Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus

Actually, The Russian State and Church Did Persecute Pagans

The January 26 Geocurrents posting on the historical toleration of animism among the Volga Finns by the Russian church and state needs to be revised. Recent work, mostly by Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian scholars, indicates that repression was far more severe than had been previously supposed. It is possible, however that such works go too far in the opposite direction, motivated in part by anti-Russian sentiments. On such issues I must remain neutral, but I do feel a duty to give their arguments a hearing. If readers are interested, a key text is The Finno-Ugric World, edited by György Nanovfszky and published by the Teleki László Foundation of Budapest in 2004. Page numbers given below in parentheses refer to this book.

According to this perspective, Mordvin and Mari villagers suffered periodic bouts of extreme persecution from the time of the Russian conquest up to the present. After Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the powerful state of the Turkic-speaking Volga Tatars in 1552, their Finnic-speaking allies were both culturally assaulted and dispossessed of their best lands. Ivan dispensed “Mordvin lands to his boyars and the church. Meanwhile, the pagan population of the region was forced to convert to Russian orthodoxy.” As a result, the Mordvins began to disperse, seeking sanctuary and religious liberty in more remote lands. They also rebelled periodically. In a 1670 uprising, “a tenth of all Mordvins were killed…”(93). The story of the Mari is similar. “The Czars took drastic measures to force Christianity on the [Mari] pagans, who often fled, leaving whole villages depopulated….” (97). Concerted Christianization campaigns were ordered by Peter the Great, who issued “repugnant degrees persecuting the eastern Finno-Ugric religions…” (41). Religious repression of the Mari was especially fierce after the failed Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1775, which they had enthusiastically supported.

Yet despite such repression, paganism survived among the Mari. It may be that such persistence stemmed more from basic geographical factors rather than from the policies of the Russian state and church. Low population density over vast tracts of land allowed animists to flee persecution, and made it difficult for the state and church to establish effective administration in remote areas.

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Threats to Mari Animism

As we saw yesterday, the traditional animism of the Mari people of Russia’s Middle Volga region was historically tolerated by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire. In Mari El today, animism is officially regarded as one of the republic’s three traditional faiths, along with Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Such has not always been the case, however. Under the early Soviet regime, all forms of religion were repressed. One Mari practitioner recalled “creep[ing] into the forest with [my] grandmother to perform sacrificial rites by night. The police – fervent atheists, communists – would come. They kicked over our cauldrons and chased us away.” During World War II, Stalin relented in the assault on religion, and reportedly even tried to “co-opt the karts’ [pagan priests] spiritual powers when pushing back the Nazi invasion of 1941.” Relatively relaxed attitudes seem to have revived in the post-war era; after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government insisted that “ancient paganism” was worthy of respect. Even the local Orthodox bishop argued in 1993 that traditional beliefs should be respected, as Protestantism posed a greater threat to the republic than paganism.

But such accommodating attitudes have declined in recent years. The autonomy of the Russian republics was significantly reduced after Vladimir Putin took office; regional leaders came to be appointed by Moscow rather than selected locally. As the animist establishment in Mari El turned against the republic’s administration, the Russian government came to see the faith as a potentially dangerous vehicle for Mari nationalism. By the early 2000s, Mari traditionalists were complaining that their sacred groves, numbering some 520, were being vandalized and in some instances cut down. The plight of the Mari began to reach the attention of the wider world. In May 2005, the European Parliament criticized Russia for “violating the cultural and political rights of the Mari, … cit[ing] the difficulties the Mari people face in being educated in their first language, [and the] political interference by the local administration in Mari cultural institutions …”

2006 saw an intensification of religious and ethnic strife in the republic. In that year, Mari leader Vitaly Tanakov was found guilty of spreading “religious and ethnic hatred” for his pamphlet entitled “A Priest Speaks.” As Geraldine Fagan, the main English-language reporter on the Mari, explains:

Peoples influenced by the Bible and Koran “have lost harmony between the individual and the people,” argues Tanakov, in what is actually one of only a few references to other faiths in his leaflet. “Morality has gone to seed, there is no pity, charity, mutual aid; everyone and everything are infected by falsehood.” By contrast, he boasts, the Mari traditional faith will be “in demand by the whole world for many millennia.”

In 2009, the Mari El Supreme Court confirmed the condemnation, ruling that Tanakov’s pamphlet spread religious and other forms of “extremism.” The booklet is currently banned throughout Russia. Meanwhile, other minor assaults on the faith continue to occur. Mari traditionalists, for example, have been barred from advertising their festivals in state newspapers.

Mari animist leaders have responded to such attacks through a media outreach program and by stressing the environmentalist credentials of their religion. The main Mari website English-language website, MariUver, however, focuses not on Mari traditional beliefs but rather on the common concerns of all of the Finno-Ugric minority groups of Russia. Recently postings have emphasized linguistic threats much more than religious ones, as well be explored later in Geocurrents.

