It is the summer of 1984; an Intourist bus carrying a group of British students travels high into the Caucasus mountains. Our guide, named Sasha, announces: “We are now approaching the Russian-Georgian border. Please get your passports out.” He pauses and says, “Only joking!”

In the Soviet Union, the concept of a border was ambiguous – at once a formidable and a slippery thing. A Soviet foreign border, backed up by a deep security zone and miles of barbed wire, was an impenetrable barrier; “abroad” exists on the other side (literally in Russian za granitsei, “over the border”). The USSR hymned its vigilant border guards protecting the Soviet state from enemy intruders. In 1938 the poet Daniil Kharms, best known for his absurdist works, was one of many to write a patriotic poem for children, praising these defenders:

Ни в метель,
Ни в пургу
Не пробраться
День и ночь начеку

Neither in a blizzard,
Nor in a snowstorm,
Will the Enemy get through!
Our border guards are alert
Day and night!

These external borders were, at once, impregnable and liable to sudden change. The Soviet Union’s borders expanded several times in the 1930s and 1940s, as it annexed pieces of neighbouring territory in the Baltic States, Bessarabia, Eastern Galicia and Karelia, to name some examples. In many of these cases, the Soviet authorities tried to legitimise their land grab with a plebiscite authorising the change of border, a device used again in Crimea in 2014.

Incubator of new nations

Back then the Soviet Union also had a mass of open internal borders, like the one I crossed in the Caucasus in 1984, whose meaning was even more complex. The USSR was a vast and multi-layered federal structure of regions with different statuses, carefully delineated in the 1920s and 1930s. As the new state was constructed on an ethno-territorial principle, separating national groups with a newly defined or even newly bestowed nationhood within the Soviet family of peoples, many of these borders became de facto “ethnic borders”, dividing one national group from another. This, to be sure, made the Georgian-Russian border a dividing line in the minds of Soviet citizens, even as it was easily traversable. And, of course, when the Soviet state broke up in 1989-92, the status of several of these internal borders led to ethnic conflicts: in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, the Prigorodny Region of North Ossetia and Chechnya.

For years there was a western scholarly consensus that the Soviet Union was the “prison-house of nations,” that is to say, it proclaimed a multi-ethnic identity but it was only a mask concealing a unitary Russian state. The ethno-territorial borders, Sovietologists contended, had been drawn on a “divide-and-rule” basis so as to set one ethnic group against another. Later on, however, western scholars challenged this notion by tracing how certain kinds of national identity developed and actively flourished in the Soviet era. The phenomenon of nascent Soviet nationalism became all too real in the perestroika era, when union republics and autonomous regions challenged Moscow with ready-formed nationalist agendas.

It is no wonder that it took scholars a long time to get this right, as the paradoxes of Soviet nationalist policy are breathtaking to consider. The Soviet Union nurtured nations and murdered them. Stalin vigorously promoted Ukrainian nationalists in the 1920s and then ruthlessly suppressed them in the 1930s. Russians were, at the same time, the most privileged citizens and the most neglected. Soviet borders were both very open and very closed.

A number of scholars have closely examined the reasons for these contradictions. In The Revenge of the Past (1993) Ronald Suny memorably wrote, “Rather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became the incubator of new nations.” He argues that Bolshevik thinkers had identified the consolidated “nation” as an important transitional phase between a primitive tribe and a fully developed socialist society. Seeing that a transition to full socialism never emerged, a particular understanding of “national”, inscribed in every Soviet citizen’s passport and reified in national Academies of Science and other institutions, took a permanent hold. Indeed, by the time the Soviet Union ended, nationality had become the most important category of identity for Soviet citizens.

Writing about the 1920s Jeremy Smith explained how the Bolsheviks’ nationalities policy relied both on ideology and improvisation. Terry Martin’s masterful The Affirmative Action Empire shows how the Bolsheviks set themselves up as anti-imperialists, telling the non-Russian nations of their new state that they were defenders of their nationhood. In the 1920s they promoted national cultures and education and non-Russian elites. But in the 1930s Stalin punished these nationalist elites severely and the Russifying hand returned.

