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Phantom borders: the role in territorial identity and the impact on society

Vladimir Kolosov


Cet article aborde le phénomène des frontières fantômes en tant que type particulier de vestiges historiques. Ces frontières suscitent de fortes émotions dans l’opinion publique, animent les discours politiques et peuvent ainsi s’utiliser à des fins de mobilisation politique, renforcer ou transformer les identités nationales, ethniques ou régionales. Le plus souvent les frontières fantômes séparent des populations d’identités différentes, aux yeux desquelles elles conservent une certaine légitimité. La nécessité d’étudier cette question peut s’expliquer par de nombreuses raisons. En premier lieu, les frontières récentes sont souvent cause de nostalgie pour les anciennes frontières « justes », ce qui peut représenter une menace dans l’exacerbation de conflits internationaux. En second lieu, dans la plupart des cas les frontières héritées du passé ont un certain poids dans la construction d’un Etat. Ensuite, elles ont un impact dans de nombreux domaines d’activités, de l’agriculture jusqu’aux transports. Enfin, les frontières fantômes déterminent le paysage culturel des régions frontalières. Une expression frappante de l’importance des frontières historiques est leur capacité d’attraction en matière de tourisme. Certains pays comme la Pologne et l’Ukraine sont des cas « classiques » pour l’étude des relations entre frontières historiques et frontières culturelles. Dans beaucoup de pays, les frontières fantômes sont d’anciennes frontières associées avec l’histoire de la formation et du développement du territoire de l’Etat – tel le terme kresy (confins) en Pologne. L’auteur suggère quatre approches conceptuelles pour cette étude. La dernière partie de l’article est consacrée au cas de la Russie – un pays doté d’un vaste territoire et d’une histoire complexe où l’on peut trouver tous les types de frontières fantômes.

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Notes de la rédaction

Note from the editors of Belgeo and the guest editors of the issue Peripheral borders, soft and hard re-bordering in Europe about the article by Vladimir Kolosov, Phantom borders: the role in territorial identity and the impact on society

This version of Vladimir Kolosov's paper is slightly revised from the one that was originally posted online.

This revision follows an intervention by a team of researchers made up of Béatrice von Hirschhausen, research director at CNRS / UMR Géographie-cités, Hannes Grandits, professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, Claudia Kraft, professor at the University of Vienna, Dietmar Müller, qualified researcher at the University of Leipzig and Thomas Serrier, professor at the University of Lille. In addition to insufficient citation of their work, these researchers argue that, contrary to what the article by V. Kolosov seemed to suggest, the concept of “phantom border” was not used prior to their own studies, as it did not exist previously in a diffuse and banalized form. It differs from the concept of “relict border”, as defined by Hartshorne from his analysis of border shifts and spatial discontinuties in Silesia. They argue to have created this new concept, with a rigorous definition, its originality and interest lying in the exploitation of the metaphor of the phantom.

Beyond the quotes that have been corrected and this debate, which opens more broadly to that of the “scientific property” not only of the results, but also of the concepts, it seemed to the editors of Belgeo and to the guest editors of this issue, that Vladimir Kolosov's text in no way constituted plagiarism, nor any scientific fraud. It appears to us as a synthetic reflection on one aspect of the geography of borders, with a more specific illustration on the case of the borders of Russia, rather than a text dealing with the very emergence of the concepts of ghost and phantom border in theirselves. As such it deserves to be preserved in this issue, providing the reader with the reworking of a text previously published in Russian.

However, the debate on these border issues is of the utmost interest and Belgeo would be happy and honored to welcome a contribution from Béatrice von Hirschhausen's team.

Texte intégral


1The political map of the world, on which each country is entirely painted over with a certain color, is misleading. There are no “white spots” on it: uninhabited spaces, disputed territories not controlled by the central government for decades are not shown. The whole world space is simplistically represented divided into single and indivisible atoms, state-cells. However, most states of the world are multiethnic. English philosopher and social anthropologist Ernest Gellner figuratively compared the political map of the world with paintings by Amedeo Modigliani, which are characterized by large fragments with relatively pure colors, and the ethnocultural one with multicolored, patchwork canvases by Oscar Kokoschka. The redrawing of state borders and the discrepancy between them and ethnocultural borders left on the map numerous “scars of history” – the boundaries which do not exist anymore but, however, have an impact on society.

2Mapping and analysis of the origin and history of state borders is one of the traditional approaches in border studies (Kolosov, Tikunov, 2005; Kolosov, 2008). Much attention has always been paid to the formation of the state territory and the morphology of its borders at different periods. The study of the dynamics of boundaries in space and time and their stability has become one of the achievements of political geography in the first half of the 20th century. They are closely connected with the name of the prominent American geographer Richard Hartshorne and his well-known publications on the borders of Upper Silesia (Hartshorne, 1933, 1936), in which he showed the influence of political borders on cultural features of the territory. Hartshorne was the first to investigate the differences between the boundaries established before the emergence of the contemporary cultural landscape (“pioneer”, or “antecedent”), the borders that cut the existing territorial socio-economic and cultural divides (“subsequent”), and the former (relict) political borders.

