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A municipal workers paints over “Yes to Peace!” graffiti. St. Petersburg, March 18, 2022.

How Russians became the ‘barbarians’ Moscow’s neighbors erecting border walls are inadvertently helping Putin corral his people into the army and a wartime economy

Source: Meduza
A municipal workers paints over “Yes to Peace!” graffiti. St. Petersburg, March 18, 2022.
A municipal workers paints over “Yes to Peace!” graffiti. St. Petersburg, March 18, 2022.
AP / Scanpix / LETA

Having recently passed a new military conscription law that many criticized as the advent of a “digital gulag” for draft-eligible men, Russia found itself in a surprising new situation. While the Kremlin is at pains to strengthen the system of electronic controls that would let it conscript citizens into the army without having to worry about them leaving, Russia’s neighboring countries are building walls to keep out the Russians who might pour across the borders in flight from the regime. Meduza’s Ideas editor Maxim Trudolyubov suggests that these security efforts might lead to results those countries would rather avoid, helping the Kremlin coerce a captive population into a militarized economy and directly into Russia’s Armed Forces. In this way, countries now bent on keeping at bay the “barbarian hordes” of Russian migrants may be inadvertently collaborating in realizing their nightmare.

Russia’s approach to stopping its citizens from leaving the country might seem progressive: it doesn’t involve any metal-and-concrete fortifications or tangles of barbed wire. Instead, there’s only a unified system of digital documentation and biometric data. It makes draft letters easy to deliver — and no one can pretend that they’re not home to sign for their notice. The system will penalize those who don’t report to the draft office, with restrictions tantamount to depriving them of income.

Meanwhile, Russia’s neighbors are introducing new visa restrictions for Russian citizens and erecting actual walls along their shared borders. Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Estonia, and now Finland are all doing it, but so is the rest of Europe and lots of countries elsewhere in the world. Wall-building is a global process. To the extent that material walls merely reflect states’ accelerating self-isolation and their increasingly self-protective relations with other countries, this process is bound to continue; hence, some of its discontents.

Walls that keep people in

The Berlin Wall is a classic example of a barrier built to keep people from leaving a place. In this sense, its function was no different from the function of a fence around any prison grounds.

The residents of the Soviet-controlled East Germany were legally able to visit West Germany or even move there right until August 1961, when the Berlin Wall was erected, and long after the East German authorities realized they were losing a lot of people. Worse, they were losing the very people they needed the most: the highly qualified specialists and the promising younger people. The Potsdam Agreement declared Berlin to be a practically open East–West crossing point. East German Communists appealed to Moscow to help them stem the westward flow of human capital, but Khrushchev (the Soviet secretary general in 1953–1964) resisted this, since he didn’t want to escalate tensions vis-à-vis the West any more than to admit that East Germans were “voting with their feet” for capitalism over socialism.

In the end, though, Khrushchev himself unleashed the Berlin Crisis that led to the closure of the East–West border.

In the post-war years prior to the erection of the Berlin Wall (1945–1961), more than three million people legally moved westward from East Germany. In 1960 alone, their number was more than 300,000. (In 1950, East Germany’s total population was only 18 million people.) Although it took 10 years to complete the wall, the decision to build it instantly changed Berliners’ lives. Functionally, it proved to be a great success: East Germany was able to stop the westward drain of its workforce, and its economy stabilized. The total number of East Germans who left the country between 1945 and 1988 was around four million; most of those who left did so before the wall was built.

The advent of the Berlin wall in photos

August 13, 1961 The Berlin Wall began as a stretch of barbed wire and became a twentieth century symbol of a divided world. Here’s the story of its beginnings, in photos.

The advent of the Berlin wall in photos

August 13, 1961 The Berlin Wall began as a stretch of barbed wire and became a twentieth century symbol of a divided world. Here’s the story of its beginnings, in photos.

Russia’s situation is in some ways reminiscent of what happened in 1961 in East Germany. Many Russians realize that the state is intent on closing itself to the outside world and on tying the citizenry to military service and the workplace, under the supervision of the secret services.

