Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Window on Eurasia: East of the Urals People Increasingly Identifying as Siberians, Not as Russians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 18 – The rapid spread and intensification of Siberian identity is a far greater threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation east of the Urals than is the Peoples Republic of China is, according to both Russian census officials and residents of that enormous and potentially wealthy region now controlled and ruled from Moscow.

            In “Russky reporter,” a correspondent of that publication says that census officials in Siberia acknowledge that an impressive number of residents of Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Barnaul and Yakutsk identified themselves as Siberians by nationality in the 2010 census (

                Three things are striking about that. First, the officials say, “the majority of these people considered themselves [ethnic] Russians” only eight years earlier. Second, there really are a lot of them and not just a few marginal as the media have suggested. And third, there would be even more “if the census had worked as it was supposed to.”

            The 2010 census didn’t, however, as the officials concede. Many census workers didn’t bother to visit people, they say, but simply “filled up the forms” with information from residency records, and wrote down “Russian” when anyone declared that he or she was a Siberian by nationality.

            That is perhaps not surprising given the media campaign against that identity conducted by the official media in the run up to the census in response to an Internet effort to get people to identify as Siberians, the “Russky reporter” correspondent says. That campaign insisted that “there are no Siberians,” only “Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, and further down the list.”

            According to the preliminary results of the census – the full ones have not yet been released – this campaign worked with Ukrainians, Tatars and Jews, but it failed miserably with those the officials had thought they could safely count as ethnic Russians.  Many of those people declared they were Siberians.

            The correspondent talked to a variety of Siberians and residents of Siberia about this identity.  Aleksandr Konovalov, the Krasnoyarsk blogger who is considered the moving force between the promotion of Siberian identity, insisted that Siberians are “different” however difficult that sometimes is to explain.

            In his view, Konovalov aid, “we do not know who the [ethnic] Russians are. During the time of Soviet power, we lost Russian culture and became ‘the Soviet people.’ Today, Russia is some kind of abstraction. Even the country we have is Russia and not Rus. A Siberian identity is more concrete.”

            He said that he does not consider himself a separatist and that he and other Siberians chose to call themselves that in the census to get Moscow’s attention.  “Meetings are today in fact prohibited, and the census became the only all-national possibility to express a protest” about what is going on.

            Oleg Chernomorsky, a Kansk entrepreneur, said that his Siberian identity reflected the fact that “earlier local people were involved in working with the forests, but today the forests belong to Muscovites” and the local people are left with nothing.

            The correspondent observed that for Siberians, the word “’Muscovite’” refers not to the residents of Moscow so much as to “a certain evil community the representatives of which conduct themselves like the British administration in colonial America.” They steal, carry off valuable resources, and do not support local infrastructure or pensions, even while they proclaim that they and the local residents are “one people.”

            According to Chernomorsky, “the appearance of the new nationality is a reaction of the population to what is going on ... Siberia is a colony just as it was in the 17th century. The only difference is that now outsiders take oil, gas, and coal rather than furs.” And they leave behind “radioactive wastes.”

            The Muscovites “are taking practically everything” from the region.  With a few exceptions, they use “colonial methods,” but these exceptions are so rare that they only prove the rule, Chernomorsky says. Moscow’s arrogance is not only offensive: it is infuriating, he says, and the rise of a Siberian identity is the natural result.

            Vasily Popok,  a journalist in Kemerovo, said that “today Siberians already have all the characteristics of a sub-ethnos, just as by the way do Muscovites because being defines consciousness.”  If the authorities don’t respond to this reality, it is possible that Siberians will cease to be “a branch of the ethnic Russians” and finally be “transformed into a separate nation.”

            In Novosibirsk, the “Russky reporter” correspondent spoke with an official in the regional department responsible for combatting extremism. The latter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Moscow doesn’t understand the situation but that it is unlikely that the rise of Siberian identity will lead to secession.

            “The danger is in something else,” the official said.  “An individual who rejects being an ethnic Russian, also rejects the stereotypes of behavior related to being Russian.  Who is a Russian in mass culture? Correct: an alcoholic” or some other kind of degenerate. That is a threat.

            There are some well-organized groups in Siberia who seek to promote a new state east of the Urals. The correspondent met with the leader of one of them, Aleksandr Budnikov, who along with eight of his supporters, has been subject to repeated legal action for his views. He said he favors “a confederation with Russia.”

            How Siberia and Russia will reach that goal remains to be seen, Budnikov said. But reach it they will “with a little blood or a lot.” And that reflects a fundamental problem with the Russians themselves. They are “neither an object nor a subject of international law, and they don’t have their own land.”

            Their country, “Rossiya,” is the territory of non-ethnic Russians.  “Is it any surprise that many now are ashamed to call themselves [ethnic] Russians?  This is the direct result of the policy of the authorities.”

            Yury Plyusin, a philosopher, offered a different perspective. He insisted that “Siberian separatism is the regular reanimation of one idea about colonialism and imperialism.”  It is obviously, he suggested, “a foolish and psychopathological idea.”  What would happen if Siberia separated? There would be more rulers but not necessarily progress.

            But Plyusin is a Siberian and proud of it. Indeed, that makes it possible for him to be so critical. Anyone who isn’t a Siberian would offend those who are by making such remarks. “But in criticizing Siberian separatism,” the correspondent says, “Plyusnin does not cast doubt on its real danger. Rather just the reverse.”

            According to him, “the ‘Sibiryak’ people is a sign of the degradation of education.  People simply aren’t told who they are in fact.” The issue is not simple given the large number of nationalities that the Soviets identified. But despite that, these groups have many common characteristics.

            But Plyusnin said that this commonality is best expressed by an adjective rather than a noun: thus in Russia there are “Russian Tatars, Russian Chechens, and Russian Siberians.” If that is not recognized the problem of Siberian separatism will only grow, and that development in turn will lead Moscow to use force against it.

            The correspondent concludes his article by noting that the signs at the Novosibirsk airport refer almost exclusively to Siberians or at most Novosibirsk residents. When he asked his companion why there was no word about Russia, he received this response: “It’s simple: we understand what Siberia is and what the Caucasus is.”

            “Explaining just what Russia is is far more complicated.” And one thing it apparently is not is a country of “non-ethnic Russians” that some in Moscow want to promote. According to the reporter, while many east of the Urals are calling themselves Siberians, almost none is saying he or she is a non-ethnic Russian.

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