3The redrawing of state borders after the Second World War, and then the decolonisation process, which led to the creation of many new independent states, caused a new surge of interest in former political borders, including pre-colonial ones. After about a quarter of a century, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia once again revived interest in the problem of “fair” borders and their changes.

4French geographer Yves Lacoste called the boundaries “history imprinted in space”. What is the impact of political borders of the past on today cultural landscape? Are “older” borders less significant than more recent ones? Why are some former borders more visible than others?

5The objective of this paper is to show the importance of historical (relict, phantom) borders in strengthening or building territorial identity, contemporary cultural and political territorial patterns and to consider the main directions and theoretical approaches to their geographical study.

Phantom borders as “scars of history” in the mind of people

6The configuration of the state territory is a vivid and capacious image of the country, firmly imprinted in the mind of citizens. After the technological revolution in printing in the late 19th century, which made geographical maps accessible to the general public, the outline of state borders became a part of national identity. The contours of the states serve as their original logos: they are placed on posters and cartoons, widely used in the press and school books. As S.N. Ushakin noted, “imagination plays a key role in supporting the idea of ​​the historical integrity ... of the national “body”... This idea… merges with the idea of ​​state sovereignty” (Ushakin, 2009).

7The dissemination of ideas about the territory as the body of the state, and the border as its vulnerable “skin” was facilitated by classical works of F. Ratzel and his followers – geographers, historians and publicists, in which the state was compared with a living creature, which is born, grows and develops, passes maturity stage, aging and dying. These works gave rise to anthropomorphic images of the state territory as a living, usually female body, merging with the ideas of the motherland, which every citizen is called upon to defend by all means against external encroachments.

8Accordingly, any attempt on this body, be it a claim to several hectares of the borderland in order to straighten the boundary or an attempt to separate an entire province, is considered by public opinion extremely emotionally. The partition of a state, the secession of its part, or the transfer of a piece of territory to neighbours is especially painful. Such events leave a deep mark on the identity of people, affect the geopolitical “code” of relations with neighbours and the entire world community. In the development of the metaphorical association of the state with the human body, the loss of its part is compared with amputation of a limb: although it is no longer there, a person for a long time feels it and suffers from phantom pains in it.

9By this analogy, borders between states that have lost their most important functions, but remain political and cultural barriers that influence in various forms contemporary economic, social and political activities, are called phantom. The natural question arises whether all relict (historical) borders can be considered phantom. The term “phantom borders” is sometimes used as a synonym for relict borders. However, it seems more correct to consider phantom borders as a special type of relict borders. Phantom boundaries still evoke strong emotions in public opinion, remain a subject of political discourse and, therefore, can be used in political mobilisation, for strengthening or transforming national, ethnic or regional identities.

10In social representations, a state territory often preserves an already non-existing configuration. Mental boundaries may not coincide with the real ones. Such representations reflect nostalgia for lost territories, the real or imaginary former greatness of the state, enhanced by popular cartographic images. For example, in Hungary, maps showing its territory before the Trianon Peace Treaty (1920) are widely distributed: according to this treaty the country, as the successor to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was defeated in the First World War, lost 64% of the population and 72% of the territory, including access to the sea. Many people in Hungary see even now the Trianon Treaty as a national tragedy. The current Polish-German border, shaped after World War II, one of the least stable in Europe in the past, was officially recognized by Germany only in 1970, and the final border treaty was signed only in 1991. Due to the lack of the legal status of the border, in the postwar years phantom for certain forces in Germany, the inhabitants of the western and northern territories of Poland have long experienced a keen sense of insecurity. They refrained from making substantial investments in their property and feared that German influence would increase in their voivodships (Gorzelak, 2006, p. 71).

11Such cases by no means far from isolated examples gave rise to the so-called “cartographic concern” that arises if some citizens, especially those belonging to a minority, associate themselves with another territory whose borders are not recognized by international law. “Cartographic concern” may be related to the “cartographic aggression” of other states, especially neighbouring ones, showing old borders on maps (Billé, 2013). For instance, all residents of the Kuril Islands and Japanese citizens using the agreement on visa-free circulation were receiving in Japan phrasebooks with maps, on which the four southern islands of the Kuril archipelago were shown as Japanese (Ponomarev, 2008). So, the user is once again reminded of the “unfair” border.

12Phantom borders usually divide territories with different identities of the population and maintain a certain legitimacy. The present territory of any state is a product of a long historical development: wars, annexations, internal conflicts, secessions and invasions from abroad, which led to the loss of part of the land. Contemporary borders are a tangible expression of memory of the past (O’Dowd and Wilson, 2002). Borders are a tool that consolidates the power of a certain social and/or ethnic group over a territory and show its ability to exercise economic, cultural, ideological and political control over it, and a form of this control (Sebentsov, Kolosov, 2012).

