Russia

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

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Mapping Crime and Substance Abuse in Russia

Russia_alcoholism_2010

In the previous post, I examined regional differences in demographic issues across Russia. As many sources note, alcoholism is one of the biggest factors contributing to low life expectancy and high rate of death from non-natural causes. In fact, Russia ranks at the top in terms of both alcohol consumption (especially by men), as discussed in detail in my earlier post. Russia and the neighboring FSU countries also top the charts in percentage of deaths attributable to alcohol. According to the World Health Organization report, such a high level of alcohol-related deaths results not only from what and how much people drink (e.g. drinking spirits causes more alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths than drinking wine or beer), but also how they drink. The WHO report includes data on what the authors refer to as “Patterns of Drinking Score” (PDS), which is “based on an array of drinking attributes, which are weighted differentially in order to provide the PDS on a scale from 1 to 5”; the attributes include the usual quantity of alcohol consumed per occasion; festive drinking; proportion of drinking events, when drinkers get drunk; proportion of drinkers who drink daily or nearly daily; and drinking with meals and drinking in public places. Some countries with high per capita alcohol consumption have low PDS scores (particularly, countries in southern and western Europe), while Russia has one of the highest PDS scores worldwide.

A combination of what, how much, and how people drink—as well as who is doing the drinking—creates the observed patterns of alcoholism within Russia as well. (The data on alcoholism and drug abuse, discussed below, comes from the Wikipedia.) The prevalence of alcoholism differs from region to region even more than other social indicators considered in previous posts. The range between the highest and lowest alcoholism levels is one of three orders of magnitude, from less than one case reported per 100,000 population in Ingushetia to nearly 590 cases per 100,000 in Chukotka. Overall geographical patterns are quite clear: the highest levels of alcoholism are registered mostly across the Far North (and some of the regions of the Far East, which despite their relatively low latitude qualify legally as the “Far North”), while the lowest levels of alcoholism are found in the Caucasus. According to the alcoholizm.com website, alcohol consumption is also the lowest in the north Caucasus, especially in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, and the highest in the harshest areas of the Far North/Far East (particularly in the Jewish Autonomous oblast, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Magadan, and Kamchatka). However, they do not list the specific figures of alcohol consumption in various regions and I could not find them elsewhere, but I suspect that the quantity of alcohol consumed per capita in the northeast Caucasus and in the Far North does not differ by three orders of magnitude. Much more significant is the type of alcoholic drink being consumed: vodka is the most common choice in the Far North, whereas the Caucasus region has a long history of viniculture going back 8,000 years. Besides viniculture, the Caucasus is well-known for its venerable tradition of wine-drinking with meals, accompanied by elaborate toasts, which slows down the consumption and metabolism of alcohol. Another important factor is genetically based difficulty that people from many indigenous groups have in breaking down alcohol. This genetic propensity causes particularly high levels of alcoholism in such areas of northern Russia as Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Sakha Republic, and Chukotka.

Russia_Drug_use_2010

Unlike alcoholism, drug abuse is considerably less common than alcoholism across the Russian Federation: all but four federal subjects register over 50 cases of alcoholism per 100,000, whereas none reports more than 50 cases of drug abuse per 100,000, and fewer than a dozen register over 30 cases. Geographical patterns of drug abuse are less obvious and harder to explain than those of alcoholism. Particularly high levels of drug abuse (over 30 cases per 100,000) are found in Murmansk, Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, Kurgan, Novosibirsk, Kemero, Amur, and Sakhalin oblasts, and in Primorsky Krai. One common denominator is that all of these regions had a high level of industrial urban development during the Soviet period but have experienced significant economic stagnation since the fall of the USSR. One area that does not fit this generalization is Sakhalin, which is still a major area of natural resource extraction and processing. It would be interesting to know if any of our readers can think of another explanation for these patterns of drug abuse.

