Staunton, November 2 – By its systematic attack on federalism within the Russian Federation and its effort to isolate European-oriented people in St. Petersburg and Northwestern Russia from their Baltic neighbors, Moscow is pushing that region onto “the Baltic path,” one that may ultimately lead to the same outcome, according to an Ingermanland activist.
In a 7300-word article on the Ingria.info portal today, Andrey Pugovkin argues that what is currently the Russian northwest has been “part of the cultural and political space of Northern Europe,” despite Moscow’s efforts to subordinate the region to itself and break those ties to the West (www.ingria.info/?biblio&news_action=show_news&news_id=5131).
Moscow’s conquest of European Novgorod and Staraya Ladoga, he points out, was for the residents of this highly literate and diverse population “an historic catastrophe,” the first of several Pugovkin argues the Muscovites with their links to the political system of the Mongol Horde have visited on them.
Prior to 1917, however, Petersburgers succeeded in creating “the type of ‘the Russian European,’ educated in the traditions of Orthodox culture but with an orientation toward the ethnical values and external attributes of the Western way of life.” And precisely because of that, many Russians from elsewhere had such a negative attitude toward that city.
The causes of this “irrational lack of acceptance of Petersburg by people with a paternalistic consciousness and a lumpen psychology” played and continue to play “a fatal role for the city” up to this day that is manifested in everything from vandalism of the city’s monuments to Moscow’s blocking of links between the city and Europe.
A major reason for the unique Europeanness of the city was that at the end of the imperial period, “not less than a fifth of the permanent residents of St. Petersburg consisted of religious and ethnic minorities” and by the presence of “approximately 200,000 foreign citizens,” almost all of whom contributed to a cosmopolitan and tolerant society.
Indeed, Pugovkin notes, except for the actions of small marginal groups and for those supported more or less openly by the representatives of the Moscow powers that be, St. Petersburg “did not know over the course of its entire history up to the 2000s any open inter-religious or inter-national conflicts.”
But that characteristic of the city along with so many others, he writes, was changed by “the events of 1917 and all that followed,” events that were “a catastrophe equivalent in history to that which Rome experienced during the barbarian invastions or Novgorod in the course of the Muscovite conquest.”
The destruction or expulsion of so many historical Petersburgers and their replacement by a lumpen class of people from elsewhere has meant, Pugovkin insists, that “the historical multi-national population of Petersburg and all Ingria can with full justification be considered a repressed ethno-cultural group.”
Despite that, he argues, as the Soviet system softened after the death of Stalin, Leningraders re-asserted themselves as a cultural center and, what is especially important, expanded their historical ties with intellectuals in neighboring nations including the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Finns.
“For residents of Soviet Leningrad,” he writes,, “Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in those times stood for Western Europe, a place in practice inaccessible because of ‘the iron curtain.’” And in 1964, an easing of visa arrangements allowed dramatically more short-term visits between the city and Finland.
In part because of those links and experiences, it was “in Leningrad more than anywhere else where already in the 1970s, the lack of prospects” for the Soviet system “became evident.” And consequently, “it is not surprising thatprecisely here, practically at the same time as in the Baltic region, there appeared the first challenges to the communist regime.
Moreover, Pugovkin continues, it was also precisely in these two places where the regime responded by “openly turning for help to the neo-nazis.”
“The consolidation of democratic forces of the Northern capital took place in close interconnection with the national-liberation movements of the Baltic republics,” with the latter often publishing things for the city that could not be published there and then sending them eastward.
When Soviet forces attacked the Lithuanians in January 1991, “tens of thousands of Leningraders” went into the street to show their solidarity with Lithuanian. And during the same period, “on the barricades in the center of Riga it was possible to see the Russian tri-color that had been raised by a delegation of the Leningrad Peoples Front.”
Representatives of the city allied themselves with the delegates of the peoples fronts of the Baltic republics at congresses of the peoples deputies of the USSR, and when asked in march 1991 if they favored the preservation of the USSR, the city’s voters by more than two to one said that they did not.
These experiences, he suggests, “created the conditions for the search for a regional identity,” one that would be a way out from “provincial complexes and Soviet traditions.” But Moscow was opposed to all steps in that direction, splitting the city and oblast apart and denying the two the possibility of forming a single free economic zone.
Thanks to the leadership of Anatoly Sobchak, the city continued during the 1990s many of the traditions it had recovered along with the Baltic peoples at the end of Soviet times, but “the change of priorities of Russian foreign and domestic policy in the 2000s turned out to be extraordinarily unfavorable for the entire North-West region of Russia.”
And that was true even though after 2000, a large number of Petersburgers took top jobs in Moscow. Having arrived in the Russian capital, they turned on the city, reducing its status through the formation of the North-West Federal District and cutting the resources its people have had for the improvement of their own lives.
At the same time, Moscow’s foreing policy shifts regarding the Baltic countries and other European neighbors had a negative impact on the city. The Russian government “renewed its short-sighted and harmful policy, in the first instance for the Russian-speaking population,” against the Baltic countries, preferring to talk about “russophobia” than to cooperate.
As a result of Russian policies, the Baltic countries “have guaranteed their military security by joining NATO and their economic well-being by becoming members of the European Union.” Instead of adapting, Moscow has re-erected a kind of “iron curtain” against them and transformed “’the window on Europe’ into a [oil] pipeline.”
Moreover, the central Russian powers that be have sought to reduce the ability of the federal subjects to conduct an independent foreign policy, treating that as “’separatism’ and ‘a threat to the integrity of the state,’” a counter-productive approach in a country as large and diverse as the Russian Federation.
In the 1990s, federalism prevented a civil war in Russia, but in the last decade, Moscow has made the struggle against it “almost its main domestic political goal,” forgetting, Pugovkin points out, that “an excess of centralization [is] one of the main threats to the integrity of any federal state.”
And he concludes by warning that if Moscow continues on this “deadend” path, then “sooner or later” because of its historical “conditioning,” the people of Ingermanland and St. Petersburg will be driven to move along another road, “the Baltic path” which has consequences Moscow very much does not want to see.