13Therefore, the discourse around the borders of the past is often used by various political forces as an effective means of struggle for the seizure of power in the state by cultivating revenge, calls for redrawing the borders.

14A striking example is the borders of Italy in the Trieste region, a large multicultural center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a stronghold of irredentist movements and right-wing parties, claiming to return to pre-war (now phantom) borders. Considering the specifics of the urban community and its cultural heritage, L. Bialasiewicz compared the “idea” or the spirit of Trieste with “an incredibly strong political metaphor that reflects a certain vision of society, a powerful “container" of certain myths" (Bialasiewicz, 2009: 320).

15Phantom borders have often been the subject of sharp conflicts between neighbouring states and the clash of their strategic interests. A typical case is the border between France and Germany along the Rhine. The prominent French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache wrote that if France was cut off from any access to this river, it would have reduced it to the position of a peripheral peninsula and would have deprived it of security guarantees. At the same time, the Rhine has a great symbolic importance in German identity and played a mobilizing role in the period after the First World War. In accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, the Saar region was torn away from Germany, and the entire German part of the left bank of the Rhine and the strip along the right bank 50 km wide were subject to demilitarisation. Only since about the mid-1950s the confrontation with the Soviet bloc and objective economic needs turned the Rhine into the central axis of European integration (Klinke, Perombelon, 2015).

16Many research projects, historical maps, and atlases are devoted to this problem (see, for example, Shiryaev, 1991; Foucher, 2011). A noticeable contribution to the study of phantom borders was made by the participants of the project “Phantom Borders in Eastern and Central Europe (2010-2017) funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (see, for example, Grandits et al., 2015; von Hirschausen, 2017; von Löwis, 2015, etc.). They were interested not so much in phantom borders per se, but in the social spaces separated by them, and focused on the essence and mechanisms of the reproduction of regional differences in the longue durée. This group of authors critically analyzed the existing approaches to the study of the sustainability of regional differences. Proponents of the traditional structuralist approach explained these mechanisms by specific limitations to the activities of each subsequent generation by the existing natural and economic structures and public institutions (the triad “space - history - culture”), ignoring the agency of actors. Such approach leads to the perpetuation of stereotypical ideas about the borders dividing the "advanced" and "backward" areas, and opens up a space for political manipulations. At the same time, the participants of the project emphasized that the absolutization of the constructivist approach, in which the relict border phenomenon is interpreted as a result of a certain discourse, cannot lead to satisfactory conclusions. The authors view spaces separated by phantom borders as a product of the everyday behaviour of people and proposed to base the study of this phenomenon on the concept of constantly updated collective social experience worked out by R. Koselleck. They analyzed phantom borders at different interconnected spatial levels as “simultaneously imagined (produced and passed on discursively), experienced (perceived as experience and updated in practice by the actors and scientific observers), and designed (by territorialization processes)” (von Hirschhausen, 2017, p. 377).

17The need to study phantom boundaries is explained by many reasons.

18Firstly, by historical standards, recently established borders are clearly “artificial” in nature, dividing the areas of the same ethnic groups, the territories that were previously part of other states and/or economically similar, etc. New borders often cause nostalgia for “fair” old state borders (Border Disputes, 2015), which potentially threatens to exacerbate conflicts. Moreover, globalisation associated with a certain leveling of business environment and the erasing of cultural differences under the pressure of mass culture inevitably cause the strengthening of ethno-territorial identities. The risk of further fragmentation of the world political map increases as a result of the activity of numerous secessionist movements (Popov, 2012), and, consequently, the formation of new phantom borders. Though the international community recognized the principle of peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, new military conflicts are taking place. Since phantom borders play an important role in mobilising ethnic and other groups, strengthening or changing their identity, the study of such borders serves to prevent and resolve conflicts by peaceful means.

19Secondly, borders inherited from the past are significant in state building: they share territories with different identities, which must be considered when creating or strengthening the common national identity. In addition, such borders usually serve as internal administrative boundaries.

20Thirdly, the influence of phantom borders on many fields of activity, from agriculture to transport, should be studied. For instance, the German geographer Sabine von Löwis showed that the differences in the management of land and the linkages between individual local agricultural households and agricultural enterprises on both sides of the former border between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, now separating the Khmel’nitska and Ternopil’ regions of Ukraine remained almost unaltered (von Löwis, 2016). Changes in state borders often pose political leaders the need to get rid of transit through neighboring countries in communication between their settlements, improve communications with the capital, and also gain new connections with transport networks of foreign countries, especially for accessing seaports. However, the solution of these problems requires a lot of time, and the old border affects communications for many more years. Thanks to the works of Sergey Tarkhov who studied the cases of Romania and post-Soviet countries (Tarkhov, 2005, 2011), the mechanism of adaptation of the railway network to state borders was shown. The collapse of the USSR led to the formation of isolated segments of railways, the simplification of their topological structure, reducing the possibility of economic maneuver.

