Where Did Russia's Western Border Actually Run?
Russia has managed to mythologize its image in the world. Among other things, its ethnic borders are mythologized. We wrote about this when we talked about the border between Russia and Ukraine. But it should be noted that this is not the only place where Russia has managed to impose on the world the idea that the western border of the Russian Federation is a stable concept, that the spread of Russians on this border is eternal. In fact, this border is a twentieth-century reality. The Soviet government, or rather the Russian communists, managed to strip the territories that are now the west of the Russian Federation of their color and ethnic diversity. These are the territories they inherited from the Russian Empire.
But in the first half of the twentieth century, in the western parts of the Pskov, Smolensk, Bryansk, and even Tver regions, it was obvious that both the physical and mental border of Russia before its expansion was much further east. Interestingly, certain material traces of this phenomenon can still be seen today. Although Belarusians, Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles have long been absent from this neglected Russian province.
The Smolensk region
If you look at the map of the Polish Uprising of 1863-64, you will see that the easternmost places where rebel groups operated were in the territory of the present-day Mogilev Oblast of Belarus, on the very border with present-day Russia, its Smolensk Oblast. It is clear that an active armed uprising implies a strong presence of the Polish minority in this area.
In fact, Smolensk itself, despite the fact that it is now perceived as a typically Russian regional center, was not a purely Russian city in recent history. Rather, it should be said that it was part of historical Belarus. The entire land of Smolensk was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with extremely short periods of control by Moscow.
The situation changed only in 1654, when Moscow managed to capture Smolensk. But for a very long time this land was characterized by a rather Belarusian ethnic character. Until 1772, Smolensk was generally a borderland with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Smolensk nobility performed military service in the Smolensk gentry regiment until 1764, when it was abolished by Russian Empress Catherine II.
The Russian Soviet lawyer Boris Menshagin, known worldwide for his testimony about the execution of Polish prisoners by Stalin's executioners in Katyn in 1940, was the mayor of Smolensk during its occupation by the German Nazis in 1941-1943. According to his memoirs, the Germans planned to establish a Belarusian newspaper in Smolensk. It was Menshagin himself, a Russian intellectual who did not accept Belarus, who stood in the way of this, having ties to Nazi intelligence.
Magdeburg Law - Russia was not here
The most accurate marker of where "indigenous" Russia ends and the Belarusian and Ukrainian lands annexed by it, which were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Hetmanate, begin, is the Magdeburg Law. That is, on the territory of modern Russia, along its border with Belarus and Ukraine, there is a chain of cities that historically had Magdeburg Law.
It was one of the most widespread systems of city government that emerged in the 12th century in Magdeburg, Germany. It was inherent in Ukraine and Belarus because the kings and princes of Galicia, the great Lithuanian princes, and the Polish and Hungarian (in this case, Zakarpattia) kings granted self-government to cities.
There was nothing like this in Russia itself. The self-government of cities was extremely limited due to the despotism of the tsarist government in Russia. Nevertheless, among the cities of present-day Russia, the Magdeburg Law was in place in Smolensk, as well as in Velizh, Starodub, Sebezh, Bilyi, Krasnyi, Nevel, Roslavl, Dorogobuzh, Mglyn, Pogar, and Pochep.
At the same time, for example, Starodub, Mhlyn, Pohar, and Pochep were part of the Ukrainian state formation of the Hetmanate. Starodub was the center of the Hetmanate's administrative unit, the Starodub Regiment.
After the Russian Empire abolished the autonomy of the Hetmanate in 1764-1782, these towns were part of the Chernihiv province until 1917. They should have been part of Ukraine, but the Bolsheviks annexed them to Russia. All other cities listed above were taken away from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Traces on the ground
Of course, despite the fact that both the Russian Empire and, especially, the Soviet government tried to deprive all these cities of some of their peculiarities, certain material monuments of a separate history from the Russian history in the cities of the conditional "Magdeburg chain" have survived. In Pochep, the Resurrection Cathedral, built by the Ukrainian hetman Kyrylo Rozumovskyi, stands tall.
Sebezh, Pskov Oblast, is included in the so-called "List of Historical Cities of Russia." In the 20th century, Sebezh was part of both the Belarusian People's Republic and the puppet Soviet Republic of Belarus, which was subordinated to the Bolsheviks. And it was logical, because the majority of the population there were Belarusians, and Jews were prominent.
But in 1919, the Bolsheviks brazenly annexed Sebezh to Russia and, despite the protests of their Belarusian henchmen, did not return it to Belarus. There are no Catholics in Sebezh, but the Catholic cemetery remains as a monument. The Trinity Church of Sebezh was actually a church of the Greek Catholic Basilian monastic order. Russians cannot admit that Greek Catholics or Uniates, who were the majority of Belarusians until the mid-19th century, lived on the "historical lands of Russia."
The presence of Catholics is explained by the fact that "Poland conquered these lands and owned them for some time." Therefore, guidebooks simply state that it is a "Roman Catholic church of the Basilian Order." The coat of arms of Nevel, also in the Pskov region, is a variant of the Belarusian historical coat of arms "Pogonya". The coat of arms of Velizh also depicts the horseman of the Pogony. And there are many such signs of the past. As well as a large amount of information that many prominent figures of the Belarusian (Pskov and Smolensk regions) and Ukrainian (from Starodubsk) peoples originated from those lands of the Magdeburg chain. For example, the Ukrainian public figure Petro Kosach, the father of the Ukrainian classic Lesya Ukrainka, was born and raised in Mglin.
Information and material signs that western Russia became Russia not so long ago are being deliberately erased by the Kremlin. Impersonal false matryoshkas, kokoshniks, and balalaikas have killed the mentality, identity, and historical memory of the population of these territories. But the main thing here is not to believe in the Russian fairy tale that it is supposedly eternal and has always been there. Otherwise, it will continue to advance through lies and depersonalization.