On a dark, and probably wet, night back in autumn I was munching on a hamburger in a McDonald’s on Mannerheimintie with a British friend, when the subject of secession came up. It was one a.m., at the end of a short pub-crawl, and the body was craving the salt and fat that we found so abundantly between two buns of uninspiring white bread.
My friend and I, as we often do on such evenings out on the town, had been pontificating on the affairs of the world and, I’m afraid, sometimes straying a bit beyond our depth. In these rambling contemplations (or friendly debates) about The Way Things Are, my friend often has a habit of posing surprising questions I’d never thought of or making some sly point that challenges my cherished opinions, playing devil’s advocate, if you will.
|Ethnic map of European Russia, 1898.|
My British friend, let’s call him Charles, often likes to rib me about how the American Revolution was the worst mistake we “colonials” ever made. Put on the spot there in McDonald’s, I was probably trying to defend the Revolution of as an act of self-determination by people who yearned for independence, liberty, fast food, yadi, yadi, yada. (In truth, over the years I’ve come to see the American Revolution as not being all it’s been cracked up to be, but that’s another story.)
Charles countered my argument with something like “Then what about the Civil War? Why wasn’t it okay for the South to become independent?” Provocatively, he asked why wasn’t Abraham Lincoln wrong to prevent the southern states from seceding.
For most Americans, even Southerners like me, such an idea is anathema, almost blasphemy. At least, that’s what I’d like to think. I do realize there is currently a weird kind of pushback among some conservatives against the conventional wisdom that slavery was actually bad and that Lincoln was right to oppose it.
That is a troubling trend I want to write more about soon, but it is something else entirely – namely, recent events around Europe – that has now brought to mind Charles’ loaded question about “southern independence” from a few months back.
We have seen not only the “secession” of Crimea from Ukraine in the last week or so, but also news of a similar, but wholly symbolic, referendum over whether Venice should break away from Italy (you would half-way expect it floating away, out to sea) and the oddly more realistic suggestion that the Shetland Islands could separate from Scotland, if Scotland separates from the United Kingdom.
This is, of course, against the backdrop of Scotland’s upcoming vote in September and a long-simmering movement for Catalonian independence from Spain, plus various other pockets of self-determination aspirations around the continent. Little parts of Europe seem to be trying to fling themselves every which way.
I have often wondered if the urge for self-determination is sometimes overrated. I understand that for people who identify as this or that ethnic or linguistic group within the patchwork of Europe the impulse must be strong to go it alone as your own little nation. I’m just not convinced it always makes sense. You can imagine countries splitting along regional lines into ever smaller and smaller nations that can’t really sustain themselves.
There can be big advantages to being part of a big nation, even though you might feel slighted or neglected by your compatriots. I think most Americans prefer living in a big country made up of 50 states rather than in a single independent, but smaller, “nation state”. I’m sure life in an independent Rhode Island, for example, would feel just a bit constrained. As a Georgian, I always liked the idea that I could freely move all the way across the continent, if I wanted, to California or Oregon.
That said, I took the opposite course and chose to live in a relatively small nation that decided already nearly a hundred years ago not to be part of a continental juggernaut. Finland isn’t Rhode Island, of course, and Russia isn’t the United States, so I’m sure Suomi’s decision to secede made sense. Finland was big enough and self-sufficient enough to go it alone. And with a language identity quite separate from Russia’s, it never really felt part of that giant nation anyway. I doubt any Finn feels the secession of 1917 was a mistake.
And I’m pretty sure everyone hopes it not reversible, though Finns did gladly take a step away from full independence in 1994 when they voted to join the European Union. Apparently, a European union is more to the Finns’ liking than a Soviet one.
Following the actions by the Soviet Union’s successor in Crimea lately, there have been some nervous musings about what might be in store for other former Russian “provinces”. Someone joked that Alaska, might be in danger, since it was once a Russian colony, back when the Czar’s influence reached almost to San Francisco. (My only experience of traveling in Northern California included a drive down a beautiful stream called the Russian River, not far from a city called Sebastopol and the site of Fort Ross, the southernmost outpost of the Russian Empire in North America. Russia probably wishes it had never given up that fantastic piece of real estate.)
It’s probably true that many Russian-speakers in Crimea genuinely desired to return the peninsula to Mother Russia, so you could make the case it was voluntary, though the legality of the move and the legitimacy of an election under armed occupation, well, that’s another matter.
Still, the effectiveness and single-mindedness of Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, over the objections of Ukraine and practically the rest of the world, was surely not lost on other territories that also once belonged to the USSR.
After seceding from Imperial Russia, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all independent republics for 22 years until they were subsumed in 1940 back into a new Russian empire, rebranded the Soviet Union. Their second attempt at independence has now lasted slightly longer, some 24 years, so that’s some kind of progress.
There has been a lot of speculation that Putin’s raging success in Crimea has stoked ambitions of reconstituting the Russian Empire, starting with Ukraine itself and maybe even moving on to other errant subjects, like the Baltics. I hope that’s a farfetched idea and not something that the former KGB officer would undertake lightly, no matter how popular it might be with the Russian public. For one thing, all three are Baltic states now members of NATO.
Apparently, in all the excitement over Putin’s decisive land grab in Ukraine, even Finland has been mentioned (hopefully not seriously) as a lost territory ripe for re-plucking. Some Russian Internet commentator has suggested that in the future Finland could enjoy the same kind of status that Hong Kong has now within China.
That suggestion is as about as realistic as another I saw on the other side of the rhetorical Iron Curtain, namely that if Crimea could justifiably secede and return to Russia because it had “always” been Russian, then maybe it was time for Russia to hand Königsberg back to Germany. After all, that chunk of Baltic landscape was Prussian territory for 700 years, but has been Russian-owned Kaliningrad for only 60 something.
I suspect Vladimir Putin would resist redrawing that border. I hope that likewise, after Crimea, he has no plans to redraw any others. Right now, I’m not entirely optimistic about that.