By Carl Naylor
“Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich – for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?” Thomas More’s words share a striking resemblance to Karl Marx’s concept of utopian socialism, which today is perhaps most evident in the legacy of the Soviet Union, specifically in the four de facto states of Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
“United by the common fortune on our land; maintaining human rights and freedoms; honoring the memory of our ancestors, who have passed us love and respect to our Motherland”, “Land and other natural resources shall be property of the people and shall be used and protected in the Republic of Abkhazia as a basis of life and activities of its citizens.”
These extracts from the Transnitrian and Abkhazian constitutions exemplify the utopian visions of the Soviet legacy. However, despite their shared utopian visions and aspirations of self-determination, each of these unrecognised states has a distinct history, with distinct possibilities and limitations in achieving their vision of their proclaimed land.
An introduction to the uniqueness of Soviet nationhood and nationality is necessary, as this is the font of the utopian visions as well as the root of the struggles. Particular to the Soviet Union was that both nationhood and nationality were institutionalised. Moscow constructed fifteen Republics and this constituted the Soviet Union. Each Republic was defined by certain ethnocultural characteristics, so, individual Republics had their own titular cultures. The Republic of Georgia expressed their Georgian titular culture and, in the same way, the other Republics lived their own identities.
However, the concepts of nationhood and nationality were not aligned. Nationality was institutionalised on a personal level. For instance, an Armenian living in Georgia might well obtain a Georgian passport, yet in that passport his nationality would be stated as Armenian. This double nationalism was a clever strategy employed by Moscow, as it avoided nationalistic movements within the Republics; in doing so, it also liberated the individual from alien cultures being forced upon him.
A second historical element that ought to be considered is the anatomy of the territorial departments within the Soviet Union: some of the fifteen Republics contained autonomous republics, as well as autonomous regions, the latter enjoying less autonomy. Again, the territorial division was a clever instrument used by Moscow in order to avoid nationalistic movements within the Republics.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former fifteen Republics which constituted the Union became independent states. With each newly formed state having its own utopian vision, the former autonomous republics and regions – now part of these new independent states – became marginalised, as protection from the erstwhile Soviet Union ceased to exist. Minorities were pressured to assimilate, as the newly formed independent states aimed for nationhood and nationality to become synonymous.
Consequently former autonomous republics and regions broke away from their parent states, with the utopian vision of amalgamating with Russia and thus regaining the freedoms of nationhood and nationality – as they had in Soviet times.
Today the fundamental question that ought to be asked is: what struggles do these de facto states face in achieving their utopian visions?
Central to this question is the debate on self-determination and territorial integrity. Should parent states, in this case Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia, compromise with their territorial integrity in order to fulfill Transnistria’s, Nagorno-Karabakh’s, South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s respective utopian visions of self-determination? Or are the utopias of parent and breakaway states in conflict? Is there a zero sum game of utopias within an absolute given territory? Probably, but there are no hard fast conclusions for such an abstract concept like utopia.
What can be said however, is first that these parent states are reluctant to recognise the de facto states. And second, that the chance of a significant number of the major international players recognising these de facto states is low – challenging the territorial integrity of a legitimate state risks opening a Pandora’s Box. Rocking the status quo can be a dangerous game!
These two realities mean that the ill equipped de facto states need to seek support elsewhere. In three of the four post-Soviet cases Russia has taken the role as the patron state, Nagorno-Karabakh being the exception where Armenia is the patron state.
Because these de facto states want to amalgamate with Russia, they can also be seen as pawns in a bigger international powerplay, and by recognising them the wider world would essentially be acknowledging the surrender of territory to Russia.
So, relying heavily on a strong international player like Russia might hinder one’s chances of becoming recognised by the greater international community. Yet, too little support from a weak patron state might well invite an offensive move from the parent state. This can be seen in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the patron state Armenia could not offer enough support against the parent state Azerbaijan, resulting in the 2020 conflict.
The reality for these de facto states is that they need a patron state when striving for their utopian visions; ironically, if their utopian vision is to create a similar anatomy as during Soviet times, then Russian patronage is not too bad. It is understandable that potentially vulnerable de facto states would wish to come under the secure wing of Russia. Yes, a pragmatic arrangement, but is this really the world they see in their utopian visions?
Where does the utopia which resounds so profoundly in the lands of the former Soviet Union come from? Thomas More, who wrote Utopia in 1516, was greatly admired by Marx and Lenin and his name is one of a select group which appears on the Obelisk of Revolutionary Thinkers as a person “who promoted the liberation of humankind from oppression, arbitrariness, and exploitation.”
Evidently More’s treatise remains highly respected in the former Soviet Union.
More is credited as the first person to write about utopia, a word he created from the Greek ou-topos meaning “no place”. Thus, by definition, utopia can never be achieved. Though, maybe with an English penchant for ambiguity and wordplay, More could have likened his utopia to the Greek eu-topos meaning a “good place”.
Be sensible when choosing your Utopia. Better to aim for a reachable eu-topian “good place”, than the unattainable illusion of ou-topian “no place”. Or to quote More, “… do the best you can to make the present production a success – don’t spoil the entire play just because you happen to think of another one that you’d enjoy rather more.”
For the breakaway de facto states, Russian patronage might just be a necessary compromise to make the present production a success and to achieve the realistic eu-topos rather than the illusional ou-topos.
By Carl Naylor
Illustration: Angelica Halvarsson