Divided Russia: Nationalistic Maps

Oct 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in May 2012]


Nationalist movements in various countries often attempt to redraw maps of their country and surrounding areas. Most of those hyper-nationalistic fantasy maps from the region stretching from Pakistan to Hungary greatly enlarge the group’s home country at the expense of the neighbors. However, most fantasy maps from Russia are quite different in nature, as they subdivide the country rather than extend it. In this respect, nationalist fantasy-cartographers agree with Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy’s assessment that “bigger isn’t always better”:

“Throughout history, Russia’s size has been its most significant attribute. Its physical geography has defeated aggressors, endowed it with substantial natural resources, and made it a major factor in the geopolitical calculations of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. But in today’s world size is less an asset than a liability. It makes normal economic and political interactions extremely difficult.” (The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, p. 7)

While many political figures, including the notable dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, argue that Russia should be broken into several independent or at least largely autonomous bodies, the nationalists’ fantasy maps stand out in that they incorporate racial, religious, and cultural factors in additional to economic or political considerations taken into account by more serious pundits.


A good example is the map reproduced above, which has been posted on several websites. Some labels on this map are the traditional geographical/geopolitical regions such as “Siberia” (in pink) and the “Caucasus” (in light blue). The area of southern Siberia and the Far East, shown in light green, is labeled “China”. As discussed in my earlier post, these are the territories that Chinese government has been claiming as “unfairly annexed” by the much stronger Tsarist Russia from the then weaker Qing Dynasty of China. Altogether, Chinese nationalists claim some 1.5 million square kilometers in Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Central Asia as theirs. The area marked as “Idel-Ural” (shown in dark green), which means “Volga-Ural” in the Tatar language, was a short-lived Tatar republic with a capital in Kazan that united Tatars, Bashkirs and the Chuvash in the wake of the Russian Civil War. This republic is often viewed as an attempt to recreate the Khanate of Kazan, although its territory was much smaller than what is indicated on the map of divided Russia posted above.

The other two labels – “Hyperborea” (in grey) and “Shambhala” (in orange-brown) –refer to mythical lands whose precise geographical locations are unknown. Hyperborea is a term from the Greek mythology referring to the land (and its inhabitants) far to the north of Thrace. This land was conceived of as perfect, with the sun shining twenty-four hours a day, which suggests a possible location beyond the Arctic Circle. But various other sources place Hyperborea much closer to Greece, just beyond the Danube, beyond the Alps, or beyond the Black Sea. If the latter theory is to be believed, Hyperborea may be identified with Russia, as on the map on the left. Shambhala is another mythical land, mentioned in various ancient texts, including the Kalachakra Tantra and the ancient texts of the Zhang Zhung culture which predated Tibetan Buddhism in western Tibet. It is said to be hidden somewhere in Inner Asia. Over time, Shambhala gradually came to be seen as a Buddhist Pure Land, a fabulous kingdom whose reality is visionary or spiritual more than physical or geographic. This did not deter numerous Western seekers of Shambhala from attempting to find its actual geographic location. In a curious show of symmetry, quests for Shambhala included an expedition in the 1920s headed by Gleb Bokii, the chief Bolshevik cryptographer and the head of the Soviet secret police department in charge of the Gulag camps, and several German expeditions to Tibet throughout the 1930s, launched by Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess.

According to the explanation provided in 2006 by blogger Messir Yunus who posted this map on his LiveJournal page, both geopolitical and religious considerations underlie these divisions. The main distinction appears to be between Islamic and non-Islamic (or even anti-Islamic) states. For example, Idel-Ural is seen as an “Islamic Eurasian Union”. However, relatively few Muslims live in Tumen and Omsk oblasts, or in Khanty-Mansi and Yamal autonomous okrugs. Similarly, Hyperborea is defined in this nationalist framework as “Eurorussia”, a pro-western, anti-Islamic state with a harsh immigration policy, possibly even under a fascist government. The West is supposed to subsidize it as a buffer against Islamist states. Shambhala is imagined as an “Altaic Buddhist republic”. However, apart from Tuva (in south-central Siberia), Buddhism plays a fairly minor role in areas earmarked as Shambhala on this map. In addition to Tuva, it is most entrenched in the republics of Buryatia (near Mongolian border) and Kalmykia (to the north of the North Caucasus), which according to this map would be parts of “China” and “Caucasus”, respectively. Siberia is defined more by geopolitical than ethnic or religious considerations, as a “Yakutian-Russian state, an ally of Alaska and Hyperborea”. It is seen as a pro-American or pro-Japanese buffer state against China. What is particularly curious is the view of the area marked as the “Caucasus” as an Islamic Emirate. According to this blogger, “the Russian population in the republics of the North Caucasus has decreased by 30% in the period from 1989 to 2002”. Indeed, some internal republics of the North Caucasus, such as Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, or Dagestan, are predominantly Muslim. But the proposed Islamic Emirate includes areas like Krasnodar Krai, where according to the 2010 census data, traditionally Christian groups – Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, and Germans – constitute nearly 95% of the population!

Overall, while this map of divided Russia highlights some interesting geopolitical and cultural patterns, it hides many others and reflects nationalistic fantasies more than economic, political, social or demographic realities.


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