Historical Geography

How maps of past times can inform current issues

Kaliningrad, Russia’s Restive Exclave

In the last weekend of January, 2010, massive protests erupted in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, unnerving the country’s political establishment. Despite bitter weather, an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets to denounce both the local governor and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, ostensibly for raising utility prices and transport taxes during a time of economic crisis. They also demanded the direct election of regional governors, who have been appointed by the central government since 2004. Unlike most Russian protests, riot police did not intervene to shut things down.

The significance of the event stemmed not just from its size but from the coalition of forces that banded together. Organized by a local non-partisan rights groups, the protest was supported not only by liberal activists associated with Russia’s new Solidarity movement, but also by unreconstructed communists and hard-core nationalists. The latter were represented primarily by members of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Despite its name, the LDPR is an anti-liberal party that supports the extension of capital punishment, the abolition of “non-traditional religious sects,” and state ownership of strategic economic sectors. Nonetheless, these disparate groups agreed on one thing: United Russia, the country’s dominant party, was exploiting their differences to retain its grip on power.

The size and scope of Kaliningrad’s protest movement is linked to the region’s unique geographical position. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave, separated from the rest of the country by several hundred miles, its territory bracketed by Poland and Lithuania – both members of NATO and the European Union. Such isolation hindered efforts by the Russian security apparatus to to control the demonstration once it had been ignited. Kaliningrad’s proximity to central Europe also enhanced the spread of anti-establishment political views. People here can easily visit Poland and Lithuania, democratic and relatively prosperous countries. Protest organizer Maksim Doroshok highlighted the Polish connection: “We see that in neighbouring Poland, where they brought in reforms, where there is democracy, it’s cheaper, people earn more, civic bodies function better. Why should we be any worse? Our region is the most European in the whole [Russian] federation because we know Europe and we know how to fight for our rights… There is a different spirit at rule here. There is a wind blowing from … Gdansk.” (Gdansk was the birthplace of the Polish Solidarity movement that helped bring down the communist system; see “Russian Protest Inspired by EU Neighbours,” by Andrew Rettman, http://euobserver.com/9/29378 .)

Russia acquired its Kaliningrad exclave at the end of World War II. It had previously been the northern half of East Prussia, a German-speaking region for some 800 years. In the post-war settlement, Germany was stripped of its eastern territories and their German residents were expelled westward in a convulsion of ethnic cleansing. Most of these lands were awarded to Poland, in compensation for the Soviet Union’s simultaneous annexation of Poland’s eastern regions. Northern East Prussia, however, with its port facilities well suited for a naval base, was appropriated by the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities awarded the new land directly to Russia, the largest of the so-called Soviet Union Republics. As Germans were driven out, Russians moved in, effecting almost complete ethnic replacement. Today the only real German presence in Kaliningrad derives from tourists, many of them elders eager to catch one last glimpse of their birthplace.

The downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused an economic crisis in the newly cut-off region of Kaliningrad. Russian authorities responded by creating a special economic zone in 1996, turning Kaliningrad into a hub for the assembly and distribution of televisions, electronics, and automobiles for the Russian market. Such policies proved generally successful until the economic crisis of 2008, which resulted in huge job loses in Kaliningrad—and led to increased pubic discontent.

As we have seen in Angola’s Cabinda, exclaves often present particular problems for central governmental control, and government weakness in turn can generate demands for secession. In the 1990s, when Russia was weak, some local leaders called for Kaliningrad’s independence, hoping that it could become a fourth Baltic republic. Such dreams are now infeasible; an increasingly muscular Russia would not contemplate letting such a valuable territory go. But Kaliningrad does continue to generate opposition to the Russian government, giving Putin and company a significant cause for concern.

