Monday, April 11, 2011

Window on Eurasia: One in Three East of the Urals Now Identifies as a Siberian, Irkutsk Priest Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, April 11 – Approximately one in every three residents of the Russian Federation east of the Urals now identifies as a Siberian, an identification that will intensify into fullblown nationhood unless Moscow arranges to dispatch more ethnic Russians from European portions of the country there, according to a Russian Orthodox churchman in Irkutsk.

In a comment on the debate over whether Siberians constitute a nation, a sub-ethnos or only a regional identity, Archpriest Vyacheslav Pushkarev says that “Sibiryaks” now form 30 to 35 percent of the population east of the Urals, making them the second largest ethnos in that region (

According to Pushkarev, the situation regarding identity in Siberia and the Far East is far more complicated than most of the participants in the debate over whether Siberians are a nationality or not suspect, the result of both the complex history of the settlement of that region and recent changes.

“In Siberia and the Far East,” he writes, “a situation evolved in which in reality live side by side two major ethnoses and a mass of small ones.” The first “and still the dominant one” are the Great Russians, people “who as a rule are children of recent resettlers who came or were sent to [the region] in the 1950s to the 1970s.”

“These people spent all their childhood and each summer as guests of their grandmothers in Central Russia and the South of the country” and viewed “life in Siberia” as “atemporary phenomenon … constantly dreaming and now dreaming of returning to the historic Motherland of their fathers and mothers.”

And it is this group of people who make up the 100,000 who annually leave Siberia and the Far East every year, departures that mean that those who “call themselves [ethnic] Russian people and are proud of their origins.” They now form roughly half of the population of the region, but their share is constantly declining.

“The second major ethnos,” the archpriest says, “is a mass of people who now call themselves and for a long time have felt themselves to be Sibirians.” This is “already an accomplished fact.” They are “justbegining to understand themselves as a single community, but this process is developing very quickly.”

These “Siberians” represent now approximately 30-35 percent of the total population.[They] are descendents of voluntary settlers whocame to Siberia from the 17th to the end of the 19th century and of course as well the children of numerous mixed marriages [with indigenous nationalities] in various generations.”

They “did not have a childhood in the South,” and “they do not connect their future with the Core Russia because no one is waiting for them there and all that they have was given to them by Siberia. Why do they call themselves Siberians? Because by blood they are already far from Russians and are distinguished even by their anthropological type.”

“In addition,” Pushkarev writes, as the authority of the Great Russian nation has fallen, those who are the products of mixed marriages but who do not want to identify as Buryats, Yakuts or Udygeys are interested in an identity that reflects their unique character as a people in between.

“The people in these districts are now not very religious, and religion does not unify them,” Pushkarev says. “Geography does.” That feeling is intensified by the sense that many of them feel that “for Moscow,” the residents of this enormous land are only servants of the interests of the center.

“To call themselves Siberians,” the archpriest says, “is just as natural and comfortable as it is for Anglo-Saxons to call themselves Canadians, Australians or Americans.” And that is all the more so “under conditions when the [ethnic] Russian people does not have special rights and even its own territory,”while small non-Russian peoples do.

In this way as in many others, the Siberians resemble the small peoples of Siberia with whom they are interrelated. “For the Siberians, the small peoples of Siberia are part of their blood and their history and therefore they are closer to them than to the Great Russians and only they can be seriously concerned about the rapid dying out of communities of local people.”

Pushkarev says that “Siberians now are becoming the leading force in Siberia since they intend to live in it in the future and therefore their self-determination and self-advancement will continue, and no political science commentaries or ethnographic definitions are going to help” change that.

The only thing that would help, the Russian Orthodox priest says, would be “the flooding of Siberia and the Far East with Great Russians”—“a minimum of 100 million “would be needed,” he says – and the shifting of the political capital of the country “closer to the center of the entire Russian Federation so that each will feel that it near and common” to all.

Unless these things happen – and they aren’t, Pushkarev observes – “then the phenomenon of the Siberians as a nationality will become an anthropological and political fact with all the snuring centrifugal consequences up to the loss by the Russian Federation of the territories of Siberia and the Far East.”

“This is where the truth is,” the archipriest concludes, “and not in assertions that the Siberians supposedly do not exist. One must not close one’s eyes to an accomplished fact,” as some Moscow commentators are doing, people who are “far from an understanding of the essence of the problem” beyond the Urals.

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