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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Eleven Time Zones: A Problem of Consolidated Empire

As of 2011, Russia had 11 time zones, from the Polish border to near Alaska, a system so vast that a traveller could get a walloping case of jet lag from a domestic flight.  In 2009, Russia was considering shedding some of its time zones.  People running businesses in the far east were complaining because the regulators were typically in Moscow, which could be several hours behind.    The issue blossomed at the end of 2009 into an intense debate across the Russian Federation about how Russians saw themselves, about how the regions should relate to the center, and about how to address the age-old problem of creating a sense of unity in a diverse federation that had been consolidated politically.  In short, the issue concerned the challenges involved in a consolidated empire. 

The sheer amount of territory in an empire that is made up of republics that are on the scale of independent states or countries makes “one size fits all” from the center extremely difficult.  It might have been different when kingdoms and empires were smaller—such as the medieval sort (e.g. the Swiss confederation and the Netherlands—both empires on a medieval scale but states in modern terms).  For China, the US, the EU and Russia, the extent of geography is a limitation on how much centralized authority is possible.  The Chinese government maintains one time zone for China, when there could easily be four or five.  In the case of Russia, such consolidation would mean that people in some places would be getting up and having breakfast in the middle of the night!   Even reducing the number of zones could make it more difficult on some, given the short duration of daylight in the winter.   Consider, for example, the trouble of going to and from daylight savings time in the US and EU.  Eliminating a few time zones in Russia would be to act as though a few hours difference doesn’t matter much.  The far east may already be two hours off of the correct biological time—meaning the most fitting with the human biological clock. 

In the end, the problem is one of consolidating an empire-scale polity.  Given the inherent heterogenuity involved in such an expanse, there are limitations in what can be done centrally.  Moscow can’t simply issue an order and expect that every Russian city will be awake and thus able to reply immediately.  Resentment toward central control in such cases (i.e., empires) is quite natural.  Indeed, proposals to modify the time zones have stirred deep suspicions, especially in the Far East and Siberia, where people have long resented Moscow, much the way people in places like Idaho distrust the goings-on in Washington.  So the issue is not simply one of whether time zones should be adjusted.  The tensions come when an empire seeks an inordinate amount of centralized control—more than that which is consistent with natural differences.  A consolidated empire on the modern scale (i.e., early-modern kingdoms being the scale of the units) is an artificial construction.   The time zones, I submit, should be oriented to biological clocks, while the federal system is given greater weight (i.e., more autonomy for the republics and regions).  “We have to look at this from a biological standpoint, how it is going to affect health,” said Yekaterina Degtyareva, 27, a personnel manager who lives in Novosibirsk, the most populous city in Siberia, and often travels to the Far East and Moscow. “If it is going to be a centralized, so-called totalitarian decision, then nothing good will come of it.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/world/europe/07zones.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=russia%20time&st=cse