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The USSR instead/inside of Europe: Soviet political geography in the 1930s–1950s

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The article addresses the special conditions in Soviet society during the Stalin period that contributed to the emergence of latent ideas about the unique position of the USSR on the map of the world, of Europe in particular. The focus is on pedagogical methods, the theory and practice of cartography, literary and journalistic texts, cinematography, and pop music, all of which present an image of the USSR as the “center of world civilization” and thereby sustain its inculcation in public consciousness. An interesting and significant example is the second edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, launched on Stalin’s initiative and carried out under his patronage (1947). In this context, the logic and the rhetoric of encyclopedia articles on the physical and political geography of Europe must be analyzed as a kind of territorial “crowding out” (vytesnenie) of Europe to the periphery of the Soviet Union. “Crowding out,” not only by geographical but also by ideological illusions of space, which emphasize and reproduce fairy-tale and epic orientations of social self-knowledge, brings the illusory space clearly into view. These means motivate the cyclical movement from centre to periphery and from periphery to centre.

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  1. 1.

    See in this respect the characteristic representation of travel in Soviet propaganda which used to limit space of virtual movement to the territory of the USSR and often failed to mention foreign countries at all (Gorsuch 2003: 760–785).

  2. 2.

    The apposition of the concept of “civilisation” to Soviet culture and Soviet reality goes back to the book by the English economists and public figures Sidney and Beatrice Webb “Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation”. Majskij lobbied for the publication of the book in Russian translation and found Stalin’s support: in December 1935 the Politbureau issued a decree about “the Webbs’ book ‘Soviet Communism’”, which aimed for having it translated into Russian (Maksimenkov 2005: 404–405). The translation was published in 1937 (Webb, Webb 1937). The copy in Stalin’s library had a dedication by the authors themselves which read: “To Joseph Stalin from the authors with respectful esteem” (Maksimenkov 2004).

  3. 3.

    On the role of geographical didactics and particular the map in the construction of images of reality: Wood 1992. See also the observations on the mutual relations between geographical imagination and the character of the social action of the subject and the collective (Harvey 1990: 418–434).

  4. 4.

    See for example the works on cartography and imperial expansionism (Smith 1994: 491–500; Phillips 1997; Harley 2001).

  5. 5.

    On the significant “gaps” between Collodi’s original fairy tale and Tolstoj’s adaptation: Lipoveckij 2003.


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Correspondence to Konstantin A. Bogdanov.

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Translated from the Russian by Josephine von Zitzewitz.

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Bogdanov, K.A. The USSR instead/inside of Europe: Soviet political geography in the 1930s–1950s. Stud East Eur Thought 62, 401–412 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11212-010-9124-9

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  • Physical and political geography
  • Encyclopedia
  • USSR
  • Europe