Island nations tend to be complacent about border problems, seeing them as things that happen to someone else. But then you have Brexit and Northern Ireland, and it suddenly becomes clear that no one is safe. Russia is fighting Ukraine about borders. This means that, as well as dodging bombs and getting used to living in the dark, residents of the border zone have to decide if they are ‘really’ Russian or ‘really’ Ukrainian. Some will no doubt be keeping the non-chosen identity in a trunk in the attic, to be retrieved in case of future need. But the logic of war is stern: those who choose to be Ukrainians are also opting to hate Russians as the enemy invader, while those in Ukraine who choose to be Russians are contemplating the possibility of having to move east. Wherever the border ultimately settles, there will be fortifications and troops stationed on either side and a series of tightly controlled crossing points. Villages and families will be divided and the normal commerce of economic and social life disrupted. Schools will teach in the language of the victor. Roads that used to lead somewhere will end abruptly.
The contested line running south on the edge of Lugansk/Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces might become a new border to worry about. In the 20th century, it was usually the western Ukrainian border that was the trouble spot, since the lands centred on Lviv/Lvov/Lwow/Lemberg belonged historically to the Austro-Hungarian empire, not the Russian one. In the interwar years they were part of Poland, and in 1939, as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact, they were incorporated – without significant fighting, but regardless of the will of their inhabitants – into the Soviet Union. This is the kind of move that Putin attempted in September with his annexation of the four eastern Ukrainian provinces.
Despite literally meaning ‘border region’, Ukraine was not part of the great Cold War super-border dividing Europe for half a century after the Second World War – the subject of Timothy Phillips’s The Curtain and the Wall. The postwar settlement had left the Soviet Union, including Soviet Ukraine, separated from the West by a buffer of East European states that extended as far as the GDR. In 2019, Phillips set out to travel the length of that Cold War border, the one Churchill in 1946 called the Iron Curtain (a term he turns out to have borrowed from Goebbels). Phillips’s journey took him from Scandinavia down through Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Trieste, Greece, North Macedonia and Turkey. He travelled by train, bus, ferry, hired car, plane and, for 1500 kilometres, on foot.
The aim of his political tourism was both to comprehend the meaning of the Cold War division of Europe through personal experience on the ground and to see what had happened there in the three decades since the Cold War ended. With tensions between Russia and the West already rising in what proved to be the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the old frontier zone seemed ‘a good place to take the temperature of Europe today’. During the Cold War both sides had military and intelligence installations close to the border, many of them dismantled in the 1990s and early 2000s. But by 2019, as Phillips reports, a process of quiet recommissioning was already evident.
Despite his many border crossings, Phillips travelled almost all the way along the western side of the border, and, as a self-described ‘passionate believer in the individual freedoms that the Eastern Bloc so systematically deprioritised’, his point of view is essentially a Western one. When he crosses over into what was Czechoslovakia and East Germany, for instance, he feels a degree of sympathy, but also apprehension and suspicion of Soviet heritage, even when nothing bad happens – understandably, given that his book on Russia and Chechnya, Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1 (2008), may have put him on Putin’s blacklist. Phillips claims to be above Cold War partisanship: ‘To me it didn’t seem particularly helpful to divide the world into goodies and baddies, however tempting or even pressing it can sometimes feel to do so. I could already see that in matters pertaining to the Iron Curtain there could be no definitive answer to the question of who was right and who was wrong.’ But while he tries conscientiously to listen to and understand the Eastern side of the story, he isn’t altogether comfortable with his ‘self-imposed neutrality’, fearing it may amount to ‘my own Finlandisation’, by which he means pulling his punches on the East out of cowardice.
What most surprises him on his trip is the ‘depth and breadth’ of the Ostalgie (nostalgia for communism) that he encounters among many of the border residents he talks to. Phillips’s own nostalgia is for the dramatic ‘moments of liberation’ like the fall of the Berlin Wall that he remembers from the television news of his childhood – ‘instances of seemingly pure release and idealism’. This is a very different view from that of the people he speaks to on the western side of the border, who often decline to demonise the East, or tell him, for example, that the Soviet Union was a ‘good neighbour to the people of this part of Norway’, and feel ‘lasting gratitude for the 1940s liberation’. But it’s the competing view, that such sentiments are essentially manifestations of Stockholm syndrome, which gets the most coverage.
