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Time may be up for Russia’s 11 time zones

Russia has 11 time zones across its vast territory — and its leaders believe that's just too many hours in the day.
APTOPIX Russia Medvedev
A vendor adjusts a display with TV sets broadcasting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's address to the nation at a Moscow shop on Thursday.Misha Japaridze / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia has 11 time zones across its vast territory — and its leaders believe that's just too many hours in the day.

President Dmitry Medvedev suggested Thursday that Russia reduce the number of time zones in the name of economic efficiency, which could have residents in the far eastern city of Vladivostok eating their breakfast blini at the same time their Chinese neighbors just a few miles away are slurping their noodles at lunch.

With one-ninth of the world's land mass, Russia stretches from Kaliningrad, which is next to Poland, more than 5,500 miles to the eastern tip of Chukotka, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. By contrast, it's nearly 2,700 miles across the four time zones of the 48 contiguous states in the U.S.

Thus, when the Kremlin's bell tower on Red Square tolls 9 a.m. at the start of the business day in Moscow, it's already 6 p.m. in the farthest part of Russia's Far East.

Russia's vastness is a source of national pride, but it also hinders economic development, Medvedev said.

"The examples of other countries — the U.S., China — show that it is possible to cope with a smaller time difference," Medvedev said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech. "We need to examine the possibility of reducing the number of time zones."

Just four time zones?
Medvedev didn't say how extensive any cut would be, but Vladivostok Economics University rector Gennady Lazarev told the RIA Novosti news agency it would likely mean shrinking to just four time zones: one each for Kaliningrad, Moscow, the Ural Mountains region and the vast reaches of Siberia and the Far East.

Less than a quarter of Russia's 142 million people live east of the Urals — the boundary between Europe and Asia. Those huge areas constitute two-thirds of Russia.

Cutting down to four zones would likely mean reducing the seven-hour time difference between Moscow and Vladivostok to just four hours, Lazarev said. In that case, residents of the Pacific coast city would see the sunset before 3 p.m. at this time of year.

"I can't fathom it," said Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It is potentially life-changing for some people, for the sake of convenience in Moscow."

Supporters say cutting time zones could help bring the distant east closer and build loyalty toward the central government in Moscow. But experience in other countries warns of the opposite effect — a potentially divisive feeling of separation.

Before China's 1949 communist revolution, the country had five time zones. Under Mao Zedong's government — with its obsession with strong central leadership and unified national political movements — they were all abolished in favor of using the time in Beijing as the standard.

The major impact in China has been to require government offices in far western cities such as Kashgar, which lies at the same longitude as New Delhi, to open at the break of dawn. Some residents have responded with defiance, setting their clocks 3 1/2 hours behind Beijing in violation of official policy.

Out-of-synch lifestyles
Arkady Tishkov, geographer at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Ekho Moskvy radio that playing with clocks is unacceptable if the economic benefit is outweighed by health problems associated with out-of-synch lifestyles.

Lazarev, also a city lawmaker in Vladivostok suggested implementing a time switch gradually by jumping forward to daylight saving time in some areas every year, then not setting the clocks back in the fall.

Medvedev stressed the need to assess the advantages and the "obvious discomforts" before eliminating some of the time zones.

Setting new time zones — and thus changing people's daily patterns across Russia — wouldn't be Moscow's first attempt to defy Mother Nature in the motherland.

In Soviet times, authorities tried unsuccessfully to reverse the flow of mighty Siberian rivers that were thought to be flowing wastefully into the Arctic Ocean rather than toward arid southern areas.

More recently, Moscow authorities have tried to control the weather. Planes spray chemicals into the clouds to stimulate rainfall ahead of major public holidays in hopes of avoiding parades being rained out. Mayor Yuri Luzhkov recently announced plans to use the same method in winter so that snow would fall outside the capital, reducing street-plowing costs.