21Fourthly, phantom borders, as a rule, determine the cultural landscape of the borderlands. Due to long years restrictions on economic activity and settlement, natural landscapes are better preserved there; therefore, in many countries protected natural territories gravitate around state borders. Such territories are often created symmetrically on both sides of the border. This fact opens up the possibility of cooperation between neighboring countries and regions and their reconciliation on this basis in case of conflicts (the so-called peace parks). Participants in the Parks for Peace Conference held in 1997 emphasized the role of cross-border “conservation areas as a mean of strengthening international cooperation, maximizing benefits and fostering regional stability” (Parks for Peace, 1997). In the early 2000 there were already 160 peace parks in the world (Mjelde et al., 2017).

22A vivid expression of the significance of historical boundaries is their ability to attract tourists. Valuable natural and cultural heritage of neighbouring countries is preserved in borderlands, which makes them attractive for tourism and can become the driving force of their development, unless the political and criminal situation is stable near it (Dallen, 1995). Relict and in particular phantom borders draw special attention, since the territories adjacent to them were often the scene of bloody clashes between neighboring countries. Visitors are often interested in the phenomenon of the state border, the history of the territorial delimitation of states, changes in the cultural landscape of border territories. There are many monuments along the relict borders, which perpetuate the memory of battles with invaders and national heroes. Often the main goal of such expositions is to separate the “newcomers” and “indigenous” inhabitants of the border region, attributing to the “indigenous” great ability to build an effective economy, “civilization”, “Europeanism”, etc. (Balibar, 2002).

23Therefore, relict (phantom) border and adjacent landscapes acquire the status of cultural heritage sites. In places, even such an old border as the frontier of the Roman Empire (Limes) is “museumified” (Grinko, 2016). The most known cases include the Great Wall of China, which has become the most recognizable monument in China, an intrinsic element of its brand. On the administrative border between the special administrative region of China, the former Portuguese colony of Macau and the rest of the country, the Barrier Gate attracts the attention of tourists. The Berlin Wall is one of the main symbols of the Cold War. The fall of the wall in 1989 marked the end of the confrontation between the two political systems. In 2002-2006 the city’s authorities have implemented the project of the Berlin Wall Trail for pedestrians and cyclists along the 160-kilometer line of the former border. During its construction, the preserved sections of the wall and road were used, along which the border troops of the GDR patrolled the border. Along the route, in historically important places, information stands have been set up to reproduce the picture of the past1 (Berlin official website...). The entire former border between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany acquired memorial functions. 22 museums located on it are dedicated to this border.

24The high symbolic significance of phantom borders is due to the fact that the events associated with them serve a lesson for the future, remind about the controversies of the past and the importance of historical reconciliation between neighbouring countries.

The influence of phantom borders on cultural and political structures

25A common feature of phantom borders is the possibility to use them for strengthening or constructing territorial identities (Jańczak, 2015). There is a dialectic interdependence between boundaries and identity (Newman, 2011). This phenomenon raises the eternal question, what is primary – territorial identities or boundaries. On the one hand, political borders of different ranks are shaping identities. For example, despite the artificial nature of the borders between the countries of Tropical Africa inherited from the colonial period, most of them managed to create a political identity. On the other hand, political borders often follow cultural boundaries – linguistic, religious, etc. In the 20th century, the delimitation of European borders after two world wars was based precisely on cultural boundaries and two main criteria – ethnic and historical (Opiola, 2014).

26Some countries are “classical” cases for studying the relationship between phantom borders and cultural borders. Extensive literature on this topic is devoted to Poland. As a result of the late 18th century partitions, its contemporary territory consists of three sections making part in the past of Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and Prussia. The boundaries between them are still visible in the economy, the level of well-being, and the political life.

27Many models explaining stability of these distinctions have been suggested. They most often use two main approaches – structural and normative. The first of them is focused on path dependence effect, explaining, for example, the lag of east (“Russian”) voivodships by historically less developed infrastructure, and high rates of economic growth of western regions – thanks to the proximity to European markets. The normative approach emphasizes the role of norms and values inherited from the powers to which the Polish lands belonged in the 19th century, and of the mass migrations after World War II. Historical borders divide nowadays the areas with different types of political culture which are clearly visible in the geography of national and local elections (Janczak, 2015). T. Zarycki noticed the prevalence of the interpretation of electoral and other distinctions between three parts of Poland by “orientalist stereotypes”: any legacy of the Russian Empire is estimated negatively and is opposed to the historical role of the “progressive” Western civilization (Zarycki, 2015).

