Russia feels encircled: from the Jacob's River to the fish bar

As a matter of fact, this story lends itself to a meme. I can be made out of a map in which we would mark in red those of Russia’s frontiers where she touches the NATO alliance. Their total length amounts to 1530 kilometres, that is to say – 6.5% of the Russian Federation’s borderline. A caption reading “Russia feels encircled by the NATO” should be added below.

But maybe it is but a joke from the field of topology? There is another one, well-known and droll, having been told by maths teachers since last summer, so let us recall it once again: a certain king offers his daughter to the one who manages to enclose his immeasurable states. To the daredevils who arrive at his court he gives a few yards of rope: pull through! The suitors tension the rope, some of them try to split into thinner strings to make it longer, but it has been in vain: their bones turn white on the pasturelands. At last, a topologist arrives. He stretches a string across several stakes, stands in the centre of the circle thus marked out, and declares: IT IS US WHO ARE STANDING OUTSIDE. And he lives happily ever after…

Taxying on a “putinodrome”

If such a trick can be played on the perfect surface, perhaps Russian mathematicians, trained in non-Euclidean geometries – and there were many starting off with the genius from Kazan, Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky (1792-1856), invented a space in which it is thinkable to encircle a geometric figure with the use of 6% of its circumference. This new figure may be called a “putinoktaedr”, the new curve – a “putinodroma”. But it is more likely that it is a problem not from the field of topology but psychopathology that we are dealing with.
For it cannot be denied that the total length of “NATO” borders with Russia is, however you measure it, more or less 1/15 of the whole. OK, in the case of sea borders it looks more serious because it is as many as 14 per cent – but only when you count coastal and territorial waters. If the open sea borders, be it only the oceanic ones – with the Pacific (17k km) and the Arctic Ocean (19,7k km) were to be taken into consideration – this “sea border” by few Norwegian rocks and the Vistula Spit, it shrinks to some 4‰.

Four per mille – not bad, even for a drinking Russian border guard but still too little to talk about “encirclement”. We feel somewhat instinctively, without being topologists, that we can talk about encompassing, be it a fortress or military unit, only when exercise control over much more than half of its circumference…

But this is Russia who always has been the “MOST” in many aspects, also when it comes to frontiers – so she also worries about them MOST.

Russia remains, of course, THE biggest country in the world (17 million sq. km, almost as much as the next two countries on the podium, i.e. Canada and the PRC combined). Although she still doesn’t have the longest land borders – here she was slightly surpassed by China (22.2k sq. km as opposed to Russian 20k). But it can always be argued that in this contest China was last but one and Moscow won the prestigious second place. Besides, there may be alterations to that, a successful tank raid will do, won’t it?

In turn, thanks to the creative approach towards political geography, i.e. to creating four unrecognized quasi-states: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, as well as the Donetsk & Luhansk People’s Republics – Russia has the greatest number of neighbours: twenty!
Infographic by Anna Tybel-Chmielewska
With the rogue states taken away, it looks a bit more modest. Going unclockwise, the border guards have to content themselves with looking for an invasion at the frontiers with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus (but here we have a genuine “friendly border” which melted border posts with heat), Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, North Korea, Japan and the US. What a lovely sixteen! Excluding French or British overseas territories, no country has land borders on two continents.

The future is Russia!

Excluding states that emerged after the collapse of USSR, no country waged war against so many of its neighbours. In this regard Norway has a carte blanche in her relations with Russia (it is to be remembered though that she didn’t gain independence until 1905), North Korea and, strangely enough, the US, being separated from Russia by the ice-cold waters of the Bering Strait.

Those two countries are also separated by the International Date Line: on Russsia’s island of Big Diomede (Moscow prefers the name Ratmanov Island) there is a day later than on Little Diomede Island which is remote by less than 4 kilometres. Thus, from the settlement of Diomede it is possible… to see the future. Which recalls the experiment undertaken by an American progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens who, in March 1919, went on a journey to Soviet Russia and, turning a blind eye to the victims of starvation and shooting just a little, came back with a communism enthusiasts’ bon-mot, repeatedly invoked ever since: “I have seen the future, and it works”.

These are not the only particularities of the Russian border. The latter comprises of, two demi-exclaves (i.e. parts of a country separated from its main territory by land, albeit having a sea connection), so much popular among fans of geographical paradoxes: the widely-known Kaliningrad Oblast and the local phenomenon which is the town of Dubki situated at the Lake Peipus, surrounded by Estonian boundlessness.

There is also an exclave to be known as Sankovo-Medvezhye. It’s a village near Gomel, nearly desolated after the Chernobyl disaster, which administratively speaking belongs to Russia, but on all sides it is surrounded by Belarusian swamps.

Not to forget the Svalbard Islands, previously known as Spitsbergen. And that’s where the problem begins as although it is the Norwegian governor who exercises authority here but under a treaty of 1920 Russia is entitled to extract coal and she does it to such extent that by mid-90s Russian citizens had outnumbered the representatives of all other countries combined. Many a time did she raise up the question of her “special rights” regarding the region, in April 2015 the isles having been visited by the deputy PM, Dmitry Rogozin which met with a rather frosty reaction on the part of Oslo.

