In 1953, subscribers to the third edition of the Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopedia were told to cut out the pages in one of its volumes devoted to a biography of the by-then-disgraced Lavrenty Beria, Joseph Stalin’s last secret police chief, and replace them with an article about the Bering Straits, between the Russian Far East and Alaska. Many in the West found that request rather amusing. But in fact, it was symbolic of the ways in which the Soviet system sought to eliminate any reference to those who had become “un-persons” as a result of political change.
Now, in 2017, Moscow ideologists want to cut out and replace 12 pages in the just-completed five-volume Pomorskaya Entsiklopedia, which is devoted to the history and culture of the roughly 2,000 Pomors of the Russian North. Moscow sees this group as a sub-ethnos of the Great Russian nation. But they see themselves and are seen by Scandinavians and others as a nation in its own right. Moscow propagandists argue that these pages about the Pomors are ideologically harmful and threaten the Russian nation and the Russian state (Eadaily.com, June 2, 26).
Why is Moscow so afraid of the Pomors and their encyclopedia? And why is it again stepping up its campaign against them? Just as was the case with the Beria–Bering Sea article substitution 60 years ago, the explanation is about far more than the Pomors themselves. Indeed, the Pomor case provides key insights into the direction the Kremlin is pursuing on a wide variety of fronts.
Three main reasons can be noted. First, Russian officials blame the rise of the Pomor movement and this encyclopedia on Norway and that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member country’s promotion of cross-border cooperation in the 1990s. They argue that Oslo and, by implication, the North Atlantic Alliance back what Moscow says is a non-existent ethnic and regional identity to undermine Russia’s control of the region. At a time when the Kremlin is seeking to cut Russia off—both ideologically and practically—from the West in the name of “import substitution,” going after the Pomors because of their supposed link to the Norwegians is absolutely consistent.
Second, Russian officials view “the Pomor problem” as an attack on the Russian nation, an attack that they acknowledge has domestic as well as foreign roots. Moscow has long insisted that the ethnic-Russian nation is an integrated whole. The Russian government has not only cast doubt on but openly attacked anyone suggesting that within the Russian nation are important sub-ethnic or even alternative ethnic groups—be they the Cossacks, the Siberians or, as in this case, the Pomors. Any group that Moscow classifies as ethnically Russian but which itself insists is a separate nation—as the Pomors have long done and as the new encyclopedia does on the pages Moscow wants excised—thus becomes a target.
And third, and perhaps most important, Russian officials see such alternative “ethnic” identities as the basis for new regional challenges. Moscow does not know how to deal with regionalism and so tends to conflate it with nationalism, even though the two are quite different (Afterempire.info, December 28, 2016). As a result, those attacking the Pomors now recall that local officials sought to promote this “imaginary” identity in order to support their efforts to promote a larger new region or even “a Pomor republic.” In the 1990s, that is exactly what Arkhangelsk oblast officials appeared to be doing. But after the attacks on Pomor activists, like the scholar Ivan Moseyev in 2012, they seem to have backed down. The new attacks on the encyclopedia suggest, however, that at least some in the Russian capital fear there may now again be officials in the region who are thinking along the same lines (Afterempire.info, June 23).
The vehemence of the Russian attacks reflects the fact that the number of nations within what Moscow views as a homogenous “Russian nation”—but which are now declaring themselves separate—is increasing, regardless of what Moscow says. In the northwestern portion of the Russian Federation alone, they include not only the Pomors but also the Ingermanlanders, the Saami, and many others. These groups are not only publishing in local media and online but also organizing on behalf of their peoples. They are attracting support from abroad as well as providing a model for other submerged nations in the Russian Federation.
Not surprisingly, in the age of Vladimir Putin, those watching these developments are horrified, blame “outside agitators” in the first instance and want to nip all this in the bud. Dmitry Semushkin, who for a decade has been leading the attack against the Pomors, inadvertently provides the best explanation for why Moscow is so afraid and thus is behaving like Soviet officials did six decades ago.
He writes: “the collapse of civilizations, states and cultures are not a natural process: it is always the result of the actions of special individuals both locally and, most importantly, in the capital. It is possible to ‘construct’ both regions and new regional identities, [and] historians play a decisive role in such work.” Hence, it is critical, Semushkin says, to go after them before their “falsifications” can undermine the Russian nation and the Russian state (Eadaily.com, June 2).