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Circassia and the 2014 Winter Olympics

Yesterday’s post referred to the Ossetians as a people of “profound world-historical significance,” a phrase that fits their neighbors, the Circassians, even better. That members of the so-called White race are called “Caucasians” stems largely from the widespread nineteenth-century European notion that the Circassians, natives of the northwestern Caucasus, somehow represented the ideal human form. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Circassians were well known in Europe and the United States, celebrated for their bravery and especially their beauty. Mass-marketing advertisement campaigns hawked “Circassian lotion,” “Circassian Hair Dye,” and “Circassian soap”; P.T. Barnum even exhibited fake “Circassian beauties.” Yet in our time, this once-famous group has virtually vanished from view; when I recently asked a class of 160 Stanford undergraduates if anyone had heard of them, not a single hand was raised.

The Circassians’ world-historical significance derives not from their supposed physical attributes, but from the singular niche they occupied in the eastern Mediterranean from late medieval to early modern times. To put it starkly, Circassians served as elite slaves in the major Muslim states of the region. Although the notion of “elite slaves” may seem self-contradictory, unfree individuals could rise to very high positions. Muslim rulers had long staffed their armies in part with enslaved soldiers – Mamluks – and at several times and places such troops essentially took over the state. The Mamluk Burji dynasty that ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 was founded by, and composed largely of, Circassian soldiers of servile background. Circassian women who were exported into servitude could end up as concubines or even wives of Ottoman and Persian sultans. Such women could become powerful in their own right, especially if one of their sons rose to the top position.

The Circassians’ downfall came at the hands of the Russians in the 1860s. The Russia Empire reached across the Caucasus to encompass Christian Georgia in the early 1800s, but – as the map above indicates – it failed to subdue Circassia. (Note that the map incorrectly places Chechnya and adjacent areas within Circassia.) Having fought the Circassians for roughly a century, Russia’s leaders decided to expel the population. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced out; most found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but nearly half died in the process. Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000. In Turkey, roughly two to four million people are of Circassian descent, and the Circassian community in Jordan numbers about 150,000. It is doubtful, however, whether Circassian culture can survive outside of the Caucasian homeland.

Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. They hope to use the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – once a Circassian port – to bring their historical plight to global attention. As Sufian Zhemukhov reported in the Circassian World website in September, 2009, “Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Games on the grounds that they will take place on ‘ethnically-cleansed’ land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work [that] could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, … Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.” (http://www.circassianworld.com/new/general/1382-circassian-dimension-2014sochi-szhemukh.html)

More immediately, Circassian activists want Russia to create a single internal republic for the four legally defined ethnic groups (the Adyghe, Cherkesm, Shapsugs, and Kabardin) that together constitute the Circassian people. That complicated issue, however, must be the subject of a later posting.

 

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Violence In Nuristan, Formerly Kafiristan

The province of Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan has recently emerged as one of the most insecure regions of the world. On January 13, 2010, a fourth delegation sent to negotiate the return of kidnapped Greek social worker Athanasios Lerounis returned home empty-handed. In October 2009, the United States abandoned its four key outposts in the province after attacks by hundreds of insurgents killed eight soldiers. As U.S. forces withdrew, so did aid officials, including American agriculture and forestry experts. The usual winter lull in fighting has not been pronounced in Nuristan this year.

Winter fighting in Nuristan is no easy matter.The extremely rugged province often receives heavy snowfall, unlike most of Afghanistan. The combination of fierce storms and on-going fighting has brought desperate conditions to the civilian population. So far, somehow, the World Food Program and World Health Organization have been able to deliver emergency supplies to parts of the region. But with the U.S. pullback, Nuristan essentially came under the rule of the Taliban, and now seems to form something of a haven for al Qaeda and the violent Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Toiba.

From a historical perspective, Nuristan would seem an unlikely refuge for radical Islamists insurgents. Until the 1890s, the region was known by a different name: Kafiristan, or “land of the infidels.” Up to that time, the people of Nuristan practiced a polytheistic animism, as recounted in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, The Man Who Would Be King (later made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine). Religious practices varied considerably from valley to valley, as Nuristan is noted for its extreme linguistic and ethnic complexity. In fact, what we call Nuristani is not a single language but rather a linguistic subfamily of its own, encompassing at least five separate tongues.

