Your Russian history homework

Michael Jennings writes:

I am giving a talk at a Libertarian Home meeting at the Rose and Crown pub in Southwark this Thursday evening the 2nd of October. (All welcome. Please come). The initial motivation for this talk was to attempt to shed some light on the causes of the current war in Ukraine. When I thought about is some more, I realised that while the Ukrainian situation is interesting (in an extraordinarily depressing way) the subject is more interesting in the broader context of Russian relations with the countries of the former USSR in general.

As it happens, I have spent a lot of time travelling in the countries of the former USSR. In the last year I have been to Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Lithuania, as well as the two most significant countries that are now in NATO and the EU, but which were formerly communist and Warsaw pact (Poland and Romania). With the exception of Belarus and Russia itself, these countries were not new to me – I have visited all of the others multiple times in the last five years, as well as every other formerly communist country in Europe. I have also visited the breakaway / Russian occupied territories of Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia in Georgia. I have seen a lot, and learned a lot, and this helps greatly in trying to understand what is going on. (To my great regret, I do not speak Russian. I would no doubt have learned a lot more if I did).

I have been told to talk for 20 to 30 minutes. I have chosen a gigantic subject for this length. I only have time to give a quick impression of each country, I fear, and a brief attempt to tie things together. For these impressions to make any sense at all, some historical and cultural background is necessary. Therefore, I am writing this article as a brief primer, and hopefully something that people will find interesting in its own right. People who wish to add things, disagree with things, tell me I am completely wrong etc in the comments are most welcome. I a not going to talk about communism at all. I am going to talk about everything in terms of ethnic nationalism and territorial changes.

The USSR consisted of fifteen constituent republics. The dominant republic in the USSR was, of course, Russia. In addition to Russia, there were two other republics (Ukraine and Belarus) which contain people who are Orthodox Christian, and whose languages are Slavic and written using the Cyrillic alphabet. All three of these peoples are cultural descendants of the state of Kievan Rus’- a state that existed centred upon the city of Kiev – the modern capital of Ukraine – until the mid 13th century, when it was destroyed by the Mongol invasions and Rusian culture was in effect split in three. The Grand Duchy of Moscow further east became the most powerful state in the region upon the end of Mongol rule in the late 15th century, and this grand Duchy ultimately grew to regain control over the other two cultural successors to Kievan Rus’ and far more, and to become the Russian empire. Whether this was a reunification of one people who had been divided by outside forces, or annexation of foreign cultures by conquest, well that depends on your point of view. The southern, Black Sea coastal region of what later became the Ukrainian republic (including Crimea) was conquered by Russia and settled by Russian speakers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Despite its later becoming part of the Ukrainian SSR and independent Ukraine, the historical Ukrainian influence there is relatively weak.

The other twelve Soviet Republics are as follows.

Firstly, the Baltic Republics. Lithuania was once a mighty state itself and a rival to the Grand Duchy of Moscow in terms of importance. Latvia lacks the grand history of Lithuania, but is linguistically and ethnically similar to Lithuania. Lithuanian and Latvian are the only two surviving languages from the Baltic group of the Indo-European language family. The principal dividing factor between Lithuania and Latvia is religion: Lithuanians are Roman Catholic and Latvians are Protestant (Lutheran), due to historical Swedish influences. The third Baltic republic is Estonia. The Estonian Language is very similar to Finnish Estonians are culturally close to Finns.

Three Soviet Republics were in the South Caucasus. The Georgians speak several closely related languages from their own isolate group, are Orthodox Christian and a very proud and distinctive group. The Armenians have their own Oriental Orthodox form of Christianity, take great pride in being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion, and speak an Indo-European language that forms its own branch. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country that speaks a language very close to Turkish.

Then there is Moldova. This borders on Romania and is mostly Romanian speaking. It’s rather difficult to categorise.

(Five Soviet countries were in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan speak languages related to Turkish, and Tajikistan speaks a dialect of Persian. I am not going to talk about them in this post as I lack the expertise and I have not visited them and I therefore lack the personal experience of them that I have of the other countries of the former USSR).

Prior to the first world war, virtually all of these places were part of the Russian Empire, and had been gained at various times during Russia’s expansion over the previous several centuries. (The border between the Russian and Ottoman Empires moved several times during the 19th century, and parts of Armenia and Georgia were at times controlled by the Ottoman empire). Not all of them were happy about this, and when the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, there were declarations of independence from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. Control of parts of (in Russian eyes) Western Belarus and Western Ukraine was seized by the armies of the new Polish state. Upon taking control of Russia, Bolshevik forces regained control of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the countries of the South Caucasus. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia retained their independence. Moldova west of the Dniestr river was annexed by Romania. Moldavia east of the Dniestr (Transnistria) was regained by the USSR. Significant areas of what had been Russian territory became part of the new Republic of Poland, after Polish armies inflicted a number of defeats on the Soviet armies.

