Wednesday, January 16, 2019

China Reopens Siberian River Diversion Debate that Divided Soviet Society before 1991

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 15 – Beijing’s proposal for the diversion of part of the flow of rivers from the Altai inside the borders of the Russian Federation to China is sparking “a stormy discussion in Russia,” Kseniya Smolyakova says, because both experts and ordinary Russians remember the debates that killed Siberian river diversion at the end of Soviet times.

            China may have the money to build such a system, the Sibreal journalist says; but the threats to the environment and even the survival of the peoples living along any such shift in the flow of river waters have not changed. And Russians say the Chinese can’t overcome them. Consequently, resistance will continue to grow (

            The Chinese proposals are daunting in size, cost, and impact. The first stage calls for the construction of a canal system of some 1500 kilometers from Russia through Kazakhstan to Mongolia by 2026 that will carry 600 to 700 million cubic waters to Chinese industries and consumers.

            A second stage, to be completed by 2040, would expand the capacity of this system to 1.8 to 2.4 billion cubic meters of water, less than some of the more grandiose Siberian river diversion plans offered first in the imperial period and then both in Stalin’s times and in the 1970s but still enormous.

            But there is one element in common between the current Chinese plans and earlier ideas: They are being opposed by ecologists on environmental grounds and by the broader Russian community on ethnic ones. In the 1970s, Russians objected to river diversion because it would kill off Russian villages in order to save the growing Central Asian populations.

            Now, Russians are objecting to this idea because they view it, in Smolyakova’s words, as “only one of the elements of a broad and varied program by China to acquire the natural resources of Siberia” at the expense of people there.  Moscow may be willing to make a deal; they are not; and this anger could help power regional protests just as it did 50 years ago.

            What is striking about the current case is just how closely it parallels the initial stages of the discussion about Siberian river diversion in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, Moscow officials viewed it as something that could be built if the money could be found, regardless of the consequences for Russian villages.

            Now, with China taking the issue of price off the table – Beijing can and would fund it if Russia agrees to the project – many in the Putin regime in Moscow are ready to go forward full steam ahead.  But both a half century ago and now, the people who would be most directly affected are opposed – and angry at Moscow as well as at China.

            Films and novels about what Siberian river diversion would mean not only agitated Soviet society at a time when few issues were allowed to percolate in the public media: they helped power the so-called “Russian party” within the Soviet government, helped divide it, and opened the way for environmental movements in the republics to become national ones.

            Siberian river diversion thus became a major cause behind the demise of the USSR even if it was not as dramatic as the more proximate ones of a failed war in Afghanistan, an arms race Moscow couldn’t afford, and on-again, off-again attempts at reform.  If Moscow and China go ahead, it could have an analogous effect on the Russian Federation.

            And to the extent that is possible, it will be the irony of ironies: an alliance with China that Moscow thinks will save it may end by having exactly the opposite effect. 

Cossack Nationalism and Separatism Remain Very Much Alive in Russia Today, ‘Russkaya Semerka’ Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 15 – In advance of the January 24 centenary of the Bolshevik decree calling for the destruction of all Cossacks, the Russian historical portal, Russkaya Semerka, concedes something most Russian outlets are unwilling to: Cossack national identity and even separatism, quite strong after 1917, remain very much alive in Russia today.

            Ever more often, the portal says, some say “the Cossacks are an independent ethnos. Some even consider the Cossacks a non-Slavic people, [but] others say these are inventions and call the Cossacks nothing more than Russian resettlers.”  What is important is that the debate, unresolved by scholars, has become a legal one (

                A major reason that Cossacks view themselves as separate from Russians is that the Cossacks always position themselves as free men while Russians often display a slave-like character.  As a result, “the ideas of Cossack separatism gained popularity after the fall of the monarchy; in certain circles, they remain in demand even now.”

            The arguments about whether the Cossacks are a separate nation on the basis of origin or culture remain unresolved among scholars, Russkaya Semerka says; and that lack of resolution has had the effect of shifting the debate from the universities to the courts and parliaments where it is increasingly sharp.

            Cossack groups are pressing both to recognize them as a distinct nationality, something the government is loathe to do but that some courts, as in Volgograd, have found for the Cossacks, especially as historians and DNA tests have shown them more distinct from Russians than many Russians have wanted to admit. 

            Many Cossacks now are focusing on seeking a revision of the April 1991 RSFSR law on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples. The Cossacks were repressed every bit as much and in many cases far more than any other nation; but that law species that they are “a community” not “an ethnos.” 

                In many sense, the Cossacks were the first victims of a Soviet-orchestrated genocide; and that sense has grown among many of them, even as the Putin regime has sought to whitewash the Soviet period.  As the centenary of Lenin’s degree calling for their extermination approaches, there will certainly be more articles, legal cases, and even protests demanding justice. 

Ever More Russians Drawing Analogies between Russia Now and Russia in 1917, Kagarlitsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 15 – Ever more Russians are drawing analogies between their country today and its situation in 1917 and between Vladimir Putin and the last tsar Nicholas II, sociologist and commentator Boris Kagarlitsky says; and this is quite “logical” given the tone deaf reaction of the powers that be in both cases to growing popular anger.

            Kagarlitsky, who approaches these questions from the point of view of Marxist analysis, tells Yevgeny Rychkov of the Nakanune news agency that most officials assumed that the Russian people would swallow the pension reform and not find any way to move from grumbling to protest (

                That is because the powers that be thought that things were fine; and as a result, they did not understand that “in fact the pension ‘reform’ was simply the last drop” that overfilled the cup of popular anger about the regime’s failure to keep its promises and ensure that the population’s standard of living rose instead of fell.

            Such anger was palpable already in 2016 if not earlier, Kagarlitsky says; but it came into focus because the pension “reform” provided people with an occasion to “articulate and consolidate” their feelings.  The authorities indeed should be pleased that things did not go beyond permitted meetings.  That will happen if the powers don’t react more adequately.

            Now that the people have changed their attitude toward the powers “in general,” each new action by the authorities, as can be seen with the Kuriles discussion, will push them toward ever greater radicalization. Earlier, the authorities could count on people coming to terms or being distracted by foreign adventures; but that is no longer the case.

            Until recently, he continues, Russians viewed the government as bad but nonetheless “a close relative. He was awful but “all the same was ours.” But “now, the attitude toward the authorities is that toward a mortal enemy with whom one cannot come to terms or even have a conversation.”

            “And there is no path back,” Kagarlitsky says. “This is a hopeless situation.” And curiously, “however strange it may seem,” he continues, the protests in France and in India are prompting the Putin regime to consider what may be ahead for them for the first time. 

            Once again, Russia is finding itself in “the paradox of revolutionary situations.” The general problem is always more or less recognized, but what is invariably unexpected is the proximate cause which transforms those feelings into revolutionary action.  A combination of “the absolutely expected” and “the absolutely unexpected.”