Europe’s Far East – The Ural Mountains: Vast, Vital & All But Forgotten

Where does Europe begin and where does it end? This is an open ended question with no easy answer. The answer can vary, depending upon politics, culture, linguistics, economics or any number of other parameters. When it comes to geography, the popular conception for the northern end of Europe is likely to be somewhere above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia or Russia. For the south, the answer might be Greece. For the west, most people would probably say Ireland or even Iceland. As for the east, there is a simple yet rarely known natural line of demarcation, the Ural Mountains.

The Ural Mountains of Russia stretch 2500km north to south - from the Arctic to the border with Kazakhstan

The Ural Mountains of Russia stretch 2500km north to south – from the Arctic to the border with Kazakhstan

No Line On The Horizon – Sizing Up European Russia
It is not surprising that Russia contains two of Europe’s frontiers. Russia is massive, even if one does not include the 75% of the nation that lies east of the Urals and is part of Asia. European Russia dwarfs all other European countries in size, for that matter it dwarfs all of Europe. It is over six times the size of the second largest country in Europe, its neighbor Ukraine. Another way of looking at it is that almost two-thirds (64%) of Europe is in Russia. Yet when the world looks at Russia, it probably only thinks of two places: Moscow and St. Petersburg. These are not only the largest cities in the country, but also the political, financial and cultural nerve centers of Russia. They have no equal, in either the western imagination or for that matter, the Russian one.

Conversely, there is a whole lot more to European Russia than these two cities, everything from the Volga River Region to the Caucuses, with Europe’s most towering peaks. Yet the Ural Mountains are all but unknown. Perhaps it is because they are not all that noticeable on a map. This is because they are part of, as well as surrounded by, the world’s largest land mass, Eurasia. Nonetheless, this far eastern boundary of Europe has exerted a dramatic influence over Europe, Russia and world history during the last one hundred years. Even if few know of the Urals and even fewer visit them, this makes them no less important.

The Ural Mountains form the natural border of Far Eastern Europe

The Ural Mountains form the natural border of Far Eastern Europe

The End of Old Europe – The Building Of A New One
The largest city in the Urals is Yekaterinburg. This was where the last Tsar, Nicholas II along with his family, was murdered in 1918. Far away from the splendor and traditions of imperial Russia, here in the Urals largest city, the Romanov dynasty came to an end. The bodies ended up being thrown down a shaft at the Four Brothers Mine, 25 miles outside the city amid the forests of the Urals. To this day, there continue to be questions over the exact events. In this region, not so easily accessed then or now, the air of intrigue is still pervasive. The frosty silence that permeates these low mountains, does not give up its secrets so easily. What is known though, a symbolic piece of the old European aristocratic order, Tsardom, was eradicated forever in the heart of the Urals.

From the beginning of the 20th century right up to its midpoint, the Urals were often a transit point on a path that led to exile, imprisonment or even worse further to the east. Less known, is that these mountains sheltered the strength of the Soviet Union during World War II. Over a thousand factories in western Russia were disassembled and railroaded into the Urals where they were put back together with astonishing speed. They produced thousands upon thousands of rockets, tanks and planes that were used to roll back the tide of German militarism. For those who believe that if the Germans had taken Moscow, they would have been victorious during World War II, the Urals provide a strong antidote to such historical counterfactuals. The industrial might of the Soviet Union was replicated here, fifteen hundred kilometers east of Moscow in cities such as Magnitogorsk and Chelyabinsk. To gain total ascendency over the Soviet Union and complete conquest of Europe would have meant rolling all the way into the Urals. This distance would have been extremely difficult to cross with an army, even in the maddest of imaginations. In the shadow of these low lying mountains the counter strength of the Soviet Army was being marshalled. Once unleashed, this force came roaring straight out of the European Far East and swept all before it. Eastern and Central Europe would never be the same.

After the war ended, the Soviets decided to continue industrializing the Urals, this time it was to become the heart of a nuclear military industrial complex. Five of the ten Soviet secret nuclear cities, were located in the Urals region, hubs of industrial and scientific strength. The Urals were just the place for “secret” cities, since the mountain range was scarcely known and extremely vast, over 2,500 kilometers of lakes, woods and rocks, stretching from the Arctic all the way to Kazakhstan. Closed to outsiders, including almost all Soviet citizens, these cities were where much of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was constructed. Amidst one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, these cities strove to create the materials and devices that could possibly lead to the destruction of humanity.

