The confrontation in eastern Ukraine (or Novorossia, as southern and eastern Ukraine were called during the days of the Russian Empire) between pro-Russia activists and the central government in Kiev has escalated dramatically over the weekend. The hottest point is the Donbass region. The government buildings in its capital Donetsk have been occupied by activists for more than a week. During the last two days an additional half a dozen of towns were sites of pro-referendum demonstrations and their government buildings were taken over by armed groups.
According to Reuters, today Ukrainian security services launched an operation to clear the police headquarters from separatists in one of these secondary towns in Donbass, Slavyansk. Reports from Slavyansk have been inconsistent and contradictory, but apparently this attempt was unsuccessful. Both government and anti-government sources, however, agree that a number of people were wounded and at least one was killed.
What will happen next? Will Kiev go all out attempting to suppress by force what is now a full-blown insurrection? Will Russia send troops across the border? I suspect nobody knows, even the Russian president Putin.
Cliodynamics cannot tell us what will happen tomorrow or next week, and I leave it to the pundits to make such predictions (experience shows that they are as good as tossing a coin, anyway). Instead, in this blog I will focus on structural conditions underlying this conflict. This is where our science can be of help.
My argument is that eastern Ukraine (specifically, Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kharkov regions) is a completely different story from Crimea. More specifically, whereas Crimea is of high ‘sacral’ significance, as I argued in a series of blogs and the Aeon article, eastern Ukraine has very little sacred value, if any, from the Russia’s point of view.
How can we evaluate sacral significance of any place? This question was raised by several comments to my previous blogs. The best way would be to quantify the frequency of linking such adjectives as sacred, holy, hallow, etc., with particular place-names. We can also investigate whether there are such symbolic buildings as mausoleums, or pilgrimage sites. We can do it both for modern and for historical polities. (For example, it would be very interesting to know whether the Visigothic state designated any locations as sacred – specifically, was Toulouse of any sacred significance? If yes, why did they give it up so easily?).
I haven’t done such a study for Russia (remember, this is a blog, not a scientific article!). However, in the Russia’s case we have a very convenient proxy. As anybody who grew up in the USSR knows, about a dozen of Soviet cities were more special than others, because they have been designated as ‘Hero Cities.’
This honor was bestowed on cities that were locations of heroic deeds during World War II, but interestingly enough the overwhelming majority of them were already symbolically significant places even before the war. For example, the first batch of Hero Cities, named in 1945, were Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), Stalingrad (today Volgograd), Sevastopol, and Odessa (the others were designated so about 20 years later).
All these places are of great symbolic and cultural significance to the Russians, and not just because they were defended heroically during the WWII. St. Petersburg was, of course, the Imperial capital for two centuries.
Stalingrad was founded in 1555 as Tsaritsyn Fortress and played a key role in extending Russia’s geopolitical power in the southeastern direction. It’s associated with a series of Cossack rebellions. But most importantly, its current name, Volgograd, evokes the most significant river in Russia – Volga. Volga, together with its tributaries Oka and Moskva, is without doubt Russia’s Sacred River.
Sevastopol doesn’t need any further comment. Odessa is also of great cultural significance – it’s renowned in Russia for the wit of its inhabitants (the best jokes – anecdotes – were from Odessa), for its popular songs (sort of like Naples in Italy), and it was prominently featured in many Russian books and movies.
I don’t want to belabor my non-Russian readers with too much more Russian cultural and historical trivia, but perhaps I should mention one Hero City that most of you probably haven’t heard about – Tula. Again, Tula has a very strong presence in Russian history and culture. It was established as a linchpin of the chain of fortresses, the Great Abatis Belt, which protected Russia from the Crimean Tatars.
After the frontier moved away, Tula became the most important center for armaments production. It is also famous for its samovars and gingerbread. All Russians know the saying, “You don’t take a samovar to Tula,” just as English are advised not to bring coal to Newcastle.
So I would argue that the map of Russian Hero Cities actually is a good depiction of its “Sacred Landscape,” at least in the western direction (a separate study would need to be done to map the Sacred Landscape into Siberia and Far East.
And this brings us back to eastern Ukraine. Note that neither Donetsk, nor Kharkov or Lugansk are on the map. In fact, I doubt that the majority of Russians would be able to find Lugansk on the map before the recent events. The point is that eastern Ukraine has no particular sacred significance for the Russians.
So the issue of whether to take it or not becomes one of fairly rational geopolitical consideration. And the potential costs of such a move hugely outweigh potential gains. It is doubtful that a majority of inhabitants in eastern Ukraine would support such a move. It would be hugely expensive for Russia. It would lead to lasting enmity from Ukrainians remaining in the rump Ukraine. It is likely to trigger much more serious sanctions from the West, and the other BRICS powers are likely to be against it.