Monday, April 4, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Sibirians Leading Revival of ‘Geographic Separatism’ in Russian Federation

Paul Goble

Staunton, April 4 – The “Sibiryak’ movement, in one sense “an ordinary social protest which has taken geographic form,” is now “the most noteworthy part of a general process which people had forgotten about since the middle 1990s, geographic separatism,” according to a Russian political analyst.
Vyacheslav Igrunov, however, told Rimma Akhmirova of “Sobesednik” that it is far from the only one. Among the most important of the others are Rus Zalesskaya, Ingermanlandiya, Novgorodskoye Russkoye Veche, Mat-Zemlya in the Gorno-Altay, all of which “find supporters on their territories” (

And Igrunov suggested that the reason they are re-emerging now is that “in the country there is no common ideology, no political life, and no single set of ideals. And in the absence of political and intellectual freedom,” there is an entirely natural tendency to the splitting apart of any “single consciousness.”

This lack of a firm common identity, Akhmirova argues, helps to explain the declarations of some residents of the Russian Federation that they are “elfs,” “jedai,” and “residents of Middle Earth,” but more significantly, it explains why an increasing number prefer to identify themselves “on the basis of their geographic membership.”

And although the 2010 census results have not been yet published in full, the “Sobesednik” journalist continues, evidence already in hand suggests “a greater number of such people turn out to be not in the Caucasus, but in Siberia from which no one had expected a separatist threat.”

According to Marina Mitrenina, a Siberian activist in Tomsk, “the first powerful unifying action of people who consider themselves a special category was the flashmob ‘I am a Siberian’ which called on people to identify themselves as Siberians in the census forms.” She said that she is convinced that “thousands” of people “sympathized.”

“There could have been more, but the information was disseminated largely only through the Internet,” Mitrenina said. “Siberians have their own character and self-consciousness,” something Moscow has recognized when it needed their support as during World War II and Soviet construction projects.

Although Siberian activists like Nitrenina do not say so directly, Akhmirova says, one can sense that they believe that “during peaceful times, the powers that be [in Moscow] consider Siberia a colony, a source of valuable resources” whose people are important only to the extent that they can extract and export those resources for Moscow’s profit.

That attitude has always been present in Russian territories beyond the Urals, but now it has been strengthened, Siberian activists like Mikhail Kulekhov says, by the appearance of a new generation of people who have never travelled outside Siberia and “for whom Moscow is just as far away as the backside of the moon.”

In Soviet times, Kulekhov notes, the cost of an airline ticket to Moscow was less than a quarter of a worker’s monthly pay. Now, it is “much more” than the average salary. Consequently, people don’t go to the Russian capital. To travel to China,” he continues, “is simpler and less expensive.”

These high prices and low wages infuriate many Siberians, Kulekhov says. Irkutsk oblast alone provides from “a quarter to a third of Russian exports” of aluminum, wood, cellulose, and arms. “But the standard of living in this ‘rich region’ is approximately equal to that of Egypt. Who are we then if now a colony?”

Kulekhov adds that he and his friends initially wanted to call their movement “The Liberation Army of Siberia,” but “the Chekists” then asked if we did not intend to fight. “We told them no,” pointedly adding that “we simply couldn’t tolerate such a relationship to us and to our land.”

“For me,” Kulekhov continues, “Siberia is my land; my ancestors settled here several hundred years ago,” but the officials and businessmen in Moscow are more interested in foreign resorts than in this part of Russia. “Here they have only business.” And they would be willing to see the population of Siberia decline to “50-100,000” to service their needs.

According to Nitrenina, “Siberians do not even want money from the state. They can take care of themselves if they are given the opportunity to conduct free economic activity” and are “liberated from major corporations which are harming the environment” because Muscovites owners do not care what happens there.

Akhmirova concludes that “life beyond the Urals in fact is proceeding according to its own laws. They have their own heroes, idols, views, principles, even sayings, jokes and manners.” Indeed, she suggests, “Russia beyond the Urals is much more distinguished from Central Russia than even from the Caucasus.” And that more people there think “autonomously.”

“The main thing that unites [Siberia] from the point of simple people,” the “Sobesednik” journalist observes, “are taxes which the center collects the greater part of” while “leaving the people with their own problems.” But the Siberian movement is not just a tax revolt, however powerful that may be.

There is a powerful sense among the residents of this enormous territory of being very different than the European Russians and Muscovites, Akhmirova says, and Siberian activists are actively promoting this, by celebrating not only Orthodox holidays but Muslim ones and even reaching out to Siberian shamans.

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