28Ukraine is another “classical” case for studying phantom borders. Its contemporary territory is a result of long historical development. Many more or less detailed schemes of the division of the country into historical and cultural regions are offered. The territory of Ukraine includes the historical core of the Ukrainian people, and Novorossiya incorporated to the Russian empire in late 18th century and populated by Ukrainian and Russian settlers, the Western Ukraine which has not been part of a common state with the rest of Ukraine since at least the 18th century, and the Crimea which has belonged to it only since 1954 and was joined to Russia in March 2014.

29The deep connection between the regional, linguistic, ethnic and religious affiliation of the population, its electoral preferences and geopolitical orientations is clearly shown by numerous studies of Ukrainian, Russian and Western experts using both sociological and geographical methods and statistical models (Hesli, Reisinger and Miller, 2000; Kubicek, 2000; O’Loughlin, 2001; Vnutripoliticheskie..., 2014).

30The borders between different regions of Ukraine, which became parts of its territory at different times, determined significant geographical differences in the use of Ukrainian and Russian languages. Political cultures are closely connected with them, and historical boundaries are well visible on electoral maps. The country is very clearly divided into western and eastern parts along the so-called Subtelny line (named after the Canadian political scientist O. Subtelny) (Subtelny, 1998). The boundary between the historical core of Ukraine and the southern lands conquered by the Russian Empire from the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khanate and settled by natives of Ukrainian and Russian regions – the former frontier or, rather, the transition zone between the main and colonised territory, is also clearly visible. Unlike the state border, which serves to integrate a political nation, to ensure security and to separate its territory from “others” and turned “inward”, the frontier is turned “outward”.

31Despite the important political changes in Ukraine in 2014 – a change of power, the annexation of Crimea to Russia, the war in Donbass, fundamental differences in the views of voters in different regions remained. Former President P. Poroshenko, who expressed the views of nationalist voters and proclaimed an uncompromising course on integration into Europe, won the first round of the 2019 presidential election only in the areas of the West. On the contrary, Yu. Boyko considered as a “pro-Russian” candidate won only in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions bordering with Russia and controlled by Kyiv, and part of the Kharkiv region.

32Phantom borders in many countries are former frontiers associated with the history of the formation and development of state territory. The founder of the frontier concept American historian F.J. Turner used this term meaning the front edge of the colonisation wave moving forward – the line of contact between “civilisation” and “savagery”. The history of the United States is inextricably linked with the colonisation of the Wild West, Turkey – the borderland with Iraq and Syria, China – the western regions inhabited by the Mongols, Uighurs and Tibetans, Brazil – the Amazon, Poland – the eastern lands, covering most of contemporary Ukraine and Belarus, where Polish magnates and gentry owned vast lands. Until the Second World War, Poles made up the majority of the population in such large cities as Lviv, Stanislav (Ivano-Frankivsk), Grodno, and others. About 1090 thousand people, mostly Poles, were resettled to the territory of contemporary Poland from these lands as part of the post-war “population exchange”: 790 thousand from Ukraine, 231 thousand from Belarus (according to other estimates, about 1526 thousand) (Polyan, 2013).

33The history of the eastern lands still evokes strong feelings in Polish public opinion. Polish authors published a lot of works about the features of frontiers, called in the Polish literature kresy (Koter, 2001; Sobczynski, 2008; Rykała, 2013). The term kresy was proposed back in the mid-19th century by the prominent Polish geographer and poet Vincent Pole, who understood by this concept vast, remote, and politically unstable marginal spaces with a complex ethnic and religious structure of the population. Kresy were attached to the state territory as a result of conquests, dynastic unions, etc. The development of the frontiers gives rise to romantic legends and myths, glorifying the pioneer and missionary mentality of the settlers as carriers of advanced culture.

34Frontiers are a dynamic phenomenon: their political belonging depended on the success of their development, the construction of communications, economic and cultural policy of the state. The external borders of the frontier zones were not clearly defined; they were highly permeable and required special care. In Russia, it was taken over by a special social class – the Cossacks. The Polish geographer Marek Koter distinguished such specific features of kresy as peripheral position and poor accessibility, more severe climate, low density and cultural heterogeneity of the population and sparseness of the city network, lag in economic development. Representatives of the dominant ethnic group are concentrated mainly in cities – a kind of cultural exclaves.

35The situation at the frontier was characterized by frequent unrest and outbreaks of violence both between settlers and local residents, and between the “indigenous” groups themselves. Sometimes such unrests were inspired by neighbouring countries. Frontiers usually had a special administrative and legal status in the state (Koter, 2001). The features of the former frontiers left their mark on the current political culture of their inhabitants. The settlers were distinguished by a strong ethnic identity and independence, exaggerated radical “patriotism”, a sense of superiority over the “aborigines” and a cult of power, exacerbated by the need to fight for control over the frontiers with neighbouring powers.