Russia_crime_rate_2013

Interestingly, neither alcoholism nor drug abuse correlate very closely with crime rates, although there is a connection. Of the areas where drug abuse is most prevalent, only Sakhalin and Kemerovo oblasts also exhibit high crime rates (over 2500 cases per 100,000), while several others—Murmansk, Sverdlovsk, and Novosibirsk—have an average level of crime. Alcoholism correlates with crime even less, as only Magadan and Sakhalin oblasts exhibits high levels of both. A number of regions with a high level of alcoholism, particularly Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Sakha Republic, which have a large percentage of indigenous population, exhibit little crime. Other areas with high proportions of indigenous peoples, such as the Caucasus and the Middle Volga, also have particularly low levels of crime. The low level of reported crime in Tula, Ryazan, and Belgorod oblasts is perplexing, however.

Russia_murder_rate_2014

When it comes to murder, eastern and especially southern Siberia is clearly more dangerous than European Russia or western Siberia. The “murder capital” of Russia is Tuva, which registered over 35 homicides per 100,000 population. Neighboring Altai Republic has over 25 murders per 100,000 population, as does Zabaikalsky Krai. Curiously, high rates of alcoholism may contribute to the elevated murder rate in such areas as Sakha Republic, Chukotka, and Jewish Autonomous oblast, but other areas where alcoholism is prevalent, such as Karelia and Sakhalin, register only slightly above-average murder rates. Similarly, the prevalence of drug abuse does not correlate with murder rates. Nor do crime rates or murder rates correlate with the level of urbanization, unemployment level, or regional GDP.

 

 

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The Role of the Caucasus in Russian Cultural and Intellectual History

(by guest blogger Vitaliy L. Rayz, in collaboration with Martin W. Lewis)

The present GeoCurrents series has focused on the peoples of the Caucasus, examining Russia and Russians only insofar as they have impacted the region. But the Caucasus has played a significant role in the politics of Russia, and in its cultural history as well. The most prominent Russian poets and writers, including Alexander Pushkin, Michael Lermontov, and Lev Tolstoy, traveled through the region and described it in their renowned books. The “cultural exchange,” moreover, went both ways: many members of the Russian elite served, worked, or vacationed in the Caucasus, while quite a few Caucasians made it to the top ranks of Russian society.

Several Georgian nobles, for example, gained fame for their service to the Russian Empire. Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration (“Prince Pyotr”), depicted on the left, a descendant of the Georgian royal family, became one of the most successful Russian generals during Napoleonic wars. In 1812 he led one of the Russian armies fighting the invading French troops. Bagration heroically fought in the bloody battle of Borodino, where he commanded the left wing of the Russian position. After repelling more than half a dozen massive attacks led by the most talented French marshals, Bagration was mortally wounded.

 

As the Russians advanced into the Caucasus in the first half of the 19th century, their armies included a number of nobles. For many, service in the North Caucasus—a land of unrelenting war—was itself a form of punishment, entailing exile from the capital. Some Russian nobles serving in the region were actually de-ranked from the officer class and reclassified as ordinary soldiers. Such a penalty could stem from many kinds of misbehavior, ranging from participation in a duel to the holding of “untrustworthy” political views.

Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s best-loved poet, visited the Caucasus twice and described its snow-covered mountains and proud highlanders in poetry and prose. In his famous poem “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” he describes a Russian captive who falls in love with a Circassian girl. “A Journey to Arzrum,” written during his second visit in 1829, provides a detailed account of his trip. In this remarkable work, the ever sharp-witted and discerning Pushkin describes different peoples, their traditions, and their cuisines. He also had sharp words for the relationship between the Russians and the Circassians:

The Circassians hate us. We have pushed them from free pastures; their villages are devastated, whole tribes are exterminated. With every hour they get higher and higher in the mountains and from there launch their raids. Friendship with the “pacified” Circassians is not reliable: they are always ready to help their violent kinsmen.

In order to safely get to Vladikavkaz in what is now North Ossetia-Alania, Pushkin had to join a regular military convoy, protected by infantry, mounted Cossacks, and a cannon. After crossing the formidable Caucasus range, Pushkin was delighted to see the “fair-looking” Georgia. After arriving Tiflis (Tbilisi), he described the city’s inhabitants:

The Georgians are warriors who had proven their courage under our banners… They are in general of cheerful and sociable spirit… The wines from Kakheti and Karabakh are not inferior to some of the Burgudian ones. … In Tiflis the main part of the population is Armenian: in 1825 there were up to 2500 Armenian families… The Georgian families are no more than 1500. The Russians do not consider themselves to be local inhabitants.

