Thursday, July 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Siberia Will Be Independent!’

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 16 – Siberians, angry about the way in which Moscow is exploiting their natural resources, contaminating their environment and leaving them poorer than most of the rest of the Russia, are recalling an event 91 years ago that both Soviet and post-Soviet officials have tried to get the residents of the enormously rich land beyond the Urals to forget.
On July 17, 1919, the Provisional Government of Siberia in Omsk adopted a Declaration of Independence for Siberia. Although that document did not lead to genuine freedom for the region – both the Bolsheviks and their White Russian opponents were against the notion – some Siberians now say that independence through the “decolonization” would benefit them.
In a appeal issued today on the eve of this anniversary, a group of Siberian activists said that the independence of their land would “give [Siberians] the chance to independently administer [their] resources, productive, scientific, cultural and human potential and guarantee their development in ways corresponding to Siberian requirements, needs and desires.”
“We Siberians,” it continues, “must not be a colony and must not be a source of free resources for political adventurists and corporations in the capital who have no concern with the existence and development of our people, with its past, present and future” (
And the call concludes, “the Day of the Independence of Siberia is a constant reminder to us Siberians about a simple truth: the solution of our problems is to be found only in our own hands and does not depend on the good will of capital cities beyond the Urals who are far from us in all senses of the word.”
Three things about this statement are important, regardless of how many people in the region are currently prepared to support this idea – and their numbers while apparently growing are probably not large at least in terms of the number of people who are prepared to take action on them as opposed to expressing sympathy for greater regional control.
First, Siberian regionalism, like that of other areas of the Russian Federation which are predominantly ethnic Russian, is very much alive, yet another indication of the relative weakness of Russian national identity and of the difficulty if not impossibility of integrating that country without a more developed transportation and communication network.
Up until World War I, most Russians identified themselves in terms of a region rather than in terms of a nation or the country. In Solzhenitsyn’s “August 1914,” for example, not a single soldier in the Russian army in East Prussia calls himself a “Russian.” Instead, the soldiers say they are Petersburgers, Muscovites, men of the Urals, or “Siberiyaki.”
In contrast to the tsars, the Soviet system attempted to impose a single “Russian” ethnic identity, but there are growing indications in many parts of the Russian Federation that the Soviet effort to do that was not much more successful than its drive to create a supranational “Soviet people.”
Second, Siberian attention today to the declaration adopted during the Russian Civil War is certain to be the occasion for ever more people in that region to reflect upon just how different they are from those Moscow classifies as their fellow ethnic Russians in the European portion of the Russian Federation as well as on how much Moscow has exploited them.
On the one hand, the Siberians never knew serfdom and, despite the presence of tsarist and Soviet camps and exiles, have maintained a much freer public life than Russians on the other side of the Urals. And on the other, given the current crisis, Siberians are ever more conscious of just how exploitative Moscow has been and how much damage it has inflicted on their land.
And third – and this may be the most important aspect of interest in Siberian independence – attention to this idea provides an occasion both for the expression of the hopes and fears of that people and an indication of what many of them would like to see happen even if they do not gain independence anytime soon.
An indication of this is provided by some of the many comments that the appeal attracted. Some who wrote in talked with enormous authority about the history of 1919, pointing out that there had been other republics at that time as well, including a Far Eastern Republic and smaller ones within what is now Siberia.
More intriguing were comments about what independence would mean and what Siberians could and should do with it. Some wrote in to say that an independent Siberia would quickly be absorbed by China, while others suggested that only by becoming independence could Siberians prevent Moscow from handing over their land to Beijing.
And one suggested yet another possibility: He recalled that at one time, the Russian Empire referred to Alaska as “the American district of the Irkutsk gubernnia.” In the future, after independence, this arrangement might be reversed, and Irkutsk would become “a county in Alaska,” whose people “could live in a decent fashion.”
But there were three other ideas that informed most of the comments and thus should be most worrisome to Moscow. First, several writers suggested that Siberian independence would be “a guarantee that no one will give up our islands, bring in atomic waste, construct idiotic ‘Evenk hydroelectric stations’ or contaminate Lake Baikal.
Second, all agreed that once independence was achieved, it would be absolutely necessary to carry out a full program of lustration like those employed in some East European and Baltic countries against the Communists to ensure that not a single member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party was allowed to remain in office.
And third, even among those who were skeptical as to whether Siberia would be able to maintain its independence, there was a general feeling that “the current Russian Federation is breaking up and very quickly too. The Medvedputs have miscalculated,” one wrote, and the country is now about where the Soviet Union was in 1987.”
Indeed, he continued, “NO ONE needs the existence of the Russian Federation in its current borders … in the first instance Russia itself.” Consequently, those who are simply trying to put off the inevitable collapse of that entity, regardless of whether what follows will be good or bad, are engaged in a self-defeating effort.
And in an analogy that is certain to infuriate many Muscovites and mainstream Russian nationalists, the author of this comment concluded, “the integrity of Russia is like the virginity of a young woman. Everyone speaks about the need to preserve it, and all understand that it will be violated quickly, inevitably and forever.”

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