The Europe & Asia Border Monument at Pervouralsk in the Ural Mountains

The Europe & Asia Border Monument at Pervouralsk in the Ural Mountains

Vital & Forgotten – Europe’s Far Eastern Border & The Future
The Cold War ended over two decades ago and the “secret” cities have long since been opened, but the Urals have remained a distant and distinct geographical entity, a world away from the European consciousness. Far away from Russia’s more famous tourist tracks, unless one lives nearby or transits the Urals, they are barely noticed. That does not mean they are no less vital to Russia’s economic and industrial strength. These ancient mountains hold innumerable minerals and ores that are of great economic value. Resource extraction fuels the Russian economy and the Urals are a focal point for these endeavors. The Urals will continue to be mined for their bountiful, buried treasure, they will continue to host millions of Russians and they will continue to provide the border between Europe and Asia. And hardly anyone will even notice.

Ukraine & Nuclear Weapons – An Assurance That We Guarantee Nothing

Assurance – A strong and definite statement that something will happen or that something is true

Guaranteea promise, especially one given in writing, that attests to the quality or durability of a product or service

The biggest what if of the Cold War involved the question of nuclear war. What if the United States and Soviet Union had been unable to resolve their differences by any other means than a hot or shooting war? What if the conflict degenerated into a nuclear war? The consequences would not only have been disastrous for the American and Soviets, but indeed for everyone on the planet. One shudders to think what life might be like today (or not be like) if the catastrophe of a global thermonuclear war had taken place.

The Counterfactual as Doomsday Device
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, a couple of years later the Soviet Union dissolved. Many believed that the threat of a large scale nuclear conflict had passed into history. The world’s attention turned from the East-West divide in Europe to the threat of nuclear terrorism by rogue organizations. While this is certainly a concern, the recent tension over Ukrainian territory that has pitted Russia against the European Union and United States has brought the threat of a large-scale nuclear war back from the shadows. Commentators have remarked that the situation in Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine could eventually lead to NATO and Russia stumbling into a nuclear conflict. While this seems implausible, it is certainly not impossible.

An overlooked aspect of this crisis is another what-if scenario. Specifically, what-if the Ukraine had not given up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. What-if the Russians had then still tried to take over Crimea? What-if the Ukraine had responded by threatening the use of nuclear weapons? What if the Russians had done the same? What if the Ukraine-Russia conflict went nuclear? Nuclear weapons have a way of opening a Pandora’s box of imaginative what if’s, counterfactuals as doomsday device.

Just Trust Us - Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin & Leonid Kravchuk in Budapest, 1994

Just Trust Us – Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin & Leonid Kravchuk in Budapest, 1994

A Dangerous Game of Self Interest
Fortunately, the Ukraine-Russia situation will probably never lead to a nuclear conflagration. Hopefully it will never even come close. That is because twenty years ago representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Russia and the Ukraine met in Budapest. They negotiated what became known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The memorandum, in effect, stated that the Ukraine would give up its nuclear weapons in return for assurances of its territorial integrity. The problem is an assurance is very different from a guarantee. An assurance is a statement that can be more or less definite, a guarantee is a promise. Think of guarantees as treaties that commit the signatories to certain actions. Assurances are based more on words than actions and as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

It would not be wrong to view the Budapest Memorandum as having given the Russians an opening they could expose. Ironically, it also gave the United States and Great Britain an opening. They did not have to guarantee Ukraine’s security. This was by design. A guarantee could have brought both of them into armed conflict with Russia one day. Neither was prepared to go to war with Russia over the Ukraine and certainly not a nuclear war. That was true twenty years ago, as it is true today. Nonetheless, that did not stop the Americans and British from involving themselves in the Russian sphere of influence. It is said that after the Soviet Union dissolved and the United States and its western Allies began to incorporate several former Soviet Republics into NATO, that the elder intellectual statesmen of the Cold War, George Kennan said that this was a terrible idea. He believed with some justification that if push came to shove, the alliance had no intention to defend with force such nations as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He also thought the alliance’s action risked provoking Russia. In the future, Russia might not be so weak. NATO could conceivably end up in a no win situation. That seems more and more possible. After all, there were many who wanted Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. This would have led to yet another scary what-if scenario. Does anyone really believe that the western world would have risked nuclear war to protect either of these nations from Russia? It is extremely doubtful.