36There are several approaches to the study of phantom borders, usually combining quantitative analysis and qualitative methods. The first, oldest approach is a historical-morphological one, which involves the study of the origin of the border, changes in its configuration and its relationship with other borders, including natural, ethnocultural and administrative ones. The morphology of phantom borders is a material expression of economic, political and military power of neighboring countries and their alliances.

37The second group of approaches is functional and structuralist. One of their tasks is to track change of functions and the regime of the boundary in different historical periods (re-bordering and de-bordering). In a structuralist paradigm and according to the theory of social and territorial cleavages of S. Rokkan – H. Kitchelt – D. Seyler the regions lying along phantom borders are considered as an element of the “center-periphery” system.

38The third approach is geopolitical, aimed at studying the real or possible use of phantom borders in order to expand the influence of a neighbouring country or to redraw the political map. This approach is based on the theory of identity and nationalism and is focused, in particular, on the study of special border identities, as well as the theory of state building. The theory of “nationalisation” of Karl Deutsch is among them; it explains the state’s attempts to integrate the territory by one or another means. The “classical” assessments of the importance of phantom borders by studying the differences in electoral behaviour, which can also be considered in the context of political integration (nationalisation) of space, should also be included in this approach.

39The fourth, constructivist approach is based on “post-modern” theories of space construction and methods – for example, analysis of political discourse, symbolic capital (iconography) and politics of memory.

40In Russia, a country with a large state territory and a complex history of its formation and settlement, it is possible to find all types of phantom borders. Different conceptual approaches can be applied to their study.

The case of Russia

41Two main types of relict borders in Russia can be distinguished, and some of them can be called phantom – either on the side of neighbouring countries, or in Russia itself. The first of them separated the territories annexed to the former Soviet Union before or as a result of World War Two from the rest of the country: Kaliningrad region, the western districts of Leningrad and Murmansk regions, Pechora and Pytalovo districts of Pskov region. The belonging to other historical, cultural, and political territories in the past has a significant impact on social practices and local identity, although in Kaliningrad region and in the former Finnish territories the population was completely replaced by immigrants from inner regions of Russia and Belarus.

42For a part of the civil society of Baltic countries, Finland and Japan, post-war border changes remain a hot topic and cause “phantom pains”. Japan’s claim to return the four southern islands of the Kuril archipelago is the main stumbling block in Russian-Japanese relations and the reason of the absence of a peace treaty between the two countries almost three quarters of a century after the end of World War II. In Estonia, recent maps, such as soil maps, display the old, pre-war border showing Pechora district of Pskov region and part of the Kingisepp district of Leningrad region as belonging to Estonia along with the officially recognized border with Russia. In Finland, the loss of territories that have been joined to the Soviet Union as a result of the “winter war” of 1939-1940 is regularly discussed on the pages of the main national newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat”. Many works of Finnish authors are devoted to continuous active discourse on the border and the neighbourhood with Russia as a whole (their review is made by J. Laine) (Laine, 2011).

43A special place in the Finnish national consciousness belongs to Karelia, now divided by the state border, which is one of the cradles of national culture. The inhabitants of this territory were considered as the personification of the archetype of Finnish peasant living in a region with a harsh climate and beautiful forest and lake landscapes (Scott, 2012). The “Karelian Question” is relevant for the descendants of 420 thousand Finns forced to leave the areas annexed to the Soviet Union and now living mainly in the Helsinki agglomeration and along the Russian border (Laine, 2011). They created such irredentist organizations as the Karelian Association. However, these organizations remained marginal. The Finnish leadership refused from territorial claims, pursued a policy of neutrality and good neighbourhood with the Soviet Union and then Russia, which became a condition for historical reconciliation (Kolosov and Scott, 2012). In Karelia, the ethnocultural factor has a noticeably impact on interactions with Finland. Consecutive periods of Russian, Finnish, Soviet and Russian (post-Soviet) political change have affected the development of settlement systems, townscapes, vernacular and public architecture and land use (Isachenko, 2009). This specific cultural mosaic is quite attractive for tourists.

44Russian border territories annexed to the USSR following the Second World War are now distinguished by a high intensity of cross-border interactions with their neighbours. Everyday interests and practical activities of tens of thousands of people and businesses, especially small ones, are connected with cross-border interactions at the local level. In the border area, social communities have formed, whose seasonal and weekly movements are associated with crossing the border. Among them are mixed couples and their children, entrepreneurs, Russian specialists settled in neighbouring countries. In Finland, according to official statistics, 29.6 thousand Russian citizens reside permanently and the same number of people consider Russian their mother tongue. Most of them live either in the capital or in the regions bordering Russia. In Norwegian city of Kirkenes, the closest to Pechenga district, annexed to the USSR/Russia, about 10% of the inhabitants are Russian-speaking. The members of such “cross-border” communities are natural initiators and active participants in joint projects. Before the 2014 political crisis, significant lowering of the visa barrier created real preconditions for the formation of few functional cross-border areas at the border between Russia and the EU, primarily between Kaliningrad region and neighbouring Polish voivodships.

