The value of Siberia is measured in barrels, tonnes and cubic metres. Since its colonial conquest by Tsarist Russia in the seventeenth century, this vast area has long been seen not as a place with a life of its own - a separate, autonomous entity - but merely as somewhere to be plundered and exploited for profit. So the flooding, burning, felling and selling off chunks of it is seen as something to be inordinately proud of, rather than a cause for shame. It’s just virgin territory that needs to be tamed and turned into contracts and cash. A means rather than an end. Today it is still the object of crude and inhuman economic and environmental management on a massive scale. For the Russian government it is more important to lay a pipeline from the Vankor oilfield and build a massive hydroelectric scheme at Boguchany on the Angara river than to consider how these grandiose projects destroy people’s homes and environment.
Siberia is a vanity project for the Kremlin: Look what we can do! Here are holes in the ground that oil comes out of! Here’s a good location for dirty and dangerous industries! Here’s space to get rid of all kinds of toxic trash, whether it be radioactive waste or criminals and terrorists.
Siberia is a vanity project for the Kremlin: look what we can do!
It is because of this attitude that the subject of Siberian regionalism, most recently quashed at the beginning of the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union, won’t go away. The pressure is building up and there is no outlet for it. Siberia has to be decolonised, but there isn’t a single parliamentary party that supports this demand. There’s a lot of talk about the need for a Siberian Party to represent the interests of Asiatic Russia in the national parliament, but the Russian Constitution doesn’t allow regional parties.
How long is this problem going to be swept under the carpet; how long can the elephant in the room be ignored?
Krasnoyarsk, Siberia’s third largest city, came into my life in autumn 1991. As we drove from the airport, we were told by the taxi driver that the talk in the town was that this would be the day that ‘they’ stormed ‘the Sixth’. IK-6 is a high security prison camp just inside the city limits, and had for over a month been in the hands of its inmates, who had pulled down internal fences and chased the prison administration off the site. Intimidating the warders and burning official documents in the administration offices, they discovered letters, photos of their families, news of the deaths of mothers and fathers, all posted to them six months or a year earlier but never delivered, and they roared like wild animals. People would throw them vodka over the fence in hot water bottles or plastic shampoo bottles, some for money, others in the hope that they would get drunk and riotous, so that the army could claim more justification for storming the camp - and meet less resistance. Vodka was cheaper inside than outside.
We raced round there without even dropping off our things at our hotel. When we arrived on the scene, soldiers were sorting out shields that had been dumped on the pavement. There were internal troops, riot squads, police cadets in snowy white woollen masks under helmets with equally bright index numbers. The freezing air was thick with cigarette smoke. A line of 2000 bayonets stretched towards the boundary fence: some of the forces were preparing to enter the camp, where everyone believed a stand off was inevitable; others took up positions around the fence to prevent any attempted breakouts.
The inmates were ready for them; they had seized three trucks and armed one of them in ten millimetre sheet iron. The camp held 2240 prisoners, all convicted of murder or crimes of violence. Almost all were repeat offenders: some serving their seventh or eighth stretch; most armed with axes, swords, metal rods and pegs, pikes and other sharpened metal implements. They had also somehow got hold of explosives and firearms, and set barrels full of petrol at intervals along the fence and around the two watch towers. Now they were standing on the barrack and workshop roofs, all in black, their faces gaunt and their hands in their pockets, and oxygen cylinders and explosives at their feet.
The deadline passed for the ultimatum the mutineers had been given. Trucks that had been blocking the gates moved away, and two bulldozers pulled up to lead the storming of the camp. The adjoining residential blocks were evacuated, along with the children from the nearby school and nurseries. The buildings’ gas and electricity cut off.
