By Paul Goble
For the last five years, because of Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea, Russians and the world have been treated to numerous articles suggesting that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev betrayed Russia by redrawing the border between the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR in order to hand over Crimea to Kyiv.
As a result, the assumption made out of ignorance or convenience by many in the West that republic borders were somehow eternal was shaken but not entirely destroyed despite the fact that they had been changed numerous times during the Soviet period. (See this author’s “Can Republic Borders Be Changed?” RFE/RL Report on the USSR, September 28, 1990.)
Now, at least, some Russians and some citizens of the other post-Soviet states are beginning to focus on the fact that Moscow at various times and for various reasons redrew the borders and thus to raise at least implicitly the question of how just the current borders are or are not – and whether they should be changed.
The latest example of this is in Novyye izvestiya yesterday (newizv.ru/news/society/09-02-2018/ne-tolko-krym-kak-pri-hruschyove-menyali-granitsy-soyuznyh-respublik) based on a blog post by Aleksey Roshchin (sapojnik.livejournal.com/2557930.html) that in turn draws on a Kazakh article on borders in Khrushchev’s time (inkaraganda.kz/articles/108697).
Entitled “Not Only Crimea: How under Khrushchev the Borders of the Union Republics were Changed,” the Novyye izvestiya notes that sociologist Roshchin has found interesting material from Kazakhstan according to which the Soviet leader wanted to transfer Kazakhstan’s Magushlak peninsula into Azerbaijan.
Many mistakenly assume that Khrushchev’s moves on Crimea were “somehow extraordinary.” But that is a mistake: the Soviet leader wanted to take part of Kazakhstan and transfer it to Uzbekistan and transfer another part of Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan (or possibly Turkmenistan).
In the mid-1950s, Roshchin says Kazakh sources say, Khrushchev was prepared to make these shifts but was blocked only by the resistance of senior Kazakh officials in general and Zhumabek Tashenev, head of the presidium of the Kazakh SSR Supreme Soviet and then prime minister of that republic.
Tashenev succeeded in convincing a special party-government commission in Moscow that taking these steps would be a mistake; but Khrushchev ignored it and him and in 1956 transferred 418,000 hectares of land from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. But that was far from the end of Nikita Sergeyevich’s plans.
In 1960, he created the Tselina Kray out of Akmolinsk,, Kostanay, Kokshetau, Pavlodar and North Kazakhstan oblasts. According to Roshchin, “the only individual brave enough to speak openly against this was Tashenev who said if Moscow went ahead, Kazakhstan would defend its constitutional rights in international forums.
Not surprisingly, Khrushchev was furious, pointedly saying that “the Soviet Union is a single country and therefore what territories are to be given to whom is a decision of the USSR Supreme Soviet” and no one else. Tashenev still didn’t back down. But Khrushchev got his way – the new kray was disbanded only after he was ousted – and he had Tashenev fired.
With his chief Kazakh opponent out of the way, Khrushchev then decided in 1962 to transfer Kazakhstan’s Mangyshlak peninsula, a major oil-producing region, to Azerbaijan or others say Turkmenistan because both of these republics had long experience in the petroleum business.
That attempt at territorial change was blocked by Aleksey Kosygin, then first deputy chairman of the presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet.
In 1964, Khrushchev was removed for what his opponents and successors described as “hare-brained scheming.” At least part of that charge was based on his efforts to redraw borders, a matter of history that certainly has some potential contemporary applications.