On his way to Armenia, Pushkin ran into a gruesome procession, one carrying the body of another famous Russian poet, Alexander Griboedov.  Griboedov had lived in the Caucasus for many years.  Owing to his knowledge of the region, he was sent as a Russian ambassador to Teheran, where he was murdered by a crowd storming the embassy.

In Michael Lermontov’s book A Hero of Our Time, widely considered one the best examples of Russian prose, a St. Petersburg aristocrat named Pechorin travels to the Caucasus. Pechorin undergoes a variety of adventures, dueling in Pyatigorsk, serving in a small fort at the frontier, and even getting involved with a beautiful Circassian girl. He kidnaps the girl, according to the local custom, only to see her killed by an avenging kinsman.

In the late 19th century, Lev Tolstoy published his own work entitled “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” echoing some of the themes deployed earlier by Pushkin. Again, a Russian military man is captured by local insurgents. They keep the unfortunate officer, in hopes of getting a ransom from his family, but he eventually escapes with help from a young daughter of his captor who had taken pity on him. Interestingly, Tolstoy refers to the Chechens as “Tatars”, a term familiar to his Russian readers, based largely on their Muslim faith. Tolstoy had also served as a soldier in the Caucasus, and the story is said to be based on real events. Tolstoy’s final work, the posthumously published Hadji Murat, also takes place in the Caucasus.

The very same themes of the Russian-Caucasian war, captivity, and love between a Caucasian beauty and a Russian hostage are further explored in yet another “Prisoner of the Caucasus”, a 1996 film directed by Sergei Bodrov and based loosely on Lev Tolstoy’s story. This film is set during the First Chechen War and was shot in the mountains of Dagestan, only a short distance away from the then-ongoing battles of that war, giving it an eerie almost-documentary quality.

Quite a few Caucasians numbered among the revolutionaries fighting in the Russian Civil War and serving in the subsequent Communist regime. These figures include: Anastas Mikoyan, a shrewd politician, who managed to survive in the top echelon of the Soviet government from the time of Lenin to that of Brezhnev; the infamous henchman Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police apparatus (NKVD); Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze; the terrorist and master-of-disguise “Kamo” (Semeno Aržakovitš Ter-Petrossian); and, of course, comrade Stalin himself (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili). (As was brilliantly said by one of his Georgian countrymen, Stalin became a murderous tyrant only in Russia; in Georgia he was merely a petty criminal.)

In Soviet times, the Caucasus became the prime attraction for mountain climbers from the western USSR, as the loftier Tian Shan and Pamir were too far away. The Soviet government wanted to train climbers capable of fighting in alpine terrain. In pursuing this goal, it established a number of alpine training camps along the ridge of the Great Caucasus Range. Many intellectuals from Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities in Russia and Ukraine regularly spent a few weeks a year in such camps. In addition to climbing the challenging mountains, they enjoyed relative freedom from the oppressive grip of the regime: on the steep slopes they could freely talk with friends and make decisions independent of the government and the bureaucracy. As the brilliant poet Vladimir Vysotskiy put it, “You trust only in the strength of your hand, in a hammered piton and the hands of a friend and pray that a rope belay will never betray”.

Professional mountaineering instructors supervised the training of the alpinists, and a rigorous system of ranks and examinations ensured that the abilities and experience of a climber would correspond to the difficulty of the climb. Considering the casual disrespect for human life in the Soviet Union, this strict system kept the number of casualties relatively low. Many songs were dedicated to courageous mountaineers, describing beautiful mountains such as Ushba (see picture on the left) and Shhelda. Quoting again from Vysotskiy: “The one thing that can be better than mountains is mountains that nobody has climbed yet”.

Many Soviet intellectuals and other members of the elite who were not interested in mountaineering would still regularly visit the Caucasus.  Most would head for the warm Black Sea coast of Georgia, where they would enjoy authentic Georgian food, fine Georgian wines, and unparalleled hospitality.

