Meet the Siberian Liberation Army
Where Russia Meets China: Part 1 of a 5-part series in
cooperation with Slate.
BY JOSHUA KUCERA | DECEMBER 28, 2009
IRKUTSK, Russia -- When you're the leader of a fringe
political group, a cafe called "I'm Waiting for a UFO" may not be the
best place to take a visiting journalist. But it's possible that alien
abduction is more likely than what Mikheil Kulekhov is working for: Siberian
Kulekhov was the head of the Siberian Liberation Army until
officers from the FSB (the successor to the KGB) contacted him. "They
asked me: 'Why are you calling yourselves an army? Are you going to take up
arms?'" Assured that wasn't the case, the officers asked Kulekhov to
change the organization's name. He did, and it is now the National Alternative
of Siberia. (The two names share the same acronym in Russian, OAS, he points
That Russian security let these would-be secessionists off
with nothing more than a gentle scolding is probably a reflection of the
group's modest size: Kulekhov counts about 30 members in the OAS. So, Siberia
is not Chechnya.
Siberian independence is unlikely. But this region's
long-term political and economic future is uncertain. Much of the oil and
natural gas that has fueled Russia's booming economy over the last decade is
found in eastern Siberia, and the area is also rich in timber, minerals, and
other natural resources. But it doesn't have very many people. This was the
last part of Russia to be settled, and the Russian history of much of eastern
Siberia stretches back barely 100 years.
Contrary to Siberia's reputation, most of the cities I
visited were pleasant -- Irkutsk, in particular, has gracious architecture and
a bookish college-town feel. Siberians boast that they tend to be smarter and
better-looking than their compatriots, because so much of Russia's elite was
shipped out here when Siberia was used as a penal colony. But life here has
always been difficult; it's remote and, in the winter, bitterly cold. The
Soviets encouraged Russians to settle here, but after the collapse of the
Soviet Union, people started heading west: The population of Russia east of
Irkutsk decreased from 8 million to 6 million between 1998 and 2002 (the date
of the last census). What would this mass exodus mean for Russia? Perhaps
Russia's greatest claim to being a great power is its immense size, and a
shrinking population in its farthest reaches could call its claim on Siberia --
and by extension its authority on the world stage -- into question. I was traveling
through this region, heading east from Irkutsk, to see how Russia is holding on
to its Far East.
Kulekhov bases his argument for independence on three
pillars: the geographic, economic, and cultural uniqueness of Siberia. Irkutsk,
he notes, is farther from Moscow than New York is from London, and Russian
involvement in Siberia is analogous to the British colonization of the New
World. "We're so far away, it's easy to see that we're a different
country," he said. Economically, he argues, Siberia has more trade with
Asia than it does with the European part of Russia, and too much of the income
from this region's vast natural resources ends up in Moscow.
What's more, Siberians have unique "national
characteristics. We are very skeptical, don't trust anyone, we're difficult to
negotiate with, and we do things the way we want them to be done. We're
individualists." While ethnic Russians everywhere are Orthodox Christian,
in Siberia they have a syncretic bent, incorporating some elements of the
Buddhist and shamanistic traditions of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. (The
green-and-white OAS logo nods to that ecumenism, incorporating a cross as well
as a circular form that refers to Buddhist chakras.)
The OAS is claiming its place in the long history of Siberian
political independence movements, from 19th-century intellectuals who first
posited the existence of a Siberian identity distinct from Russianness to a
short-lived anti-Bolshevik Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia in the
chaotic days after the Russian Civil War. Every year, OAS members make a
pilgrimage to the grave of one of the early heroes of Siberian independence,
and during my visit, the group's newspaper ran a front-page feature on the
police force of the post-civil war autonomous government.
Kulekhov claims solidarity with other secessionist
movements, which, he says, are everywhere in Russia. But at least for now,
Russia is heading in the opposite direction. Regional governors used to be
elected by local voters, but in 2004, then-President Vladimir Putin changed the
law and decided to appoint the governors directly, greatly increasing the
Kremlin's authority over Russia's far-flung regions. This would become a
running theme throughout my trip: how distant Moscow rules Siberia imperiously,
with little regard for the wishes of the people here. The word colony came up
again and again in conversation.
Mikhail Rozhansky, a political analyst in Irkutsk, said
there is no hope for Siberian independence. But its appeal is obvious.
"It's understandable why people here have this dream-they don't want to
feel like they're on the edge of the world," he said.
"Everything is centralized; everything is a colony of
Moscow. Even regions close to Moscow still feel like they're living on the edge
of Russia," Rozhansky said. Although that centralization creates
resentment, it also makes it hard for strong regionalism to develop: "Ties
between Irkutsk and Moscow are closer than the ties between Irkutsk and
Krasnoyarsk," another Siberian city.
A key component of the Siberian character is rootlessness,
Rozhansky added. The first Russian settlers came here not because it was a
pleasant place to live but because they were chasing the valuable natural
resources of the time: furs. And that hasn't changed, even if today the goal is
work in the timber or petroleum industries.
"Even if people came four centuries ago, they feel like
life here is temporary," he said. "People have always come here
because of the natural resources, not because they wanted to. And there's no
tradition of compromise-people will just leave, find a new place to live."
Photo by Joshua Kucera