Staunton, August 1 – The recent posting to the Russian Far East of newly-minted KGB officers for allowing themselves to be photographed on graduation from a training academy serves to remind many Russians of the way most of them view the enormous portion of Russia east of the Urals, as a place of punishment and exile.
But another recent event, last week’s commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the death of Mikhail Lermontov has suggested to Svobodnaya pressa writer Stanislav Smagin that “Russia beyond the Urals for today’s ‘golden youth’ is playing the role of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the 19th century” (svpressa.ru/blogs/article/153508/).
That is, he suggests, one in which the region is not simply a place of exile or punishment from which anyone sent there will naturally want to escape as rapidly as possible back to “European Russia” but rather as “wild, frightening and in essence absolutely alien places with a semi-colonial status” in which one can take part in an imperial competition with other powers.
In the 19th century, Russians like Lermontov saw the Caucasus and Central Asia into which Russia was advancing as a reflection of a national mission. Now, as officials like Sakha Senator Rostislav Goldshteyn are saying, developing the Russian Far East is the most important Russian national project, “the locomotive and chief hope” for the country’s future (yakutiamedia.ru/news/politics/29.07.2016/521567/senator-rostislav-goldshteyn-dalniy-vostok-kak-krupneyshiy-natsionalniy-proekt.html).
But in the period in between, Siberia and the Russian Far East were generally viewed only as a place of exile and punishment, Smagin says, and not surprisingly many Russians and especially older ones, including quite possibly all of the FSB officers just sent there continue to view the region as a kind of prison colony they hope they can escape by one means or another.
But thanks to dozens of books and films about Russia beyond the Urals, many “young men and young women from good families having received an appointment there after graduation joyfully pack their suitcases” and look forward to being part of something bigger than themselves, just as Lermontov did almost two centuries ago.
Such willingness to go to the edge of empire has consequences, the Svobodnaya pressa journalist says. On the one hand, it produces a wave of patriotic euphoria and sense of imperial mission. But on the other, it can lead to skepticism and recognition of what is in fact “internal colonization” and to demands for change in the country as a whole.
That is what happened in the 19th century, when some of those who went to fight in the Caucasus or Central Asia became the most committed imperialists but others, like Lermontov, came to respect those they were fighting against and to ask probing questions about what their country was about in those faraway places.
And just as in the 19th century, Smagin suggests, the contest between these two groups is likely to play a critical role in the future of Russia.