at least — but it is maps, not history books, that keep him up at night. Russia’s map shrank dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin is determined to restore it.
Here are four of the geographic facts about Ukraine that shed light on Putin’s war:
- Ukraine sits squarely on the “European Invasion Superhighway,” linking East and West, Europe and Asia.