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The Survival of Animism in Russia – and Its Destruction in the West



The continued existence of animist (or “pagan”) religious practices among the Finnic-speaking peoples of the middle Volga region, especially the Mari, is usually considered a curiosity. The Mari, after all, are merely one of a plethora of ethnic groups scattered across the vast reaches of Russia, many of which are noted for their distinctive cultural practices. Students of Russia have long been schooled to focus on Russians and the Russian state; occasional nods are made to the Volga Tatars, the restive inhabitants of the Caucasus, the Jews, and a few other crucial or problematic peoples, but the Mari, the Komi, the Mordvins, and the other “eastern Finns” seldom get serious attention.

This is unfortunate. As we shall see in the next several Geocurrents postings, the Finnic-speaking peoples of eastern and northern European Russia have played important roles in Russian history. The current post will focus on animism in the region, drawing out lessons for world history from the survival of middle-Volga paganism.

The Mari may be a small group relative to the Russians, but at 600,000 they outnumber the entire populations of thirty-three sovereign states. And while not all Maris are animists, animism is also encountered among some of their neighbors. According to a 1997 Russian law, respect is to be officially accorded to the “ancient pagan cults, which have been preserved or are being revived in the republics of Komi, Mari-El, Udmurtia, Chuvashia, Chukhotka and several other subjects of the Russian Federation.” With the exception of Chukhotka, none of these republics is located in a peripheral part of Russia. Mari-El is actually situated near the center of Russia’s European heartland, close to the high-tech city of Nizhny Novgorod, the country’s fourth largest metropolis.

The persistence of paganism among such a sizable and centrally located people tells us something significant about the Russian Orthodox Church. Theologically, little separates Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism; the disagreement that provoked the final split in 1054 is a three-word clause in the basic creed describing relationships within the trinity. In terms of practice, however, the two traditions are worlds apart. Western Christianity has traditionally focused on orthodoxy, enforcing the officially sanctioned belief system of the church. As a result, heretics and pagans alike suffered extreme bouts of persecution before the eighteenth century, with organized animism crushed throughout the Western realm many hundreds of years ago. The Russian Orthodox Church was not exactly passive on this score, playing its part, for example, in the persecution of Russian Jews. But it cared relatively little about the beliefs held by villagers, or about what they did in sacred groves located deep in the forests. Ironically, the Orthodox Church has focused much less on orthodoxy than on orthopraxy, the correct ritual practices of its own adherents.

The historical differences between the two religious traditions are illustrated by events of the late 1100s and early 1200s, a period of expansion of Christendom along several fronts. In 1193, Pope Celestine III authorized the Baltic Crusades, a militant assault designed to cleanse the last redoubt of “European” animism along the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. The Teutonic Knights, the Knights of the Sword, and other crusading orders were given carte blanche to convert or destroy the pagan ancestors of the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and others, reducing their populations to serfdom in the process.* Some groups may have been exterminated. Only the Lithuanians successfully resisted, building a powerful state in the process that allowed them to later accept Christianity on their own political terms.

At the same time, the Russian state of Vladimir-Suzdal (successor to Rostov-Suzdal shown on the map) was advancing to the east into the territory of the pagan Volga Finns. Construction of the powerful citadel of Nizhny Novgorod commenced in 1221 near the site of what had been an important fortress of the Mordvins,** a Finnic-speaking people closely related to the Mari (labeled as “Cheremis” on the map). Although campaigns of forced Christianization were periodically launched, most Mordvin villagers remained largely pagan until the 1700s, and retained many aspects of animism, include tree worship, into the 1800s and beyond. Yet those who embraced the Orthodox faith could advance in the church. The famous (or infamous) seventh patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikon (1605-1681), was an ethnic Mordvin, as is the current leader of the faith, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, “Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus.”

But if the Russian state and the Russian Church often tolerated animism, they also periodically persecuted it. Yet again, the Mari traditionalists find themselves under pressure, as the next Geocurrents posting will explore.

* As William L. Urban demonstrates, not all people of the Baltic communities were reduced to servitude: “Native nobles who did accommodate to the newcomers faced less formidable barriers to assimilation than nineteenth-century historians assumed. At least one became a knight in the Teutonic Order…” I am not very impressed by the “at least one” figure.

** The Mordvins are actually divided into two separate ethnic groups, as will shall see in a later posting.

For a necessary revision to this post, please see GeoCurrents‘ January 29 post, Actually, The Russian State and Church Did Prosecute Pagans.

