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The East: Post-Soviet States Struggle Against Concepts Of Sealed Borders

  • Charles Fenyvesi



Washington, 6 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The post-Soviet states still face enormous difficulties in overcoming Soviet-era understandings of what a border should look like and how border controls should operate.

That is the conclusion of the first major study of Soviet and post-Soviet borders to be published in the West. Entitled "Institutions of Isolation" and written by Canadian scholar Andrea Chandler, the book surveys both how the Soviet government defined its borders and how the post-Soviet states have struggled to escape from Soviet-era conceptions.

Chandler implies that the massive, conspicuous barriers that the Soviet government favored helped to perpetuate the broadly held Western belief that the USSR was a strong state. But even more important than that, the Soviet-style border controls served to isolate the country's population from the West, preventing the population from establishing contact with outsiders either directly or via trade and travel.

Immediately after the 1917 revolution, Communist Party leaders were concerned that rural populations in the borderlands were hostile to Soviet power and that these populations often had close ties with co-ethnic or co-religious groups just over the frontier.

And even when the population near the border did not have such links, Chandler points out, the Moscow leadership considered them as inevitably untrustworthy. Only one week after seizing power, the Petrograd Soviet decided to close state borders -- a decision which violated Marxist ideology but served Soviet power.

As Chandler says, Karl Marx had stressed that the common interests of the working classes transcended borders and that the institution of borders were part of the repressive tactics of the ruling classes.

But by December 1917, the Bolshevik state set up strict entry and exit controls. And it required all Soviet citizens wishing to cross a border to apply for expensive passports, something no other country in Europe did at that time.

Shortly thereafter, the Soviet government tightened its borders still further, giving the Cheka as the secret police was then known complete charge of borders. And the secret police, Chandler demonstrates, quickly developed "one of the most restrictive systems of border control in the world."

She calls this development "not just a triumph of military policy; it was a triumph of bureaucracy over the chaos of the Russian Revolution and Civil War." From 1918 on, the borders became the physical symbol of an ideology that claimed that the Soviet state was under permanent siege and thus required special defenses to protect it from reactionaries and revanchists abroad.

And despite changes in virtually all other parts of the Communist ideology, this one remained operational for all of Soviet history.

According to Chandler, the Soviet Union's "extreme reliance" on coercive control of the borders continues to haunt the 15 successor states. And she fears that many leaders in these countries continue to view borders and border controls as an appropriate symbol of sovereignty.

If these countries are to escape from the Soviet past, Chandler writes, they must make a decisive break with this "most oppressive" symbol of the Soviet Union. Sealed borders, she says, are "no longer an option," even if some in these countries continue to view them that way.

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