I was glancing over a piece I wrote a few years back, about “Is Russia European or Asian.” In it, I pointed out that the western border of Russia gets pushed as far west as possible whenever Russia has a strong ruler. Why? Geography plays a role, much as geography helped China for so long, then turned into a terrible limit (at least as far as the Chinese were concerned.) Geography is not destiny, but in the days before modern transportation and communication, it certainly played a role in cultural development.
Russia’s natural borders are . . . the Ural Mountains, perhaps the Caucasus Mountains, the Arctic Ocean, and, well, now there’s a problem. The Pripet Marshes are not all that great as a defensive barrier, especially when they freeze over in winter. The Carpathians are taken by people who Do Not Like the Russians, and they’re not all that effective any way. North of the marshes is nothing until the English Channel, almost. Asian horse nomads went around the Urals, as they had done for as far back in prehistory as anthropologists and archaeologists have been able to trace.
Some historians argue that you can look at the history of Russia (say, 1350-present) as a long struggle to create and defend borders far enough from the Moscow core region that the capitol was protected. Which leads to the difficulty that a buffer is needed to protect the border, which leads to the border expanding, which ticks off people on the other side, which leads to strife on the border, which reconfirms Russia’s sense that everyone’s out to get them, so they need deeper borders . . .
My thought is that while this certainly plays a role in Russian history, there’s a lot of other things including religion, chronic underpopulation, and the like that are as important. Geography is not destiny, nor does the environment determine everything in a culture. It is very important, and you’re not going to have, oh, outdoor snow-skiing become a major tourist activity in eastern Brazil so long as the continents and tilt of the Earth remain as they are. Coastal areas are always going to have an advantage in trade, as are places with lots of navigable rivers for cheap bulk transport and communications. What people do from there, however, is a lot more variable.
China, unlike Russia, had excellent natural borders aside from the long steppe frontier. China didn’t have to worry about being invaded from South Asia (the Himalaya) or Southeast Asia (tropical rain forests, mountains, enormous wetlands) or Japan. So the steppe nomads became the focus of almost all fears and precautions, and their presence or absence determined a lot of China’s defensive attention and expense. Aside from the steppe nomads (Hsung Nu, Mongols, Manchu, and others), civil wars caused most of China’s political woes until the late 1600s. China invented gunpowder and some artillery, but didn’t go farther because they didn’t need to. China had large ships and a big navy, then shut everything down and stopped development because it didn’t need a big navy, and because the political philosophy dominating the court opposed exploration and seeking trade. Trade came to the Middle Kingdom, brought by barbarians who knew their proper place in the world.
However, those protective borders also formed a hard ecological limit to expanding and finding new lands and food sources for growing populations. Environmental historians are pretty certain that China hit its ecological limit first in the late Ming Dynasty (1600). To the west? The Taklamakan Desert. The south? Malaria, to which the local tribes had a far greater resistance than did Han Chinese. The east? Tokugawa Japan. The north? Steppe nomads again. In part because of reaching the limits to expansion of agriculture, China got hammered by the climate minimum that struck between 1590-1700. As in thirty percent average population loss, as much as one hundred percent in some marginal areas.* It took access to the foods from the Americas, plus much improved weather and political stability for China to recover, and by the end of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1948, they had hit the ecological limit again. China didn’t get nitrogen fertilizer until the 1970s, and that’s what has made a lot of the difference since then in terms of food production and stability. China’s defensive walls helped protect the country, but they also served as serious barriers expansion and food supply until modern technology kicked in.
South Asia also had some good natural borders, except those have major passes through them, and there’s always the sea. The Americas? A giant moat on both sides, and anyone who thinks a land invasion over the Bering Strait into what is now Alaska and the Yukon will be easy . . . has never seen a topographic map. Or radar images of the mosquito swarms in summer.
Geography isn’t destiny, but it plays a big role in what challenges cultures face. Mountain peoples tend to be insular, “primitive,” and hardscrabble, often seen as sort of uncanny and always hostile by the lowland farmers. Isolated languages develop far more complicated structures than do languages in areas with lots of trade and population movement, because the complexities get “worn off” the latter. Geography sets the stage for culture. How culture responds to geography? That’s free will, not destiny.
*Russia also suffered terribly, including three back-to-back years without a single crop surviving in Ruthenia (Ukraine) and Muscovy. This fed into the Time of Troubles, and the civil war that remains to this day a low point in Russian history.