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And the Suicide Capital of the World Is … The Republic of Mari El


Suicide rates vary greatly from one part of the world to another. As the first map indicates, self-killing reaches its peak over most of the former Soviet Union, and is common across Europe north of the Alps as well as in southern and eastern Asia. Suicide rates are low across most of the Muslim world (with notable exceptions in Somalia, Kazakhstan, and Iraq) and much of Latin America. But one must regard such official data with some skepticism. Where suicide is highly disparaged by religious beliefs, questionable deaths are often classified as accidental. I thus find the World Health Organization’s “0.0” figure for the female suicide rate in Egypt hard to swallow.

At the top of the suicide chart is either Lithuania or Belarus, depending on the source. South Korea, Japan, Kazakhstan, and Russia chart near the top, exceeding twenty-four self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 people per year. Japan’s rate is more than twice that of the United States, and that of Belarus is three times higher. As the U.S. has plenty of suicides itself, the elevated figures of Russia and Japan signal to many observers serious social and psychological problems.

But while the world map of suicide distribution shows significant geographical variation, it actually under-reports it by at least a factor of two. If gargantuan Russia were divided into its first-order constituent units, we would see figures as high as sixty-six per 100,000. The world’s “suicide capital” is not Lithuania or Belarus, but rather the Russian internal republic of Mari El (population 728,000). Mari-El’s neighboring republic of Chuvashia also suffers extremely high rates of self-killing. Nowhere else in the world, evidently, is suicide as common as it is in this part the Volga basin, a fascinatingly diverse and historically significant region that tends to vanish into the undifferentiated Russian vastness.

High suicide rates in the middle Volga seem to be rooted in the region’s cultural background. In regard to the Mari, religious practices are often blamed. Mari El is the last redoubt of animism in Europe, and Christian critics have linked the prevalence of suicide to “pagan” beliefs and practices. As Geraldine Fagan reported in 2002,

According to local Baptist pastor Timothy Gerega, Mari-El has the highest suicide rate in the CIS — up to 17 a week — which he ascribes to the strength of local paganism. “There are usually two rival groupings, each with their own kart [pagan priest], in every village,” he says. “The karts are constantly putting curses upon the other faction.” In addition to prayer gatherings, [Mari anthropologist Nikandr] Popov admits, traditional Mari pagan practices include magic healing and witchcraft.

Such explanations, whatever their merit, cannot hold for the Chuvash, who are have been largely Christian for generations. According to Mark Ames, non-religious cultural traditions provide the key:

Historically, suicide has always played a key role in Chuvash culture. Until a century or so ago, the ultimate form of revenge a Chuvash could take on his enemy was to go into his enemy’s courtyard and hang himself on his doorstep. In the morning, said enemy would open the door and see the avenging Chuvash hanging there, neck snapped, tongue hanging out, eyes bulging. The living lose. Game over: … the surviving Chuvash would never recover from the shame, while the dead, suicidal Chuvash would live on as a man of honor and integrity, a real fighter.

The Chuvashian practice of killing one’s self to spite one’s enemies might seem culturally incomprehensible to most readers. Still, there is a universally recognized power in self-destructive protest. Egypt may have one of the lowest rates of suicide in the world, but recent weeks have seen a spate of Egyptian self-immolations, as young men follow the example of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian youth whose flaming end sparked demonstrations that took down a regime. As a result, Muslim clerics across Egypt have been denouncing self-sacrifice as un-Islamic, and one hard-core fundamentalist (Salafiyya) leader has gone so far as to assert that, “Whoever tries to commit suicide ‘Tunisian style’ to motivate Egyptians to revolt is a heretic,” destined to Hell. Such religiously inspired denunciations, however, have not yet put an end to politically motivated self-burning across the Arab world.

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Siberia Is More Russian than European Russia



Just as a state-based vision of the world exaggerates the distinctiveness of small countries, so it masks difference within large countries. When macro-countries like Russia, China, or the United States are mapped as singular units, vast disparities between their constituent areas vanish from view.

The public view of massive Russia is especially distorted by the state-based world model. For starters, many people fail to grasp how much larger Russia is than other independent states. Informal polling bears this out. When I recently asked a group of educated Americans how they thought Siberia compared in area to the world’s largest countries, most respondents put it fairly high on the list – but no one put it first. In fact, a sovereign Siberia would be the world’s largest country by a substantial margin, as big as Canada (#2) and India (#7) combined. My respondents did no better when it came to estimating Siberia’s population ranking. Most thought that it would be very low on the list, out-numbered by more than 100 sovereign states. In actuality, Siberia’s 39 million inhabitants would put it 33rd in the world, proximate to Poland and Argentina and well ahead of Canada. Although my poll was hardly scientific, it confirmed my sense that even educated Americans have a very dim understanding of Russian geography.