Georgian poetry was highly respected by Russian literary figures. The works of the best Georgian poets, Shota Rustaveli, Titsian Tabidze, Ilia Chavchavadze and others, were translated into Russian by the finest Russian masters, including the Nobel-prize winner Boris Pasternak. In the second half of the 20th century, Russian culture came to be influenced by prominent intellectuals and artists with Caucasian roots. The list is long, but a few deserve special mention: the poet Bulat Okudzhava, a revered founder of the “singing poetry” genre (see picture on the left); the famous Abkhazian writer and thinker Fazil Iskander; the celebrated theatre directors Georgiy Tovstonogov and Yevgeny Vakhtangov; the beautiful actress Sofiko Chiaureli; and the talented film director, Georgiy Daneliya, who showed authentic Georgian culture in such films as “Mimino”. These names are recognized by most Russian intellectuals, celebrated as cultural leaders who had helped form their views and beliefs. Current Russian public figures of Caucasian background include the novelist Boris Akunin (Grigory Chkhartishvili) and the famed chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is also an important leader of the Russian opposition.

On maps of the both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Caucasus appear to be a small and rather insignificant place. In Russian cultural and intellectual history, however, it looms large indeed, having profoundly influencing the development of Russian civilization.

(Translations by Vitaliy Rayz)

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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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The Korea-Uzbekistan Connection

Both North and South Korea are among the most ethnically homogenous and strongly nationalist countries in the world, but that does not mean that they are nation-states, in the strict definition of the term. In an ideal nation-state, the state and the nation cover the same territory, but the land of the Korean nation is governed by not just two but three states: North Korea, South Korea, and China. The contiguous Korean culture area extends well beyond North Korea, encompassing more than two million Koreans living in northeastern China, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

The Wikipedia language map posted above also shows a tiny Korean zone in southeastern Russia, a remnant of what was once a large area. In the 1930s, roughly a quarter of the rural population in the Vladivostok region was ethnically Korean. By the end of the decade, the community had been scattered across Central Asia in the first of several Stalinist waves of mass deportation. An estimated 40,000 of the almost 200,000 deportees died in the process, but the community eventually adapted to its new environment and began to expand. Today their descendants number roughly half a million, with almost 200,000 in Uzbekistan and more than 100,000 in both Russia and Kazakhstan.

When Russia pushed its southeastern boundary into Chinese territory in 1860, it found only a few thousand Koreas living in the area. Korean migration accelerated over the next several decades, owing both to poverty and oppression at home and to opportunities in the resource-rich, sparsely populated Russian Far East. The migration stream intensified after the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910. By the 1920s, the community supported almost 400 Korean-language schools and seven Korean newspapers.

Soviet authorities initially viewed Koreans positively, favorably contrasting their position under Soviet rule with that under Japanese authority. Accommodation ended in the 1930s, as Stalin’s paranoia increasingly set Soviet policy. In 1937, fearing Japanese influence through Korean agents, the Soviet government opted for mass exile. The idea that local Koreans would have served the Japanese cause is ludicrous; in any struggle with Japan, the population would almost certainly have been a Soviet asset.

Koreans in Central Asia acculturated into the Russian-speaking culture of the Soviet Union, not to that of the Turkic-speaking peoples of the union republics. By the end of the Soviet period, Russian vied with Korean as the community’s main language. As tensions between immigrant and indigenous peoples mounted after independence in 1991, many Koreans followed other Russian speakers in moving to Russia. As a result, Russia now has more Koreans than does Kazakhstan.

The position of Koreans in Central Asia has improved markedly in recent years, propelled in part by Korean corporate expansion. Korean firms are attracted both by the markets and resources of Central Asia and by the presence of local Koreans, who can serve as cultural intermediaries. Thousands of Uzbekistani Koreans have also been recruited to work in South Korea; in 2005, their remittances reportedly injected $100,000,000 into Uzbekistan’s economy. The Korean image in Central Asia has also been enhanced by the wave of South Korean popular culture that has washed over the region, just as it has over much of the world. By 2005, Korean had reportedly become the second most popular foreign language among college students in Uzbekistan, trailing only English. As South Korea’s ambassador in Tashkent put it, “Young people in Uzbekistan dream of driving a Daewoo car, and watch Korean television shows on an LG TV set hooked up to a Samsung DVD player.” Since then, South Korea’s connection with Central Asia has strengthened. Korean firms, like those of China, are thirsty for the energy and mineral resources of the region, leading reporters and government officials alike to write about a “new Silk Road.”