Despite the fact that the Soviet Union was supposedly a communist state in which all human beings were the same and things like ethnicity did not matter, Stalin was highly mistrustful of the USSR’s non-Russian minorities after he came to power following Lenin’s death in 1924. (This despite the fact that he came from one of these minorities (Georgians) himself). In particular the Ukrainians were seen as being of questionable loyalty, and this had a significant amount to do with the fact that he engineered the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, in which several million Ukrainians starved to death. This famine was worst in the south and east of the country, which meant that these parts of the country were subsequently underpopulated, a gap that was partly filled by people relocated from Russia.

World War II commenced with the Molotov-Rippentrop Pact, Soviet invasion of eastern Poland, and subsequent Soviet loss of and regain of these territories. At the end of World War II (a war in which, incidentally, people in western parts of the USSR such as Belarus and Ukraine were much more likely to die than Russians, due to their areas of the country being occupied by Nazi Germany) the USSR annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as regaining large areas of Poland, and some pieces of Romania, including Moldova west of of the Dniestr, which was rejoined to Transnistria to form the Moldovan republic in the USSR. Russia also occupied and installed communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. During the Cold War, Russia relocated ethnic Russian populations to Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, the formerly German (East Prussian) region around Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg) that had been annexed by Russia, and various places in Central Asia.

19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party  © Anders

19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party © Anders

In the late 1980s when the USSR was under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria held democratic elections and broke free of communist rule. The Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia agitated for independence, and made declarations of independence in 1991. There was agitation for more autonomy in a number of of Soviet republics and Gorbachev made various concessions along these lines. In August 1991, an attempted hardline coup attempted to remove Gorbachev from power. This was defeated by Russian (not Soviet) president Boris Yeltsin gaining the support of the army, and followed immediately by a declaration of independence from Ukraine. (It’s very important in the light of subsequent events to understand that Ukraine played a key role in the dissolution of the USSR). Ukraine subsequently held a referendum on independence, which passed. An agreement was reached in which the USSR was dissolved on December 26, 1991, and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States, a largely toothless organisation that was brought into being as a face saving measure.

Suddenly, the 15 republics of the USSR were all independent countries. The three Baltic States immediately chose a pro-western path that ultimately took them to EU and NATO membership in the early 2000s. Belarus became independent, but remained close to Moscow. Ukraine was divided between its ethnically Ukrainian west and its more Russian east, and took a somewhat uncertain path because of this. Moldova had a civil war, and the largely Russian populated lands east of the Dniestr declared independence from Moldova with the help of Russian forces – Russian forces that remain there to this day – and declared themselves to be the independent country of Transnistria. (There is a significant Russian minority in parts of Moldova controlled by the Moldovan government, also). In the Caucasus, Georgia was unprepared for independence, and also had a civil war over who would control the country. Seizing the weakness of the Georgian government at this time, Russian forces assisted separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and these two regions also declared independence from Georgia as Russian puppet states. (Many Georgians were expelled from these regions at this time). Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a historically Armenian region that had been transferred from Armenia to Azerbaijan by Stalin in the 1920s. This resulted in an Armenian victory (with Russian support), another breakaway quasi-state, and an extremely resentful Azerbaijan. None of these breakaway states (Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh) have significant international recognition.

In 2008 Georgia, by this point a coherent state, launched an invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia achieved significant early victories, but Russian forces intervened and (at significant cost) Russian regained these territories and made significant advances into other areas of Georgia. When a ceasefire came into force and Russia withdrew, there were more refugees, harder borders, some territorial gains by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and greater division and resentment.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has been spending its oil money on building up its military – fairly obviously for some future attempt to regain Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has strengthened its alliance with Russia, hoping for Russian support in any such war.

This was the approximate situation before the events of the last 12 months. Russia, relatively flush with resources due to high oil prices in recent years. Various territories (particularly Belarus and Ukraine) that Russia sees itself as strongly connected to – including historical cultural ties to Kiev. Some other parts of Ukraine – especially Crimea and the parts of the Black Sea coast – without terribly strong historical connections to Ukraine, despite being part of that country. Ethnic Russian populations (many of them forcibly settled during the Soviet years) in various places, especially Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. Frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia/Azerbaijan.

In my talk on Thursday, I will give my impressions of each of these countries – including Russia itself – that I have formed from visiting, looking, and talking. I will discuss the conflict in Ukraine, and how it follows from previous conflicts – especially that in Georgia in 2008. I will also talk about how people in some other countries nearby with a history of Russian occupation (especially Poland and Romania) feel about all this. I may or may not reach any conclusions, because reaching conclusions about this stuff is hard. I hope to see some of our readers there.


Cross posted from Samizdata.


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