In crudely oversimplified terms, the geography of the former Soviet Union is divided into two parts. In the north are vast forests known as taigas, broken by Ural Mountains, but basically extending east to the Siberian Arktic. In the south the steppes of Eurasia stretch from Ukraine to Manchuria, some thirty-five hundred miles of wide-open semiarid grasslands and deserts linking the European and Asian landmasses. The steppes of Central Asia are among the most remote, unknown, least assimilated, and physically forbidding regions of the extinct Soviet empire. Summer in the steppes is blazing hot and bone dry, with normal daily temperatures reaching 105 F. Winter is windy and cold, with temperatures dropping to — 59 F. The steppes are completely treeless except for riparian woods. In the Russia of the czars, those who had to travel them would set off in a horse-drawn droshky, simply following the direction in a straight line, no geographical obstacles to detour them and no roads necessary. The mind can hardly embrace the empty longing of Anton Chekhov's description of the steppes: "Sultry heat in summer, in winter frost and snowstorms, terrible nights in autumn when nothing is to be seen but darkness and nothing is to be heard but the senseless angry howling wind, and, worst of all, alone, alone for the whole of life."
Humans have used the Central Asian steppes as pasture for horses, sheep, camels, and goats since at least 3000 b.c., and it was from this same region that horse-mounted nomads terrified and decimated the settled ancient worlds of China and Europe. The nomads of the Eurasian steppes, whose depredations followed almost exactly the distribution pattern of the wild Eurasian horse, were a major influence on the Russian national character, which is traditionally viewed by Russians as the product of the long life-and-death struggle between forest and steppe. The Russians draw their national myth from the aggrieved notion that they were set back many centuries in the development of civilization by shielding Europe from the steppes barbarians, and then delayed several centuries more under the bitter Mongol yoke. As a Russian prince told the Marquis de Custine at the start of his Russian travels in 1839: "Russia today is scarcely four hundred years removed from the invasion of the barbarians, whereas the West was subjected to the same crisis fourteen centuries ago. A civilization a thousand years older puts an immeasurable distance between the morals of nations. . . . Since the invasion of the Mongolians, the Slavs, until that time one of the freest peoples of the world, have become slaves—first of the conquerors and afterwards of their own princes. . . . Think at each step you take in this land of Asiatic people that the influence of chivalry and Catholicism has been missed by the Russians."
Yet as the "Mother Earth" of Russian folk myth, the soil and sky without limit, as well as the crossroads of the old East-West and North-South trade routes, connecting East and West like a great sea without water, the Eurasian steppes have always effected a strong pull on the Russian soul. "You, too, are an exile," wrote Mikhail Lermontov. "You wail for your wide spacious steppes! There you had room to unfurl your cold wings."