On January 18, Russia decided to allocate funds to the presidential administration for the search, registration, and legal protection of foreign real estate owned by the USSR and the Russian Empire. Essentially, this decision represents a reinstatement of a practice that previously existed in Russia under new conditions. It is evident that such a decision aligns with the idea of continuity of modern Russia with respect to the USSR and the Russian Empire. However, continuity in a historical-ideological sense is one thing, while practical implementation is another matter entirely. If we don’t focus on the political aspect, which could naturally follow the historical-ideological one, then the question of property rights arises.
In this case, concerning real estate, it essentially means determining the ownership of these two former states’ properties that remain outside modern Russia. Once identified, the question of their registration and legal protection arises.
The main intrigue lies in the fact that 107 years after the fall of the Russian Empire and 32 years after the dissolution of the USSR, it is quite challenging to determine which specific real estate objects belonging to these two states still remain in a disputed or undefined status. Of course, the collapse of these two powerful empires was accompanied by property redistribution and obligations. For instance, one of the reasons France supported the White Movement until the very end was related to the enormous loans extended to Russia, which the Bolsheviks refused to repay. Therefore, Paris aimed to bring to power a government willing to honor the debts.
Naturally, both empires also possessed significant property beyond their borders. However, their legal status was mostly determined through various agreements when new states settled their relations with the surrounding world. The situation was somewhat more complex with those parts of former empires that seceded during their dissolution.
For example, among them were the Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia — which seceded twice, in 1917 and in 1991. Finland and the eastern part of Poland with Warsaw, which became independent after 1917, can also be mentioned. In 1991, all former union republics became independent. But the parties agreed to dissolve the USSR and accordingly divide its state property based on territorial ownership.
The only question was related to the USSR’s debts, amounting to around $100 billion. The Russian Federation took on these debts in exchange for all the USSR’s foreign property, known as the «zero option.» However, Ukraine disputed this scheme. Kiev claimed that both property and debts should have been divided, and to do this, information about the USSR’s assets beyond its borders was necessary. But Moscow refused to provide such information.
It should be noted that Russia clearly made a wise decision at that time. The issue was not only about embassy buildings, trade missions, cultural centers, but also several banks and many important individual enterprises. For example, the Soviet foreign property included the oil company «Zarubezhneft,» which in the 1990s operated in Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, and several other countries.
Another notable example was the 51% stake in the copper company «Erdenet» in Mongolia, with an annual production of 1 million tons of copper. In the 1990s, this plant started producing 2 million tons of copper per year. For comparison, the Kazakh company «Kazakhmys» produces 350 thousand tons of copper per year. So, in 1991, «Erdenet» was equivalent to three hypothetical modern «Kazakhmys» with lower production costs. And after 10 years, it became worth six hypothetical «Kazakhmys.»
The USSR also owned many enterprises in Africa and Asia, as well as transportation companies, and so on. Speaking only about real estate, they mentioned a figure of 600 million square meters worldwide; not all of it was in market conditions, much of it was abandoned. Nevertheless, the value of the Soviet property significantly exceeded the $100 billion of Soviet debts paid by Russia. Estimates of the liquid part ranged from $300 to $600 billion.
Of course, there was also the illiquid part in the form of debts of former socialist states to the USSR. Moscow later mostly wrote off these debts as part of building cooperation with individual countries. But it also restructured the debts of the former USSR. So it was a long and not always straightforward process. Therefore, Ukraine constantly disputed with Russia on this issue.
However, it’s understandable that for other republics, this format was optimal, if only because the search and subsequent division of former Soviet property abroad threatened to drag on indefinitely. It was simpler to exchange the USSR’s debts for its property abroad and thereby legitimize the cessation of its existence.
One can say that legally, the issue of property was generally settled in the early 1990s. Although, of course, the history with Crimea in 2014 created a precedent for the transfer of ownership. All state assets of Ukraine in Crimea passed to Russia. Before the war in February 2022, Kiev disputed this in international courts, for example, regarding gas fields. It’s clear that this will be a very long story of legal disputes.
But despite all the complexities, in this context, it’s worth putting aside the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Although it’s entirely possible that the decision of January 18 was made within the framework of this confrontation. Perhaps Moscow intends to declare Russian property assets somewhere in Odessa or Nikolaev on the grounds that Grigory Potemkin built them in the 18th century.
However, it’s more likely that Moscow made this decision as part of a complex political game around its assets. Currently, there is a discussion about the confiscation of Russian currency reserves in favor of Ukraine, which were frozen after the start of the war in February 2022. Western politicians find it difficult to agree and make a clear decision on this issue due to the status of state assets under international law. Perhaps that’s why Russia made the decision to seek the property of the USSR and the Russian Empire and present risks. The discussion revolves around legal battles that can be used as pressure tactics.
At the same time, this creates an ambiguous situation on the territory of those states that previously were part not so much of the USSR, but rather of the Russian Empire. It’s clear that the latter had a lot of property here before 1917. For example, the building of the University of Warsaw in Poland or military fortresses in Latvia (Liepāja-Libava), in Finland (Sveaborg), in China (Port Arthur). Understandably, in the latter case, it was about leasing a military base, but the real estate in the port and the city was registered to Russia.
In general, purely theoretically, the decision to search for, register, and legally protect the property of the Russian Empire, even if it only concerns real estate, may involve a huge number of objects across its former territory. The question here is the interpretation of the events that terminated the authority of the Russian Empire over all of them. In other words, can it be considered that Finland gaining independence from the Bolsheviks in December 1917 means the transfer of all property, including the Sveaborg fortress and much more, to it, or not?
Obviously, all of this is not practical, but the questions remain about how exactly the Russian authorities intend to interpret property issues related to the real estate of the former Russian Empire, whether they already have a corresponding list or they will only start looking for it.
Paradoxically, but again purely theoretically, this could also affect Kazakhstan. For example, according to the laws of the Russian Empire, all land in the Kazakh steppe before 1917 was considered state property. It was leased to various subjects within its territory.
Understandably, nothing like this will happen; after all, we are allies. Although Moscow’s desire to constantly return to the past may be understandable from the standpoint of its ideology’s tasks. But still, it’s better to leave the past to historians rather than real estate and housing law specialists.