Sunday, October 26, 2014

“Lower Volga People’s Republic”—Internet Prank, or a New Autonomist Headache for the Kremlin?

Kremlin authorities are still baffled by an apparent Internet prank on October 7th which declared Astrakhan Oblast was declaring independence from the Russian Federation as the “Lower Volga People’s Republic.”

Astrakhan is thought of as the southernmost extent of ethnic-Russian settlement
and is in an historically and ethnically volatile neighborhood.
The announcement (pictured at the top of this article) appeared for about two hours on the website of the oblast’s legislature. It read, in part, “The short-sighted and criminal policies of the federal authorities have put the country on the brink of catastrophe.  The authorities have fully discredited themselves, having lost the huge amount of trust given to them.”  The declaration was purported to be co-signed by several oblast officials, including Governor Aleksandr A. Zhilkin, the Duma (parliament) chairman Aleksandr B. Klykanov, the local F.S.B. (state security, erstwhile K.G.B.) head Yuri V. Selyshev, and one Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, identified as “Commander of the People’s Militia.”  (This, coincidentally or not, is the name of a colonel and former F.S.B. agent who earlier this year became a prominent paramilitary leader in the Donetsk People’s Republic rebellion.)

The name of the Lower Volga People’s Republic republic echoes those of the two Kremlin-backed rebel governments which unilaterally seceded from Ukraine earlier this year after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea: the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.  (Three other declared republics, the Kharkov People’s Republic in Ukraine’s northeast and so-called people’s republics in Odessa and Transcarpathia oblasts in western Ukraine, were never backed by any “facts on the ground” in the form of physical secession.)  These “people’s republics” have less to do with actual state socialism or the rights of workers, as their names suggest, and more to do with recalling the symbols of a lost past when Ukraine was ruled from Moscow.  In fact, they are run by undemocratic paramilitary juntas, with strings probably pulled from the Kremlin.

Aleksandr Zhilkin, Astrakhan’s governor, was not amused.
Probably, the Lower Volga declaration evoked the Ukrainian rebel republics as a satirical observation of the fact that President Vladimir Putin advocates federalism and balkanization in Ukraine while tightening central control over regional governments at home in Russia.  But Astrakhan Oblast sits in a region with a separatist past.  Comprising the Volga River delta the oblast’s capital is Astrakhan, sometimes called the southernmost outpost of the Russian world.  To its east is the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.  (Kazakhs make up 16% of the oblast population, and Volga Tatars another 7%; nearly all the rest are ethnic Russians.)  To its southwest is the Republic of Kalmykia, a member of the Russian Federation populated by Asiatic people following Tibetan Buddhism who after the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly seceded under the leadership of their charismatic president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a chess grandmaster and self-described U.F.O. contactee who boasted of psychic powers and chummed around with dictators like Moammar al-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein.  Just past Kalmykia and the Terek steppes is the volatile Caucasus region, where nearly every one of the dozens of separate indigenous ethnic groups has some form of separatist rebellion brewing.  Across the Caspian Sea to the east are the Russian-populated Transcaspia region in Kazakhstan, where Cossacks have occasionally itched to secede from Kazakhstan and join Russia, and just beyond that the separatist Republic of Karakalpakstan within independent Uzbekistan.  Just upriver from Astrakhan is the former territory of the Volga German People’s Republic, which flourished before Soviet feelings toward its ethnic Germans soured with Adolf Hitler’s violation of his non-aggression pact with Josef Stalin.  (Both Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev proposed restoring the republic until local Germanophobe Russians rose up against the idea.)

Coat-of-arms of the erstwhile Kuban People’s Republic
More to the point, perhaps, just to the southwest of Astrakhan is Krasnodar Krai, a mostly ethnic-Russian and ethnic-Ukrainian republic between Crimea and the Caucasus on the Black Sea, which includes Sochi, site of this year’s Winter Olympics.  It is here that Russian authorities last month jailed a leftist activist named Darya Polyudova for holding a rally asking for more autonomy for Krasnodar Krai.  Though she wasn’t asking for independence, she was arrested under a new law brought into force this year which makes the advocacy of separatism a crime.  This August (as reported on at the time in this blog) the Kremlin also cracked down on autonomy activists in Siberia, who, like Polyudova, were in fact asking for nothing more than the autonomy guaranteed regions in the Russian constitution—rights which Putin has systematically eroded into almost nothing.  Timed to coincide with the Siberian “day of action” that ended with police round-ups were autonomy rallies (reported on at the time in this blog) in Kaliningrad (Russia’s westernmost point, a formerly-German exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea), Yekaterinburg in Sverdlovsk Oblast (Boris Yeltsin’s home region, which attempted secession too after the Soviet collapse), and Krasnodar.  In Krasnodar, the August rally organizers were calling for the reestablishment of the Kuban Republic, a Menshevik (anti-Bolshevik) “people’s republic” which flourished briefly in the area during the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 Communist revolution.

The autonomy activist Darya Polyudova is being held by the F.S.B. on separatism charges.
Police arrested Polyudova and other activists on “hooliganism” charges at that August rally, after alleged pro-Kremlin provocateurs incited a brawl.  Her family knew nothing of her whereabouts and waited in vain for her release when her one-month sentence ran out.  Then, the Public Monitoring Commission, a prisoners’ rights group in the area, located Polyudova a few days later in a Federal Security Service (F.S.B.—erstwhile K.G.B.) lock-up where she had been transferred.  Two other activists, Vyacheslav Martynov and Pyotr Lyubchenkov, have sought political asylum in Ukraine.  Polyudov’s group still advocates for “residents of Kuban whose rights are being violated, including the rights of ethnic Ukrainians.”  (Needless to say, this is not a very comfortable point in history to be an ethnic Ukrainian living in Russia proper.)

Some Cossack hosts formed brief-lived republics during the Russian Civil War
(shown here in relation to Astrakhan).
After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, many thought it was ethnic minorities like Chechens and Tatars that might be the undoing of what was left of the Russian empire.  But with those populations mostly beaten down by war and repression, it is ordinary Russians in the provinces who are today challenging Putin to live up to the “Federation” part of “Russian Federation.”

Current flag of Astrakhan Oblast

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with 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.  (That is shorter than the previous working title.)  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 though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking, forward to order a copy of the Book "lets split" From Amazon,
    Books ect. I'll probably pre-order, it in DEC/JAN.2015 if I can.
    Very interesting Russian Federation, articale.
    I Guess, Like most crazy Movements around the world,
    There just jumping on the Banwagon.
    Like most Americans I'm netrual, on the movement,
    I want Siberia, and Kazahasthan to be the 51st,and 52st U.S.
    But like most AMERICANS, thought,
    I'D like the Russian, Federation to be independt and Democratic not, stupid Commuist , or MONARCHY, like it was.
    Dave Fisherman-USA.


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