Historically speaking, the most important divide in Russia is the crest of the Ural Mountains, which separate European Russia from Siberia. Russian culture originated in European Russia; not until roughly 1600 did Moscow push eastward across the Urals (although once it did so, expansion was rapid, reaching the Pacific in about eighty years). Supposedly the distinction between the two parts of Russia is of continental significance, as Siberia forms the northern extent of Asia in the conventional depiction of the world’s major landmasses. Placing the continental divide along the Urals, however, is a relatively recent innovation. Originally, the Don River – the Tanaïs of the ancient Greeks – of southwestern Russia separated Europe from Asia. In the 1700s, an alternative division line was sought, and a Swedish military officer named Philippe-Johann von Strahlenberg proposed the Urals. Russian geographers readily agreed, wanting to place the core areas of the Russian state firmly in Europe while consigning the more recently conquered eastern land to Asia, conceptualized as a quasi-foreign land suitable for colonial rule and exploitation.

Today, “Siberia” is little more than a geographical expression, with no administrative significance. To be sure, a Siberian Federal District loosely joins together a number of the main administrative units (“federal subjects”) of the region. The Siberian Federal District, however, encompasses only central Siberia; eastern Siberia forms the Far Eastern Federal District, whereas western Siberia forms the Urals Federal District.

Siberia retains certain aspects of its colonial past. It is much less densely populated than European Russia, with most inhabitants concentrated along its southwestern front. Although Siberia contains roughly three quarters of Russia’s territory, it holds only about a quarter of its population. “Asian” Russia also encompasses a large array of indigenous ethnic groups, and counts as well Russia’s largest internal republics and other autonomous areas. The Republic of Sakha alone is almost as extensive as the whole of European Russia.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to regard Siberia as any less Russian that European Russia. It may have been a colonial realm in the 1600s and 1700s, but massive settlement by Russian speakers subsequently transformed the region. Today, Siberia is substantially more Russian than European Russia in terms of its population. In the country as a whole, Russians* constitute 80 percent of the population; for Siberia, the figure is over 90 percent. A significant number of indigenous ethnic groups live in Siberia, but most are very small and many are close to extinction. The largest Siberian group, the Sakha (or Yakut), number only about half a million.

The map of republics and other autonomous areas in Russia may convey a misleading view of nationality/ethnicity in the country. Although such areas have been differentiated on the basis of their non-Russian indigenous populations, they have never been off-limits to Russian and other migrants. As a result, some areas classified as autonomous have very small indigenous populations, or “titular nationalities.” In the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, the Khanty and the Mansi together form only about two percent of the population, whereas Russians account for sixty-six percent, Ukrainians nine percent, and Tatars seven percent. Not coincidently, Khanty-Mansi is the richest unit of the Russian Federation, with a per capita GDP of over $50,000. Overall, as the economic map shows, resource-rich Siberia has a distinctly higher level of per capita GDP than European Russia.

The final map posted above shows the percentage of each autonomous region’s population that belongs to the ethnic group for which it is named (i.e., its titular nationality). The indigenous peoples of Siberia are generally far outnumbered in their own republics by Russians and other groups originating in the west. Tuva is the only exception; the Tuvans constitute 77 percent of the republic’s residents. The situation is not the same in European Russia. To be sure, fewer than ten percent of the residents of the Republic of Karelia are Karelians, but in the republics of the Caucasus, locally rooted peoples generally retain majority status. In Chechnya, for example, some 94 percent of the people are Chechen. In neighboring Ingushetia, more than three-quarters are Ingush, and almost all of the rest are Chechen, with Russians accounting for fewer than two percent of the total population. The six republics of the Middle Volga vary on this score; the ethnic situation in this area is quite complicated, as we shall explore in subsequent Geocurrents posts.

*By “Russian” I mean “Russkie” rather than “Rossijane”: see last Saturday’s Languages of the World blog posting.

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Why Russian Jews Are Not Russian



In twenty years of university teaching I have discovered a few features of global geography that consistently flummox students, contradicting their preconceptions about how the world works. Russian nationality is one. How could it be possible for Russian-speaking Jews, born in Russia and descended from the Russian-born, not to be considered Russian by other Russians or the Russian state? By the same token, Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States are often surprised to find that Americans automatically classify them as Russian. They weren’t Russian in Russia, but they become Russian once they leave? How could that be?

Such confusion arises from the way Americans erroneously globalize the nation-state model. Just as all American citizens are Americans and all French citizens are French, all citizens of Russia must be Russians. What else could they be? But not all countries are nation-states. Many claim the status yet fall far from the ideal; others firmly reject it. Russia is in the latter category.

As laid out in the first article of its constitution, Russia is also known as the Russian Federation, the two terms being “equal.” A federation, strictly speaking, is not a nation-state; its constituent geographical entities and peoples remain officially distinct. This multinational state characteristic is spelled out clearly in Article Three of the Russian constitution, which states: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people.”