45However, cross-border interactions with EU countries and Norway remain most often asymmetric. The “poor-rich” regional interactions’ model remains valid. The flows of Russian citizens to the neighbouring regions are significantly higher than in the opposite direction. Russians, especially residents of territories joined to the USSR after the war, go to Norway, Finland, Poland and Estonia mainly for shopping and entertainment, but also for getting medical and other high-quality services, which are cheaper than in Russia. Citizens of neighbouring European countries are interested primarily in buying cheaper gasoline, tobacco, medicines and some other goods. Regular trips to a neighbouring country have a significant impact on Russian border territories and constitute an important factor in their modernisation. Interaction with European partners promotes social mobility. The lifestyle in border districts joined to Russia after World War Two significantly differs from the areas situated in depth of the state territory, even with a similar level of well-being.

46Cross-border interactions facilitate the diffusion of innovations, the flows of knowledge and competencies. Thus, long-term cooperation with neighbouring territories of Finland made possible the transfer of technologies of reforestation and timber processing to the Russian Republic of Karelia. As a result, labour productivity in timber industry there has nearly doubled. The “opening” of the border with Finland deeply affected the territorial structure of the republic. If earlier its main axis was stretched from south to north, along the railway and the motorway from St. Petersburg to Murmansk, now, thanks to the creation of seven simplified checkpoints and three international automobile checkpoints, the east-west axis is also being formed. Its development helps to mitigate the decline of the periphery and gives a number of small cities a chance to gain a “second wind” (Tolstoguzov, 2012).

47“Older” relict borders in the North-West of Russia do not play anymore such significant economic and cultural role. However, they gained attractiveness for tourists and became part of the brand of adjacent territories. So, the ancient granite border pillars at the mouth of the Sestra River is a sight of Leningrad region. For almost 700 years, political borders of various levels ran along this river; for 317 years it has been a state border. In the interwar period (until 1939), this river served the border between the USSR and Finland. The border stone on the Russian-Swedish border, which divided Lake Paanajärvi approximately in half, also became a tourist sight (Aleksandrova, Stupina, 2014).

48The second type of phantom borders consists from former frontiers which played an important role in national history. The Austrian historian A. Kappeler proposed distinguishing between two historical frontiers in Russia: the steppe in the south and southeast, and the forest in the northeast and east. The steppe frontier was associated with agricultural colonisation and was a transitional zone between the forest-steppe and the steppe, a sedentary and nomadic forms of farming, a religious-cultural border between the Slavs – Orthodox Christians and ethnic groups professing Islam, Buddhism or pagan beliefs, and finally, a mobile military-political border. The advancement of Slavic settlers in this direction was motivated by a higher fertility of land compared to the forest zone. The history of their colonisation was long enough: mass plowing began only at the end of the 18th century, when Russian troops were able to gain a number of victories in the struggle for control of these lands with the Ottoman Empire and its vassal – the Crimean Khanate.

49The forest frontier moved much more rapidly than the steppe, although the advance in the east and north-east direction required overcoming the enormous distances and difficulties of the harsh climate. This was explained by the absence or only rudimentary forms of statehood of the local population (with the exception of the Siberian Khanate). The colonisation of the eastern territories was spontaneous and was also motivated mainly by the economic factor – the collection of yasak (tribute). They were formally integrated into the main territory of the state with a significant delay (Kappeler, 2003).

50In the 16-19th centuries, fortified lines along frontiers were being built, renovated, connected, and most often replaced by new ones, farther and farther from the historical core of the country. The first defensive lines – watchdog, defensive, coastal – arose in the days of Kievan Rus. In the south of European Russia, they were located along the border between central regions and the “Wild Field”, which was being colonised by Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks, and then other settlers, as they moved southward to the territories whose security could be provided by the state (Western Marges ..., 2007; Skobelkin, 2013). Beyond the Belgorod line, the unique Slobozhanshchina region was formed divided between Russia and Ukraine first by the administrative and then the state border. Its population was ethnically mixed and had a specific Ukrainian-Russian identity. The first Soviet 1926 census recorded a considerable proportion of Ukrainians in the Russian part of this territory. At present, it is insignificant, since the Ukrainian population, close to Russians in language and culture, was assimilated. It was facilitated by the cancellation of cultural autonomy of Ukrainians in 1934 by the Stalinist regime (the closure of Ukrainian schools, newspapers, etc.). However, some Ukrainian publications emphasize the belonging of these territories to historical Ukraine (Atlas…, 1992).

51Former frontiers affect or can potentially affect the whole range of relations between neighbouring countries. Some south-eastern Ukrainian borderlands, including the periphery of the current secessionist Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics were part of the territory of the region of Don Cossacks’ Army (a territorial unit in imperial Russia). Along with a high share of Russians in the population and other arguments this fact serves to legitimize their existence.

