Sunday, July 12, 2020

Putin’s Talk about Russian Lands in Neighboring Countries Didn’t Come Out of Nowhere

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 11 – Vladimir Putin’s recent suggestion that there are Russian lands in neighboring states that were once Soviet republics and that these republics should not have left the USSR without returning them shocked many because it implied that Moscow had some right to get these territories back.

            Most commentaries reacted to Putin’s words either with enthusiasm (some Russian imperialists), horror (almost everyone else in Russia and elsewhere), and dismissive comments in the West that he was just playing to his base in advance of the July 1 vote on the constitutional amendments (

            In fact, the notions Putin pushes have a history going back to the end of Soviet times and the start of the post-Soviet period because of what Russians and others know about how republic borders were drawn and redrawn in Soviet times. (On that, see the current author’s Can Republic Borders be Changed? RFE/RL Report on the USSR, September 28, 1990.)

            At that time and both because of everything else that was going on and because many across the region and in the West felt that any discussion of the adequacy of borders and their possible change would lead to explosions, Russian leaders and those of other new independent states concluded that it was in everyone’s interest to accept the Soviet-established status quo.

            Indeed, any proposal to consider changes was widely attacked, as this author can attest. I suggested a possible solution to the Karabakh conflict that would have involved a territorial swap between Armenia and Azerbaijan, only to be attacked from almost all sides. (On that, see

            But now, Dmitry Skvortsov, a Moscow analyst, has described the work of a Russian scholar who represents the bridge between talk in the wake of 1991 and Putin’s recent words.  That scholar was the late Vladimir L. Makhnach of the Moscow Higher School of Economics (

            Makhnach wrote that “it is generally well-known how the borders of the union and autonomous republics were defined.” According to him, Moscow considered the location of the Estonian or Yakut most distant from the republic center and included that within the borders of Estonia or Sakha (

            “But no one was interested where the Russian most distant from his ethnic center lived … Remember how Lenin gave the newly-declared Latvia all of Latgalia and part of Vitebsk gubernia, about which even the most flaming Latvian separatists never dreamed,” the late Russian writer says.

            “Our schools over the course of the entire Soviet period” insisted on using the non-Russian names for places throughout history even if they acquired their non-Russian names only in Soviet times, he continues.  That makes many Russians think that these were not Russian places earlier.

            With regard to the future and the possible restoration of borders resembling those of Soviet times, Makhach argued that there is a relatively simple distinction which will help define what Moscow and Russia should seek and conversely what they should not.  That is the difference between the term “country” and “state.” 

            “Far from every state is a country,” he said. The German states in Central Europe are the classical example of this: there were many German states, but people agreed there was one Germany. The same thing became true after 1991 when “on the territory of Russia again were formed about a dozen states.”

            As Skvortsov says, “the historian did not in any case call for presenting the neighbors with ultimatums. However, he did consider that informing them about our point of view isn’t a problem.” And Makhnakh added that some of these states are not countries, with Ukraine being his most frequently suggested example.

            In a 2007 lecture entitled “The Territory of Historical Russia,” the historian argued that Moscow should distinguish between those parts of the Russian Empire and those of historical Russia. “Turkestan, the Caucasus (besides the Cossack areas), and the Baltic states (perhaps without Latgalia) and Tuva are parts of the historical Russian Empire.”

            “But a large part of Kazakhstan (almost always, perhaps except for Dzhambul oblast), Ukraine, Belarus, and Transdniestria are parts of historical Russia … Russians have turned out to be a dispersed and divided nation.”  Interest in overcoming that wound is entirely natural, Makhnach suggested.

            The Russians are not the only nation affected by this history.  The Lezgins are another, the historian says. Part of them live in the Russian Federation and part in independent Azerbaijan. “But the Lezgins of Azerbaijan do not want to live in independent Azerbaijan; they want as before to live in Greater Russia but so to speak without moving.”

            Instead, the Lezgins “want to come with their land into Russia. Generally speaking,” Makhnach says, “this is their right. It is after all their land.”

             According to Skvortsov, “this approach appears now much less realistic than in the first decade after the disintegration of the USSR; but who knows what changes await the post-Soviet world in the future? Who in January 2014 could have imagined that already in March, ‘Crimea would go into its native harbor,’” and that Russian passports would be distributed in Donetsk and Luhansk?

            No one is going to be able to correct “the errors of Soviet leaders” now. But one should be thinking about what to do next. And Makhnach provides food for thought.  What he does not say but what seems clear is that the late scholar’s arguments have already had an impact on the thinking of Vladimir Putin.