The multinational character of modern Russia is rooted in its imperial past. Like most other empires, that of the czars was based on what Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper call the “politics of difference”; imperial rulers emphasized distinctions among their subject peoples, both legally and institutionally. When the Russian Empire yielded to the Soviet Union, adjustments had to be made, as the imperial ideal was discredited with the revolution. In Lenin’s vision, the various peoples of the country would eventually merge into a single Soviet nationality, itself a way-station on the road to a nationless future. For the short term, however, Lenin insisted on accommodation with non-Russian peoples, providing them with a measure of autonomy. The result was an intricate system of political divisions within the Soviet Union, with a hierarchy of nationally distinct autonomous areas. At the top were the union republics (which gained independence in 1991); in the middle were the many internal republics of the union republics; and at the bottom were relatively small autonomous regions. As a self-declared multinational union, the Soviet Union sought membership for each of its union republics in the United Nations. Despite its name, however, the United Nations was not a union of nations, but rather one of sovereign states. Still, a compromise was reached that allowed Ukraine and Belarus*—the least nationally distinctive Soviet Republics—to join the U.N. as original members on October 24, 1945, while the other Soviet Socialist Republics were represented collectively by the Soviet Union.

After the USSR collapsed in 1991, Russia itself remained a complexly multinational state. It current first-order territorial divisions are the so-called federal subjects, numbering eighty-three. Forty-six of these are standard Russian oblasts, nine are former frontier Krais (territories), two are federal cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg), twenty-one are republics, four are autonomous okrugs, and one is an autonomous oblast. “Federation” is probably not the best word to describe the Russian union, as it implies a joining together on relatively equal terms, whereas Moscow clearly dominates all of Russia’s federal subjects. (Russia’s internal structures will be explored in a later Geocurrents posting.)

The early Soviet authorities were unsure how to classify the Jewish population. Jews had always been considered a separate people from Russians, subject to disabilities and periodic pograms. But they could not be readily placed in Lenin’s tabulation of nations, as they did not have their own homeland—an essential criterion for nationhood. Stalin’s solution was to “grant” Soviet Jews their own national territory—as far away from their homes as possible. Under the Czars, Jews had been mostly restricted to the so-called Pale of Settlement in the far west, and the new Jewish autonomous area was to be in the far east, along the sparsely populated border with China.

The Jewish autonomous region experienced modest growth and development through the mid 1930s. Its nearly 18,000 Jews then constituted sixteen percent of the total population. The region’s current government boasts that Jewish settlers were enticed to migrate from “Argentina, Lithuania, France, Latvia, Germany, Belgium, the USA, Poland and even from Palestine.” Yiddish schools, publishing firms, and other institutions were established. In the late 1930s, however, Stalin began to purge Jews. Yiddish schools in the oblast were shuttered, and migration came to a virtual halt. But as Stalin’s anti-Semitism metastasized after World War II, plans were developed for wholesale Jewish relocation. Much evidence indicates that the Soviet government planned to deport virtually the entire population to the autonomous oblast and other remote regions, no doubt slaughtering a substantial number in the process. In all likelihood, Soviet Jewry was saved only by Stalin’s death in 1953.

The Jewish Autonomous Region itself survived both the demise of Stalin and the end of the Soviet Union. Today it is one of Russia’s 83 federal subjects, and its only autonomous oblast. The Jewish population, however, is no longer significant, numbering between 2,000 and 4,000 and constituting less than two percent of the oblast’s population. Still, Jewish institutions are maintained. A new synagogue was completed in 2004, and the region’s official website maintains that a small-scale Jewish cultural revival is underway. The website also boasts that “tourism in the Jewish Autonomous Region is constantly developed and improved. The number of tourists visiting our region … annually grows.” One cannot but wonder whether such claims are exaggerated.

Russia’s Jewish autonomous region does not occupy a prominent position in the public imagination. Opponents of Israel, however, occasionally mention it as an alternative Jewish homeland. Just this week, an article in Tanzania’s The Citizen concluded by stating that “… the notion of an exclusive Israel dominating Palestine is becoming an impossibility too. Who knows, as that reality sinks into Israel consciousness, Jews will look at Birobidzmhan** with a fresh eye.” The claim is extraordinary. Jews have been abandoning Russia for some time, and for good reason. I suspect that most Jews would regard the autonomous oblast, to the extent that they know of it, as a place of Stalinist horror.

* Officially, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

** The author is referring to Birobidzhan, capital of the autonomous oblast.

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Scorched Earth: Russia Burns



(Photo CreditsNASA/MODIS)


Pictured above are NASA images of the Summer’s temperature anomalies that caused a massive drought, the resulting smoke from forest fires which have caused more than 100 fatalities on the way to blanketing in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine in smoke since the beginning of August.

Moscow has been covered in smog, death rates in hospitals have spiked, and contaminated radioactive land in Chernobyl has burned. A ban on Russian grain exports went into effect yesterday as fires and drought have hampered at least 1/5 of the total supply.

The cost of the fires is now at a staggering $15 Billion, a figure more than that of Hurricane Katrina or the BP Spill Cleanup, and a figure estimated to be 1% of Russia’s total 2010 GDP.