Desperate attempts to cross over to the West are one of the features of border life that Phillips attends to. The East/West German frontier was particularly active: by 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, the GDR had allegedly lost 2.5 million people, or a seventh of its population, since its foundation in 1949. ‘The last two hundred or three hundred metres of the country was like an enormous modern moat,’ Phillips writes of the GDR’s western frontier.
Signs along its inner edge instructed people to go no further, and were followed by a first fence that, if crossed, led to a ploughed, raked strip which showed the footprints of anyone who stepped on it. Either side of that strip the trees were uprooted and replaced with low-growing plants that afforded fugitives no cover. Finally, several metres before the actual international frontier, the highest fence of all constituted the ultimate obstacle.
There were closed circuit cameras, and after 1966 much of the border was mined.
Borders were sometimes performative sites, as in the case of West Berlin, where neon lights tempted the children of the East with their message of capitalist abundance and consumer paradise. In the town of Priwall, West German authorities opened a nudist beach, with towels hung on the border fence. But in the East, too, places on the border could become sites of privilege, as in the case of ‘closed’ cities like Vyborg, acquired by the USSR from Finland at the end of the war, whose elite population of scientific and military personnel was well supplied with consumer goods – making it, in its last decades, ‘one of the best places to live in the Soviet Union’. Spying was a great cross-border occupation, with cities such as Berlin and Vienna notorious for the mingling of agents and double agents. There were periodic confrontations, as when in 1968 Soviet tanks took up position on the border with Norway, pointing their guns across the divide, evidently to convey Soviet anger at Norway’s activity in Nato. In Corfu, MI6 and the CIA used Castello Mimpeli, an abandoned mansion in the forest, as a training site for guerrillas to be landed on the nearby Albanian coast to foment revolution, but it turned into a Bay-of-Pigs-style disaster and was subsequently abandoned, leaving the castello to become a Club Med resort.
If Phillips had narrated his story of the border chronologically, his account would have highlighted the quite substantial efforts under Khrushchev to lessen tension and improve relations, efforts that his book describes only episodically. In 1955, the Soviets voluntarily withdrew from Porkkala, a small piece of Finnish territory at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland, occupied at the end of the war and retained to remove potential threats to Leningrad. In Kirkenes in north-eastern Norway, there was cross-border co-operation on construction of hydroelectric power plants, and after 1970 local Norwegian schoolchildren were given holidays in Soviet Pioneer camps on the Black Sea. With the end of the Cold War, checkpoints were abandoned and cross-border connections reforged, sometimes with unexpected results: Norwegians from Kirkenes have not only taken advantage of cheap petrol on the Soviet side but got their hair cut and visited opticians there.
But over the past decade, some of the old Cold War border spirit has been returning to Kirkenes, regarded by Nato military strategists as a prime target for Russian occupation in the event of war. Since 2015, the Russians have upgraded the old Soviet nuclear submarine base on their side of the border and begun intermittently jamming GPS receivers around Kirkenes Airport. In 2012, Denmark closed down its listening station on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, but the ‘decision was quickly regretted and has subsequently been reversed’. Sweden’s Gotland, a hub of Western military preparedness throughout the Cold War, found itself back in the game early in the 2010s, with an increase in Russian submarine, fighter jet and espionage activity, and a corresponding renewal of Swedish military presence on the island.
Refugees are a part of Phillips’s story of the afterlife of the Cold War border, with mass transit through the Baltic ports of displaced persons from the Middle East coming up through Turkey and Russia to Western Europe in the 2010s. Had the book been written a year or so later, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, it would have featured new waves of Russian border-crossing, by men of conscript age fleeing the draft and by members of the Russian elite unsympathetic to the war. Of course, Russia no longer has the East European buffer it acquired after the Second World War, and Ukraine is back in its historic border role but now aspiring to be on the Western side.
