The Depopulation of Russian Border Towns Accelerates in the Baltic Sea Region
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 47
A common detail ties together the histories of Russia’s three neighboring countries—Latvia, Estonia and Finland. At various times in 1920, all three countries signed peace treaties with Russia, which, at the time, was referred to as the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In truth, the Bolsheviks then could not fight on several fronts at once and therefore preferred to recognize the independence of these countries, though Moscow retained the hope of their accession in the future.
In 1939–1940, after the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, these states were given the opportunity to be restored to the territory of the Russian Empire, which included Finland and today’s Baltic states. But the Winter War against Finland did not lead to the overthrow of the Finnish government, and the Soviet Union annexed only about 10 percent of Finnish territory on the Karelian Isthmus and around Lake Ladoga (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 23, 2019). Soviet aggression against the Baltic states proved to be more successful, as all these countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union. At the same time, having turned Estonia and Latvia into “socialist republics,” the Kremlin nevertheless recognized their borders as established by the 1920 treaties.
But in 1945, when the Baltic states were re-annexed to the Soviet Union following World War II, the Kremlin reduced their territories in favor of the RSFSR. As such, several eastern cities were taken from Estonia (Jaanilinn/Ivangorod, Petseri/Pechory) and from Latvia (Abrene/Pytalovo), which were transferred to the Leningrad and Pskov oblasts of the RSFSR (Mfa.gov.lv, accessed March 20). Even Vyborg, annexed from Finland in 1940 and the second-most populous city in this country, was originally included in the Karelian-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic. But in 1944, it was transferred to Leningrad Oblast.
All these border transformations were accompanied by demographic replacements; the Soviet authorities resettled people from other Soviet republics to these regions. But this process was plagued by instability, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when freedom of movement was restored, these forced migrants began to look for more convenient places to live. And since economic centralization has been preserved, and even increased, in post-Soviet Russia, large metropolises have become the most attractive places to move.
Most of the resources and taxes from all of Russia’s regions are sent to Moscow. But in the northwest, another metropolis, St. Petersburg, has become a popular point of demographic attraction. The city became more attractive due to the fact that, since 2021, Gazprom has been registered in St. Petersburg and therefore pays its taxes to the city’s budget. According to economists, this amount could reach as much as 400 billion rubles (about $5.3 billion) a year (Vedomosti-spb.ru, September 14, 2022).
In contrast, the small towns of Russia exist in de facto poverty. No significant enterprises exist in these areas, and therefore, there are limited jobs for the local population. This also applies to the border areas. If since the 1990s, Ivangorod (Jaanilinn) on the border with Estonia or Pytalovo (Abrene) on the border with Latvia could exist due to border trade, then in the 2020s, such trade has almost completely stopped. The borders near these cities were closed, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, when the Baltic countries stopped issuing visas to Russian citizens. In Pytalovo, even the main building of the “Latvian era” railway station has been preserved, but today, no passenger traffic runs through it (Bigenc.ru, February 8). And in the border villages, Russian mobile communications do not function, but capabilities from the Estonian side do, which allows the locals to contact emergency services (Severreal.org, September 10, 2021).
In the early 1990s, Tallinn issued passports to the local residents of Pechory district in Pskov region, which, from 1920 to 1940, belonged to Estonia. But then, the process was stopped, with many of those who received passports moving to Estonia and those who remained in Russia receiving a deferment of their rights (e.g., they cannot run in local elections) (Severreal.org, January 5).
Today, residents of the border cities—Pechora and Pytalovo—are moving en masse to the region’s capital. But in Pskov, too, no modern economic development has taken place, and therefore, the outflow of the population is moving even further onward, either abroad, for those who have such an opportunity (Rus.postimees.ee, December 5, 2022), or to St. Petersburg (Gubernia.media, January 4).
Moreover, a similar situation has been observed in the more prosperous Leningrad Oblast surrounding St. Petersburg (oddly enough still retaining its Soviet name). The ancient city of Vyborg, annexed from Finland, both in the late Soviet and post-Soviet years, existed at the expense of the tourism industry—the descendants of Finnish natives from these places often came to visit. But now the border is practically closed, and, as a result, many locals are moving to St. Petersburg. The Finnish press has reported that the city’s authorities are now redirecting investments received for the restoration of the city under international programs to support the recently annexed regions of Ukraine (Ilta Sanomat, July 24, 2022). It should be noted that this article was published under the news section Kotimaa (Motherland).
As for Russia’s Republic of Karelia, its population has decreased from 800,000 to 533,000 in the 30 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Severreal.org, June 7, 2022). In addition to natural mortality, the cause of this demographic crisis has been the massive outflow of the population—to Russian cities or to Finland. Unlike in Finland, and similar to other border regions, little economic development has taken place in Karelia, and the republic’s resources are owned by “federal” corporations that pay taxes in Moscow. The greatest depopulation has occurred in the western districts of Karelia, which once belonged to Finland. It has simply become inconvenient to live there: despite the fact that the border is closed, the rigid Russian “border zone” regime has been preserved.
As Russia illegally annexes Ukrainian territories, some politicians and public figures in Finland, Estonia and Latvia are raising the issue of reclaiming their annexed territories. These respective governments refer to the treaties of 1920, which drew the original borders, and consider these arrangements to still be valid. However, for its part, Moscow denies the current legitimacy of these treaties.
On the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Riga, president of the Constitutional Court of Latvia, Ineta Ziemele, declared: “Let us look at world practice. Great Britain has just now apologized to the states of Africa for the colonization policy pursued by several centuries, for the exported resources. It is also important for us in Latvia to look at these events not only as historical facts that lie on a shelf somewhere but as facts that have legal consequences and on which we must have a completely clear position based on international law” (Latvijas Avīze, August 11, 2020).
While Ziemele’s words may come to pass as Russia continues its fight against Ukraine, in truth, the rapid depopulation of these annexed territories demonstrates that this problem may solve itself—and potentially sooner than many may think.