Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Meanwhile, at the Other End of the Empire ... Putin Scrambles to Squash Siberian Autonomy Movement

While President Vladimir Putin seems committed to clawing back bits of territory on his western flank that used to be part of the former Soviet Union (Crimea, the Donbas, Abkhazia, etc.), a gigantic territory in the east is stirring to loosen, or even sever, its ties to Moscow.  The response has been swift and harsh.  But whether the Kremlin is nipping this movement in the bud or fanning its flames remains to be seen.

The region in question is Siberia, and even “gigantic” is an understatement.  Not a political entity at all in its own right at present, Siberia simply refers to all of the parts of the Russian Federation that are in Asia, i.e. east of the Ural Mountains.  This 13-million-square-kilometer territory makes up more than three-quarters of the Russian Federation as a whole and just shy of a whopping 10% of the land surface of the entire world—though its mostly frigid vastness contains only just over a quarter of Russia’s population.  If independent, Siberia would take over from Russia its centuries-long status as largest country in the world—Canada would still be a trailing second—and knock what’s left of Russia down to number seven, between Australia and India.  More to the point, Siberia contains most of Russia’s timber and mineral resources, plus the long Arctic Ocean coastline that could help Russia dominate the globe in the coming century as global warming frees unknowably vast energy resources from its ice cover (unless global warming kills us all first, of course (sorry to bring that up)).

This diagonal green-and-white flag is the most common Siberian regionalist flag in the modern period.
Although hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups call Siberia home, the population is over 90% ethnically Russian and over 70% urban.  (Then there’s the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, but that’s a long story.)  It is these descendants of late-Czarist-era pioneer settlers, plus more recent migrants and exiles, that are behind the current drive to give more autonomy to Siberia, not indigenous peoples, who have their own quiet drives for more autonomy and, in some cases, dormant secessionist movements (as in Tuva and Yakutia (Sakha)).

Yet another proposed Siberian flag
In just the past couple weeks, the Russian government has blocked a page on Vkontakte (the “Russian Facebook”) called “March to Federate Siberia” (Марш за федерализацию Сибири) which calls for devolution of powers from Moscow to the east—not actual secession.  The page was rallying for a march to be held August 17th in Novosibirsk, which is not just Siberia’s most populous city but the third-most-populous in Russia as a whole.  About 2,000 people had pledged to join the march, but now, according to a B.B.C. report, anyone surfing over to the page from a computer in Russia sees only a message reading, “Access is limited on the orders of the law-enforcement agencies.”

An image from online announcements for the August 17th march for federalism.
A white-and-green horizontal bicolor like this was used by the original independence movement
during the Russian civil war, but as far as I can tell the stylized black snowflake
(or are those Christian crosses? or gears?) is a fresh addition.
The march, which is being planned with the slogan, “Stop Feeding Russia!”, is designed to press for the establishment of a Republic of Siberia which would have considerably more autonomy than republics do now—especially when it comes to keeping in its own budget the wealth generated from Siberia’s natural resources.  (Russia’s first post-Communist president, Boris Yeltsin, lured separatist republics like Tatarstan and Kalmykia into the new Russian Federation with promises of more autonomy, but his successor, Putin, has reversed course and created a heavily centralized empire, where the more potentially restive regions are run not by elected leaders but by cronies directly appointed by the Kremlin.)

Glorious overall-wearing Siberian proletariat
smashes élitist oligarchs!
Siberian activists are quick to point out the Kremlin’s hypocrisy in making merely talking about separatism in Russia a crime against the state (see an article from this blog on that legislation) while actively supporting separatism in places like Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh—shall I go on?  (Putin’s baldly Orwellian doublethink on this question is one of the reasons that Siberia’s southern neighbor, the People’s Republic of China—where breathing the word “separatism” is also a way to get an all-expenses-paid thirty-year stay in a “re-education camp”—has been very, very quiet on the Crimea issue.)

The current movement, centered to all appearances quite closely on Novosibirsk, features artists as its central figures, including Artem Loskutov, who runs a blog on the topic.  The fact that Loskutov’s public rallies have often seemed more like satirical, culture-jamming “happenings” than serious political endeavors does not seem to make the Kremlin view the prospect of an August 17th march any more kindly.  But Loskutov makes clear that this is all hardly a prank, and that he is not alone.  He told an interviewer recently, “I’m not an ideologist.  Everything is very decentralized, as befits those advocating decentralization.  I will take part in this protest as on ordinary person who cares about the future of Siberia and Russia as a whole.”  Loskutov also seemed to carefully dodge questions about rumored plans to be appoint him “people’s mayor” of Novosibirsk, which would echo the terminology of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic rebels in eastern Ukraine, with whom the Siberian autonomy movement shares almost nothing ideologically.

Artem Loskutov
The movement, Loskutov said, is “not about separatism, it’s in full compliance with the law.  We are talking about creating a new region within Russia.  ...  Our [Russia’s] constitution provides for independence [“autonomy” is closer to his meaning here] of regions, the law just has to be put to work.  We must have as much autonomy as possible.  ...  Siberia gives away her resources and gets piles of dumb laws in return.”

A surfeit of flag proposals can be found in readers’ uploads
to the Siberian movement’s banned Vkontakte page.
Loskutov’s approach is not new.  Siberian autonomy has long been the domain of bohemians.  The anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin advocated Siberian independence as long ago as the 1860s, and even tossed out the idea of letting Siberia link up with Alaska and become part of the United States, as a way of letting democracy into Eurasia from the east.  (See an article from this blog on the idea of Siberia as the 51st state.  See another article from this blog on the opposite scenario: Alaska joining Russia.)

Mikhail Bakunin: Siberia’s first separatist
During the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 Leninist revolution, Mensheviks in Irkutsk declared an autonomous Siberia and maintained it for a while with the help of Czech and Slovak fighters, before Bolsheviks finally crushed the movement and absorbed it into the new Soviet Union.  And around the time of the 2010 census, artists kicked up dust in anger over census-takers’ refusal to accept “Siberian” as a self-declared “nationality.”  And the avant-garde novelist and conceptual artist Artur Solomonov is among the current drive’s most prominent backers.

Victorious Bolsheviks posing with the corpses
of Czech and Slovak pro-Siberian insurgents in 1917.
It seems unlikely that Novosibirsk on August 17th will turn into something as game-changing as the Euro-Maidan movement in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.  But, even in the face of Putin’s pitiless assault on Ukraine, Russian regional autonomists are showing that they are no longer cowed into silence.  In fact, in Kaliningrad Oblast (formerly Königsberg), Russia’s easternmost point, an exclave that Josef Stalin scooped up from Nazi Germany as war booty in 1945, autonomists are now planning their own “Stop Feeding Moscow” march timed to coincide with Novosibirsk’s.

Kaliningrad too?  (And, yes, those are Prussian flags.)
Some sort of giant may be stirring in its sleep.

[You can read more about Siberia and many other sovereignty and independence movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

Copious thanks are due to Jeff Groton for directing me to many of these sources.

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