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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Creating a Pandora’s Box: The Soviet Search for National Borders

Author Interview with Stephan Rindlisbacher

Stephan Rindlisbacher's book project Creating a Pandora’s Box: The Soviet Search for National Borders, brings together the separate but overlapping stories of how national borders were drawn in different regions of the USSR: between Armenia and Azerbaijan, within Central Asia, between Russia and Ukraine. In anticipation of its publication, Peripheral Histories? editor Alun Thomas spoke to Stephan about some of the innovative conceptual framing of his work, including Soviet spatial thinking, different types of border and bordering, and what international comparisons with the USSR can be made.

Tell us about your monograph project. How did you come to this topic?

In February 2014, as Russian forces occupied Crimea, the story of the peninsula being a “gift” to Ukraine in 1954 was widely discussed in the media. This was the starting point for me to ask how the internal borders of the Soviet Union were actually created. Thereafter, I applied for a grant at the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to go to the archives and reconstruct the process of Soviet border-making. I soon realised that Crimea was not that interesting to study exclusively. The most impactful decisions were made in the 1920s. Luckily, I had the opportunity to access to the documents in the state and party archives of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan between 2016 and 2020. This allowed me to study the issue from different angles and perspectives.

Ukrainian Borders 1917-1938
Ukrainian Borders 1917-1938

You mention the impact of the 1920s. Did Lenin understand the post-war moment better than Wilson?

I would say the difference is not understanding, but opportunity. Lenin and his government had more opportunities and the political will to realise their political vision than Wilson did. In their slogans and their wording both, Lenin and Wilson, shared some similarities. They both broke with the traditional political culture in Europe that allegedly enabled the Great War. Both promised the end of “secret diplomacy” and “national self-determination”. Thus, both gained their reputation from a general dissatisfaction with the old order. However, Lenin used his policies as necessary tactics to radically transform society. He and his fellow Bolsheviks had the means to unilaterally install their envisioned order, whereas Wilson had to find deals and arrangements with the representatives of the other great powers at the Paris Peace Conference. Moreover, Wilson failed to integrate the US in the envisioned system of the League of Nations.

Moving from Lenin to Stalin, your depiction of Stalin in 1922 is quite striking; do you think Stalinist nationality policy is better described as a reaction or an intervention?

Stalin, Lenin and other Bolsheviks had to find answers to the nationality question, at the latest when they seized power in October/November 1917. This nationality issue had already penetrated the political discourse and mobilised the masses to an extent, that the Bolsheviks could not allow themselves to “weasel around”. Instead, most of them – if you allow me this metaphor – tried to surf the wave. After 1917, Stalin proved to be a sophisticated bureaucrat and he began to use his administrative knowledge to solidify his powerbase within the party and state. His role as people’s commissar for nationality affairs (1917-1924) was as important as his later function as General Secretary of the party (1922-1953). Particularly among the cadres in the national republics, he managed to install loyal comrades such as Sergo Ordzhonikidze in the South Caucasus or Lazar Kaganovich in Ukraine.

How did Soviet spatial thinking change over the course of the 1920s?

After the Civil War three mutually exclusive approaches of how to administratively (re-)order the Soviet state were competing with each other. First, there was the promise of national self-determination from the early days after the Bolsheviks seized power. During the Civil War entities such as Soviet Ukraine, Tatarstan or Turkestan were created ad hoc. Then, Bolshevik experts at the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) propagated the idea of accelerating economic growth by providing electricity to every corner of the European part of Russia. According to them, the state and its administration had to be structured in a way that the regional resources for electricity production were exploited in the most rational way. Finally, the traditional, imperial administrative structure endured well into the 1920s and local functionaries lobbied to stick to this structure of gubernia in order to strengthen proletarian participation.

In the long run, a synthesis of the first two visions shaped Soviet statehood. National-ethnographic considerations defined the large scale when Ukraine or Kazakhstan took shape as nationally defined entities. Economic considerations provided the blueprints for the fine tuning of borders between these republics. The “traditionalists” mostly failed with one large scale exception: the Transcaucasian Federation was a quasi successor of the imperial Viceroyalty in the South Caucasus.

