Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Near Russia’s Arctic Rim, Karelians Bristle under Putin’s Rule

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
Zavarkin’s attorney, Dmitry Dinze, said that the real reason behind the arrest is Zavarkin’s criticism of the Karelian governor, Alexander Khudilainen, who, like other governors of Russia’s constituent republics and provinces, is not elected but appointed directly by Putin.  But the Kremlin is also very keen to nip internal separatism in the bud wherever it appears, be it Chechnya or Tatarstan, but especially in areas rich in natural resources like Karelia.

Karelia (upper left) is one of many “republics” within the Russian Federation, but it has no autonomy.
Also last week, Anatoly Grigoryev, chairman of the unofficial Karelian Congress, used the occasion of the post-Soviet regime’s annual Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression to point out that the Putin regime downplays the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s repression of Karelians and ethnic Finns in Russia.  In fact, Stalinist iconography is enjoying a resurgence in Putin’s Russia, with little apparent awareness of the barbarity of his genocidal crimes against minorities.

Karelian rebels in the days of the Russian Civil War
Karelia spreads northward from near the edge of the former imperial capital at St. Petersburg and thus has always been in Russia’s backyard.  Tensions between Karelia and the Kremlin sharpened in 1917, when, in the midst of the Russian Revolution and the disastrous civil war in which nearly every region of Russia tried to split away from the new Bolshevik dictatorship, Finland—up to that point part of the Russian Empire—became the first and only nation in the Civil War to succeed in its secession bid.  While Finland was establishing its independence, a Karelian nationalist insurgency controlled Karelia and in 1918 voted to secede and to merge with Finland.  This makes sense: the Finnish language is nearly mutually intelligible with Karelian—both being members of the Finno-Ugric language family that has no connection to any other European languages and also includes Estonian, Hungarian, Saami (Lappish), and the languages of numerous small nations in Russia’s north.  There is no agreement on where to draw the line between Finnish and Karelian languages and cultures; some call them two branches of a single nation.

Karelian is one of the Finno-Ugric languages.
Of these, only Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian have speakers numbering over 1 million.
There was also a move among the Finno-Ugric-speaking Ingrian people of the area around St. Petersburg to become an independent Ingermanland (a.k.a. Inkeri or Ingria) or to join Finland as well—and you can imagine how popular with the Bolsheviks was the idea of either losing St. Petersburg or seeing it cut off as an exclave separated from the rest of Russia by hostile territory.  Self-declared Ingrian and Karelian republics held out against the Reds until the early 1920s, with Finland too busy fighting for control of Finland proper to worry about annexing areas to the east which Russia was fighting tooth and nail to retain.

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.)

Some Karelian activists today fly the flag
of the short-lived Republic of East Karelia of the 1920s
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.

Marching in Finland for Karelian–Finnish solidarity
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.

The Karelian national flag
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.

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.

The flag of Russia’s Murmansk oblast
[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.]

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