Many will remember Pushkin's exclamation as he listened with growing seriousness to Gogol's reading of "Dead Souls," "God! what a sad country is Russia!" or his comment later, "Gogol invented nothing, he tells the simple truth, the terrible truth."
First among the geographic influences underlying such conditions has undoubtedly been the remoteness of Russia from the main currents of European civilization on the one hand and her close proximity to, and contact with Asia on the other. When the Russian state revived in the fifteenth century around Moscow, it was not only isolated, but overshadowed and stifled by Asia. Evidences of this may be seen in many ways; one still hears the saying, "Scratch a Russian and find a Tartar." The art and architecture of Russia show unmistakable proofs of the necessity the nation was under so many years of bearing the brunt of the Asiatic onslaught. The contact with western civilization, on the other hand, was for a long period remote and attenuated, and the influence of the west upon the Russian masses imperceptible.
Another great difficulty arose from the fact that Russia did not lie on the way to any other part of the world. She has not been on any of the great trade routes or channels of human intercourse. To better understand the significance of this simple geographic fact, we have only to consider its influence in other parts of the world, as for example in the case of the prosperity and progress of the towns along the medieval trade routes, or the conspicuous decline of Renaissance Italy after the discovery of the western hemisphere. Following upon the voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan, the trade routes left the Mediterranean for the Atlantic and coincident with this came the decay of the Florence of the Medici and the Rome of Julius II. On the other hand, the increased importance of Italy, and for that matter the Balkans, since the opening of the Suez Canal, reflects the return in part at least of the Mediterranean to its former place.
As if to emphasize the geographic isolation still further, infant Russia, following the suggestion of geographic propinquity, went to Byzantium for its religion. This fact was fraught with tremendous consequence, for to her geographic isolation Russia thus added religious isolation. She divorced herself from the religion, thought and culture created in western Europe by the medieval church. She did not share in the civilization in which the church and later the protestant revolt served as basic factors. Political and social institutions developed in ecclesiastical moulds. The very physiognomy of the cities was determined by it, so that even with the development of modern industrialism.