You distinguish between Soviet territorial approaches that are ‘national-ethnographic’ or ‘economic’, but add that the ‘economic’ category is ‘not self-evident’; can you elaborate on this?

The term “economic” was poorly defined in the 1920s experts’ debates. I have mentioned above one possible interpretation: economic territorialisation could mean to build an administrative territorial structure directed at rational resource extraction and energy production. But Soviet experts soon realised that such a narrow scope neglects other factors such as existing production chains. This included the sugar industry in the borderland between Ukraine and the RSFSR. Moreover, exigencies of governance such as the location of administrative centres and their connection to the railway and telegraph system also influenced the discussions. In the mid 1920s Soviet territorial experts were involved in a debate of how to assess different factors for an optimal territorial framework that would encourage the development of all regions of the Soviet state.

Map of territorial boundaries
Territorialisation by Gosplan 1921.

Was there such a things as Soviet ‘federalism’? If so, what did it mean?

The Soviet state is often perceived as a façade federation, where Moscow ruled over the member republics. This is, of course, to a certain extent true as the party kept its will to power at all costs. However, Moscow was not able to govern all the details on the ground and thus had to transfer authority to the subjects of the Soviet federal system. The extent of this transfer varied over time. At least in the 1920s, this included issues of culture, education, economic questions or the administrative-territorial structure of a member republic. However, the party in Moscow kept its influence via different channels. On the one hand, positions with authority were only filled with personnel approved by the centre (nomenklatura). On the other, the republican budgets remained highly dependant on subsidies from the centre. Moscow could also discipline a republican government by cutting its state budget.

A great strength of your monograph project is its grasp and juxtaposition of different regional case studies. What in your union-wide comparisons stands out to you most?

The South Caucasus region seems to be the odd one out in the Soviet state. Whereas Ukraine, but also Central Asia, were under constant surveillance by Moscow, the three Soviet republics in the South Caucasus – between 1922 and 1936 merged into the Transcaucasian Federation – were much more (for their better and their worse) on their own. Moscow’s main concern in the region was that the Baku oil kept flowing and no open rebellion broke out. Otherwise, the Moscow Bolsheviks wanted to be kept out of trouble. Their comrades in the South Caucasus had to deal with annoying, itty-bitty problems. The border drawing between the three republics is a good example. Due to local resilience they never managed to comprehensively define and survey these borders. Particularly, Armenia and Azerbaijan struggled over the “pasture issue”, the question of how to distribute summer pastures on Armenian territory to herdsmen seasonally migrating from Azerbaijan.

Political Map of Central Asia, 1926
Political Map of Central Asia, 1926

Thinking about comparable states in modern history, was there something unique about the Soviet Union’s internal borders?

These are two questions.

Yes, there was a state comparable (to a certain extent) with the Soviet Union: Yugoslavia. However, in the latter case the member republics had much more political agency and there was no such a dominant nationality like the Russians in the USSR. The Serbs could not fill such a role. If we would imagine Yugoslavia in Soviet terms: there would be no RSFSR, but six republics in a scale between Belarus and Ukraine (with similar linguistic variety), and Ukraine as biggest member would have two autonomous territories with a high share of Armenian and Georgian population.

The question of uniqueness of internal borders depends on how rigidly you interpret the word “unique”. Internal Soviet borders separated state administrations (police, schooling, medical care etc.), official languages and opportunities to access resources (fields, pastures, wood etc.). You can find comparable patterns in federally organised states such as the United States, Canada, Germany or Switzerland.

Stephan Rindlisbacher is a research fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Polish Studies at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). He was educated across the

European continent, at the Universities of

Bern, Zagreb and the State University of St Petersburg. His doctoral thesis explored the world of the radical milieu in late Imperial Russia. His current research focuses on how the national borders in the early Soviet state were drawn.

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