Contextualizing “Space” from a Historical Perspective: Tracing the Construction of Cartographic Designs delineating “Us” and “Them”

Krystel von Kumberg

Nation-states, as historical sociologist Anthony Smith observed, are “so easily recognizable from a distance, [yet] seem to dissolve before our eyes the closer we come and the more we attempt to pin them down.” As humans, much of how we perceive the world is cartographically suffocated, overly informed by both natural and artificial geographic boundaries. A central feature of the nation-state system is its attempt to delineate heterogeneous identities as belonging to a specific territory. To achieve nationhood, one needs a national history–a story that gives meaning to a shared ancestry lost in time. A noble idea in theory, but one that in practice has resulted in violence on a mass scale, deportations, and statelessness in the modern age. 

History has shown us humanity’s inherent need to categorize space and the peoples within them. States have long used cartographic delineations and drawn-out spaces to reinforce simplistic antonyms–such as “good” and “bad” or “modern” and “backward” or “Us” and “Them.” Indeed, social solidarity derives largely from traditions that we historically associate with cartographically delineated parts of the world. Exploring how humans have historically conceptualized space and drawn up maps can help us trace the construction of boundaries between “Us” and “Them.” The map pictured above, for example, seems foreign to the modern voyeur, but it highlights the extent to which maps have changed overtime, and not simply because of a lack of knowledge. Cartographers draw and redraw boundaries for political, ideological, and cultural reasons as well. Maps can shed light on the prevailing worldviews of individuals residing within different territories at a given time. Even today’s variants of the Mercator Map–the most common map projection, used in schools and Google Maps alike–do not accurately depict the sizes of continents. For instance, Greenland appears to be the same size as Africa, which is severely misleading. 

Ancient Greek geographers were the first to identify three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa (referred to as Libya). As Europeans crossed the Atlantic, they gradually realized that their continental system did not accurately depict the world. The transition from a threefold to a fourfold continental scheme took a long time, as America had to be intellectually “invented” as a distinct piece of land. For a long time, many Europeans simply chose to ignore the evidence that lay before them—in 1555, a popular French geography text entitled La Division du monde pronounced that the earth consisted of Asia, Europe, and Africa, making absolutely no mention of the Americas.  

Russia covers approximately one-eighth of the world’s land surface. Focusing on how the Russian state has conceptualized its territory and borderlands is key to unraveling the cultural, ideological, and societal constraints historically imposed on the land. From within, the government renamed and remapped Moscow after both the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, repeatedly making it an unfamiliar place for its inhabitants. Such changes reflect how spaces can be used over time to project the goals of the state onto the populace. 

The Soviet state recategorized the people within its own land and expected them to evolve to their new circumstances. In order to sculpt society neatly and purify alien elements, the government resorted to coercive strategies, such as deportation and violence or control of migration patterns and free movement of peoples. The Soviet’s nationality policy organized internal divisions around national borders and ethnic identities to translate the socio-cultural space of the kresy (borderland between Poland and Russia) onto a map. This was a difficult task considering the hybrid and fluid cultures of the borderlands, where no two villages were alike. Determining whether villagers were “Ukrainianized Poles” or “Polonized Ukrainians” was an arduous task. Kate Brown analyzes how once the Soviets established national identities, locals leveraged their Polish or German identities to elude Soviet rule. It became clear that national identities were counterproductive to the Soviet state. In fact, the regions that the Soviet Administration crafted by arbitrary borders in the 1920s became infiltrated with nationalist spies within a decade. Brown highlights the first mass deportations to occur along ethnic lines in 1935 and 1936, when state forces deported almost half of the local Poles and Germans first to eastern Ukraine and later to Kazakhstan. Her book, “A Biography of No Place,” showcases the irony of Soviet ethnic cleansing measures by pointing out that Zbotrovskii, the man in charge of resettlement operations, of Polish heritage. 

Straddling Europe and Asia–stuck between identifying as an enlightened Eastern metropolis or a backward Asiatic colony–Russia’s cartographic positioning has shaped its mindset for centuries. Unlike its European counterparts, Russia and its colonies were located within the same political landmass. Russia was thus confronted with internal colonies because the central metropolis and peripheral colonies had no definitive borders to distinguish one from the other. Cartographic constraints meant that the struggle to create boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’ did not manifest in a clearly defined external dichotomy, such as in the case of  Britain and India. D. Gutmeyr-Schnur unveils the concept of “internal othering” in Russia,  as in the case of Muslim Tatars, highlighting the difficulties political elites had in drawing clear lines of difference. Different spaces also could determine people’s actions, and Russian pragmatism allowed soldiers to adapt to their surroundings rather than shape the land to their will. When the Russian colonizer assimilated the cultural attributes of the colonized peoples, they ended up representing a “monstrous double”—still foreigners to the land yet posing as natives—further complicating where one ‘self’ ended and the ‘other’ began. 

External and internal forces alike have continually reshaped Russia’s boundless territory. Crafting a shared sense of space proved difficult considering the many obstacles to centralization and governance that existed in the Russian space, which spread across eight different time zones and contained vast uninhabitable spaces and unusable land. At the same time, this vastness symbolized Russian power through space, as resistance to conquest was proved from Napoleonic times to the Great Wars of the 20th century. 

Spaces can take on many shapes and sizes, and in the process encapsulate different meanings. Looking beyond the territorial mass and instead at the ways that governments and other groups have utilized space to define themselves helps unlock these meanings and highlight how our conceptualizations of land impact our understandings of “us” and “them” today. Narratives separating “us” from “them” are still dangerously present, highlighting the lasting legacy of those who have sculpted land to craft nationalist stories and build a state without regards for heterogeneous locals and translocal identities. 

Image: Depicting the world as a cloverleaf, this cartographic curiosity mirrors the traditional Medieval world’s three continental system. Since it was published in the late-16th century, after the New World discoveries had gained acceptance, its appeal would have been to those who cherished the past. To recognize the New World discoveries, America is shown as an afterthought in the left corner below.

Krystel von Kumberg is an M.A. student studying Global, International, and Comparative History and graduated from the Security Studies Program at Georgetown in 2020. She specializes in the roles of non-state actors; militarized social movements, terrorists, and militias in Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Her research focuses on the history of transnational terrorism, recruitment methods, and radicalization.

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