Thursday, September 26, 2019

Could the Borders of Russia’s North-West Federal District Become the Basis for a New Identity?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – When Vladimir Putin created the federal districts in 2000, some warned that he might be creating the basis for the disintegration of the Russian Federation pointing out that countries with a smaller number of territorial units have been more likely to fall apart than those with a larger number.

            But two things have worked against such predictions. On the one hand, Putin has now despite expectations eliminated the regions and republics which were grouped within the federal districts but instead has maintained them in ways that compete with the federal districts rather than exist only as their subordinate parts.

            And on the other hand, few residents of the Russian Federation have invested much psychologically in these federal districts, preferring instead to identify primarily either with their regions or even more with their republics which reflect and are based on pre-existing identities or with the Russian Federation instead.

             However, the longer these federal districts exist, the more institutions of one or another kind have emerged that could support the rise of an identity. One of these is the new Radio Liberty portal SeverReal which defines as its audience the North-West Federal District rather than some older ethnic or territorial divisions like the Middle Volga or Siberia.

            The portal asked Andrey Teslya, a philosopher in Kaliningrad, one of the federal subjects of the North-West FD, to reflect on the ways in which the borders of that structure may become the basis for a new identity, one that in some cases could compete with other identities or in other reinforce it (

                To find something in common among the various federal subjects included within the North-West FD is extremely difficult, Teslya says. To find commonalities between St. Petersburg and the Nenets AD or between those or others with Kaliningrad exclave is far more difficult than “trying to construe a single ‘identity’ of Petersburgers and Muscovites.”   

            But – and this is important – borders imposed for administrative purposes may over time have other consequences including becoming the basis of new identities, he says. That is the case with many of the regional borders in the Russian Federation, which were imposed from above but now allow residents to speak of an identity rooted in them.

            That is “the power of borders,” Teslya says. “They can be imposed as if by chance or have one completely clear logic, for example, the logic of military districts, and have little in common with cultural, economic or other logics” and then over time lose their original purpose or come to be seen as “natural” and the obvious basis for identity. 

            If SeverReal becomes sufficiently popular and if residents of this diverse FD come to rely on it as a common information space, then the FD will take on a meaning perhaps quite different from the one that caused it to be created in the first place.  And that identity may continue even if the powers that be which created the territorial unit disappear.

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