Then, the leaders of the mutiny lined up in single file to surrender. They came out of the administrative buildings and got into two prison vans. When these roared off and quickly disappeared, a red rocket flew up into the air and as it burned a single cry went up from an old woman in the crowd – she had a son in the camp. The riot squads got ready to lead the troops into the leaderless camp, clutching their submachine guns and taking off the safety catches. A bulldozer broke through the concrete wall, and was followed inside by a fire engine. I suddenly understood why people use armies to settle their differences. It’s a combination of herd instinct and cowardice: in a charging herd it’s impossible to concentrate on a single victim; you’re safer in a crowd. It’s just an illusion, of course, but it’s hard-wired, just like fear. The riot police were followed in by the conscripts and cadets, with an armoured vehicle bringing up the rear. The firing was over quickly, the oxygen cylinders were bled and thrown off the roofs by soldiers and undercover police moving among the mutineers.
The mutiny had, it seemed, been suppressed. But as I got to know the city it seemed to me that with the wall breached, the bandits with all their happiness and villainy had simply been let loose. Or was it always like that here?
High hopes in the '90s
The town’s inhabitants whipped their governor - sent by Moscow to rule them - and sent him off down the Yenisei River in a boat.
The next day I visited the headquarters of the regional authorities. In those - still just Soviet - days they were called the district Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the Communist Party Executive Committee. In the entrance hall, I saw a painting which seemed to show in oils on canvas the same mutinous behaviour I had seen at camp IK-6. The same mannered poses, wide-open mouths and staring eyes. Only the time and the clothes were different, and the fortress walls were made of wood. It was explained to me that this was the Krasnoyarsk Rebellion of 1695, three centuries before the mutiny at IK-6. It was the first ever Russian revolution, it was also a protest against the repressive policies of Siberia’s foreign conquerors and it lasted three years. The town’s inhabitants, themselves European settlers in this imperial border post, expelled three successive governors sent by Moscow to rule them. The last one, Semyon Durnovo, was whipped and sent off down the Yenisei River in a boat. The rebels also turned away the investigators sent by the Tsar from Moscow. The town and surrounding district were governed by ‘judges’, elected by public meetings, who were also responsible for legal proceedings and the collection of taxes from the townspeople and fur tributes due to the Tsar by the local indigenous population.
The Krasnoyarsk rebellion of 1695 was the first Russian revolution. It lasted three years and was a protest against the repressive policies of Siberia’s foreign conquerors. In many eyes, Siberia is still being pillaged by outside powers.
The painting emanated a powerful energy and its message was clear. The faces of the rebels glowed with aggression and the will to win – none of them showed the slightest shadow of the weak-mindedness and indecision so common in Russian history. Krasnoyarsk was from the beginning a fort and army base; you didn’t come here to live, but to serve, and only the strongest and most warlike survived and thrived.
The painting of the 1695 rebellion was taken down before the arrival of officials from the capital, and put up again when they left.
Back then in 1991 there was already talk about turning the Krasnoyarsk Region into an independent Yenisei (Central Siberian) Republic – and the talk was happening in the regional government building, not just on the streets and in people’s kitchens. Later, in 1993, the head of the regional governing council Vyacheslav Novikov (now a senator) suggested uniting with the Irkutsk Region to form an Eastern Siberian Republic. But by then the Region had already lost part of its territory to two new Autonomous Okrugs (districts), the Taymyr and Evenk, with larger indigenous Siberian populations, and Nationalists among the majority ethnic Russian population were proposing that what remained become a Russian Autonomous Okrug. Ideas about general devolution and fragmentation were flying in all directions.
Later, when Moscow took back the reins of power and decentralisation gave way to centralisation, the painting of the 1695 rebellion was taken down before the arrival of officials from the capital (especially the ones from the Finance Ministry, who had to be kept sweet). After they left it reappeared on the wall, but it came down for good in the 2000s, when Krasnoyarsk had a new invasion from Moscow. This time it wasn’t bureaucrats, but young guys with silver, not to mention gold and platinum, spoons in their mouths – businessmen and financiers who had made their millions from the privatisation of the Norilsk Mining Combine, the world's leading producer of nickel and palladium, in the far north of the Region. Our first regional governor was Aleksandr Khloponin, now Presidential envoy to the region and a deputy Prime Minister of Russia, and he was succeeded by his right hand man Lev Kuznetsov.
In the closing months of 1991, ideas about Siberian independence were the main topic of conversation in political circles.
