Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Russian Far East ‘Far East’ Only for Moscow Not for Its People, Siberian Émigré Writer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 2 – Most people accept without thinking the way in which Muscovites designate portions of the country, forgetting the important reality that many are the way the center describes them only to those in the center and that, for example, the Russian Far East is only “a far east” for Moscow but not for the people who live there, Tatyana Vintsevskaya says.

            Vintsevskaya, a psychologist from Siberia who now lives abroad because of repression at home, says she was prompted to make that observation by an interview writer Vasily Avchenko gave to the Sibreal portal about his new book, The Far East: A Hieroglyph of Space (sibreal.org/a/31204018.html; her reaction is at region.expert/symmetry/).

            The psychologist says that Avchenko shows his broad knowledge of the history and geography of the region and makes the kind of distinctions many Russians west of the Urals do not. For them, this enormous territory and its cities appear to be all of a piece and the people in one part of the Pacific rim territory just like those in another.

            But underlying that expertise, unfortunately, is his own imperial approach, one in which he insists that “Russia needs this territory as much as an animal needs its internal organs.” That raises the question, Vintsevskaya says, “is the Far East really ‘an internal organ’ of an imperial organism?” Or is it something other than that.

            She cites the conclusion of historian Yaroslav Butakov that “the Far East … appears only as an extension of the empire. It is oriented exclusively to the center of the empire and therefore it is the east. It is further than all the other eastern lands from its center and therefore it is ‘far.’” And therefore calling it “the Russian Far East” only reinforces this imperial vision (region.expert/pacific-republics/).

            If the territory and the people along the Pacific coast are to develop, Vintsevskaya continues, they must stop thinking of themselves as “the Russian Far East,” something that roots them intentionally or not in Moscow’s imperial agenda. They need to be asking themselves not whether they and their land are needed by Moscow but how they are needed by themselves.

            Avchenko in fact calls attention to this danger when he writes that “each of the regions of the Far Eastern Federal District are more closely and tightly connected with Moscow than with each other. Our horizontal ties are extremely weak, and I know of people from the Primorsky kray who fly to Chukota via Moscow. This is no joke.”

            That’s how things are in the hyper-centralized empire, and it extends to the fact that Moscow does whatever it can to limit connections between the Russian region on the Pacific with nearby countries. That limits the region’s development but it ensures that it remains part of Moscow’s claim of ownership.

            In his book, the émigré psychologist writes, Avchenko pairs cities with the Pacific coast regions with those elsewhere in the former Soviet space, an indication that for him “the former USSR” is still the defining part of geography rather than Russia and that an imperial vision informs his work however much he knows about the localities.

            In short, Avchenko is like those who unreflectively pass by the Leninist phrase on the Vladivostok monument that “Vladivosatok is far but it is still our little town.”  But others there, she continues, are more thoughtful and are beginning to ask how “far” they are from what” and why are we “their little” city?

            Avchenko’s book does make clear that “the main distinction of Russia’s Pacific cities from American, Japanese, and Chinese is that the former were set up as military outposts of empire and not as trading ports, open to communication with the whole world” while the latter were just the reverse and have remained so.

            And that “imperial mentality” has infected even the most “’indigenous’ Far Eastern regional specialists,” she says, even Avchenko. Like those in Moscow, they now talk about how Moscow must control their lands lest they fall under China. But what is striking and must be remembered is than less than a decade ago, Avchenko himself was not talking like this.

            Less than a decade ago, he published a fantasy about the future of a Pacific Ocean Republic under the title Vladivostok-3000 (labirint.ru/books/328703/). It was supposed to become a film, but it appears, Vintsevskaya says, that producers fear that is too risky a subject under current Russian conditions.

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