Thursday, November 1, 2018

Along the Tatarstan-Bashkortostan ‘Berlin Wall’ – the Closest Analogy to the Ingush-Chechen Border Dispute

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 31 – Given the current level of tensions between Ingushetia and Chechnya, many forget that both Ingush and Chechens see themselves as closely related Vaynakh peoples. The border conflict between them thus reflects in part what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”

            They are struggling over the border because any shift in that border will have the effect of leading many of those in areas transferred from one republic to another to reidentify in ethnic terms, thus adding to the size of the people that gains territory and reducing that of the nation which loses it.

            Ingushetia and Chechnya are not the only closely related nations in the Russian Federation that the Soviets divided and promoted distinctive identities to keep them from coming together – and who feature people on both sides who would like to see the republics and the nations united or at least the borders between them shifted to the benefit of one or the other.

            The closest analogy to Ingushetia and Chechnya, of course, is Bashkortostan and Tatarstan in the Middle Volga, two Turkic Muslim republics Stalin created in his first great act of ethnic engineering and worked hard to keep apart lest they unite into a more threatening Turkic republic to challenge his rule.

            But despite the fact that this division was orchestrated a century ago – both republics will mark their centenaries in the next 18 months – there are people in both who dream of unity and many more who believe that this or that portion of the other should be transferred to them as a matter of historical “ethnic” justice.

            Ilnar Garifullin, a journalist for Radio Liberty’s IdelReal portal, provides an extremely valuable description of how decisions were made to divide the two republics in 1919 and 1920 by outsiders rather than by the peoples themselves and how that division as intended left few on either side completely satisfied (

                That history has been well-chronicled by Richard Pipes and others, but Garifullin calls attention to some of the later steps that Stalin and the Soviets took to keep the republics apart, steps that exacerbated tensions but did little or nothing to end the feelings among each that the border between them was anything but the right one.

                As Garifullin points out, “the division of the common space and the imposition of borders which happened almost a 100 years ago at times has led to surprising, absurd, tragic and sometimes funny developments.”

            One of the more amusing but nonetheless long-lasting has to do with Moscow’s imposition of time zones on the USSR territory and its placement of Tatarstan in one and Bashkortostan in the other.  In the first such case, the two were put in different time zones, with Bashkortostan an hour ahead of Tatarstan.

            Then in 1931, Moscow shifted Tatarstan into the second “’Moscow’” zone and the time difference between the two republics increased to two hours.  That difference was hardly justified by geography, Garifullin says.  Instead, it was clearly intended to block any chance of integration between the two republics.

            Not only did it lead people to joke that the bridge over the Ik between the two republics was “the longest bridge in the world” because it took more than two hours to go from one side to the other, but the time difference meant that Bashkirs would travel to Tatarstan to drink after the stores were closed in their own republic.

            Such efforts to keep the two republics separate continued throughout the Soviet period, but now it has broken down with Bashkirs going to Tatarstan with great regularity. Nonetheless, the situation has not completely changed, and the impact of the borders imposed in the 1920s remains great.

                Given that these were set for political reasons and without full regard for ethnic or economic interests, “they became a permanent source of national problems for the residents of both republics, a kind of Berlin Wall between Kazan and Ufa and between the Volga and the Urals,” Garifullin says.

            But as the Germans showed in 1989 and the Ingush and Chechens are showing now, no wall, however strong it looks, remains in place forever, perhaps especially when it divides people who don’t feel themselves very different from those on the other side and who thus view borders as a source of discord, just as those who imposed the borders intended.

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