Murphy's Law: Russia Continues To Come Apart

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September 4, 2014: As Russia strives to reassemble its empire, first with bits of Georgia in 2008 and now with larger bits of Ukraine, several even larger bits of Russia want to secede, or at least become more independent. Several parts of Siberia have expressed an interest, often in the form of large street demonstrations, for this. Siberia (the Siberian Federal District) is a huge area (5.1 million square kilometers, about two thirds the size of the continental United States) with a population of only 20 million. But it has lots of natural resources and a coastline on the Arctic Ocean. The other area with separatist tendencies is Kaliningrad. This used to be part of the ancient German province of East Prussia, which disappeared after World War II. Most of it went to Poland, but Russia retained the city of Konigsberg and its environs (15,100 square kilometers, about the size of Northern Ireland.) They renamed the city Kaliningrad and made it a major naval base.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Russia kept Kaliningrad and during the 1990s its million Russian inhabitants lived in poverty. The Russian fleet was no longer around to provide much economic activity. Wisely, or desperately, Russia allowed German firms to set up businesses in Kaliningrad. The city still looks quite German in places, at least where pre-war buildings survive. The locals were glad to have the Germans, or at least their money and jobs. The place has since become a tourist destination for Germans nostalgic for the lost province of East Prussia and in the last decade has become quite the economic powerhouse. Russia always feared that Germany would try to get Kaliningrad back, but now have to face the fact that the Russian people of Kaliningrad would rather not be part of Russia.

Meanwhile many Russians do want to make Russia larger and most regret the loss of empire. A late 2013 opinion poll in Russia found that 57 percent of the population regretted the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Only 30 percent had no regrets. The attitudes varied by age. Those 25-39 had only 39 percent unhappy with the breakup while for those 55 and older it was 86 percent. Only 29 percent of all respondents thought the breakup was inevitable and 53 percent believed it could have been avoided.

One missing element to all this is the fact that when the Soviet Union broke up half the population went to the 14 new countries and most of those people were quite enthusiastic about ending the Soviet Union. Thus if you asked all citizens of the former Soviet Union what they thought of the breakup you would find about 70 percent with no regrets. That’s because the Soviet Union was basically the Russian Empire cobbled together by the old czarist monarchy over more than two centuries of conquest and expansion. Thus in the Soviet Union half the population felt like conquered people, not part of any union. The Soviet Union dissolved quickly in 1990-91 because half the population really wanted it to happen and had wanted it for a long time. The ethnic Russians were tired of supporting a lot of the less affluent conquered people and were fed up with the economic failures of communism. But now the Russians are nostalgic for their empire.

The former Soviet Union citizens who regret the breakup tend to be older people who were disillusioned at how corruption and bad leadership made post-Soviet life less wonderful than was expected. The younger people are more realistic, never having lived as adults in the Soviet Union and intimately familiar with the fact that freedom isn’t free and democracy is hard. For younger Russians there are more economic opportunities than under communism. While Russia lost half its population when the Soviet Union broke up, it hung on to most of the valuable natural resources (like oil and natural gas). While the post-Soviet government was reluctant to increase state supplied pensions (which were low during the Soviet period because there was little to spend it on and the state supplied housing and some health care), the pensions did eventually go up. But not as much as the economy grew and the working Russians were obviously doing better than the pensioners who had grown up under communism. In Soviet times that meant there was little economic opportunity and most everyone was equally poor. The old-timers never got used to the changes and most would prefer the communists to come back. That won’t happen and as the generations that grew up under communism die off so will any desire to return to the bad (but familiar) old days.

 

 


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