Video: Travelling on Russian Borders

When Michael Jennings as born the world was neatly divided into US led and NATO allied West and a Russian dominated East, behind the Iron Curtain. The separation was obvious and physical – barbed wire was involved – and had consequences – acts as simple as fetching groceries worked very differently on either side.

Now, while it is true that Russia is part of Europe there is still a strong sense of difference and separateness about the “Russian Sphere of Influence” as contrasted with the West and Westernised countries. Unwelcoming signs pop-up in holiday resorts, people drink beers with historical ties one way or another, Western retailers, visa requirements, and the routes permitted to low-cost airlines provide clues that you are in a different zone. Is this a local country for local people or a country open for business with the West? Moldova and the Ukraine, in their own ways, define the edge of this space.

The Ukraine is perhaps the most complex country Michael describes. He describes the contrasting histories of two neighbouring provinces of Ukraine: L’viv and Transcarpathia (somewhat synonymous with the admininstative area of Zakarpattia, which is marked on the overlaid map) and it becomes clear what Michael means by complicated. Of particular interest are the histories of Odessa and Donetsk, both Russian speaking but populated by Russians at different times and for different reasons, and demonstrating why they each take a different view of Moscow despite sharing the same language between the three of them.

Another neighbour of Ukraine and Russia is Belarus. A strong and orderly dictatorship ruled by the kind of person that “wishes to wash his hands very often” and whose capital is well manicured in the extreme.

Moldova is a strange country. Largely romance rather than slavic with an economic elite who speaks Russian and a political elite that speaks Romanian. The part of Moldova that was historically Russian has secceded and is now known as Transnistria, along the border with the Ukraine. Despite the breakaway state existing with the backing of a foreign army (the Russian army) there are interactions and economic links across the Dniester. The fact that Transnistrian football teams participate in the Moldovan football league is an example of how the different ethnic groups have made accomodations with each other in a way that has not occured elsewhere.

Michael goes on to cover the mountain range and surrounding region known as the Caucasus. Michael is not interested in the geology as much as he is with the unsettled political situation all around the mountains (most notably in Chechnya and Georgia, at least in my lifetime) and the food and great hospitality of the Georgians. Catering during the time of the Soviet Union was frequently provided by chefs from the Caucasus.

The Armenians have a unique linguistic heritage, unrelated to any other linguistic tradition elsewhere in the world. The victims of a wartime massacre by the Turks they have an interesting set of neighbours. Armenia is open to the West in the ways Michael described earlier and actually has a large emigres population in Los Angeles, but is militarily reliant on Russian help in the even of a renewed conflict with Azerbaijan.

Georgia, as you may know, has two breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After a war for control of South Ossetia in 2008 Georgia has pursued an aggressively pro-Western policy and sought outside help with it’s severe corruption problem. They went as far as sacking “the entire” police force and hiring new police. The clampdown is so strong that tipping in restaurants is no longer done as staff are in fear of bribery allegations.

Michael returned to the Ukraine two months ago and spoke with members of the Euromaidan protest. Unlike Belarus the Ukraine is clearly very corrupt. Michael pins down the root cause of the Euromaidan uprising as being the extreme corruption, as the middle classes becoming sick and tired of it. Unfortunately Michael believes that these concerns have been put to one side after the war broke out with Russia. Michael invites us to speculate about who will ultimately benefit if corruption is not addressed in the Ukraine.

If you feel you lacked a little of the historical context Michael’s Russian History Primer may be of use.


  1. Corruption is partly the result of the regulatory state – if everything is dependent on licenses and permits, it is natural to pay (i.e. “bribe”) the officials for the licenses and permits. Remove these powers and corruption will NOT be eliminated – but it will be radically reduced.

    As for the difference between the old Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia – Putin is a nasty dictator (“conservatives” and “libertarians who deny this are idiots), but he is not a Marxist. He does not lay awake at night in his bed worrying that people are engaging in “capitalistic acts” somewhere.

    This does not mean that Putin has not nationalised companies (he has) and has not crushed freedom of speech (he has) or has not back on Yeltsin era promises of trial by jury and an end of conscription – of course he has gone back on these promises (just as he got rid of the free election of State Governors – he does not want rivals emerging), but there is no real IDEOLOGY behind his actions (he is basically just a big Mafia Boss).

    This is painfully obvious when one considers such things as “RT” (Mr Putin’s propaganda arm).

    In some ways it is just like the old Soviet media – blaming the West, “the rich”, “big business” for everything wrong in the world, but there is a difference……

    The old Soviet media would then go to explain how Marxism was the solution for all the problems of the world (the problems caused by “the rich”, “big business”, “the corporations”) and whilst false, Marxism is still a detailed system of doctrines.

    What does Mr Putin and RT offer as an alternative to “capitalism” now? Errrr – nothing much really.

    The Ukraine and so on?

    Well Michael has been to these places and I have not – so all I will say is that, apart from Belarus (a nutcase dictatorship – which will eventually collapse), the other countries to be much the same as Western Social Democracies.

    So the question is “do Social Democrat systems work in the long term” – I do not think they do (I think the effort to replace the basic functions of Civil Society with the state, even a democratic state, will eventually lead to disaster).

    But I have no plan to get us out of this mess – so I will stop here. Leave the matter to young people who are not tired and in physical discomfort all the time.



  2. Wonderfully interesting talk. One gets the unfortunate impression that if Russia went away or became as insular as the socialists in Burma have been and not interested in exporting thuggery (a step back from exporting revolution), the Ukraine would still be a mess and would wallow forever more in its own kleptocracy and statism regardless of outside help or encouragement. A bit like a huge, cold Barbados without good beaches, good manners and polite Parliamentarians, plus Chernobyl.



  3. Thanks to Michael for doing the legwork *g* and giving the talk, and to Simon for the gathering, the production and the writeup; very interesting, especially the descriptions of the different peoples’ (or people’s) attitudes towards the West and their former, um, patrons. (I have known a few Czechs and Poles who emigrated here during or slightly after the Cold War, and they shared a strong antipathy to Russia-as-the-USSR for some reason.)

    It was particularly helpful to see the maps.



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