Poland, willy-nilly, may become a party in this argument: although we don’t have in Svalbard such urban centres as Norway’s Longyearbyen (1800 inhabitants) or Russia’s Barentsburg (800 miners), but being the only state apart from Norway and Sweden to possess permanent settlement points there, that is to say a whole array of polar research stations financed by Polish universities. Who knows? Maybe one day TASS will report that half a dozen Polish geophysicists INVADED the container consulate of the Russian Federation in Barentsburg.

Ukrainian Green Wedge – a disputed land on the Pacific Ocean shore

In the 1920s after initially taking control in the country, Moscow then accused Ukrainians of attempting to wrench the Far East from the Soviet Union.

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No peeing!

For the level of anxiety in Russia is, as it was said, enormous: 1,530 kilometers from them (Jacob's River, that is, Jakobselva, in Russian Vorjema, in Sami, because mainly the Sami live there, Vuorján) to the sands of the Vistula Spit, and more specifically the edgy, oly fish bar known as “Smażalnia nad Zalewem” in Stara Pasłęka, the closest inhabited point at the end of the Russian-Polish border. How to handle it?

Admittedly, the neighbours do their best to take into account Russian fears and traumas. Especially the Norwegians. In July 1950, the parliament in Oslo adopted the so-called Riksgrenseloven, i.e. the law on state borders; no one had any doubts that it was supposed to regulate, first of all, the behavior on the USSR border. No wonder – the Cold War was at its peak, and Norway valued – as it does today – its neutrality.

Hence the detailed stipulations, still in force today, under which it is forbidden not only to photograph the lands of Russia in the border zone from a distance of less than a kilometer, but also to hold conversations (in practice, taking into account the noise of the Kubuś stream - shouting over each other) with people on the other side of the border if they do not have a permission approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and – attention! – "behave in any manner, towards a neighbouring state or its authorities, that may deem offensive".

The latter provision is interpreted particularly broadly. On its basis, not only is it forbidden (which is understandable) to dip your hands or sticks in the stream, and you need to obtain a special permit to fish for salmon. However, it is also prohibited to throw cones or pebbles towards Russia (four people were punished for this a few years ago), or extend your arm in such a way that it cuts the (imaginary) border line – in 2021, for doing so, a young woman was fined 8 thousand crowns, which is over $ 900.

The restrictiveness of the provisions is not weakening, which is perhaps not surprising given the exacerbating of the international situation. In August last year, which was first noted with satisfaction by the portal "The Barents Observer", on the shore of the Kubuś stream, there appeared an ordinance in English signed by the Norwegian Border Guard, which in firm, though colloquial words disallows newcomers from "peeing towards Russia".

An act of a hostile urination may result in a fine of "at least 3,000 NOK " (the Border Guard mercifully does not specify what kind of physiological activities could result in a higher fine). In a statement for the "Barents Observer", the governmental commissioner for border issues, Jens Høilund, coldly commented that "the sign was placed in a place where tourists often stop." It is often their first stop after a long drive and it cannot be ruled out that some of them may need to urinate urgently ”.

Journalists of the Arctic weekly have not been able to determine if, since last autumn, the regulations have been violated and if a fine has been issued. However, it is not difficult to imagine how easily, especially in the presence of a humming stream, a provocation with unimaginable consequences can occur.

The second mission ploughs the seas

There is no information on similar regulations on the 203-kilometer-long section of the land border between the Republic of Poland and the Russian Federation – which must be particularly worrisome considering the popularity of the frontier Braniewo Brewery production. The most serious provocation taking place in the border waters after 1989 was the famous Cruise Misia II across the Vistula Lagoon, described in diplomatic textbooks and Wikipedia, which took place on June 22-24, 1990.
The bank of the Kubuś stream dividing Norway from Russia. The Norwegian Border Guard prohibits “peeing towards” a neighbor. Photo by The Barents Observer
The cruise, organized in a triumphant atmosphere of regained independence, was intended as a kind of "check" for imprecise border regulations. The Vistula Lagoon fell to Poland and the USSR at the Potsdam Conference. The detailed course of the border was to be determined at a future peace conference, which ... did not take place, therefore Moscow marked the land and sea borders unilaterally, and People's Poland readily agreed to its line in an agreement of August 16, 1945. The attached secret protocol (until 1990) allowed Polish ships to navigate through the Strait of Pilawa, but – in view of the entire Oblast being militarized – the Polish side somehow did not ask for it.

Until the summer of 1990 when (after having consulted with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Krzysztof Skubiszewski what rescue actions could be taken and after the USSR consul in Gdańsk Vadim Mutski’s oral consent), Misia II sailed towards the Strait of Pilawa. It's fun reading an account of this, remembering various sublime descriptions of other famous voyages. "The three Columbus ships sailed full sail towards the Canary Islands and then, who knows, India ...?" It was so in 1492, and in 1990? "A yacht from the local sport club set off for Frombork, where it arrived at the scheduled check-in at a Borer Protection Troops outpost at 5:00 am".

