To Russia with Love: Dethrone Moscow

Why Moscow wants some (if not all) USSR defectors back and the policy approach to sustainable re-federation.  A new capital city is the olive branch.

It’s no secret that President Vladimir Putin considers the disintegration of the USSR as a national tragedy.  Given his personal circumstances, born and raised in the USSR and an accomplished, powerful man upon its disintegration, it’s understandable he might feel duty-bound to rectify history.

As an American, I wonder how I would respond if the United States broke into pieces.  Given a personal sense of nationalism, I’m not sure I would ever fully recover.  Without question, I would be devastated. 

I empathize but am not a fan of how Russia goes about reacquiring its defectors/assets.  I start with the underlying motivation, which is understandable.

Bigger can be better
Beyond nationalism, large federations like the USA and USSR/Russia are preferable because they enjoy significant economic advantages due to their large geographic size. Said case revolves around the inherent ease of doing business and free movement of resources within an integrated economic unit.  The larger the federation, the larger the area subject to the same currency, laws, urban planning, etc. A large federation has big potential because only one government has to be good at national strategy. Contrast this with a large territory divided into several countries (e.g. Africa); a patchwork of performance and partially integrated urban systems are observed.

Urban Anatomy
A large federation is optimal if you can keep it.  The USSR achieved size but it wasn’t lasting. 

To understand the disintegration of the USSR, examine urbanization. Satellite images at night reveal urban sprawls; add time series data and the growth of an urban organism can be observed. After observing urbanization, geographers noticed a pattern. 

An urban sprawl is a mass concentration of infrastructure. The majority of which is approved, funded and orchestrated by government. Cities rarely mature without robust financial support from government.  It is therefore interesting that the spatial provision of infrastructure varies depending upon the relative size of a capital city.  

In keeping with human nature, cities exhibit inequality.  Specifically, relatively large capital cities appear to stunt economic development in the same way a monarch might oppress his people. 

From Space: Eastern portions of the American/Canadian urban system demonstrate a decentralized structure (left). The western portion of the Russian urban system displays textbook sprawl dominance (aka: urban primacy) (right). Both images are the same scale and are courtesy of NASA.

Satellite images make it possible to observe city inequality.  The images above juxtapose an even urban hierarchy with sprawl dominance (aka: urban primacy), where the urban system is dominated by one city. This is what inequality looks like.

Is one form worse? Yes, sprawl dominance is worse.  Scientists associate dominance with corporate exploitation of government, foreign penetration, small economies of scale, rural neglect, civil instability, high relative poverty and secession of sub-national members. Most important, sprawl dominance usually represents untapped potential; cities are missing

Tsar Cities
There are generally only two causes of sprawl dominance: Environment or status. Environment refers to a city’s natural endowment and how conducive the local environment is to urbanization.  For example, a river delta is considered to be a strategic location for a city versus a high altitude, inland desert.  Thus, sometimes one city will become dominantly large because it has superior natural advantages (e.g. in a country with limited coastline). 

Interestingly, sprawl dominance resulting from a strong natural endowment is rare and hardly as oppressive as status driven dominance.  Status driven dominance is when the dominant city is the capital city (meaning: seat of government). 

Capital dominance is a common type of sprawl dominance. Here, one city “wins” because of its inherited power.  Patterns of urbanization the world over suggest that dominant capitals neglect national development and are complicit in the capital’s hoarding.  Big capitals wrest government favor because they are the government.

Dominance can be measured by dividing the largest city’s population by that of the second and third largest cities combined.  Russia scores 2.36.  While not extreme (3.0 and above would be), when we consider the enormous size of Russia, it is remarkable that inland Moscow is over 2x larger than St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod combined (  Comparably large countries exhibit much lower scores speaking to the fact that they invariably have multiple large cities: China (0.66), India (0.66), Australia (0.67), USA (0.80), Canada (1.08) and Brazil (1.24). 

Even in Australia, with its enormous deserts and inhospitable interior, a balanced urban hierarchy has emerged around the coast. Despite Russia having vast, inhospitable territory, Moscow’s dominance should not be accepted without scrutiny. For example, why hasn’t Russia produced a large city on its Pacific coast?

Art – George Wilkinson III

Dominance Killed the USSR
Moscow’s status as capital is relatively new, dating to 1918.  At the time, Moscow was already a relatively large, established city as were its peers, Kiev, St Petersburg, etc.  The USSR was a federation of established players.
As required by federation, one established player was chosen to rule.  Choosing Moscow and subsequently allowing it to hoard is where Russia got it wrong and where it stands alone among big countries.

The centralizing forces enshrined in communism (and forcible federation) enabled Moscow’s rapid ascension. All capitals are magnetic, few more so than communist capitals where it is believed a strong core makes a strong country. In being capital, Moscow was given permission to swell, hoarding resources and subsequently underinvesting in the periphery.  Under financial strain from an entitled, oppressive capital, USSR members recognized they would lose indefinitely if they did not opt out, so several members did. 

To be balanced, St Petersburg deserves mention in any discussion about the Russian urban system. Prior to Moscow, from 1732 to 1918 St Petersburg was the capital of Russia.  St Petersburg’s former status is reflected in its large relative size.  With 5.5* million people St Petersburg is Russia’s second city, second to Moscow’s 17.1* million people.
* See: Agglomerations

Perhaps surprising, St Petersburg is dwarfed by Moscow.  This reality should be scrutinized because St Petersburg’s coastal location and proximity to Western Europe gives it an equal, if not superior, natural/economic endowment with Moscow.  How is St Petersburg not as large or larger than Moscow?  Is St Petersburg stunted? Research of dominant capitals suggests the answer is yes. 

Capital dominance is damaging because cities are missing.  Consider for a moment the financial value of an urban sprawl.  When you determine an amount, add to it the innovations and cultural contributions a single city gives to the world.  Herein lies Russia’s staggering potential. 

For Russia, brute force is a counter productive approach to re-federation.  Russia needs compromise, a symbolic neutral location (e.g. perhaps in the geographic center) for government, a location where parties’ voices are heard fairly and national prosperity is shared equitably among regions.  Compromise capital cities characterize most of the world’s big countries for a reason, because they work. 

Relatively small capitals cities work for 2 reasons.  First, a relatively small capital is overseen by larger peers and therefore the capital’s self aggrandizement is tempered.  These relatively modest capitals repulse those seeking wealth and attract those committed to service.  Second, the capital’s purposeful creation as an administrator alters its character as builder; unlike big capitals which only build for themselves, small capitals build other regions up.  Small capitals often invest in more speculative and innovative regional development projects that a large capital might overlook.  The result is a network containing multiple large cities and competitive economies of scale (See: Brazil, USA, Canada, Australia).

Should Russia choose a new federal capital, its sub-national territories should follow suit where appropriate.  Capital dominance occurs in sub-national territories too. For example, 85/92 of Russia’s sub-national territories and 13/14 of former soviet members exhibit capital dominance. Large territories should assess the relative size of their capital cities and remediate where needed. 

Finally, managing the relative size of a capital is not a one off solution; the torch is passed, not extinguished.  If the future is anything like the past, urbanization will defy today’s imagination.  As such, Russia should embody the perpetual management of capital city status in law. 

To Russia with Love
Russia is a land of 
enormous opportunity.  Sadly, that potential is locked up. It’s not that the solution is complex; it’s one law really: “The capital is <LOCATION>”.  Instead the limitation is awareness.  The strategic management of capital city status is not part of contemporary policy discussions. Current events suggest Russians do not associate their economic problems with Moscow’s size.  As such the ideas espoused in this article depend upon you, the reader, to pass it along.