Posts in this series appear under category Ask Lada
For the new Ask Lada episode, I chose the following question.
In response to my latest video: WHO REALLY RULED USSR? The Secret of Brezhnev’s Passport
Lada’s Guide to the 85 Subjects of the Russian Federation
If located in the densely populated European part, oblast in size could be between a US state and county. It’s typically bigger than any US county, but sometimes smaller than a state. If it’s located in Siberia, it tends to be bigger than many of the world’s countries.
Sometimes oblast is incorrectly translated as a ‘region.’
Russia’s administrative structure is federative, which means that there is a federative agreement between various parts of the country. This is due to the multi-national, multi-confessional and multi-cultural composition of Russia. In fact, Russia is the most multi-national country in the world, with about 100 nationalities living on its territory. It is also one of the few truly multi-confessional countries, although the main religion is considered Russian Orthodoxy.
Presently, Russian Federation has 85 subjects, including the latest two: Crimea and Sevastopol (the map below is several years old and doesn’t include them).
Many, but not all, of the 85 federation subjects are oblasts. Oblasts are generally the predominantly and traditionally Russian-populated territories within Russia, directly subordinate to the capital, Moscow. Most oblasts, with a couple of exceptions, have a large central city as their capital. Usually, oblasts are called by the name of the capital city.
Example of an important oblast without a large central city is Moskovskaya Oblast (area around Moscow – excluding Moscow proper, which is a separate subject of the Federation). Examples of oblasts headed by large cities: Lipetskaya Oblast (capital Lipetsk) and Voronezhskaya Oblast (capital city of Voronezh), both in central Russia; Novosibirskaya Oblast in Western Siberia (capital Novosibirsk).
Another administrative subdivision in addition to oblast is kray. A great example is Krasnodarsky Kray, which includes some of the most fertile agricultural lands in Russia, as well as the famous Black Sea resorts, such as Sochi. Kray (krai) means a parcel of land, or alternatively, ‘the end, edge or outskirts.’ Incidentally, the word Ukraine ‘ u-krai-na’ is a derivative of the word kray.
Black Sea resort of Sochi (Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 venue), Krasnodarsky Kray
Normally, krays are those lands where the cossacks traditionally settle. They were given land and special rights by the Russian Empire, and later, by the Russian Federation. Their administration was a little different. Kray is often bigger than oblast, although some are comparable in size and population. Other examples are Krasnoyarsky Kray in Eastern Siberia (capital Krasnoyarsk) and Dalnevostochniy Kray (the Far Eastern Kray).
Beautiful Lake Baikal, Eastern Siberia. Shared administratively by Irkutsk Oblast to the west and Buryatskaya Autonomous Republic (Buryatia) to the east.
Next, there are autonomous oblast, autonomous okrugs, and autonomous republics.
Autonomous oblast and autonomous okrugs are governed much like any other oblast, but they have more of an ethnic flavor, with more school subjects in small native languages, celebration of small ethnic cultures, etc. There are a few autonomous okrugs, but only one Jewish Autonomous Oblast (capital Birobidjan). They all are in Siberia, Far East and the European north, where small native populations reside. As I said in previous articles, their heritage is meticulously preserved.
Incidentally, the word ‘native cultures’ is a misnomer – the situation in Russia was completely different from that of the USA or Australia. However, since we don’t have a different word to express this notion in English, I am still utilizing it for the ease of reference.
Although there is a lot of debate about this, presently, the governor of any oblast, autonomy or kray is elected locally. There are a lot of voices advocating that all governors should be appointed by the Russian President.
It has to be noted that the territory of the krays, oblasts and okrugs in Siberia and the Far East are larger than most countries. Meanwhile, the population of these is usually very small.