In her book Empire of Nations, Francine Hirsch tells the compelling story of the role played by ethnographers, many of whom were former servants of the imperial regime, in helping craft Bolshevik nationalities policy. In her explication, drawing the map of the Soviet Union was a compromise between two sets of experts: those of Gosplan who prioritised intense economic development; and those of Narkomnats, the People’s Commissariat for the Affairs of the Nationalities, who believed that the best path to modernisation lay through promoting nationhood amongst feudal-era and former colonial people, especially in the south and east of the USSR. The ethnographers played a crucial role in deciding where new borders should be drawn. They helped the Bolsheviks strengthen ethnic consciousness through maps, censuses, museums and by creating nations that had never been defined as such before.

Instruments of pacification

Three autonomous regions in the South Caucasus created in the 1920s – Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia – were conflict zones prior to the Bolshevik re-conquest of the region; they became so again in the late 1980s and 1990s. In From Conflict to Autonomy, Arsene Saparov again finds no evidence to support the “divide and rule” thesis. His study of the archives shows that the Bolsheviks were certainly brutal but also adept at winning over the local elite and the masses. Saparov argues that they were primarily seeking ad hoc solutions in order to take full possession of the new territories. That meant imposing top-down and rapid conflict resolution between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis on the one hand and Georgians, Abkhaz, Ajarians and Ossetians on the other (another strong argument for allocating Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan was the fact that there was no passable road between Armenia and Karabakh). In other words, in the Caucasus the newly created autonomous regions were instruments of pacification that gradually became long-term arrangements.

These arrangements were modified and tinkered with for years. There are differing maps of Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia in the 1920s. Abkhazia had an ambiguous status in the 1920s but was finally made an “autonomous republic” located in Georgia in 1931. The Karakalpak Autonomous Republic was made part of Uzbekistan in 1936. Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. In the 1940s some borders were modified into nothingness. They simply vanished, as certain autonomous regions ceased to exist and their ethnic groups were singled out for brutal mass deportation by Stalin. Chechen-Ingushetia and Kalmykia disappeared from maps and the encyclopaedias as though they never existed. Even when Nikita Khrushchev pardoned most of these “punished peoples” in the 1950s and restored these regions to life, conflict persisted. The Ingush-majority Prigorodny region, transferred to be part of North Ossetia, was the locus of a violent conflict in 1992.

The consequences of Lenin’s and Stalin’s nationalities policies were present in 1991 and still remain today. The nations in the Bolsheviks’ “empire of nations” grew stronger after Stalin’s death, in the patronage-based Union republics of the Brezhnev era. Russia was a different case though. While the de facto special status of Russians was reasserted in the 1930s, and ethnic Russians were given a privileged role across the USSR, the same could not be said of the republic of Russia itself, which always had an anomalous status in the Soviet state. The RSFSR, for example, received fewer subsidies from the central budget and never had its own Communist Party, flag or Academy of Sciences. Stalin opposed the creation of a separate RSFSR, as Terry Martin has argued, precisely because he feared it might be the basis for Russian separatism – “in other words, one must admit that Stalin did foresee the danger of a Yeltsin”.

Finally this precarious ethno-territorial structure broke up on ethno-territorial lines. Across the USSR, and especially in the Caucasus, ethnic groups wanted to redraw the borders – or to upgrade them to international ones. Initially in 1989-91, something we have mostly forgotten, there were two levels of separatism in competition with one another. Georgia, Moldova and the Baltic states, along with Armenia, were Soviet separatists: they agitated to break away from the USSR. Many Abkhaz and South Ossetians did not want to be part of an independent Georgia, precisely because they wanted to stay inside the Soviet Union. In 1991-92 when the internationally recognised contours of the post-Soviet map were decided, the geography of conflict was also defined, from Transnistria to Chechnya. The 15 Union Republics, whose status had been defined by the December 1922 treaty creating the Soviet Union, became independent states and their borders became international borders.