There’s also a principal difference between these two historic situations: Russia has no “West Russia” as a counterpart country that would welcome its refugees. It has some avenues for internal exile; it also has a cluster of neighboring countries where Russian is a widely spoken language. Additionally, there’s an array of countries with long-established cultural and economic ties to Russia. But internal exile is bound to become an ever more elusive option under the state’s growing digital control. Meanwhile, the current regime’s aggressive policies abroad have depleted the reserves of hospitality that Russians used to be able to count on and enjoy.

The brief war with Georgia that cost it part of its territory; the now nine-year war with Ukraine that escalated into a full-scale invasion last year; the imperious rhetoric about states like Kazakhstan — these factors have all contributed to the change in attitudes towards Russians abroad. This change is finally materializing in the construction of walls, built by countries who are trying not to keep their own people in, like East Germany, but to keep the Russians out. This, of course, has its own historic precedents.

Walls that keep people out

Immediately after joining NATO in April 2023, Finland declared its intention to build a three-meter-high (almost 10-foot-tall) wall along its border with Russia, particularly its most vulnerable segments. Last summer, Lithuania built a four-meter-high (more than 13-foot-tall) wall along the border it shares with Belarus, after reports that Belarus was bringing potential refugees from the Middle East into the country and encouraging them to cross into Lithuania and Poland. Officials in Warsaw called this a “joint provocation” by Moscow and Minsk and then built their own wall at the border with Belarus. Late in 2022, Poland started building another wall on its border with the Kaliningrad region.

Latvia, Estonia, and Norway have also undertaken construction work, knowing full well that these walls couldn’t possibly stand in the way of an invasion. Building border walls doesn’t prevent military incursions, but it does help stem the human tide of migrants. By building border walls, Europe is anticipating Russian society’s answer to the new conscription law (as well as to any possible future political or economic crisis), and it’s bracing itself against that response.

In November 2022, the Ukrainian authorities announced that Ukraine, too, was building border walls along the Belarusian border. But this wasn’t a completely new initiative for Ukraine. Since 2014, Kyiv planned to build a fortified wall along the border with Russia. The initiative was linked to Ukraine’s then Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. In March 2016, however, Ukraine’s National Anticorruption Bureau opened a criminal case alleging the embezzlement of the equivalent of $623,000 from the construction budget. In 2017, police arrested eight suspects and investigators uncovered a scheme involving proxy companies skimming taxpayer money from the border wall budget. In the wake of the scandal, the government postponed the construction deadline to 2025. Had the wall been completed on time as envisioned some eight or nine years ago, it might have changed the course of events in 2022.

Civilization and barbarism

Walls going up around Russia fit into a larger pattern of global wall-building over the past two decades. Countries walling themselves in from neighbors include Hungary (to keep out migrants from Serbia and Croatia), Greece (to keep out people from Turkey), Turkey (to keep out Syria and Iran), Israel (the wall along the West Bank of Jordan), India (walls to keep out Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar), Kenya (against Somalia), Morocco (against Western Sahara), Saudi Arabia (against Yemen and Iraq), the U.S. (against Mexico), and many others. All in all, around 70 different states have raised physical barriers on their perimeters. Most of these were built after the Cold War ended, as noted by British journalist Tim Marshall in his book, Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls.

Projects like these are invariably presented to society as solutions to security problems and invariably become the focus of contentious policy debates. In practically every country that undertook building a border wall, this caused political and corruption scandals. But it would be impossible to argue for or against wall-building without looking backwards in history to when walls first emerged as an attempt to draw a line between civilization and barbarity.

Writing about the Great Wall of China in his book China: A New History, American historian John K. Fairbank described it as a cordon that divided the sown field from the open steppe, nomadism from agriculture, and barbarity from civilization. Historians are not in agreement, though, about how well the Great Wall served ancient China’s security needs. Tim Marshall points out that, while it did sometimes have to function as a fortification, it couldn’t have been considered impregnable. The wall did, nevertheless, become a powerful symbol in the Chinese national imagination. It became an emblem of the security of Chinese civilization against the depredations of outsiders.