But back then, in the closing months of 1991, ideas about Siberian independence hadn’t yet been abandoned, and were indeed the main topic of conversation in political circles. At the start of 1992 local representatives at all levels, from all over Siberia, met in Krasnoyarsk. You could hear all kinds of statements like ‘we could survive without Moscow, but Moscow probably couldn’t survive without us’. Radicals proposed that the conference agree a declaration of Siberian independence, the abolition of all existing organs of the Russian colonial regime and the creation of a Siberian Republic.
By the summer of 1992 all this was no longer just hot air: there was even a plan for the introduction of a local currency, with banknotes printed in Novosibirsk. Their official name was ‘internal financial transaction units’, but the locals called them ‘augrams’. The notes looked very much like US dollars, but with the regional coat of arms - a lion carrying a spade and a sickle - replacing a portrait of the president. Above the labouring beast was the name of the financial company responsible for their issue: a four man business called ‘The House of Aquarius’. The augram was designed by a young man called Oleg L., and while the currency was being printed he became the leading regional specialist in anti-monopoly policy and the development of new economic structures.
By the summer of 1992 there was a plan for the introduction of a local Siberian currency – the ‘augram’.
The plan was that the augram would work in parallel to the rouble, except that the new money was guaranteed against inflation by its creators, whose chain of shops would accept only the local currency. The value of augram was to be set at 20-30 roubles, making it the equivalent of the rouble at the end of the golden age of the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Moreover, the value of the new money in ‘House of Aquarius’ outlets would constantly rise against the rouble, given that currency’s inflation rate. It was planned that businesses would also move to trading in local money, which would solve their cash flow problems and relieve them of a load of regional taxes. In other words, we would have our private currency, free from government budget deficits and the burden of taxation, its value guaranteed by the word of honour of four local businessmen supported by local government. Of course, these people could have sold their banknotes to the public and disappeared with the rouble proceeds, but somehow that didn’t worry anyone – that’s life.
The first consignment of regional currency – 2.5 million augrams of various denominations – arrived in Krasnoyarsk. But central government, even of the 1992 variety, hadn’t lost its sensitivity to this kind of financial free enterprise, and the security forces put an end to our plans. In fact Siberia wasn’t the only region to take such an initiative: in Yekaterinburg, where there was talk of setting up a Republic of the Urals, an attempt to introduce ‘Ural francs’ ended in a similar debacle.
With the start of the First Chechen War at the end of 1994 regional hopes of breaking free or at least negotiating some degree of independence faded, and when Putin came to power in 2000 the subject was no longer even mentioned. But it didn’t disappear: the problems, after all, hadn’t disappeared and some had become worse.
Life in a colony
In 1992, when we didn’t know what country we would wake up in the next morning, my eldest son was born. Like all his generation in Krasnoyarsk he had a deprived childhood: he grew up, for example, without ever visiting our wonderful regional history museum - one of the oldest in Siberia, recognised as the best provincial cultural institution in the whole of Russia and a European Museum of the Year in 2004. This relatively small building was closed for refurbishment for 14(!) years. And remember, we are talking about a region with more natural resources than the whole of Europe.
Like all his generation in Krasnoyarsk my son had a deprived childhood from the start.
My son then grew up in the ‘noughties’, when a flight from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow cost more than one from Moscow to New York. There was just no question of him going to study at Moscow University. And in Krasnoyarsk itself it has been impossible to get a decent humanities education for some time. The city’s state university has always specialised in applied science and technology, although in the last years of the Soviet Union it did begin to develop into something more like a traditional, academically orientated institution. But in the Putin years, having gobbled up all the local polytechnics and become the Federal University of Siberia, it has quickly dumped all its rudimentary humanities courses and reverted to what it was before, a training facility for the mineral industry. Its students are taught the best ways to dig up, drown and extract profit from their local landscape. In the old days this was ‘for the good of the Party and the People’; now the beneficiaries are billionaire oligarchs such as Deripaska, Abramovich and Potanin. It all makes sense: a commodity based colonial economy has no need of people with arts degrees; in fact, they are more of a hindrance than a help. Our country needs specialists in extracting minerals from the earth and servicing pipelines. Anyone else is surplus to requirements and we’d be better off without them. My eldest son is now a student at the local medical university.
