Staunton, May 1 – Valentina Matviyenko’s proposal to amalgamate federal subjects has sparked new interest in the possibility of border changes and debate about its implications on that level of the Russian political system, but it is also opening up another discussion about the impact of consolidation and amalgamation of territories at the village, city or district level.
And changes at that level have been both more frequent and at least equally disruptive to the changes at the level of oblasts, krays, and republics. Indeed, some see them as a covert way the Russian authorities have used to destroy ethnic and other minorities centered on this or that place and the institutions it has.
In an article in Petrozavodsk’s Internet news portal, “Vesti Karelii,” Andrey Tuomi argues that the amalgamation of such units can lead to the destruction of peoples and ethnic groups who lose the focus of their daily life and thus the support mechanisms on which they depend (vesti.karelia.ru/social/s_unichtozheniem_obzhityh_mest_vy_unichtozhaete_i_sam_narod1/
Recently, quite possibly taking his cue from Moscow, the economic development minister of the Republic of Karelia made a loud and very pubic declaration that “the residents of the republic possibly will have to survive ‘a second wave of the amalgamation of villages,” a process that in the past they have often been subject to and one that has cost them dearly.
Tuomi says that becomes clear if one examines even a single district, and he traces the history of the administrative borders and the implication of their changes on Karelia’s Kalevala district from tsarist times through the Soviet period to the present day.
During tsarist times, the authorities changed the administrative status but not the borders of this district twice in 1785 and 1796. But under the Soviets, “the district was cut up, renamed, abolished and renewed its existence in various borders seven different times, having lost as a result of this ‘surgery’ half of its original territory.
At present, the Kalevala district “consists of one urban settlement, into which are included two settlements … and three rural settlements.” If the district is expanded, the largest of these will survive, but “the remainder will have the status of depressed areas” and likely cease to exist.
In 1926 there were 249 villages with approximately 9,000 people, 90 percent of whom were Karels; and the area had a positive population growth. But since then, things have changed for the worse on all these measures. First came collectivization when many farm villages were combined together and people concentrated in more easily controlled centers.
Then, the district suffered population losses as a result of the Winter War and World War II and of the famine which followed them. Under Nikita Khrushchev, villages near the border with Finland were “liquidated” and the population moved away and toward larger population centers. Eventually, Moscow simply liquidated the district as a whole.
But that wasn’t the end of the story, Tuomi says. “After a certain time, the Kalevala district was restored” albeit in reduced borders. Despite that its population grew but increased not because of the local population which continued to decline but because of the influx of migrant workers – Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians – who came to work in the forests.
Many of these Slavs were people who had fled Soviet villages where they had no passports in order to become “relatively free citizens of the USSR.” But together with them and “as a result of three waves of ‘red terror,’ two wars, and a policy of permanent ‘amalgamation of villages,’ the share of the indigenous population fell from 90 percent in 1926 to 36 percent” now.
But the shocks have continued, and although they were smaller, “they have been no less destructive.” The last Soviet action of amalgamation occurred in 1984 when the settlement of Shonga was “liquidated.” But later, Kalevala district lost one of its larger cities to a neighboring district and thus at the same time lost one of its cultural centers.
Indeed, Tuomi says, “in the modern history of the Kalevala district, the policy of amalgamating areas has moved from being a state strategy to one directed at the tactical liquidation of population points by means of targeted reductions in the number of administrative and state structures,” thus removing supports for the population.
In 2005, the Karelian government proposed amalgamating Kalevala and eliminating many villages and administrative centers to save money. But there were so many protests by local people about what consolidation would mean for them that Petrozavodsk put the issue on hold only to renew it this year.
Unfortunately, Russian officials still believe, Tuomi says, that they can solve problems in the economy “by the forcible resettlement of people” through consolidation and amalgamation. Those who think that way forget that these villages have existed on the earth for hundreds of years and have withstood all kinds of foreign and domestic attack.
But amalgamation and consolidation may finally achieve the ends that earlier conquerors did not. That is because “to destroy what still remains is quite simple: by the method of a new amalgamation” of territories. But those who do this should remember that “together with the destruction of the places the people use, they are destroying the people itself.”
“A people which has lost its motherland, its house and its yard is already not a people,” Tuomi says. And he directs the following question to Karelian “bureaucrats and deputies”: “are you prepared to take on such a historic mission” of the final destruction of the people of Kalevala. This is a question that could pari passu be asked of Matviyenko and Putin as well.