Global Warming and feverish storms catalyzed the fire, but the blaze has reached disastrous proportions, through preexisting environmental degradation and local mismanagement, and the response has been hampered by government secrecy.

This video from Nasa, show’s the chronology of the outbreak, in terms of Carbon Dioxide Pollution:


This post by the cyber-cartographer “Kite Surfer” in the Google Earth Forum points out that 30 of the 50 major fires during the first week of August occurred in areas of major deforestation. More blood, ash, and toxic phlegm, can be tied back to the hands of large Russian logging and forestry operations when one considers the fact that many of these corporations were put in charge of fire control, neglected their tracts, allowed fuel unharvested fuel to build up, and failed in suppression.

A response to this post by Google Earth Boards Member MarkoPolo, outlines the crux of the issue here, citing a paper published in ‘Wildfire Magazine’. These fires are not merely a periodic natural disaster, they have been compounded by systematic mismanagement:

From THIS cover article in the July/August 2010 issue of “Wildfire” magazine entitled “Russian Disarray”: “Currently, the (Russian) state cannot legally derive profit from owning the land, such as by selling timber to fund forest management, but it can sell the land to private parties. As a result, large forest areas are being sold non-competitively for use as private hunting preserves, and private companies are harvesting large areas without returning profits or reinvesting in the land or management of the forests. In the absence of formal regulation, Russia has an extremely low efficiency in the use of forest resources: today only 28% (165 million square meters) of the logged timber volume (609 million square meters) is actually used. The cut (but unused) timber volume has led to a fuels buildup that is feeding large fires. Recent satellite images reveal that most large fires now occur in the band where most logging occurs.”

For more direct visual evidence, download this Google Earth File, which outlines areas of Deforestation and Major Fire Area. In order to view the file, download Google Earth, and then open the kml file in your browser.

The fires are proving to be a major albatross for both Vladimir Putin and Dmiti Medvedev. In early August, Medvedev was hasty to respond, more concerned with corrupt projects for 2014 olympics and his own leisure.

Vladimir Putin, however, topped his counterpart’s response with this this ridiculous PR stunt, flying a water bomber over the blaze:


The two have also shifted blame, chewing out regional authorities for their lack of response to the fires. Ironically, the lack of local accountability is a product of an executive power grab in 2004, which banned the direct election of local governors and kept individual candidates off the ballot.

These measures caused local fire prevention prefectures to lose their teeth and funding, exacerbating today’s problems. The firefighters are armed with technology as old as their website: Fireman.Ru, a fascinating database of songs and proverbs from Russian Firefighter lore, undone only in translation by the idiomatic expression. This poem, from the “Do Not Joke With Fire,” section of the site, makes for a much more immediately satisfying moralist read than a Chekhov Play:

... Splattered on the driver field of diesel fuel,
Then the pitch with home-grown tobacco cigarette.
He crushed his cigarette butt into the ground somehow
However, cases have been tobacco.
Wally gone, flashed tires,
Over the field went up suffocating fumes:
The ears are burning – kaloriyki and dumplings
Loaf of wheat bread burn.

Moral – do not smoke in a fire zone?

To close this post, here is a videos of the awe-inspiring ferocity of the firestorm:


Here’s to the safety of those fighting the blazes and touched affected by the drought.

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Russia’s Changing Demography

In August 2009, Russia recorded 1,000 more births than deaths, the first month of natural population increase in more than 15 years. Russian officials, worried about their country’s declining population, were pleased that their efforts to encourage childbearing were showing signs of success. Overall, however, demography is still a major concern for Russian nationalists.

The Wikipedia map of the Russian Federation’s natural population growth (excluding, in other words, immigration and emigration) shows some intriguing patterns. Most striking is the fact that areas of relatively rapid growth (dark green on the map) have large non-Russian populations. Russians constitute roughly 4 percent of Chechnya’s population, 7 percent of Dagestan’s, 20 percent of Tuva’s, and 41 percent of Sakha’s. Russians are more prevalent in the demographically expanding areas of western Siberia (Tyumen, Khantia-Mansia, and Yamalia), but Tyumen is still one of Russia’s most ethnically diverse oblasts, and Khantia-Mansia and Yamalia both have large non-Russian minorities (34 percent and 41 percent respectively). The Russian heartland of western European Russia, on the other hand, shows the largest excess of deaths over births. The proportion of Russians in the federation, currently at 80 percent, is thus declining – much to the consternation of the Russian nationalists.