52During the reign of Catherine II, the borders of Russia moved to the North Caucasus, where new fortified lines were erected. They were the strongholds of Russian (Slavic) settlers in the new fertile lands; the number of these settlers was growing faster than the construction of fortifications. As a result, new chains of settlements appeared outside of the fortified lines. With the reduction in the share of Russian population in the republics of the North Caucasus, the old fortified lines regained the function of a sort of a frontier – the “interface” between Russian and Caucasian cultures.

53Fortifications also marked the boundaries in the southeast, not far from the contemporary boundary with Kazakhstan. The cities that arose around the main fortresses of the Siberian line (Uralsk, Orenburg, Omsk, Petropavlovsk, etc.), now divided by the boundary between Russia and Kazakhstan, were not only garrison, but also commercial centres in which Russian and Central Asian merchants exchanged the production of nomadic livestock and oasis farming (Golunov, 2005). With time, the strip of “frontier” settlements was shifting south. The main settlements on both sides of the administrative border between the areas populated mostly by Russians and Kazakhs were connected by rail. Nowadays, it crosses the border more than once, which leads to obvious inconveniences. For instance, the section between Russian cities of Orenburg and Saratov passes via Uralsk (Kazakhstan), the line between Kurgan and Omsk also crosses the boundary, etc. Thus, the former fortified lines remain important elements of the settlement frame and axes of economic development and are clearly visible in the socio-economic and cultural space. In the northern regions of Kazakhstan, in the first years after the collapse of the USSR irredentist sentiments aroused among the Cossacks; latent tension exists to this day which allows considering part of the border between two countries as phantom from the perspective of Kazakh nationalists.

54Economic development of the territories at the eastern frontier was extremely slow due to the small number of Russian population, their remoteness from the historical core of the country. At the initial stage of colonisation, settlers were interested mostly in the collection of tribute from the local population and later considered these territories as a source of raw materials (Vorobyova, 2012). For a long time, the Russian-Chinese border was not a hard interstate border: the Chinese were able to settle and farm on both banks of the Amur River, which led to the existence of a mixed settlement zone.

55The history of Russian frontiers is reflected in the culture of some border regions – love of freedom, self-respect combined with individualism. The areas of frontier development have never known serfdom; it was here, and not in the areas of the most severe oppression of the peasantry, that popular uprisings arose in the past. These territories are areas of relatively weak influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, both for historical reasons and because of large distances. In frontier regions, whose rural inhabitants were relatively healthy thanks to their rich natural resources, the cult of material well-being is strong (Zamyatina, 1998).

56In critical historical periods, the requirements of autonomy and even complete separation from Russia come from the former frontiers. The Cossacks served the central government when it was strong and unshakable (Serenko, 2014). In the 1990s, some Cossack leaders in the Don claimed autonomy and recognition as a separate people. The idea of ​​creating a special Cossack republic on the basis of Rostov region including parts of the neighbouring Volgograd region of Russia and Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine has spread. On their turn, some Siberian public opinion leaders accuse the central government of dooming resource-rich peripheral regions (in particular, Siberia) to the position of an internal colony, which provides a significant part of the state budget revenues, but is deprived of its attention (Mikhailov, 2017). Similar motifs sounded, for example, in the 1990s at the meetings of the Association of Regions “Siberian Agreement”.


57The study of phantom borders has not only academic, but also quite practical significance. One of the central questions is why some of them are more important than others? When, how, and under what circumstances can a relict border turn into a phantom one? Obviously, a phantom border is more visible when it coincides with ethnic or ethno-confessional borders, such as the current border between South Tyrol (Bolzano) and other Italian provinces, the former borders of Hungary before the Versailles Congress, or other borders that were imposed by external forces. The visibility of phantom borders is undoubtedly affected by the depth of the welfare gap between the territories they divide, political differences between neighbouring countries, their participation in different economic and political unions, as in the case of Russia and Finland, memory politics and other factors.

58Other fundamental problems associated with phantom borders are the mechanism of devolution of a particular political culture and identity from generation to generation, and their stability. Former state borders are extremely important for historical reconciliation between countries that have survived acute conflicts – Germany and Poland, Chile and Bolivia, Russia and Finland, and now Russia and Ukraine, etc. The decision of the Finnish leadership after World War II not to raise the “territorial issue” became the basis of its foreign policy and “special relations” with the Soviet Union. New studies on the role of integration processes in the recognition by public opinion of the existing borders are needed, including freedom of movement and cross-border cooperation, legal guarantees for ethno-cultural minorities, etc.

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Vladimir Kolosov, « Phantom borders: the role in territorial identity and the impact on society »Belgeo [En ligne], 2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2020, consulté le 17 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Vladimir Kolosov

Deputy Director of the Institute of Geography of Russian Academy of Sciences and Professor-Researcher at Baltic I. Kant Federal University, Institute of Geography, Staromonetnyi per., 29, Moscow 119017,

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