This continues to be true of contemporary walls that may sometimes function as bona fide fortifications but also have the added symbolic presence as the lines dividing what’s contained within (“civilization”) from what must be kept outside (including the civilized insiders’ greatest nightmare, “the barbarian hordes”). The irony here is that Russia, a country so immensely proud of its cultural achievements, has finally “achieved” the status of а “barbarian” in the eyes of its neighbors, who are now hastily walling themselves in to keep its “hordes” out. Ukraine, Central Europe, and Central Asia all have cause to feel the way the dwellers of fortified but still vulnerable ancient cities felt millennia ago, when they gazed onto the surrounding landscape, wondering if some menace might be coming their way.

American archaeologist David Frye wrote in his book Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick that ancient cities built walls against the barbarians because they were not willing to arm every dweller at the price of sacrificing the cultivated life that went on in those cities; what they valued more than security were flourishing trade, civility, temple rituals, poetry, and the arts. They made do with relatively small armies, committed to their way of life even in the face of being conquered, because this vulnerability was better than sacrificing the good life for the sake of combat-readiness, and when forced to choose between the two, they chose the good life. Whether this conviction was their virtue or their folly, Frye concludes, depends on your point of view.

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Inadvertent collaborators

Russian society has found itself in a remarkable situation. Those of its members who want to preserve their ties with the rest of the world, to move about freely, or simply to move to another country must now scale not one but two barriers.

The first barrier is the one by which the neighboring countries are now trying to keep the Russians out. The walls they build are a material manifestation of their distrust of ordinary Russians. Not only do they see Russia as an aggressive state, but they also see it, increasingly, as an aggressive society. When answering questions about why Russians run from their country instead of protesting the regime at home, wise Russian political experts have failed to impress. Yes, the authorities have destroyed all independent structures inside Russia; yes, society has no chance to influence state policy; and yes, the cost of any protest is unfathomably high. The answers are there, but the questions keep coming from Russia’s neighbors.

Opinion polls, even the most independent sociological studies, paint a picture of Russian society as largely complacent about the war in Ukraine. It’s true, Russian pacifists don’t like talking to pollsters; people may be evasive in their answers to sociologists; and their answers may be ambivalent and ambiguous. These are all plausible answers, but the war speaks louder than even the polls, and the finer points of doing sociology under authoritarianism don’t interest everybody.

The Russian state, meanwhile, is reciprocally interested in keeping citizens within its borders. For many years, the regime made no effort to retain the people who wanted to leave. That the less contented Russians left the country instead of rocking the boat was only to the system’s advantage: this reduced the opposition’s pressure on the majority and thus the overall political tension. The madness of the current war, coupled with the Russian army’s uselessness, has finally forced the Kremlin to reconsider this approach. Mass emigration has become undesirable: the regime needs workers and conscripts, and it’s intent on preventing Russians from fleeing.

On the other side of the border, countries striving to keep the Russians out, for fear they would otherwise be letting in the aggressive “barbarians,” are inadvertently cooperating with Putin’s anti-emigration policies. By doing this, they’re helping Putin’s regime arm a captive population, lending a hand in the creation of the “horde” of their nightmares.

More by Maxim Trudolyubov on Putin’s Russia

The revolution and its bastards Why invading Ukraine and scapegoating ‘foreign agents’ and the LGBTQ community are two sides of the same coin: the Kremlin’s flight from accountability

More by Maxim Trudolyubov on Putin’s Russia

The revolution and its bastards Why invading Ukraine and scapegoating ‘foreign agents’ and the LGBTQ community are two sides of the same coin: the Kremlin’s flight from accountability

Essay by Maxim Trudolyubov

Adapted for Meduza in English by Anna Razumnaya

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