Vladimir Putin, as this blog tirelessly points out, is a hypocrite when it comes to separatism. Though the authoritarian Russian president arms and funds separatists in places like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and—perhaps soon—Syria, within Russia it is (as I have reported in this blog) a crime, as of last year, even to publicly advocate secession from the Russian Federation. I have detailed how the Russian government has cracked down mercilessly on activists arguing even for enhanced autonomy in Russian regions like Circassia (in the north Caucasus and nearby steppes) and Siberia (see articles here and here), to say nothing of demands for self-determination by the Tatar minority in Crimea, which Russia reconquered from Ukraine last year. A Crimean Tatar activist, Rafis Kashapov, was the first person tried under the new advocacy-of-separatism ban. But the latest flare-up of resistance to Moscow rule is not along one of these familiar fault-lines but to the Sub-Arctic extreme northwest of the country, in the Republic of Karelia.
Last week, on October 26th, Vladimir Zavarkin, a municipal deputy (equivalent to city councilman) in the Karelian town of Suoyarvi (population ca. 10,000) became the second person, after Kashapov, to be put on trial for promoting separatism. He is is being tried in Petrozavodsk, the Karelian capital, for advocating separatism. The charges stem from an address he gave in May. “Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” he said in the speech, “I propose to you: get rid of the wool over your eyes, look at what’s being done in Karelia. Forests are being felled down to the root ... everything is being moved to St. Petersburg, Moscow, taxes aren’t being paid. What will be left for our children? Nothing! So we, probably, if the Russian government won’t hear us, will stage a referendum, I think. If Russia doesn’t need Karelia—let’s secede. That would be the most honest!”
|Vladimir Zavarkin, who is on trial for promoting the idea of a referendum on Karelian independence|
|Karelia (upper left) is one of many “republics” within the Russian Federation, but it has no autonomy.|
|Karelian rebels in the days of the Russian Civil War|
|Karelian is one of the Finno-Ugric languages.|
Of these, only Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian have speakers numbering over 1 million.
In the Second World War, Finland was an Axis country, allied with Nazi Germany, which led to the “Winter War” of 1940, in which the Soviet Union tried unsuccessfully to retake Finland, and to the political demonization of any species of Finno-Ugric nationalism as somehow pro-Nazi—even though Finns aligned themselves with Adolf Hitler mostly as a way to protect themselves from Russia. (This is very analogous to the way in which Putin’s propaganda machine today brands any anti-Moscow feeling in Ukraine as neo-Nazism.)
Stalin upgraded the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940 to create the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic, which it was hoped would grow as larger and larger chunks of Finland were annexed—which did not quite happen. In 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, downgraded the Karelo-Finnish S.S.R. to the Karelian A.S.S.R. again—this during a period when other nationalities victimized under Stalin were being repatriated and recuperated and seeing their statuses restored.
As for Karelia, the bare facts are that a referendum on independence, even if it were permitted to be held, would avail Karelians nothing. Even under Stalin, Karelians were a minority in their own republic, at 37% of the population, outnumbered by the 57% majority of ethnic Russians. Today, Russians are 82% of the population, and Karelians are only 7.4% (and only 5.1% in Petrozavodsk, the capital), with ethnic Finns and Vepsians (another related Finno-Ugric-speaking nationality) making up 1.4% and 0.5%, respectively. Much of this demographic drop is due to Karelians emigrating to Finland to escape Stalinism, where some assimilated, or passed, as Finns. At least 10,000 Finnish citizens today identify as Karelian. Karelian is not even an official language of the Republic of Karelia.
If Karelia were to split away, it would disconnect Murmansk Oblast (province) to the north from the rest of Russia. Murmansk’s local population includes Russia’s portion of the Saami (Lappish) indigenous territory stretching west into Norway, Finland, and Sweden—though today Saami form only 0.2% of the oblast’s population, which is 89% ethnic Russian. Losing Murmansk, including the Kola Peninsula on the Arctic Ocean, is an even more important possession for Russia, economically speaking, not only for the harbor at Murmansk but for the larger slice of the pie of the Arctic, with its potential energy bonanza beneath the slowly melting ice.
|Some Karelian activists today fly the flag|
of the short-lived Republic of East Karelia of the 1920s
|Marching in Finland for Karelian–Finnish solidarity|
|The Karelian national flag|
So Zavarkin, who can be guaranteed a predetermined verdict in a Putinist kangaroo court, is not quite grasping the problem when he says, “If Russia doesn’t need Karelia—let’s secede.” Putin does need Karelia. It’s the Karelian people that he couldn’t give a damn about.
[You can read more about Karelia, Ingermanland, and other sovereignty and independence movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar. The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]
|The flag of Russia’s Murmansk oblast|