Sunday, November 25, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Will Siberian ‘Cowboys’ Save Russia – Or Destroy It?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 25 – Two scholars, one Russian and one American, have applied Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to Siberia and concluded that Siberian “cowboys” may be either the foundation for the rise of a genuinely free Russia or alternatively a threat to that country’s continued existence.

            In a series of presentations, articles and interviews, Anna Nemirovskaya of Moscow’s Higher Education School, and Roberto Foa of Harvard present the data they have collected on the ways in which Siberia and the Russian Far East play the role of a Russian “frontier” (, and

            As the report on their remarks notes, Turner at the end of the 19th century said that “the frontier formed the American nation, its individualism … its spirit of freedom, its optimism and hope for the future … its self-reliance rather than dependence on the central government” which that nation often viewed with suspicion.
            But frontiers in other countries have not always played the same role, as Nemirovskaya and Foa point out, drawing on the findings of the World Values Survey. Russia and Siberia, however, provide some clear and instructive parallels with the American experience, the two scholars suggest.

                Compared to European Russians, Siberians and Far Easterners are more inclined to rely on themselves rather than on the state, more likely to participate in self-organized groups, more likely to trust others, more likely to be tolerant of migrants, and more likely to take part in public demonstrations.
            Foa told interviews that the situation in Siberia and the Far East “reminded [him] of distance regions of America like Alaska and Northwestern Canada where people are accustomed to dealing with situations on their own rather than waiting for the approval of the distant center.”

            Nemirovskaya agreed that these are “aspects of Siberian national (!) identity, a special mentality and conviction which has been formed over the course of centuries.”  But she said that it is important to take note of the fact that there are more than 150 ethnic groups there, many of which have their roots in Europe; and that too matters as far as cultural patterns are concerned.

            She added that the frontier nature of Russia east of the Urals is “well illustrated” by data on “the self-identification of the Siberian and Russian population.” In Krasnoyarsk kray and the Khakas Republic, 59 percent identfiy with their village or city, less than a third (31 percent) identify “with the entire Krasnoyarsk Kray. And still fewer, 17 percent identify with all of Russia.”

            Moreover, the Moscow scholar continued, “more than half of the residents of Krasnoyarsk Kray (57 percent) and of the Khakas Republic (52 percent) consider Muscovites ‘far away aliens.’ This indicates that the residents of Eastern Siberia are not satisfied with ‘the colonial policy’ of Mscow, although,” she continued, “this feeling has still not grown over into mass Siberian separatism.”

            In another comment, Nemirovskaya said that she has been surprised that many Western social scientists “do not see the cultural diversity of Russian society and its European roots and do not understand its complex identification.” They do not recognize that settlement in the Eurasian part of Russia has not made them either “’Eurasians’ or ‘Asians.’”

                Asked whether Russia is “a society of the Eurasian or border type,” Foa said that “Russia is situated somewhere between ‘a state’ and ‘a frontier.’ On the one hand,  it has a long history from the times of Muscovy” with a state bureaucracy and so on.  “But on the other, the further you are from the center, the more obvious it becomes that Russia is a society of the frontier and of settlers like the US, Mexico and Brazil.”

            And Russia like those other countries suffers from some of the same shortcomings: “localism, crime, territories of local people who are practically beyond the control of the state, difficulties with tax collections, and so on.” 

           Consequently, Foa added, while frontier societies can be both “liberating and progressive,” they can also suffer from aggression and “the lack of hierarchy and order needed for the flowering of civil society and networks of mutual support.”

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