Four months after Finland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council and President Vladimir Putin’s closest confidant on security issues, announced that the West and Ukraine have launched a broad campaign to destabilize Karelia by promoting secessionist attitudes. On July 31, he claimed, without evidence, that these efforts had included attempts to launch terrorist attacks in that Russian republic, all of which Russia’s security agencies had foiled, and argued that the West and Finland are even seeking to mobilize young people against Russia by organizing a “Karelian battalion” to fight for the republic’s independence. To prevent such efforts from succeeding, Patrushev called for enhanced security arrangements along the Russian border with Finland and inside the republic, especially at educational institutions and places where large numbers of people might congregate (Scrf.gov.ru; TASS; Rk.karelia.ru; Rossiyskaya gazeta, July 31).
On the one hand, Patrushev’s words are self-serving because they reflect his view, shared by Putin, that Russia is surrounded by enemies and that only the security agencies can hope to defend the country against the “Anglo-Saxons” (Ren.tv, August 8). Moreover, they justify the further expansion of the Russian Federal Security Service, which Patrushev headed for eight years before assuming his current role. After all, if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and the Security Council secretary has made similar speeches about the situation in other border regions of the Russian Federation. Most notably, Patrushev conceded earlier this year that Ukrainian activism is becoming a threat in the Russian Far East—a region that was populated by ethnic Ukrainians at the end of Tsarist times and that Ukrainians refer to as the “green wedge” (see EDM, January 18).
Yet, on the other, the Security Council secretary’s remarks reflect genuine and increasingly serious uneasiness in Moscow about Karelia, a region that seldom gets much attention abroad but that has become a hotbed of opposition to Putin’s war against Ukraine due to significant losses of Karelian men and the impact of Western sanctions on the Karelian economy. These sanctions have hurt the Karelian economy more than the Russian economy as a whole due to the importance of cross-border trade in the region (Versia.ru, June 16, 2022, November 11, 2022). Not only have the Karelians given the ruling United Russia party lower vote totals than the peoples in other non-Russian regions, but the republic also has the highest per capita rate of residents declared as foreign agents at nearly one in 100,000—more than in Moscow itself and far more than the Russian Federation as a whole. Karelians have demanded more assistance from the center and called for Karelian to be made the republic’s official language. At present, it is the only non-Russian republic inside the current borders of the Russian Federation where the titular language does not have that status. Moscow, which views such demands for regional rights as the first step toward secession, has responded with repression and further Russification of the republic (see EDM, April 18).
A major reason that Moscow officials make that mistake is that they continue to view the situation in Karelia through the lens of World War II. Not only do they almost always discuss it in terms of Finland’s alliance with Germany during the conflict and its efforts to retake land the Soviets had taken from them earlier—Patrushev made precisely those arguments in his Petrozavodsk remarks (Rossiyskaya gazeta, July 31)—but they also view the Karelians as if they were or very much want to be Finns. This view was behind the Soviet creation of the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic at the time of the Winter War, a creation that was only abandoned in 1956 as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s efforts to curry favor with Helsinki (Russian7.ru, May 7, 2022). Moscow’s working assumption is that Finland still wants to “recover” all of Karelia and that the Karelians want the same thing.
However, that view is wrong on both counts, regional expert Vadim Shtepa says. The editor of the Tallinn-based Region.Expert website, Shtepa points out that there is little or no public support in Karelia for the republic’s independence—though some Karelian activists abroad promote that idea—and that Finland has little or no interest in absorbing large swaths of Karelia. Instead, he says, the Karelians at home are pursuing a classic regionalist agenda of seeking more autonomy but not independence. Tragically, the regional expert continues, while Europeans understand the difference between regionalism and separatism, many Moscow officials do not and think any calls for greater regional autonomy are the first step toward separatism (Severreal.org, January 29). Moreover, Moscow’s misreading of the situation may have the unintended consequence of transforming regionalism into separatism—exactly the opposite of what Patrushev and company say they want.
In fact, the risk of that happening was on public display at the time of Patrushev’s visit to Petrozavodsk. Sitting next to the Security Council secretary at the meeting, Karelian head Artur Parfenchikov said that one way to combat the West in his republic is to promote the commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the baptism of the Karels as Orthodox Christians in 1227. Such an event, he argued, would demonstrate that “even historically, these lands have been ours from time immemorial” (Rossiyskaya gazeta, July 31). Putin began promoting this idea almost two years ago (Publication.pravo.gov.ru, September 20, 2021). Thus, it is no surprise that other Russian officials are following suit (Severreal.org, October 22, 2021). Yet, they may be creating a situation that will have consequences exactly the opposite of those they want.
Maxim Pulkin, a historian at the Karelian Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that, if something actually happened in 1227, it involved only a handful of people. “But for Russian official historiography, such details are not important.” For them, the baptism of Karelia meant the republic became part of the Russian world. Had this “baptism” not happened, the historian continues, the Karelians likely would have adopted Catholicism and then Lutheranism from the Finns. As a result, “Karelia would have become part of Sweden and then Finland” and assimilated with them (Karel.aif.ru, September 30, 2021). The effort to manufacture a holiday will undoubtedly lead more Karelians to recognize the true state of their subordination to Moscow and thus likely lead to the spread of precisely the separatism Patrushev says the Russian authorities must fight.