9 January 2023
By Aleksandr Podrabinek
On December 29th, when all good people were preparing to greet the New Year, the Russian government approved a bill equating maps ‘challenging the territorial integrity of Russia’ to extremist materials.
The proposed punishment: for citizens, up to 15 days in jail; for legal entities, a fine of up to one million rubles. The government believes that if the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions are represented on maps as Russian territory, then so they will be in reality. You can make some sense of it when occupied territory is designated as part of Russia, but while Zaporizhzhia and Kherson remain under Ukrainian jurisdiction, the need to mark them as Russian smacks less of superstition and more of neurosis or even mental ineptitude. At the same time, the government quite seriously asserts that the amendments proposed are in the name of ‘defense of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.’ This is a neurotic disorder at the government level.
Who among us has not suffered from something like this, at least in a mild form? Spit over your shoulder if a black cat crosses the road; look in the mirror if you have to return home for something forgotten; trouble brewing if you break a cup or plate; god forbid sitting in the 13th row or living on the 13th floor. All these sweet superstitions enliven our orderly lives. Few take such omens seriously, which cannot be said of the Russian authorities. They firmly believe that by forcing everyone to perform certain rituals, they will protect themselves from potential troubles.
Incidentally, the belief that drawing a map can change reality is of a cross-border nature. The TV channel ‘Dozhd’ has already had the opportunity to prove this, showing a map with ‘Russian’ Crimea on air. Similar scandals happen around the world from time to time. In Germany souvenirs are sold depicting Ukraine without Crimea, at the Olympics Crimea is cut off from Ukraine, and suddenly in Ukraine itself school books are found with territory carved out.
Japan has a happier cartographic fate: the four Japanese South Kuril islands occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945 are most often treated as territory of Japan. On the other hand, a large part of Tibet, occupied by China in 1950, is universally depicted as territory of the PRC. International society does not want to upset relations with an advantageous economic partner because of some 70-year-old annexation. In India, a bill was prepared several years ago which would have laid a fine of 15 million dollars on foreign publishers producing maps with ‘incorrect’ designation of the states of Jammu and Kashmir, disputed with Pakistan. Indian citizens would receive sentences of up to seven years in prison for the same. Fortunately this law does not seem to have entered into effect.
There is no disputing that defending all justice, including ‘geographical,’ is necessary. However, to use administrative or criminally repressive measures to do so – this is still the privilege of authoritarian regimes.
Russian authorities react even more sharply toward monuments than toward ‘incorrect’ maps. If only this referred solely to monuments within our own country – not long ago we watched as mobs of indignant citizens tore down monuments to political figures with pagan delight in England and the USA. But the Kremlin is outraged by the destruction of monuments in other countries, as though stone and bronze statues stuck all over Eastern Europe really maintain the authority and military might of the Russian armed forces. And what grief sounded in the hearts of Russian state patriots at the destruction of monuments to Pushkin and Catherine the Great in Ukraine! As though without these statues Catherine would cease to be the founder of Odessa, and Pushkin a genius of Russian poetry.
People may have different attitudes toward historical figures, but in any situation, the installation or demolition of monuments remains an internal matter, to be decided by residents, who will be gladdened or angered upon seeing them. Attitudes toward maps can also vary. Some countries, for example, publish their own maps of the world, in which their state takes center stage and all others hang around the edges. A bit funny, but nobody raises a universal howl or threatens retaliatory measures because of this, as Aleksandr Bastrykin, chair of the Russian Investigative Committee, did last year in response to the destruction of a monument to the Red Army in Estonia.
The Kremlin has a hard time with such events. Historical resentments, merging with superstitious beliefs about the power of symbols, form an explosive mixture of violent threats and hasty choice of retaliatory measures – from counter-renaming to occupation plans. Don’t be surprised if it soon comes to the renaming of Taras Shevchenko Embankment, Hotel Ukraine, and Kyiv Railway Station in Moscow. The Kremlin should finally understand that without these formidable measures it will simply be impossible to defeat Ukraine.
Translated by Alyssa Rider