Patterns of natural population growth and decline also correlate with patterns of economic production, but in a more complicated pattern. Higher fertility rates are evident in both the richest and poorest parts of the country. Dagestan, Chechnya, and Tuva, with low levels of per capita gross regional product, show positive population growth rates largely because their fertility levels are high; the average woman in Chechnya, for example, can be expected to give birth to 3.4 children. Russia’s richest areas, such as the oil and natural gas producing Khantia-Mansia and Yamalia, and mineral-rich Sakha, are also demographically expanding. This pattern is most clearly evident in Tyumen Oblast, the richest region of Russia, with a level of per capita economic production seven times the national average. In 2007, Tyumen’s birth rate of 14.2 per 1,000 people comfortably exceeded its death rate of 9 per 1,000. Contributing to its population growth was its relatively low mortality rate; in 2008 in Russia as a whole, the death rate was 14.6 per 1,000 people.

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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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Caucasus Emirate: A Self-Proclaimed Virtual State Entity

In the global hierarchy of polities, a “self-proclaimed virtual state entity” occupies a lowly position, being little more than a dream. But such dreams must be taken seriously if they are accompanied by violent actions intended to make them come true, as is the case in regard to the Caucasus Emirate. This Islamist “virtual state entity” claims (eventual) dominion over the northern Caucasus Mountains and adjacent lowlands. Currently part of the Russian Federation, the northern Caucasus is divided into handful of internal Russian republics, including Dagestan and Chechnya. Although violence in the region has diminished in recent years, it has hardly vanished. On February 3, 2010, for example, Russian security officials claimed that they killed a top Al Qaeda operative, Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, in the mountains of Dagestan (see http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=14783934&PageNum=0).

Any efforts to create an actual Caucasus Emirate will be strenuously resisted by Russia. They also clash against the designs of another “self-proclaimed virtual state entity,” that of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. This Chechen republic was proclaimed in 1991 as Chechnya unsuccessfully tried to secede from Russia. In 2007, its “president” merged the “republic” into the much larger “Emirate,” thereby reducing its status to that of a mere (virtual) province. Many Chechen insurgent leaders rejected this move, preferring to fight for an independent, stand-alone Chechnya.

The so-called Caucasus Emirate aims to unite all of the Muslim areas of the northern Caucasus into a single state. Its proposed territory, however, includes a substantial non-Muslim area, the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania. The Ossetians (or Alans) are mostly Christians, although a few are Muslims and many still practice quasi-pagan rituals. Tensions between Christian Ossetians and their Muslim neighbors can be severe. In 2004, for example, Chechen and Ingush insurgents took more than 1,000 people hostage in a school in the Ossetian town of Beslan, an event that resulted in some 385 deaths.

The Ossetians, a surviving remnant of the once-powerful Sarmatians, are a people of profound world-historical significance. It is believed by many scholars that most of the legends of King Arthur can be traced back to the Ossetians’ Nart Sagas — but that is a story for another post.

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Sakha: World Capital of Cold

The attention of the global media usually remains focused on a limited portion of the earth’s surface. Wealthy countries and regions are covered in depth, as are places considered threatening to the developed world, but most parts of the earth are more often ignored.

Consider, for example, Sakha (Yakutia), a vast internal Russian republic spanning three time zones that is roughly the size of India. Sakha has the interesting distinction of being the world’s largest “statoid” (statoids being the highest-order territorial subdivisions of sovereign states [see http://www.statoids.com/]). Sakha is rather lightly populated, but it has more inhabitants than 42 internationally recognized countries. Considering as well its sizable mineral deposits, Sakha is a significant place.

The few news reports from Sakha that reach the global media usually focus on diamond mining. On January 7, 2010, however, the BBC devoted much of a story to simply recounting living conditions in the republic (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8445831.stm). This unusual article was prompted by bitterly cold conditions in Europe, leading reporters to ask what life is like in truly cold places. In Sakha’s capital of Yakutsk, a city of 210,000 people, the average January high temperature is -36 degrees Celsius (-33 F): farther north, much colder conditions are encountered. Compared to Sakha, central Alaska has a balmy winter climate.

Sakha’s population of almost one million is roughly split between Russians and the indigenous Sakha (or Yakut) nationality, although other indigenous ethnic groups are also present. The Sakha are a Turkic people who were largely converted from their original shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in the 1800s. Their traditional way of life was based was based mostly on raising cattle and horses-–quite a challenge, considering the climate of their homeland. Unlike most of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, the Sakha have relatively high rates of education and have adapted reasonably well to the challenges of modern life. Some authors have suggested that they benefited from an influx of intellectuals when previous Russian regimes exiled political dissidents to their villages. From the dissidents’ point of view, being sentenced to Yakutia was considered especially onerous, due to both the climate and the local dietary staple: “milk tar,” a frozen mash of fish, berries, bones, and the inner bark of pine trees conveniently dissolved in sour milk.