As he disarmingly admits, Phillips sometimes seems to be ‘spending too much time dwelling on how places and stories made me feel’ in his account of his travels. This is not a risk for Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey, academic anthropologists from Berkeley and Cambridge respectively, who, rejecting recent trends towards subjectivity in anthropology, stick to the disciplinary tradition of impersonality. Their subject, a welcome complement to Phillips’s, is Russia’s long border with China, which generally gets insufficient attention in the West. While most of the European Cold War border action that Phillips describes will strike vague chords in anyone who lived through the period, the material Billé and Humphrey present, though equally important for an understanding of the contemporary world, is alarmingly unfamiliar.
Russia’s border with China extends to 2600 miles. Long closed as a result of the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, it reopened only after 1991. Given Russia’s announcement of a ‘pivot to the East’ in 2012 and more recent protestations by Putin and Xi Jinping of limitless friendship, it might be assumed that the border was being transformed into a hotbed of trade and cultural association between two authoritarian, centralised, former communist states with a lot in common. The reality is more complicated. Billé and Humphrey propose that study of the Russo-Chinese border ‘reveals much about the two countries and their actual relationship that is not obvious from their metropolitan capitals’. This is a standard preamble to non-metropolitan scholarly studies, though for once it’s not only true but almost too modest. The book is deeply revealing about both the geopolitical relationship of Russia and China and their strikingly different modes of operation.
There is no sense that Billé and Humphrey are loading the dice in any political direction, but the picture that emerges is pretty devastating for Russia. While Chinese authorities turn out to be flexible, realistic and enterprising, the Russians come across as rigid, hampered by mistrust, inertia, inefficiency and poor c0-ordination between Moscow and the regions. China’s side of the border prospers and modernises; Russia’s side becomes ever more desolate and depopulated. With dirt roads impassable for much of the year, unreliable electricity and no running water, it is a life ‘not so different from how things were fifty years ago – except that now there are no jobs’ and schools and shops have closed.
Bridges, or rather their absence, are a central theme in On the Edge. The Russians are suspicious of them, seeing bad roads and few bridges in the border area as a security advantage, impeding any potential military advance. Russian instincts about borders are portrayed as anxiously exclusionary and territorial, whereas China’s ‘expansive, fluid’ approach, epitomised by its Belt and Road Initiative, prioritises influence over possession. Thanks to Russian foot-dragging, ‘high-speed Chinese motorways come to an abrupt stop when they reach the Siberian border.’ Along the entire length of the Russia-China border there are just three major crossing points for freight – which allow people to cross only on buses, not in private cars – plus two ferry crossings over the Amur river at Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk. It took more than thirty years to bring the Blago-Heihe bridge near Blagoveshchensk into existence, with Chinese and Russian sides of the bridge being built separately, despite the Russian part being financed by loans from the Chinese. Even then, the bridge is open only for freight.
In trade – and, as becomes ever clearer, geopolitics – the Russo-Chinese relationship is much more important to the Russians than to the Chinese. While China is Russia’s main trading partner, Russia ranks tenth for China, amounting to 3 per cent of the total. Russia has just a tenth of China’s population, a disparity that is likely to increase, given the downward trend in Russia for decades. Thirty-two million Chinese live in Heilongjiang province, abutting the Russian border. On the other side, the entire Russian Far Eastern region, encompassing 2.7 million square miles, has only eight million residents.
The disparities between the two sides of the border are vividly illustrated on the island of Bolshoi Ussuriiskii near Khabarovsk, which is divided between Russian and Chinese control. There was once a collective farm on the Soviet side, but now most of the houses are deserted. A bridge to the Russian mainland was built in 2013 but closed the next year for ‘security reasons’. Recent and rather improbable development proposals, from housing refugees from eastern Ukraine to making the place a cryptocurrency centre, have unsurprisingly come to nothing. On the Chinese side – which has a bridge to the Chinese mainland – there is now an ecological showpiece featuring a Hezhe village (the Hezhe are essentially the same people as the Russian Nanai) along with a lotus lake and a park for black bears, a threatened species. (This is at least less condescendingly imperial than the Russian-doll theme park constructed by China in the Manchurian border town of Manzhouli for the entertainment of Chinese tourists.) Downstream, opposite the drab Russian city of Blagoveshchensk, whose riverfront remains undeveloped, the Chinese have channelled Cold War Berlin by creating a skyscape of tall modern buildings behind an attractive promenade, filling the night sky with laser lights, and blaring pop music through loudspeakers.
