Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus

Energy Issues in the Ukrainian Crisis

Ukraine pipelines mapEnergy issues figure prominently in many discussions of the conflict in Ukraine. As is often noted, Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas gives Moscow significant leverage. Ukraine, moreover, is weakened by its own dependence on Russian energy, and its situation is complicated by the Russian natural gas pipelines that transverse its territory. Less often noted are Ukraine’s own significant gas deposits, several of which are threatened by Russian actions. To be sure, Ukraine’s proven natural gas reserves—which ranked 24rth in the world as of 2010—are dwarfed by those… – Read More

Russian Envelopment? Ukraine’s Geopolitical Complexities

The current issue of Time magazine features an article by Robert Kaplan that emphasizes the geographical aspects of what he refers to as “endless chaos and old-school conflicts,” especially in regard to Ukraine. In general, I appreciate Kaplan’s insistence on the abiding importance of geography and I am impressed by his global scope of knowledge, although I do think that his analyses tend to be a bit too simple. My reaction to his most recent article is much the same.

Ukraine Not Encircled MapHere Kaplan stresses Ukraine’s military and… – Read More

The Sochi Olympics and the Circassians: A Media Failure?

Circassian ProtestWhen lecturing on the Caucasus last fall, I asked my Stanford students if any of them had ever heard of the Circassians. Out of a class of roughly 100 students, two raised their hands. I then told that class that the Circassians had once been an extremely well known if often misunderstood ethnic group, and I predicted that by February 2014 they would again be in the news, owing to the fact that the Sochi Olympics would be held in their ancestral homeland. I trusted Circassian activists to get their… – Read More

Explaining the Rapid Rise of the Xenophobic Right in Contemporary Europe

Copyright James Mayfield

The last three decades have witnessed a remarkable rise in xenophobic, deeply conservative, and even extreme right-wing parties across much of Europe. Whereas thirty years ago most xenophobic parties failed to even pass the 5% minimum voter threshold that is typically required to enter government, they now constitute as much as ~28% of the parliament in countries like Austria, and arguably have reached the ~70% level in Hungary. Hoping to understand these surprising changes in the European political climate, this post will briefly analyze the characteristics of the xenophobic right as of 2013, underscore the diversity of xenophobic parties, and try to explain some of the patterns encountered when the far-right takes hold, as well as their exceptions. – Read More

Siberian Genetics, Native Americans, and the Altai Connection

The GeoCurrents series on Siberia concludes by looking first to the future and then into the distant past: the preceding post examined the possible consequences of global warming on the region, while the present one turns to much earlier times, exploring the position of Siberia in human prehistory and especially its crucial role in the peopling of the Americas.

Mainstream anthropological thought has long assumed that the first settlers of North and South America… – Read More

Global Warming and Siberia: Blessing or Curse?

GeoCurrents has recently emphasized the forbidding cold of the Siberian winter, stressing the obstacles that such a climate presents for the development of the region. Unmentioned in these posts is the possibility that Siberia’s climate will significantly change over the coming decades due to global warming. If the predicted warming occurs, could the change prove beneficial for Siberia, and Russia more generally? Many Russians think so. Such optimism, however, might prove unwarranted, as climate change could also generate significant problems for the region.

Regardless… – Read More

Sakha (Yakutia) Since the Fall of the Soviet Union

The past several GeoCurrents posts have examined the history of the Russian Republic of Sakha, formerly and informally referred to as Yakutia. We have focused on Sakha due both to the region’s intrinsic interest and to the fact that it is one of the most widely ignored sections of the Earth’s surface. Today’s post concludes this series within a series by examining Yakutia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Several additional posts later this week will conclude the larger series on Siberia… – Read More

The Yakut Under Soviet Rule

At the time of the Russia Revolution in 1917, the Yakuts (Sakha) were organizing on a national basis and pushing for autonomy and even sovereignty. Yakutia at the time was dominated by the Sakha, with Russians comprising only about ten percent of the population; even Yakutsk was a mainly Yakut town. The Sakha elite were relatively well educated and politically aware—due in part to the tutelage of Russian intellectual exiles. In February 1918, Yakutia formally declared its independence.

But rather than gaining a country, the Yakuts… – Read More

The Yakut (Sakha) Under Tsarist Rule: Subordinate Partners in Empire?

As we have seen, the Sakha people—called Yakuts by outsiders—dominated the crucial country of the middle Lena Valley, dotted with islands of fertile grassland, until the 1630s. Russian empire builders, spearheaded by Cossack bands, then pushed down the Lena and built three forts in the Yakut heartland, one of which would become the city of Yakutsk. As was true in the rest of Siberia, the Russians demanded yasak, or tribute in the form of fur, from the indigenes. The Yakut resisted, but they were divided into feuding clans… – Read More

The Yakut (Sakha) Migration to Central Siberia

As explained in the previous post, the Yakut (Sakha) people have adapted more easily to the demands of the Russian state, and of modernity more generally, than most other indigenous peoples on Siberia. The relative success of the Yakut is best understood historically. Relative newcomers from the south, the Yakut moved into central Siberia with a more advanced technology and a more complex social order than those of the earlier indigenes of the region. Facing the brutal winters of the central Lena River Valley, the immigrants underwent an ordeal… – Read More

Yakutia’s Mir Mine: The World’s Largest Hole?

A number of websites provide lists of the “world’s largest holes,” most of which are gargantuan open-pit mines (given the realities of the internet, several of these sites are quasi-pornographic). Although the actual lists differ, several put Russia’s Mir diamond mine, located in Yakutia (Sakha Republic) in the first position. The Wikipedia article on the mine claims that it is actually “the second largest excavated hole in the world, after Bingham Canyon Mine.” But if Bingham Canyon is larger, Mir is much steeper, and… – Read More

Recent Initiatives in Russia’s Booming Diamond Business

Rio Tinto, the British-Australian mining giant, recently announced that it would begin investing in Russian diamond extraction, forming a partnership with the Russian firm Alrosa. Alrosa, 90 percent of which is owned by the Russian government, is now the world’s largest diamond miner, having surpassed De Beers in 2011. – Read More

Introduction to Yakutia (Sakha)—and Russia’s Grandiose Plans for the Region

Yakutia, officially the Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation, is a land of extremes. To begin with, it is by far the world’s largest “stateoid,” or political unit below the level of the sovereign state, covering 3,103,200 square kilometers (1,198,000 square miles), as opposed to second-place Western Australia’s 2,527,621 square kilometers (975,919 square miles). More than twice the size of Alaska, Yakutia would be the world’s eighth largest country by area if it were independent, barely trailing India. Unlike most other huge stateoids around the world, Yakutia has… – Read More

Sebouh Aslanian’s Remarkable Reconstruction of an Early Modern Trade Network

In the field of world history, the idea of the “trade diaspora” looms large. Before the development of modern transportation, communication, and finance, long-distance merchants not only had to develop skills in cross-cultural negotiation, but also had to establish the trust with one another that would allow them to move goods and money over vast distances. In the mercantile diaspora model, certain ethnic groups are viewed as having developed specializations in both long-distance trade and the cultural brokerage services that it demanded, deriving trust with their… – Read More