After the governments of British India and Afghanistan settled on the Durand Line border in 1893, the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan (the “Iron Emir”) determined to establish his authority over all areas on his side of the demarcation line. In 1895-96 his forces conquered and subdued Kafiristan. Once Afghan rule was established, the Emir forcibly converted the local people to Islam, despite the fact that compulsive conversion is contrary to the tenets of the faith. As a result, animism in the area survived only on the British side of the Durand Line, in what is now the Chitral region of Pakistan. There the Kalash, a related group who number some 6,000, retain their polytheistic faith and practices.

On the Afghan side of the border, Islam spread quickly despite its violent introduction. The province was renamed “Nuristan,” meaning the “land of light” – the light being that of the Islamic faith. In the 1980s, Nuristan was one of the first parts of Afghanistan to rebel against the Soviet-imposed regime, founding its resistance on strict Islamic ideals. Through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, large areas of Nuristan formed the self-declared fundamentalist Islamic Revolutionary State of Afghanistan. This “state” was recognized as a distinct geopolitically entity by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Incidentally, because the people of Nuristan tend to have light skin, hair, and eyes, the myth has spread that they are descendants of a contingent of Alexander the Great’s army. More likely, such features derive from the much earlier and larger migration streams that brought Indo-European languages to the region. After all, blue eyes and blond hair are hardly unknown among the Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

For more information, see Richard Strand’s Nuristan Site: http://users.sedona.net/~strand/

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Telangana: A New State in India?

Telangana

Not long after gaining independence, India remapped its internal political geography so that its main divisions would roughly correspond with linguistic groups. With each major language community being granted its own state, local demands for autonomy would, theoretically, be much reduced. Although this policy has generally resulted in stable “statoids” (see http://www.statoids.com/), agitation for the creation of new states has continued as smaller ethnic groups increasingly demand their own political spaces. But in the most recent hubbub over state division, issues of language and ethnicity have been outweighed by those based on economics and political history.
On December 9, 2009, the Indian government announced that it would carve a new state, Telangana, out of the large southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh had been created in 1956 by merging Andhra State with the core area of the former princely state of Hyderabad to create a Telugu-speaking polity, now some 76 million strong. But sharply contrasting colonial legacies—dating from the era when Andhra was largely under direct British authority while Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizam (a local potentate)—had created distinctive political cultures and economic conditions. As a result, despite the bonds of a common language and culture, the merger was always contested.

Andhra Pradesh

Under the rule of the inordinately wealthy Nizams, the city of Hyderabad received lavish expenditures while the rest of the princely state remained impoverished. Such was the wealth of Hyderabad that when newly formed India forcibly annexed the domain in 1948, it dubbed the military venture “Operation Polo” after the Nizam’s 17 polo grounds. The Telangana movement actually began somewhat earlier as part of a leftist struggle against the autocratic rule of the Nizam. The movement’s leaders contend that merger with Andhra merely substituted one exploitative elite class with another. And indeed, stark economic divisions still characterize Telangana. Hyderabad is now such a high tech center that locals deem it “Cyberabad,” while as India’s second largest film center it is sometimes called “Tollywood” for its Telugu-language movies. Telangana’s impoverished peripheries, however, are located within India’s “Red Belt,” a zone of rampant agrarian agitation and Maoist rebellion.

The Indian government decided to create Telangana in part to end a “fast to the death” by a local political figure, K. Chandrasekhar Rao. Such a move hardly put an end to the controversy, however. Protests against the proposed redistricting quickly erupted. Anger was pronounced elsewhere in Andhra Pradesh due to the impending loss of the state’s capital and business hub, while in Hyderabad itself high tech magnates expressed fear that a Telangana state administration would be hostile to business interests. Conflicts emerged in other parts of India as well. Opposition leaders pressed loudly for the creation of new states to satisfy their own constituencies, while established interests in the existing states rejected such demands, fearing that a precedent for continuing state division could be set by the creation of Telangana. As a result, the proposed reengineering of Indian state boundaries remains in doubt. What seems clear is that India’s internal political geography will remain a controversial and contested matter, putting strains on the country’s generally robust system of federal, democratic governance.

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