Jonathan Tremblay: Russia Tampers with Time - A History of the Time Zone

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Tremblay is a historian and is currently an intern for the History News Network]

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recently announced at a conference that his country had too many time zones. From their current 11, Medvedev would like to standardize them all into 4 accessible time zones for the benefit of the Russian people, businesses and regional politics. Subsequent uproar, locally and internationally, has centered around one crucial question: would this change be truly a useful shift for the people and the economy of the country or is it simply a political whim aimed to strengthen the power and standing of the Kremlin?

Firstly, there are several difficulties of implementation and practicality that would be immediately obvious with such a change. There of course would be the problem that the sun wouldn’t necessarily obey the edicts of Moscow and may simply rise around 3:45 in the morning in some places and at 9:30 in others. The other immediate difficulty is that of acceptance. Medvedev can announce the change, have it diffused through television and newspaper but it is not until everybody has been informed that this change can take place. Consequently, it will be no easy task to reach everyone from the Ural mountains to inner Siberia and over to the very last eastern city of Magadan bordering Alaska (and Sarah Palin’s house presumably*).

Despite these difficulties and assuming everyone would be on board, perhaps the proposed change would be as beneficial as the president has claimed. Medvedev affirms that business with Europe would be greatly improved and that business hours in Russia would now coincide whereas the business day in the east used to close hours before the business day of the west would open. President Medvedev also cites a stronger rapport with local governments, keeping in mind that Russia is governed in a highly centralized manner but that many provinces have to operate while Moscow sleeps. “It could explain why Russia has so many problems with governance” Medvedev says about the current 11 hour difference, surely corruption and organized crime have a part to play in it too but Medvedev affirms the time shift will change everything for the better. That being said, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive for the majority of Russia’s rural population. Business and governance are certainly important but it is the poorest and least-involved of farmers that will have to start cultivating fields for hours in the dark.

Indeed, Mr. Medvedev may be thinking that the people were the prime factor when we devised our time zones in the first place. He would be wrong to think so; the time zones were motivated by, like in the Russian case, a speculation in favour of business and governance. Before 1929, sundials mostly indicated the “correct time” based on solar position for each city and village. This meant that everyone on earth got up at precisely 7 AM with the sun but it also meant that neighbouring cities were minutes apart in time. The invention of the locomotive, railway system and advanced telecommunications made the whole endeavour obsolete and a standardized measure needed to be adopted. Thus, following 1929 most nations adopted the system based on Greenwich Mean Time that delimited time zones based on Longitude and which made international communications and business possible. It came with the concept of Daylight Savings time introduced formerly in 1916. This was actually a wartime measure to conserve coal but it stuck nonetheless and many of us contend with it twice a year thinking that productivity or comfortable living may have been the point of it. With tweaks here and there, we now have 40 time zones around the world, very few of which have the people, much less solar position, in mind.

Why 40? Well, 24 would make more sense but over the years, many governments have used the intangible concept for political legitimacy and power. Afghanistan runs 30 minutes ahead of its neighbours and Nepal even runs 15 minutes faster than the actual time zone it was given. 15 minutes don’t help anyone, it may very well help business and governance in some small way I can’t see but no Nepalese goat farmer is better off this way.

Political whim was our second option for this proposed change in Russia and there are indeed a few examples of this in History. In 1949 for example, to legitimize the communist leadership of China and to prove the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party over time itself, the nation’s five time zones were unified into one. This single hour is of course the one that is correct on a solar level only with Beijing in the far eastern part of the country. The sun rises four hours late in Tibet but at least everyone knows Beijing and the Communist Party are the important ones.

More recently in 2005, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela moved his country’s time 30 minutes ahead claiming that it would make his population more productive. This makes no sense once we realise that he didn’t create 30 more minutes of time during the 24-hour day, he simply shifted around the time of sunrise and sunset. With this he showed that he had supreme power over the governance of Venezuela, this, despite the opposition of the United-States to his socialist leanings.

Jonathan Betts of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England summarises the political motivation of time zone tampering as such: “It is an ultimate statement of power to show your people that you have control over nature in this way.”

Other analysts even claim that President Medvedev just threw this crazy notion into a conference where he had to announce some very unpopular measures. He only wanted to distract people and has no intention of even proposing this measure in government that would eventually cost millions in implementation. Touché Mr. Medvedev, touché.

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