For the time being, Ukraine remains a sovereign state. It will likely continue as such in some form or fashion, but there is a possibility that it could be dismembered or fall apart. If there had been no Budapest Memorandum the situation would have even come this far. This raises the question: What if Ukraine still had those nuclear weapons? It would almost certainly have ensured the long term survival of the nation. Nuclear states rarely disappear. They may ossify or thrive, but rarely do they disappear (the Soviet Union being the one notable exception). Nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of national security, but international insecurity.

Ceremony at dismantled nuclear missile silo in Pervomaysk, Ukraine in 1996

Ceremony at dismantled nuclear missile silo in Pervomaysk, Ukraine in 1996

Back From the Brink, Back to the Brink – The Ukrainian Arsenal
And what, one might ask, did the Ukraine give up for those security assurances in the Budapest Memorandum. In 1994, it held one-third of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. This included over 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. At the time, it was the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile, more than the nuclear arms of Britain, France and China combined. The arsenal was greater than the amount of nuclear warheads deployed by both the American and Russian militaries today. It seems incredible that the Ukraine could be convinced to part with these weapons for a series of assurances. If they could do it all over again, things would almost certainly be different. Then again, Ukraine still has a large nuclear infrastructure that they might use to create their own weapons. As a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Mustafa Dzhemilev recently said, “each country that has… capacity to acquire its own nuclear weapons will be aspired to go down that path, and Ukraine is no exception.”

Sometime in the future Europe could be threatened with a nuclear armed Ukraine. This would bring the post-Soviet, Ukraine-Russia dynamic full circle. No one could have ever imagined such a thing when both were integral parts of the Soviet Union. Back then the future seemed so certain, but as the cliché goes the only certainty is uncertainty. Perhaps uncertainty is the only thing that really can be guaranteed in this part of the world. Another series of nuclear what-ifs may well loom on the horizon. This time they may be a bit further to the east, but that makes them no less dangerous.

The Last Bolshevik – Konstantin Chernenko: The Sick Man of Europe

From 1917 until 1991 seven different men were the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union. These men were at the pinnacle of the Communist party apparatus and exercised power over one of the world’s greatest land mass. Four of these leaders are well known for better or worse (usually the latter). These four can be easily named by the historically minded. They are Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Two others are well known among Cold War history buffs, Brezhnev and Andropov. That leaves one who is almost invisible to history, the grey man of a secretive society.

Konstantin Chernenko - the opposite of inspiration

Konstantin Chernenko – the opposite of inspiration

Communism In Human Form
The name Konstantin Chernenko does not bring any lasting historical image to mind. For that matter, the name hardly brings anything to mind. Chernenko had the shortest reign of any Soviet ruler, lasting a mere thirteen months at the helm. Some historians call Chernenko, “The Last Bolshevik.” This is because he is viewed as the last of the old order, those communists who were symbolic of the rigidity, corruption and ossification of the Soviet Union’s final decades. A look at Chernenko definitely fits that image. In photos taken of him during the time he led the nation, he looks elderly, dull and uninspiring. That’s probably because he was. Communism in the Soviet Union died a slow death in its final two decades. The human personification of that decay was Chernenko.

Chernenko & Brezhnev – The Road To Gloom
Who was Konstantin Chernenko? In line with his frosty visage, Chernenko was born in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia in 1911, the son of a poor miner. Growing up in poverty, Chernenko took advantage of the one real opportunity for advancement during that time, getting involved with the Communist Party. At the age of 18 he became a member of the Communist Youth League. He was soon a full member of the party. Chernenko built a career in party propaganda. He worked in the typical Soviet organizations such as the House of Party Enlightenment. Chernenko managed to ascend the party ranks while avoiding the deadly Stalinist purges of the 1930’s. It helped that he was working in the east part of the country during some of the worst excesses of the system.

