News Archives

Dr. Elizabeth Blake Launches International Week

March 7, 2017

During assembly on Monday, March 6, Dr. Elizabeth Blake, parent and assistant professor and coordinator of the Russian program at SLU, spoke to students about "Shifting Borders and Intercultural Conflict on the Peripheries of Russia and the European Union." Blake's daughter, Isa '21, made the introductions (see end). While Dr. Blake shared a slide show, including a series of maps depicting Russia's shifting borders and spheres of influence, she made the following commentary (emphasis added):

I have come today to discuss the region of Eastern and Central Europe one hundred years after the Russian Revolutions of 1917 — that is the February democratic revolution, which took place on March 8, or International Women's Day and the October Communist revolution, which took place on November 7. This region was not only a center of armed conflict during the two world wars of the twentieth century but also saw dislocation in the 1990s with the breakup of Yugoslavia and now in the 2000s with the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the ongoing occupation of parts of Eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists. 

The world would do well to recall that the first world war was ignited by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Archduke Franz Ferdinand) by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and for Russia ended in the Communist Revolution, as a result of which the Soviet Union was formed, but without territories in Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia that belonged to the Russian Empire before the war.

The second world war began as a result of aggression in Eastern Europe when France and Britain declared war on Germany in response to Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939, a bold move supported by the Soviet Union with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact outlining the division of Eastern Europe and providing the Soviet Union with Latvia, Estonia, and parts of Poland and Finland. The Soviet Union managed to extend the land masses of Belarus and Ukraine, seized the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and extended gains into Finland. 

After the war, the Soviet Union gained Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in addition to territorial gains at the expense of Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia lost territories that had once been part of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century empire as they were the territories of the other 14 Republics that constituted the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and they include present-day countries at which Russia has targeted military aggression, that is Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia's Western border with European nations has changed substantially over the course of the modern era, dating from the end of the reign of Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. From Peter to Catherine the Great territories from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland after the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia's southern expansion into Crimea and Georgia were added. Additional territories in Poland and in the south bordering the Black and Caspian seas were gained in the nineteenth century.

Thus, this region of the world with its varying economic and political stability is shaped by the legacy of empires (Prussian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian), world wars, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, from which the nation's collective ego has never fully recovered.

Current Geopolitical Realities
Russia feels threatened by the expansion of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), which was formed as a democratic political and military alliance in 1949. In response to NATO's inclusion of West Germany among its members in 1955, during the Cold War the Soviet Union signed the Warsaw Pact with its satellite states (Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and East Germany). All of these states are now members of NATO.

Russian reporting on the NATO summit this past July, which took place in Warsaw Poland, showed that Russian news sources regarded the summit as a provocation, and in the fall Russia responded with violations of air space in Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and Latvia as well as placement of missiles with the potential for carrying nuclear warheads near Russia's borders with Lithuania and Poland.

Let me outline just a few reasons why the Russian government wants to keep Ukraine out of the Western sphere of influence. 

  • (1) Russia's early history is also Ukraine's history, since the historical chronicles locate the founding of Rus' to the geographic region of Kiev (the first Russian capital), where in 988 Prince Vladimir accepted Byzantine Christianity, thereby connecting Russia to the East rather than the Roman Catholic West. As one cultural historian (Vera Tolz) writes, "it was taken for granted that Ukrainian history and culture constituted an integral part of the broader Russian tradition."
  • (2) Since the sixteenth century, when Ukrainians sought Russia's help against an aggressor to the West (that is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), Ukraine has been either under the protection of or a part of Russia. Ukrainians were officially called "little Russians" and remained marginalized by the privileged Russians for centuries, even as many Russians never recognized Ukrainians as an ethnically distinct group.  In 1991, in a referendum in Ukraine, 90% of those who came to the polls voted for the republic's independence from the Soviet Union, and it was the second most populous and economically powerful among the 15 republics that formed the Soviet Union. 
  • (3) In losing influence over Ukraine, Russia also loses access to historic sites connected to its national history like the Kievan Caves monastery. This was a complaint I heard several times last summer, because Ukraine has restricted the ability for Russian men between the ages of 16 and 60 to visit the country.
  • (4) Losing free trade with Ukraine would damage Russia's economy, because Ukraine was not only the breadbasket of the Soviet Union but is also famous for minerals, coal, and iron ore.

Crimea became a part of Russia as a result of eighteenth-century wars with the Turkish empire; in this century Russia built the city of Sevastopol for its Black Sea Fleet. The Crimean War in the nineteenth century, about which Lev Tolstoy's famous Sevastopol Sketches are written as well as Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" (Battle of Balaclava) fixed in Russia's cultural memory its status as a defender of the Orthodox Christians against not only Turkish defenders of Islam but also their Catholic allies in Europe, especially France. The trench warfare of the Crimean war resulted in high casualties, which Tennyson links to the miscommunication of incompetent officers [since in the second stanza of the poem he writes: "Not tho' the soldier knew/ Someone had blunder'd:"], even as Tolstoy associates the casualties with the bravery of soldiers fighting for their homeland. I visited this area in 1992 and recall the famous panorama of the defense of Sevastopol (1854-55) by Franz Roubaud in a museum that keeps the historical memory of these events alive in the twenty-first century.