Phenomenon of separatism

In addressing the issue of disputed borders, separatism and post-Soviet conflict, there are two extreme positions. One is to look at territorial integrity as a moral category and put separatism in the same basket of moral disapprobation as terrorism. It goes without saying that territorial integrity is an important normative principle in the world, but it is surely not a matter of good and evil, while the phenomenon of separatism from Eritrea to Kosovo to Scotland cannot simply be wished away. I would argue that, as Bill Clinton once allegedly said about abortion, separatism should be difficult but not impossible to achieve, that is, it should be “safe, legal and rare”.

The Russia factor, of course, complicates things. Separatism becomes more menacing when a threatening neighbour is involved and there is a whiff – or in some cases an open stench – of irredentism and annexation. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 redrew the map of Europe in a way that only previously existed in the minds of a few Crimean Russians. In the Caucasus, where there have always been fewer Russian boots on the ground, local factors were the primary causes. The conflicts were initially associated with separatist politics, with irredentist overtones appearing only later. Russia’s de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (with the consent of most locals) dates to 2008, more than a decade and a half after the conflicts were fought.

The other extreme is to romanticise the separatist rebels. In the late 1980s much of the Russian intelligentsia, led by Andrei Sakharov, were naïve in their open support of the struggle of the Armenians in Karabakh. What they saw was a minority battling a majority, a disputed border that was drawn by Stalin and more violence being initially committed by the Azerbaijani side. Yet when the tide of the conflict turned, the Armenians proved themselves just as capable of brutality, ethnic cleansing and a propensity to redraw borders. The notion of an independent Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh looks a bit less romantic when you consider how these ethnic groups proclaim statehood, namely on the basis of having been oppressed by a bullying majority, but only to then oppress minority groups who get in their way (e.g. the Azerbaijanis of Karabakh, and the Georgians of Gali region in Abkhazia). In short, there are no angels in these conflicts.

It turns out that the separatist dream of building the same kind of nation-state led by a majority ethnic group was the problem in the first place. Or, as one cynic wittily expressed it, “Why should I be a minority in your state if you can be a minority in mine?”

Contagion of borders

The ideal solution to these intractable territorial conflicts would surely be a post-modern one of shared sovereignty, as in the European Union, where hard borders are diminished and people can freely move and work from one region to another. Yet this is an impossible dream at the moment. The geography of the post-Soviet space is more 19th century than 21st century – national groups are still in the process of nation state formation and they are not in a hurry to dismantle their newly independent states. What is more, the European model, that once looked so attractive, is going through a difficult time at present, as border controls are now present in the heart of Europe.

It seems sadly inevitable that for years to come the former Soviet Union will be home to some of the world’s most impregnable borders. Many of them are hard to cross, even where there is no conflict – as any traveller crossing borders in Central Asia will discover. Where there are conflict zones, only the bravest and most determined will cross. For years, only international diplomats have crossed the barbed wire and minefields that divide Armenia and Azerbaijan. South Ossetia’s border with northern Georgia is firmly closed. In order to get from western Georgia to Abkhazia, you must pass checkpoints and cross a long pot-holed bridge across the River Inguri on foot before presenting your documents to Russian border-guards.

And it is sad to report that the contagion of new hard borders is spreading, not diminishing. Crimea is now cut off from the south of Ukraine. In order to get in and out of the Donbas conflict zone, ordinary civilians must stand in long queues for several hours. Along with the miserable border crossings, we also have a dreary proliferation of acronyms: the AOs and ASSRs that defined Soviet-era autonomies are gone but now we have Nagorno-Karabakh’s LOC (line of contact), Georgia’s ABLs (administrative boundary lines), and Ukraine’s ATO (anti-terrorist operation) Zone. Closed post-Soviet borders contaminate not just European peace, harmony and business, but language and the mind as well.

This article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.