Such developments could influence global geopolitics. As Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College argued in March 2010, “The growing East Asian projects in and with Central Asia come at the expense of Russia, which has steadily sought to monopolize Central Asia’s international relations and serve as an interlocutor between those governments and the world. These projects highlight both Central Asia’s heightened ability to diversify its individual and collective foreign and foreign economic relations beyond Moscow and even Beijing.” If Blank’s thesis is correct, the decision by Soviet leaders to exile the Korean population to Central Asia is now helping to sap Russia’s influence in the region. Meanwhile, Russia’s Far East continues to lose population, leading to long-term concerns about Russian control over the area.

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Geocurrents on Google Earth: The Gulag Archipelago Illustrated

The Gulag system began under Lenin as a means of ‘Re-Education through Labor,’ and was expanded exponentially under Stalin. Twenty to Thirty Million people were imprisoned in concentration camps that stretched across the whole of the Soviet Union. The Gulag system was significantly de-intensified under Nikita Kruschev in 1960, but by that time, millions had perished, and millions remained enslaved.

These camps stretched across the continent in a massive system, coined the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, one of the most important authors and historians of the 20th century, who had himself been enslaved in the system. His interviews with hundreds of zek’s in the Gulag system a harrowing portrait of humanity’s bleakest moments, and is an invaluable historical source.


For this weeks Geocurrentcast, I have digitally mapped a small sample of the labor camps in the Gulag Archipelago. It is an attempt to illustrate how terrain to be used as torture. There are a staggering amount of camps from this system, and I eventually endeavour to digitally map the whole of the Gulag Archipelago, overlaid with historical imagery.

First download the Google Earth File hereto access the tour.

If you are new to Google earth tours, first download google earth. Then download this file, and double click the video icon to play the narrated tour, or just click around the former Soviet Union.


Here are few other sites and maps I found, constructing the tour, that are particularly striking:

SOLOVKI

Solovki, a former monastery in on the Solovetski Islands was first inahbited by monks in the mid 15th century who migrated north from Moscow. Its was renowned for its harsh wintry solitude, and regarded as a holy place by some, owing to the absence of snakes. Passage to the island can be made nowadays only once a twice a week by plane or by ferry, when the conditions permitted.


Solovki was one of the first camps in the Gulag system, operating from 1923-1939. Solovki was a measuring stick for many of the methods of coercion and psychological control by the Soviet Government. It is in a sense, the Alcatraz of the Gulag Archipelago, as it is actually based on a frozen island. Solzhenitsyn said of Solovki:

It was a place with no connection to the rest of the world for half a year. A scream from here would never be heard.


CAVNIK


CAVNIK, based in Northern Transylvania, Romania, is not a striking camp in any way. There were 96 others almost exactly like it in Romania alone. However, I through that this hand drawn prisoners map was particularly telling.


(image from http://www.osaarchivum.org/gulag/txt1.htm)

Poland

Illustrates the extent of the camp system, one state as a microcosm of the whole.



Solzhenitsyn’s history is so important because, as google earth showed, there is remaining no physical evidence of the camps all of Poland. Most of the coordinates lead to empty fields and drifts, while some led to shopping centers. What lies below the surface is invisible to our eyes.

PERM 36

Perm-36 is the only Soviet Gulag that has not been deconstructed. It is now preserved as a world heritage site and memorial, and is accompanied by aUNSECO museum on the Gulag System.



(Perm-36 Camp, Photo from the Museum’s Website)

If you’re taking a real Gulag tour through Russia, stop by the Perm-36 camp, as well as theMednoye Memorial Complex. Otherwise you’d have to take your chances with the strange historical narratives from the Russian State History Museum, or the Darwin Museum.

Make sure to read your Solzhenitsyn. Start with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, then progress to the poems he memorized in the camps which compose The Trail. Then, make a deep study of the Gulag Archipelago.

(Many thanks to Warc 1 in the Google Earth Community, for assembling the Kolyma Highway KML used in this presentation, and available here)

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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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