It is also worth noting that Crimea is not only a location chosen by the Imperial family and the Soviet hierarchy for vacation homes and resorts but is also the home of the famous turn-of-the-century dramatist Anton Chekhov and the location of the Yalta Conference at the Livadia Palace — a summer retreat for Tsar Nicholas II — at which President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and Soviet premier Stalin met to determine the Eastern and Western spheres of influence in post-war Europe as the European front of the war was winding down in February 1945. A monument to 2,000 residents of Yalta shot in a single day of the war attests to the destruction of the area by the Axis powers during the war. A castle, Swallow's Nest, close to Yalta, is a symbol of Crimea's Southern coast.

In nearby Bakhchisarai is the historic seat of the Crimean khanate, the Khan's Palace at Bakhchisarai, where tourists visit a fountain dedicated to a poem written by the father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin. Also not far from this palace is the ancient rock fortress of Эски-Кермен (founded in the sixth century by the Byzantines). In Bakhchisarai is also located a major Orthodox monastery, the Monastery of the Dormition, a caves monastery, which was founded where an apparition of the icon of the Mother of God appeared. There are only two such prominent monasteries in Russia (Alexander Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg and Trinity Monastery outside of Moscow) as well as one in Kiev, Ukraine, the Kievan Caves Monastery.

Sevastopol's contemporary significance is evident from its role as a staging ground for amphibious landings in the conflict with Georgia in 2008 and from its status as a warm water seaport for the shipping trade for which it needs access to the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus Straits, under the control of Turkey. Putin's recent overtures to Turkey, a NATO nation recognized as a candidate for EU membership in 1999 (but suspended in 2016), suggest that Putin's aggression in Syria, its planned expansion of a naval base in Tartus, Syria, and recent negotiated agreements with Turkey have the larger geopolitical goal of limiting the expansion of the European Union, which is currently considering an Association Agreement with Georgia.

Now, I would like to turn to some individual perspectives, based on my experience interacting with university colleagues, with my host family, and with a member of the mission to Ukraine sponsored by OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). These perspectives were shared with me in Krakow and St. Petersburg, while I was in Poland for five weeks in the spring of 2015 and in Russia during the summer of 2016.

Poland
In Poland, I worked for five weeks conducting research in two archives and the manuscript division of Jagiellonian University, as a guest researcher, at a time when the neighboring country of Ukraine had significant dislocation. Russia had seized Crimea, and regions in the Eastern part of the country had decided to become independent from Ukraine. Colleagues who went to Kiev and Lviv for conferences and to collaborate with peers in Ukraine found that these cities were now stable and had not appreciably changed. 

However, in Poland there were evident signs of increased security, such as the armed soldiers who met the airplane or the long lines at the Warsaw airport for non-citizens wanting to enter the EU, otherwise known as the Schengen area. The city center of Krakow, like the courtyard of the Louvre in Paris, was strictly guarded by black-clad police forces patrolling on foot with air rifles. The city's residents complained about Ukrainian migrants coming to the city, but I did not discern a notable Ukrainian presence in the city, in which a number of German and British tourists were on holiday in March and April. The city draws tourists from all over the globe because of its Renaissance Cloth Hall in market square, the former royal residence of Wawel Castle, a historic Jewish district of the city whose wall of tombstones were broken by the Nazi occupiers, and its proximity to famous salt mines and the concentration-extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was liberated by the advancing Soviet Army in 1945. I am including here a picture I took of the exhibit on children in the camps, who are your approximate age. Most of them did not survive the war.

All the same, colleagues made references to the unrest in Ukraine and expressed real fears that Poland was next on the list of countries to be invaded, so they spoke of intentional contact with the U.S. and emphasized the historically close relations between the U.S. and Poland. Furthermore, the sense was that the planned missile defense system operating as a shield would provide some security for Poland, in case Russia stepped up its aggression against Europe. As a response to what it views as NATO expansion, this past November Russia decided to deploy nuclear capable missiles (Iskander) in Kaliningrad, which borders Poland and Lithuania, where NATO has increased its troop deployment.

It is also worth mentioning that while dining in Krakow at the Hard Rock Café next to Mariacki Cathedral I randomly met a member of the OCSE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, stationed in Kiev, who discussed the instability on the ground as a constant battle between opposing forces. He said that in his significant experience as a member of similar monitoring missions, he had never encountered so much misinformation and deceptive practices, so much so that it was very difficult to discern the histories of even localized conflicts within the contested zones in the East.

Russia
Last summer in St. Petersburg I was on a Fulbright-Hays sponsored trip to the Herzen State Pedagogical University in Russia's former capital of St. Petersburg. I noticed a visible security presence in the metro, railway stations, and on the street, which peaked after the Bastille Day attack in Nice in July. In St. Petersburg I have always seen random checks of passports and visas on the street, but this time I had to carry four pieces of identification on me, including a passport, visa, migration card, and registration. The university campus, which used to be open, was now closed and required a special permit for entrance into the University, which was monitored by personnel at multiple entrances. One must pass through metal detectors at the ballet, as well. 