Ingush State Flag Highly Symbolic of Nationhood and Territory

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 11 -- Today is the Day of the State Flag of Ingushetia, an important symbol of its statehood and nationhood that is all the more striking because it contains symbolism that few beyond Ingushetia entirely understand and that Ingush demonstrators invariably carry when protesting Moscow-imposed officials there.

            On the occasion of this holiday, Lors Bersayev, a journalist of the Ingushetia internet newspaper, tells something of its history and meaning (

            Unlike most non-Russian republics, Ingushetia did not have heraldic symbols like a flag in Soviet times because it was part of a Chechen-Ingush ASSR. It did not become a subject of the Russian Federation until June 1992 and did not adopt any until 1994 when a flag design proposed by Ingush professor Ibragim Dakhkilgov was finally adopted.

            A republic flag had appeared earlier, but the 1994 republic act changed both its shape, from 2:3 to 1:2 and its appearance, increasing the radius of the internal circle of the sun sign and of the incomplete circle at the end of its rays. Also changed, Bersayev says, were the width of the rays themselves.

            As approved, the flag shows a circle with three rays in the center; and its basic colors, white and green, are symbolically important to the Ingush. The first signals purity, the second Islam and the awakening of nature. And both are illuminated by the sun sign in the center. That sun sign rotates counter-clockwise because that reflects the way the earth moves around the sun.

            The sun sign, perhaps the most dramatic part of the flag, stands for “unending development leading to the flourishing of the people,” the Ingush journalist says. And its red color stands for “the centuries-long struggle of the Ingush people for the right to live on its native land in peace and concord.”

            Since its adoption, there have been various proposals to modify it; but now, some 26 years after it was introduced, the Ingush national flag is accepted by almost everyone in Ingushetia as a symbol of the nation and its territory.  It is frequently displayed far from the republic. And it is registered as item number 152 in Russia’s heraldry office.

            Meanwhile, an important detail surfaced in the case of Yakub Belkhoroyev, the deputy of the Popular Assembly who has been charged with massive corruption. It turns out that he is known to be close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, something that makes the handling of his case especially sensitive (

Pandemic Transforming Russians and Reducing Their Readiness to Follow Orders, Philosopher Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 11 – By forcing them out of their customary lives and giving them time to reflect about what really matters, Ibragim Melikov, a professor of social philosophy at the Russian State Social University, says, the coronavirus pandemic is radically changing Russians and reducing their readiness to follow orders (

            Many are rediscovering their families and neighbors and displaying a remarkable unwillingness to rush back to work when things have opened up. Whether this new focus on the most important things will lead to protest against the regime is uncertain, but it will certainly reduce their willingness to go along unless explanations are offered or force used, he suggests.

            Other commentators are going further. Yury Pronko, for example, says that rising levels of poverty and income differentiation in Russia, both exacerbated by the pandemic, threaten to “blow up the country from the inside,” something that the Kremlin should take notice of but hasn’t so far (

            The toll from the coronavirus pandemic continues to mount. Today, officials said they had recorded 6611 new cases of infection, bringing the cumulative total to 720,547 and 188 more deaths, bringing that total to 11,205. In Moscow conditions were improving but in many other places they were going up (  

            Because of the Moscow-centric thinking of many Russians and many Westerners as well, the improve in the capital is being read as a sign that the pandemic in Russia is over. Trade centers there have recovered 70 percent of their customers and 20 clinics have been converted back to normal use ( and

            But both the official numbers and a survey conducted by the Regnum news agency shows that today at least, there are more reports of deterioration in the epidemiological situation than of improvements and that at least some regions and institutions have been forced to reimpose restrictions ( at

            That is likely to be the pattern for some time, Moscow specialists say, noting that this is not an indication that a second wave has hit Russia but rather that infections in one place are now moving to another where there is less herd immunity and sparking outbreaks (

            In economic news, Data  Insight reported that some 10 million more Russians are using online stores than before the pandemic (, and the official Food Index says that Russians are now spending the same share of their income on food as they did before the self-isolation regime (

            Meanwhile, in other pandemic-related news from Russia today,

·         The Public Opinion Foundation reports that only 44 percent of Russians plan to be immunized against the coronavirus if a vaccine becomes available (

·         The head of St. Petersburg’s Military-Medical Academy says that his institution has prepared training materials and organized special courses for those treating coronavirus victims (

·         And the Russian media devoted enormous attention to the fact that US President Donald Trump allowed himself to be photographed wearing a mask while he was visiting Walter Reed Hospital (