Then things became more serious, Misia II entered the Soviet waters just before 8 am, with the "Solidarity" banner on the starboard side. The crew managed to sing the national anthem when KGB frontier vessels arrived – one source claimed: a cutter and a motorboat, another said: a patrol boat with cannons and a skimmer. They did not respond to Captain Henryk Malentowicz’ salute performed with a white-and-red flag – but they did not shoot either. Through an open steel border network, Misia II sailed to the open sea, towards Baltyysk, and then - to Gdańsk. MP Edmund Krasowski, one of the initiators of the expedition (and members of the crew), was able to breathe.

Well, yes, but it was 1990. Today I am even concerned about the menu of the Smażalnia nad Zalewem. Will not "potato pancakes 5 pcs - 6 zlotys" appearing in it be regarded as an attempt to appropriate the cultural heritage of the so-called Russkiy Mir (you know, kartoshka ...), and thus – as an act of micro aggression?

Border guards on canvas

This peculiar, almost mystical attitude towards the border and its inviolability, represented by Russia, can be explained in many ways. Firstly – by the fact that a significant part of its borders is terrestrial and devoid of any serious natural obstacles, which may (but doesn’t have to) raise the fear of the border line being "permeable".

This fear would not exist, however, if it were not for the fear of newcomers, so vivid in the Russian state tradition – a source of other customs, heresies and errors. At least since the times of the prince Andrei Kurbski, who escaped to the court of Sigismund Augustus, it is known that leaving Russia is not an easy task, and he who comes from outside raises suspicions. The marquis de Custine's notes are striking by the image of Russians being distracted and euphoric when the ship leaves St. Petersburg on its way west, while depressed and melancholy on their way back.

An intelligence officer spent 30 years in the forest fighting the enemies . For him, the war ended in 1974

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For centuries, foreign craftsmen, brought in by consecutive tsars, were placed in separate, closely guarded city districts - ironically called "Slobody", although the term "ghetto" would be more appropriate here. Well, and how it was with inostrrantsi and going abroad in the USSR – everyone knows, more or less.

This border also had to be protected in a special way. Under the tsar, it was done by the gendarmes, in the world proletariat’s homeland border protection was handed over to special forces. First, in November 1920, the Special Department of Cheka was established for this purpose, and then the troops changed their names along with the name of the ministry (GPU Army, OGPU Army, from 1934 - the Board of Border Protection of the NKVD, from 1937 - Border and Internal Army of the NKVD, from 1946 – the troops of the MVD, then the MGD and the KGB) and finally, after a few regrettable perestroika disturbances, the FSB Border Service has been operating since 2004.

The achievements of this over hundred-year-old formation are special: they pride themselves not only in defending the borders, but also in suppressing counter-revolutionary uprisings in Central Asia (the so-called Basmachi uprising), fighting the Japanese in 1938 and the White-Poles in 1939, "suppressing nationalist movements in Lithuania, Latvia, and in Estonia within 1940-1957 ”(they have been silent about the Augustów Roundup so far), clashes with the Chinese army upon the Amur in late 1960s and the pacification of the Afghan border 20 years later. How much merit!

You can read about them (and watch them all) at the Border Forces Museum, which is wide open to visitors in the heart of Moscow, on the banks of Yauza. What is not there! Busts and standards, photos of landing groups, requisitioned Basmachi daggers and single-shot rifles belonging to the Forest Brothers, as well as masterpieces of socialist realist painting. On the canvas entitled "Liquidation of the landing group of foreign intelligence" by Arkadiy Boshko, the spies in a pontoon (probably Latvians, since you can see that the shore is cold and sandy?) didn’t even have time to reach the forest, while well-aimed shots massacred them.

In the dramatic painting "Brawl by the shore of the Arax" by Alexei Semyonov, a fair-haired bogatyr beats two thugs of Middle Eastern looks at the same time (no wonder, since the Arax separates Armenia and Azerbaijan from Turkey and Iran), while the third is going to stab him treacherously from behind ... But don’t you worry, according to a plaque in the museum, the painting was made “on the basis of a soldier's account".

And so they guarded, guarded ... But actually whom – against what? On the famous map from several years ago, in the centre of the world there lies an "area of prosperity", stretching over two oceans and four continents. It has only 14% of the world's population and accounts for as much as 73% of global revenues. It is guarded by seas but also, where necessary – from Korea to Ceuta and Bulgaria – by walls.

Russia is beyond the borders of this island and will rather stay behind them for long, long years. It seems that only prosperity can encircle her. The photos showing parcels of soldiers from mobilized units of the FSB Border Service (who, from the Belarusian Mozyr, would send captured washing machines, armchairs, fishing equipment and electric scooters back home, i.e. to Rubtsovsk in the heart of Asia) published in recent days on the Telegram prove that these bandits confused border protection with invasion. This is a mistake that Russia in her entirety is making these days. But if so – probably the law on urination will not alleviate their habits.

– Wojciech Stanisławski
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Russian officer passing the state border sign on the shores of the Barents Sea in Arctic Russia, March 29, 2017. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images
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