Russia’s security fears arise partly out of a perennial paranoia about the ‘yellow hordes’ poised to swarm over the border from China. This fear was dramatised in a popular online pseudo-documentary, China: A Deadly Friend, which imagines mass immigration leading to Chinese dominance of Russia up to the Urals. The trigger was the announcement in 2015 of a plan by Russian regional authorities – often more interested than Moscow in agreements with the Chinese – to permit low-cost leases by Chinese companies of underused agricultural land. Much of it, as it happens, is around Birobidzhan, site of the failed Soviet experiment of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Far East, where Chinese-Russian joint ventures are now cultivating soya beans. But in general the Chinese seem to prefer Singapore and other Asian magnets or Australia as prospects for earnings, migration and investment. Potential Chinese worker-migrants see Russians as ‘backward’, neatly reversing the Russians’ centuries-old view of the Chinese; and since 1979 less than 3 per cent of them have chosen Russia as their destination. Chinese entrepreneurs, too, are chary of making big investments in the Russian Far East, given such discouraging experiences as the Blago-Heihe bridge and Russia’s ‘unclear legal security, crumbling infrastructure, poor transport, weak management, corruption, and a lack of mutual understanding and language skills’.
Still, an informal ‘a-legal’ shuttle trade goes on across the border, bringing with it some Russo-Chinese entrepreneurial contacts, as well as occasional friendships, sexual encounters and marriages. There is smuggling, poaching and even armed piracy off the coast near Vladivostok, where North Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Russian boats share the seas. Culturally, the influence of Russia’s gulag – manifest in clothes, slang, criminal organisation and gang warfare – is ubiquitous on the Russian side. Smartphones with interchangeable Chinese and Russian sim cards are necessities of life even in Russian homes without basic amenities like running water. So is flexibility of communication in general: Buryats use the Viber app for cultural contacts with Mongolia but shift to WeChat for their business dealings with Chinese.
The Buryats, a Mongol/Buddhist people with a long tradition of literacy, are one of the biggest non-Russian groups in Asian Russia. They arrived in the region from the east in the 17th and 18th centuries, about the same time as Russian Old Believers were coming in from the west. The Tungus-speaking shamanist peoples such as the Evenki, Nanai and Udege (generally with cognate groups on the other side of the border) are older inhabitants. But, as Billé and Humphrey point out, the population of Asian Russia defies any simple dichotomy of settlers v. Indigenous peoples, and ethnic self-identification is complex. Small Indigenous groups, no longer hunters and fishers, are generally multilingual and often entrepreneurial, as in the case of the Evenki’s prominence in the lucrative trade in jade. Buryats, also multilingual, switch between identifying themselves as Buryat or Russian according to context.
The situation is similar on the other side of the border, with territory shared between Han Chinese and Indigenous peoples. But this is one issue on which Russia comes out looking better than China. While China – like Russia and its Soviet predecessor – encourages maintenance of the ‘cultural heritage’ of small ethnic groups, and (unlike the Russians) even actively commodifies it to attract international ‘ethnographic’ tourism, as in the case of the Hezhe village, it is less inclined than the Russian authorities to recognise the land rights of Indigenous peoples and often compulsorily relocates them for cultural upgrading if their use of land seems unproductive.
Readers of these two books may end up feeling less worried about the Russo-Chinese border, where conflict seems unlikely and rapprochement underachieved, than about the western border, where there are signs of reviving Cold War tensions – though further east and closer to Russian state territory than was the case for the Soviets. But there may be another rabbit to come out of the hat as far as the Russo-Chinese relationship is concerned. Siberia’s ‘empty spaces’, with their gas and oil reserves and water resources, already appeal to the Chinese. Now climate change means a great potential expansion of the Siberian lands suitable for agriculture. It has been argued that Russia is therefore the country most likely to ‘win the climate crisis’. But perhaps, on past form, capitalising on that victory will require a little help from Chinese friends.
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