Krasnoyarsk’s university is just a training facility for the mineral industry.
At the age of six my middle son was really keen on ice hockey, and I wanted to enrol him in the local club. But I wasn’t impressed with the one and only indoor skating rink (in a city of a million inhabitants!) And I was right: a few months later the roof collapsed and the whole thing was demolished. Krasnoyarsk, the birthplace of, among others, the ice hockey star Aleksandr Semin (who managed to get away in time and now plays professionally in the USA), was left without any indoor ice. And don’t talk about outdoor rinks – our winter lasts eight months and the temperature often falls to minus 50 Centigrade.
Lev Kuznetsov, our present governor, used to play hockey in the now demolished indoor rink, and obviously doesn’t want to fly home to Moscow every time he wants a game. So before the last elections they suddenly started building and opening new indoor rinks. Too late for my son: he’s got into other stuff, and in any case he’s now ten, which is a bit old to start.
My youngest son still has all his problems ahead; he’s only eighteen months old. The first hurdle will be getting into a nursery (Krasnoyrsk has the distinction of having the longest waiting lists for nursery places in Russia).
The gas extracted in Siberia is pumped to central Russia and beyond, while we rely for our heating on brown coal.
This is what life in a colony is like. The gas extracted in Siberia is pumped to central Russia and beyond, while we rely for our heating on brown coal, which is harmful to both the environment and to us who have to breathe in its fumes. And that’s the way things are in Krasnoyarsk and hundreds of other cities beyond the Urals. Colonies exist so that other people can have oil, aluminium and gold, but there’s little money to spend on such luxuries as indoor ice rinks, museums, theatres, universities and nursery schools for the people who live there.
The internationally famous conductor Valery Gergiev recently said in an interview for an Irkutsk newspaper: ‘I’ve just been in Krasnoyarsk and tried to get across to the governor what a terrible state the theatre building was in, and this in a region with more mineral wealth than the whole of Europe.’ And the celebrated pianist Denis Matsuyev, who was with him, added: ‘That’s right. And there isn’t a single grand piano worth playing on in the whole of Krasnoyarsk.’
A long history
The idea of Siberian independence goes back a long way. In 1721 the governor of the time, Matvey Gagarin, was hanged in St Petersburg - ostensibly for embezzlement and nepotism, but both the Swedish geographer and cartographer Philip Johann von Strahlenberg (who lived in Siberia for 13 years after being taken prisoner at the Battle of Poltava in 1709) and the Siberian historian Peter Slovtsov (1767-1843) wrote that ‘Gagarin had the evil intent to separate from Russia’. By the second half of the 19th century the idea had spread among the population: students published a proclamation on the need for separation ‘for the good of the people’, and in 1865 the young writer and campaigner Grigory Potanin, the founder of the ‘Society for the Independence of Siberia’ who is considered the father of Siberian separatism, was arrested and sentenced to forced labour, as were many of his fellow campaigners.
The Siberian separatists looked towards the federal structure of the USA as a possible model for development, and indeed there were historical parallels between them: the European conquest of North America and Siberia; the appearance of the first towns; the eastern Siberian and Californian ‘gold rushes’ – all of these happened at much the same time on both continents. But in fact these similarities were purely external – the fact is that European expansion in the New World was mainly a question of private enterprise by free individuals, whereas Russians went to Siberia on behalf of, and in the interests of, the Russian state.
In July 1918 Siberia gained independence - it lasted a mere 122 days.
Unrest and revolution in European Russia a century ago triggered, unsurprisingly, a new wave of Siberian separatism: more proclamations, more news about an independence party. Just before the October 1917 Revolution, a conference in Tomsk agreed on ‘an Autonomous Structure for Siberia’, as well as a Siberian national flag and crest; a provisional government was set up soon afterwards. This was followed in July 1918 by the publishing of a Declaration of Siberian National Sovereignty – essentially, a declaration of independence. But this vast region’s independence lasted a mere 122 days. Siberia became caught up in Russia’s raging civil war and ended up as just another region of the new Soviet Union. The idea didn’t die, but it lay dormant, waiting for a new time of upheaval.
