When empires collapse, disputes over new borders – both political and cultural – are inevitable. Such disputes are especially acrimonious, and often turn violent, when the territory in dispute involves what the eminent French historian Pierre Nora called lieux de memoire – “places of memory” that are revered by citizens of a nation.
The Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union, invested considerable effort in creating a special cultural map dotted with “places of memory” meant to instill love of the fatherland among disparate ethnic groups. Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, a number of such sacred places ended up on the “wrong side” of the border of the Russian Federation, the state that claimed the mantle as the Soviet Union’s successor. Crimea is one such place.
The lines penned by the patriotic-minded Russian poet Aleksandr Nikolayev in the early 1990s reflect very well the confusion caused by the Soviet empire’s demise and the resultant shredding of the imperial cultural map:
On the ruins of our superpower
There is a major paradox of history:
Sevastopol – the city of Russian glory
Is…outside Russian territory.
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Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.