Autonomous republics are a whole different thing. They have their own head of state, called president or something else. A good example is Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya. There is a big debate whether it’s appropriate for an autonomous republic’s head to be called president, since there can be only one Russian President. I believe Kadyrov himself raised this issue and said he wouldn’t call himself ‘president,’ choosing instead the title of the ‘Head of the Chechen Autonomous Republic.’ Meanwhile, Tatarskaya Autonomous Republic (Tatarstan) and Bashkortostan preserve the title of president. As we see, autonomous republics have a lot of say in how they self-govern.
Regardless of size, autonomous republics are those that have a predominantly or partially different population than ethnic Russians. Usually the core population is Muslim and they are mostly concentrated around the Black Sea/Caucasus and Volga/Urals regions. Exceptions are in Siberia, such as Buryatia, which is Buddhist, not Muslim.
Each autonomous republic has its own state language (together with Russian), own flag, troops and anthem. Their chain of command is different. First they respond to their own head of autonomy, who also has more pull and influence over local laws. Only then they respond to the federal center.
In addition to Chechnya, some other well-known autonomous republics are: Crimea (capital Simferopol), Tatarstan on Volga (capital Kazan), Bashkortostan (capital Ufa). There is also Dagestan in Caucasus, Buryatia near Lake Baikal in Siberia, etc.
Moscow, capital of Russia, city of federal significance
Finally, Russian Federation has 3 cities that do not belong to any oblast, kray or autonomy. Instead, they are separate subjects of the federation, answering directly to the Russian President, aka, ‘cities of federal significance.’
These are: Moscow (governed separately from Moskovskaya Oblast), St. Petersburg (also separate from the surrounding Leningradskaya Oblast). The newest city of federal significance is Sevastopol, base of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which is governed separately from the Crimean Autonomous Republic.
St. Petersburg (former Leningrad), city of federal significance
(More data can be found on Wikipedia.)
A bit of history
Russian Federation was established by Lenin in 1918-22. The structure remains very similar since then. In addition to the largest republic called the Russian Federation (Rossiyskaya Federatsia), USSR consisted of 14 other republics (15 in total), some of which had only oblasts and others, autonomies as well.
Before the Soviet Union, the Russian Empire existed within the borders of the USSR, plus several other, presently independent countries, such as Finland and Poland. The Russian Empire’s administrative borders were very similar to the present day oblasts, krays and autonomies, plus the former Soviet republics. However, there were no formal autonomies, although local style of governorship, customs and laws were honored. Each territory was formally called ‘guberniya,’ meaning governorship. Each governor was appointed by the Russian Emperor.
The situation in former Soviet republics
Incidentally, the now independent countries of Ukraine and Belarus both consist exclusively of oblasts. They have no autonomies or krays. Moldova has oblasts and one autonomy – Gagauzia (population: Orthodox Turks), which threatens to secede any moment, preferring to join Russia. Pridnestrovie seceded formally from Moldova, trying to re-join Russia for the past 23 years. Georgia lost its 2 autonomies, Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, after having mistreated their population.
Of course, Crimea seceded from Ukraine to join Russia. Donbass (Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts) has also de-facto seceded from Ukraine, although the civil war so far rages on.
Ukraine is refusing to adopt federative structure, insisting it is a unitarian country, although many forces inside and out push Ukraine towards federalization. Kiev authorities rightly feel they would swiftly lose their grip on power, should federalization occur.
While ethnically and linguistically extremely close, ideologically and culturally Ukraine has one of the most diverse populations. For such situation as in Ukraine, it seems federalization is the only solution in order to keep peace. But then the question immediately becomes: why be separate from Russia? Kiev rightfully fears that once Russian language is officially recognized as official, all of East and South of Ukraine will recall their Russian roots and ask to be re-united with Russia.
At the same time, parts of western Ukraine may drift off to Hungary, Slovakia or Poland. The danger is very high of the artificial state of Ukraine – created within present borders by Soviet leaders Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev – disintegrating at the seams.
From the above we can see that in the post-Soviet space only Russia is able to keep its extremely diverse and multi-cultural population working together in peace and stability.
Watch new video: WHO REALLY RULED USSR? The Secret of Brezhnev’s Passport
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