In short, Russia feels less secure than it did a decade ago and is monitoring non-citizens and public spaces more vigilantly than it used to. When I was on a cruise through Karelia, some members of the ship's crew spoke openly of the animosity between the United States and Russia, which had played out over the summer in the dispute over the Russian team's participation in the Rio Olympic games owing to doping scandals surrounding the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The NATO summit in Warsaw was certainly interpreted by my host family as a sign of the organization's expansion into Russia's sphere of influence. My host mother's nephew-in-law was conducting business in Crimea, and my host mother had hired Ukrainian migrant workers to build a bathhouse for her dacha. She told me that their main complaint was that they had to return every three months to obtain a new migration card so that they are not in Russia longer than the 90-day limit for all migrants. The number of displaced Ukrainians who fled the conflict areas into Russian territory is at 750,000-2,000,000, depending upon the source of the statistics.

However, the way in which most middle-class Russians are impacted by the conflict in Ukraine is through the Western sanctions, for which I found that the majority of those I encountered held the United States, not the European Union, primarily responsible. Journals and newspapers used not only the word санкция but also the word кризис, which heretofore I had heard employed primarily to describe the 1998 economic collapse, in whose aftermath current Russian President Vladimir Putin rose to power as Prime Minister in 1999. As I was in St. Petersburg in the Spring of 1999 as well, I am able to conclude that families are living far more comfortably, and there is little common fear of economic collapse, but there is a greater sense that access to wealth and consumer goods remains in the hands of Western markers. Some food products were available, and German electronics at seemingly inflated prices were being sold, but Apple products, for example, were in short supply because of the sanctions, as I was told by store clerks. Therefore, I would say that the resentment against the European Union and the United States for enjoying a higher standard of living to which middle-class Russians do not have access has replaced the anger that middle-class Russians used to aim at their own oligarchs, corrupt politicians, and New Russians, the name given to Russian citizens who quickly became wealthy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those Russian citizens who have visas or a passport allowing them free access to the Schengen area, which included my host mother's son-in-law, live at a higher standard of living, so one can imagine the resentment that would be aimed at an entire formerly Russian-speaking nation like Ukraine, should it become part of the European Union and benefit from a higher living standard than their fellow Slavic brethren enjoy across the border.

At the same time, the sanctions have boosted a trend in Russian political thought, which has an established history over several centuries, that affirms Russia must follow its own path independent of the West, which was the view of my Russian colleague in political science, who had come to St. Petersburg from Vladivostok five years previously. He said that losing old acquaintances we are searching for new ones; he understood that Russia had vast natural resources that needed to be preserved (we are sitting on oil), and he was very critical of the Yeltsin presidency, which presided over an era of wild capitalism. Russia's habit of turning to Asia when disillusioned with Europe is evident with an increased presence of students and tourists from China in St. Petersburg and Moscow when compared with demographic trends from past decades.

Finally, my colleague in political science understood that the economy of Finland, an EU nation but NOT a NATO nation, depends on Russia, as is very evident in St. Petersburg, whose residents head to Finland for mini-breaks or join Finnish cruise ships docked in the harbor of a main island in St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. My colleague recalled that Lenin gave Finland its freedom, downplayed the Winter War against Finland during WWII (which was essentially the Soviet invasion of Finland), and emphasized their nations' current partnership. However, when I later visited the lands in Karelia under dispute by Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II — especially the city of Petrozavodsk — it became clear to me that the Soviet past remained vibrant in this Northern city, partly because of its victory over the Finnish troops that occupied the city during the war, during which tens of thousands of Russian civilians were interned in camps in Karelia. As you can see from the photos, Lenin still stands on the main square, the founders of communism Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are still having a chat in the center of the city, and monuments to the heroes of the children of the October Revolution and to the Soviet secret police (NKVD) remain well maintained.

In short, what I hope to convey by this presentation today is that Russia's Western border in the past twenty years, the past hundred years, and the past two centuries has undergone many changes, so the nations of the European Union who were once part of the Russian or Soviet empires have valid security concerns.


Dr. Blake received her Ph.D. in Slavic Literatures and Linguistics and specializes in Russian and Polish nineteenth-century literature, especially in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. She has received several State Department and Department of Education grants for her research, including Title VI Foreign Language and Area Studies grants, Title VIII area studies and research awards, and Fulbright-Hays grants. Her ten articles and two books focus on themes of spirituality, gender, and the trauma of exile in European prose of the 1860s and 1870s, including Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina. Her study of the languages and cultures of Eastern and Western Europe have taken her on a dozen trips for study and travel in Great Britain, France, Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Today she will be speaking about her recent experiences as a guest researcher at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and as a Fulbright-Hays recipient in Saint Petersburg.