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Richard Clark

Geography Awareness Week and Anna Karenina

November 16, 2012 —
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Since President Reagan declared it in 1987, every third week in November in the United States is celebrated as Geography Awareness Week. Related to that, one of my favorite novels—Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy—is coming to cinemas today. Thanks to Wolfram|Alpha, I’ll be able to discuss these two seemingly unrelated things with you. My nerdy dream has finally come true.

If you’re unfamiliar with Anna Karenina, I won’t spoil the content, but suffice it to say that Anna is a Russian socialite and aristocrat whose lover, Count Alexei Vronsky, due to various reasons best discovered on your own, takes her across Europe, later returning to Russia. There’s a lot of discussion about ethics and morality, with some deeply flawed characters making interesting if non-ideal decisions, to say the least. What matters for this blog post, though, is that Anna visits a bunch of places. And she’s from Russia, which is huge. It’s about the size of Pluto.

area of Russia, area of Pluto

Russia’s population has changed (as well as its sovereign territory) since Anna Karenina‘s days. Because Leo Tolstoy began writing the novel in 1873, let’s compare the population of Russia in 1873 and today (bearing in mind that at present, Wolfram|Alpha’s values are based on current borders).

population of Russia 1873, 2012

And before we go comparing Russia and other European countries, it’s worth noting that Russia is far more than Moscow and Saint Petersburg. You can check out the full list of Russia’s regions (including oblasts and autonomous republics), but I briefly want to analyze a few of my favorites.

altai republic, tyva, jewish republic, kaliningrad

Both the Altai Republic and Tuva are self-governing republics on the south edge of Russia, bordering central Asian countries. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is just north of China, and was created to allow people to pursue their Yiddish cultural heritage. As for Kaliningrad, situated under Lithuania and above Poland, it’s an exclave (exterior territory), and as one might imagine from looking at the rest of Russia’s geography, it’s the only Russian Baltic Sea port that is ice-free all year round. Not to suggest it doesn’t still get chilly there, of course.

Something that’s really worth mentioning about these regions of Russia, though, is how much space they have. Let’s compare the population density of these four Russian regions with New York State (which would be much lower without New York City), New Zealand, and Mongolia.

yevrey population density, tyva population density, altai republic population density, kaliningrad population density, ny state population density, nz population density, mongolia population density

New York State and New Zealand both have incredible amounts of open space to feel lost in, but Tuva and the Altai Republic are vastly more empty in comparison, as only Mongolia has fewer people per square mile. Let’s take it up another notch and compare Mongolia and Tuva to some other relatively unpopulated areas. If you’re not aware of geography yet, you will be shortly.

tyva population density, mongolia population density, alaska population density, wyoming population density, australia population density, chad population density, world population density

Now let’s compare the five most populous countries’ population densities, because this is literally the most fun I’ve had in years.

china, india, usa, indonesia, and brazil population density

India looks like a densely populated place, 1,058 people per square mile, but let’s compare that very number to Wolfram|Alpha’s hometown of Champaign, Illinois, and then my one true love, Seoul.

population density india, champaign il, seoul

So, back to Anna Karenina specifically. One of the countries Anna visits is Italy. Among other observations, Anna notes the difference in Italian and Russian flora, including the perceived difference in total vegetation. Let’s compare the total forest and woodland area of Italy with Russia, and for good measure, the USA, New Zealand, and Korea.

compare total forest area in italy, russia, usa, nz, korea

Any novel or film loves metaphors, and one geographical feature that does a great job of providing material are mountains. The tallest mountain in Russia is Mount Elbrus, and the tallest in Italy is Mont Blanc (shared with France.) I assume that you adore relief plots on the premise that you are reading the Wolfram|Alpha Blog, so let’s do one of those.

relief plot mount elbrus, mont blanc

For reasons I cannot share without spoiling the story, trains are a looming presence in Anna Karenina. As far as individual states are concerned, Russia has the second largest rail network. Let’s compare Russia’s rail network with Italy, and also the largest in the world.

russia railway length, italy railway length, usa railway length

I’m not sure President Reagan had Russian geography in mind when he designated the third week in November as Geography Awareness Week, but I guess what I am trying to get at here is that Anna Karenina is fantastic, and Wolfram|Alpha is an incredible tool for exploring the world. If you want to explore the world with Wolfram|Alpha, there’s a terrific Wolfram Geography Course Assistant App, but be advised that if you buy it you’ll probably do what I do, which is compare different countries and regions all day, every day.