It is probably no surprise that an individual as dull, grey and stolid as Chernenko received his first major career advancement due to his friendship with a man cut from the same cloth. Leonid Brezhnev, the embodiment of Soviet style gloom and corruption chose Chernenko to head the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’s propaganda efforts in the late 1940’s. From that point until Brezhnev’s death in 1982, Chernenko’s career trajectory closely followed that of his political patron. By the mid-1950’s, they were in Moscow together, where a decade later, Brezhnev would replace the deposed Nikita Khrushchev as Supreme Leader of the Soviet Union.

Sign Here - Konstantin Chernenko's signature style

Sign Here – Konstantin Chernenko’s signature style

A Signature Style
The Brezhnev years cast a light on the shadowy career of the prototypically dull Chernenko. What was the gray man’s job during these years? Well in an extremely centralized state apparatus, Chernenko made sure it stayed that way. He set the agenda for interminable Politburo sessions. He signed papers, literally tens of thousands. In the bureaucratic morass that was the Soviet system, Chernenko was the ultimate bureaucrat. For over twenty years he put his signature on hundreds of documents each day. Even after he took the helm as supreme leader, Chernenko would continue to sign the documents as he had done for far too long as head of the bland sounding General Department. Whereas Stalin and Lenin had the blood of millions on their hands, Chernenko’s were covered with ink. All of this was done in the service of mind numbing decrees and resolutions. The Soviet Union and the communist system may not have had the cure for civilization’s ills, but they had cultivated the ultimate cure for insomnia.

A Phenomenon of Frailty
All the while, Chernenko carried on an exceedingly unhealthy lifestyle. He was a chain smoker, an addiction that was said to have begun at the tender age of nine. By the time he took power, Chernenko was a physician’s worst nightmare. His ailments included emphysema, pulmonary disease and heart failure. At the funeral of his predecessor Yuri Andropov, he was barely able to read the eulogy. On that same day at Lenin’s Mausoleum he had to take an escalator rather than stairs to the top. After the ceremony was over, Chernenko’s bodyguards were reduced to protecting their frail leader, not from would be assassins, but from a slip or a fall. They had to help him back down the escalator. He spent much of his time as leader suffering from an amazing variety of illnesses. If it was not bronchitis, it was pneumonia or pleurisy or cirrhosis of the liver. Somehow Chernenko kept on living. The man was as much a phenomenon as he was an individual, a staggering, stuttering, stumbling example of the sclerotic Soviet system.

His most notable achievement while in office was the announcement that the Soviet’s would boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was a foolish and petulant act designed to exact symbolic revenge on the United States for boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In place of tet a tet’s between Chernenko and the president of the United States, there were tit for tat’s. That the sickly Chernenko could even engage in such foolishness was miraculous.

The Long Goodbye - Chernenko strikes a pose

The Long Goodbye – Chernenko strikes a pose

The Sickest of Them All
Finally, mercifully, during the late winter of 1985, the death defying Chernenko approached his final moment. By this point it was a tossup whether he would succumb to emphysema, heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver or hepatitis. It turned out to be a combination of all four. Within hours his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev was announced, offering proof that Chernenko had long since been given up for dead. Ironically, the Soviet papers announced Gorbachev’s ascension to power on their front pages, while Chernenko’s death notice took a backseat on page two. Conversely, the New York Times placed both events on the front page. Chernenko had ceased to be of importance to the Soviet Union, while still being at least symbolically respected in the western world.

The Soviet system outlasted Chernenko by another seven years. It had been able to survive frailty in the leadership for nearly a decade. The last several years of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko were characterized more by illness than anything else. These were the sick men of Europe and Chernenko was the sickest of them all. He had been neither a reformer nor much of a hardliner, he had just been there, barely able to breathe, let alone rule. His role was to keep the seat lukewarm. Interestingly, what the Soviet Union was unable to survive was the reform minded and progressive Mikhail Gorbachev. His energetic leadership was finally put the Soviet Union to rest.