Saturday, February 16, 2019

Regionalist Movements, Now Under Kremlin Attack, Must Focus on Small Steps if They are to Recover, Vitushkin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 15 – The experience of the Free Ingria movement in St. Petersburg shows that its current decline in influence reflects not only increasingly repressive actions of the Russian authorities but its own mistakes, including a tendency to talk about long-goals instead of more immediate and achievable ones, Dmitry Vitushkin says. 

            If it and other regionalist movements in the Russian Federation are to recover the positions they had a decade ago and thus be in a position to win broader support when political conditions allow, Free Ingria and the others, the regionalist commentator suggests, will need to focus on smaller steps rather than grand ideas (

            It is a dangerous temptation among regionalists – and while he doesn’t say so, among other opposition groups in Russia – to blame the authorities alone for their current problems, Vitushkin says. That repression is certainly a major obstacle, but regionalists need to focus on what they are doing if they are to survive current difficulties and flourish again.

            He draws that conclusion on the basis of what he calls “the rise and fall” of the Free Ingria idea over the past dozen years.  The birth of the idea, Vitushkin says, occurred “approximately in 2006-2007,” when activists began showing up at protests with the yellow-blue-red flag that had been first raised a century ago by the Northern Ingria Republic.

            It gained ground in 2009 in successful effort to keep Gazprom from despoiling the city center by building a massive office there and became a regular participant in demonstrations both in the relative freedom of the Putin regime before 2008 and especially under what now seem the halcyon days of the Medvedev interregnum.

            The Free Ingria movement seemed to be gaining ground because it not only attracted more people and attention, Vitushkin says, but also because it was large enough to have a range of interest groups within it, divided among various ideological and religious groups.  But since 2012 and especially 2014, all of that has more or less disappeared given official attacks.

            In the current decade, the powers that be have frequently made it clear that they view Ingermanlanders “as enemies” and have deployed their power against them. Activists were persecuted to the point that some emigrated or simply stopped taking part in Free Ingria activities lest they suffer as a result.

            “Not surprisingly in such circumstances,” the regionalist says, “the overwhelming majority of potential supporters of autonomy for the Neva region preferred to keep quiet about their views.  [And] today, the Ingria flag and even the word ‘Ingermanland’ are viewed by many people as seditious.” The movement is no longer gaining supporters but losing them.

            One response of those who remained attached to its ideas was to shift from politics to culture, but the authorities countered by forcing groups which had offered the Free Ingria movement support, like the Finland Institute and the Annekirk church, to end their support for the group.

            “The decisive knife in the back” of the movement, Vitushkin continues, “was the break with ‘the nationals,’ the activists of official ethnic organizations which receive state grants.” Earlier they had all been supportive; now, at risk of losing their funding, they are all unwilling to work with the Ingria movement.

            Obviously, this repressive policy of the government has had a deleterious effect on the movement, but the movement itself has made fundamental mistakes that have also cost it support, he says. If it is to recover, it needs to recognize those mistakes and then work very hard to correct them.

            The greatest of these errors, Vitushkin says, was to focus on ideas and dreams about a distant future, with slogans like “Ingria isn’t a party; Ingria is a country,” and not worry at all about short term issues that some activists dismissed as “’boringly routine.’”  That attitude cost it support especially among young people who had been its base.

            Its current fall does not have to be its end, Vitushkin insists. The movement has had some success in that the word “Ingria” now appears on many facilities in St. Petersburg and so is increasingly acceptable as long as it stays away from politics.  As a brand, it has succeeded; but as a political movement, it hasn’t.

            The Free Ingria movement needs “a reset,” he concludes; one that focuses on immediate and achievable goals rather than long term ones. Only in that way will it and others like it be ready to exploit what many hope and expect will be a thaw after the passing of the repressive Putin regime.

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