Staunton, Feb. 28 -- Many federalists and regionalists in Russia argue that the current oblasts and krays in that country are in most cases too small to either be effective counterweights to the center within some future federation or the basis of states with the ability to go their own way.
Many of them look back to the heady days of the early 1990s when regions in Siberia and the Urals formed a variety of regional associations to try to link some of the country’s then numerous oblasts and krays together. The two most prominent of these efforts were the Siberian Association and the Urals Republic.
But those entities did not survive the assault on regional powers carried out first by Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin in an even more thoroughgoing manner, leaving many regionalists to conclude that in any future arrangement of the Russian Federation the current borders will have to be maintained.
But there is an alternative, one seldom discussed but now raised in the latest issue of Ural, the regional political-literary magazine by Sverdlovsk scholar Mikhail Feldman: going back to the enormous regions that existed in the RSFSR in the early days of Soviet times (magazines.gorky.media/ural/2023/2/uralskaya-oblast-mezhdu-proshlym-i-budushhim.html).
Between 1923 when the Soviet government began to transform the gubernia system of tsarist times into the more familiar one of oblasts and krays, Moscow created a small number of large oblasts and krays most vastly larger than any which survive today, only to divide these up a decade later in order to enhance Moscow’s control of these localities.
Among these, as Feldman points out, were the Urals Oblast, set up in 1923, the North-Caucasus kray, established in 1925, the Siberian kray (1925), the Far Eastern kray (1926; Leningrad, Moscow and Ivanovo oblasts in 1927, 1929 and 1929 respectively, and then four additional ones – the Western, the Nizhny Novgorod, Central Industrial and Northern krays.
The Urals Oblast, which the Sverdlovsk scholar focuses on, was enormous and covered most of the Urals region. He says that it is only a matter of regret that it did not include Ufa, Bashkortostan, Votka AD, and Orenburg gubernias, as it would then have been a truly enormous state with a strong economy.
Initially, Moscow tried to control the situation by sending in officials from the center to run things; but such people often went local and so by the early 1930s, Stalin decided to break these regions apart so that they could not challenge his rule and so he would have more fiefdoms to hand out to his loyalists.
An example of that, although it is not one Feldman offers in his article is that when Stalin divided up the Far Eastern kray, he put in charge of one of its components Mikhail Suslov, who subsequently rose to become the CPSU’s chief ideologist who was widely referred to as the gray cardinal of Brezhnev’s times.
After Stalin broke up the enormous oblasts and krays of the first decade of Soviet power, he and his successors had to create larger regional groupings to handle economic challenges, ranging from the Sovnarkhoms of Khrushchev’s times to the federal districts that Putin established at the start of his reign.
But Feldman suggests that it would be entirely reasonable to go back to something like the divisions of the 1920s and restore enormous regions that could thus be both economically and politically viable, giving Russian federalism a real chance and, if it failed, allowing some of the country’s regions to go their own way.