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Kalmykia: The Republic of Chess

Certain parts of the world are so closely associated with a specific issue or activity that other matters tend to fade from view, at least as far as the international media are concerned. Consider, for example, Kalmykia, a Russian internal republic located northwest of the Caspian Sea. Larger in area than the Republic of Ireland, Kalmykia is a significant place with a fascinating history. In the international news, however, Kalmykia means one thing: chess. Today’s Google news search on the region yielded 23 articles: three concern inflation in Russia, one examines a local offshore oilfield, another mentions the republic’s improvements in beef processing, and the rest focus on chess.

The prominence of chess in Kalmykia stems from the efforts of the republic’s president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a multi-millionaire who has been president of FIDE (the World Chess Federation) since 1995. A chess fanatic, Ilyumzhinov has made the study of the game compulsory in Kalmykia’s elementary schools. With a reputation for being both charismatic and authoritarian, Ilyumzhinov has bragged about introducing an “economic dictatorship” to the republic.

Kalmykia deserves notice for more than its role in the chess world. The Kalmyks, who constitute a bit more than half of the republic’s roughly 300,000 people, speak a Mongolian language and traditionally follow Tibetan Buddhism. The notion of a Tibetan Buddhist majority republic lying within Europe (as Europe is “continentally” defined) would strike most readers as odd indeed, but the Kalmyk presence in the region dates back to the early 1600s. The current Kalmyk community is actually a remnant group, as “Kalmyk” literally means “those who remained.” The far western Mongols had been important allies of the Russian Empire as it expanded into the Caucasus and Central Asia, but when the Czar’s government started to undermine local autonomy, most of the community undertook a vast – and deadly – exodus back to Mongolia.

Much of Kalmykia’s subsequent history has been painful. Many Kalmyks sided with anti-communist forces during the Russian civil war, provoking harsh retribution after the war ended. In the 1930s, Stalin disastrously collectivized Kalmyk herding, resulting indirectly in some 60,000 deaths. He also attacked the Buddhist establishment, burning libraries and shuttering monasteries. Not surprisingly, many Kalmyks welcomed the German invaders in 1942; some 3,000 local men actually joined the German army, serving in three Kalmyk units. In retaliation, Stalin ordered the entire Kalmyk population deported to Central Asia in 1943. An estimated one in three perished in route. In 1957, Khrushchev allowed the Kalmyks to return, restoring their (supposedly) autonomous republic.

Today the Republic is doing reasonably well, thanks to oil, agriculture, and perhaps chess. The Kalmyks benefit from their relatively high levels of education and their international connections. Overseas communities are found today in many parts of Europe and in the United States. The U.S. center of the Kalmyk diaspora—Monmouth County, New Jersey—supports several Kalmyk Buddhist temples as well as a monastery. The head of the religious establishment in Kalmykia itself is Philadelphia-born Erdne Ombadykow (Telo Tulku Rinpoche), who was recognized by the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. Ombadykow spends half of each year with his followers in Kalmykia, and the other half with his family in Colorado.

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South Ossetia Gains Recognition

Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia

South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country located in what the United States and most of the international community regards as Georgian territory. It has functioned as an autonomous client state of Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. When Georgia made moves to reclaim South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia, and then officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. Russia’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway region was in part done in protest against the recognition of the independence of Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) by the United States and most European countries.

Russia is now attempting to bolster its diplomatic position by encouraging other countries to recognize South Ossetia. Nicaragua was the first to sign on, followed by Venezuela. In mid-December, 2009, South Ossetia gained another political partner: the tiny Pacific country of Nauru. Informed sources claim that Russia essentially purchased such recognition with a $50 million economic aid package. Nauru, once one of the world’s richest counties on a per capita basis, certainly needs the money, as it has exhausted the phosphate deposits that once gave it wealth, generating an environmental disaster in the process.

North Ossetia and South Ossetia

Such diplomatic maneuverings are not unique to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, for example, have long dangled out aid packages in exchange for recognition, a game that Beijing is slowly winning. Thus far, Russia has fared poorly in its quest for international support for its client state. While only four internationally legitimate countries recognize South Ossetia, sixty-four currently recognize Kosovo. (South Ossetia is, however, recognized by several other generally unrecognized countries, such as Abkhazia).

How many countries are there in the world today? As the South Ossetia example shows, no precise answer can be given, as it all depends on what one counts as a country.

South Ossetia is plenty interesting in its own right, regardless of such diplomatic games. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Alans, who were themselves an offshoot of the ancient Scythians. According to C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor’s fascinating book From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, most of the Arthurian legends stem directly from the folklore of the Alans, many of whom were among the invaders of the dying Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. For a film interpretation of the Littleton and Malcor thesis, see Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur.

Also to note is the fact that South Ossetia is a small part of the larger Ossetian “nation.” Only some 70,000 people reside in South Ossetia, while over 700,000 live in neighboring North Ossetia-Alania, which is an internal republic of the Russian Federation (it is part of Russia, in other words). Roughly two thirds of the people of both North and South Ossetia are ethnically Ossetian.

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