Meanwhile the Bolsheviks pursued the same colonial policies as the Tsars. The Second World War in particular brought great change – as heavy industry was evacuated from the European part of the USSR, Siberia underwent a period of rapid and forced industrialisation. In the final decades of Communist rule, manufacturing marched on, into the taiga, our coniferous forest belt. To give the Communists their due, this was also mitigated by campaigns to ‘turn Siberia into a centre for cultural life’. Theatres and art galleries were built, and our living standards began to rise… but it didn’t stop their predatory destruction of our wide open spaces in the name of progress. In our list of colonial exports, fur was replaced by oil, gas and heavy metals. Or to be more precise, our sable and Arctic fox skins were now listed alongside these new sectors.
The extraction of mineral wealth meant the devastation of our countryside; climate change; the disappearance of local ecosystems; the flooding of whole areas, including some of the most fertile; the depletion of our biodiversity – both the fish in our rivers and the animals and birds in our forests; in short, the general impoverishment of our lives. They have built the largest hydroelectric schemes in the world, which provide the power for the largest aluminium smelting plants. All the stuff of our lives that the rivers provided was dematerialised and turned into an invisible electric current which was then re-materialised as aluminium ingots. Then these were loaded on trains and taken away.
The mineral wealth extracted here is for businesses thousands of miles away .… All we get is smoke and soot.
Russia’s Asiatic territory was always there to be an exporter of raw materials, but the lands beyond the Urals have acquired their final functional contours only now, as Siberia, as a resource-extraction colony, has entered the global market more rapidly and smoothly than Russia as a whole. We recently celebrated our region’s birthday and the life of one of its greatest sons, the writer Viktor Astafyev, and decided to christen our region ‘King Region’, by analogy with his most famous novel, King Fish, whose subject is the threat of ecological catastrophe in Siberia. But the people who thought up the name little realised how accurate it was, because a commodity export colony is a real king fish, a sturgeon that flings its caviar across the oceans. The mineral wealth extracted here is only of use to businesses thousands of miles away, apart from a small amount needed by our bosses for domestic use. All we get out of it is smoke and soot, poisoned rivers and a devastated landscape. A raw materials colony can’t feed any ‘extra mouths’, so Siberia’s population is haemorrhaging at a record level; it doesn’t need agriculture, so the land lies fallow and choked with weeds; it also doesn’t need hi-tech industries, and there are few left.
Traditional villages with features unique to the local culture, many of them 300, even 350 years old, stood in the way of the Rusala (aluminium smelting) and Rusgidro (hydroelectric) companies, and so have been demolished and burned, and the remains cleared by gangs of prisoners supervised by the local cops. We’re not talking the Gulag here – in those days the inmates’ labour shored up the might of the USSR. Now they slave to enhance Deripaska’s rating in the Forbes billionaires list. People’s hearths and homes have vanished beneath the waters of the Angara river for the sake of the brave new world promised by Russia’s largest investment project, the ‘Combined Power and Water Development Plan for the Lower Angara Area’. At the heart of this project is the Boguchany Hydroelectric Power Plant (BoGES), which is already in operation, although the aluminium smelting plant it was designed to feed has been put on the back burner for the present. Nothing has changed: villages, forests, harvests, churches, human lives have all been changed into electricity which will then be conserved in metal – and of course profit for Deripaska.
… revived today
In our Putinist times protest against the Kremlin’s colonial politics has found a home online.
It’s no surprise that these decisions taken in Moscow now and then revive the phantoms of Siberian separatism – phantoms that can have no real power today but which refuse to go away. In our Putinist times, which have coincided with the mass computerisation and internetisation of Russia beyond the Urals, protest against the Kremlin’s colonial politics has found a home online. The 2000s saw the Siberian separatist movement with a wide presence on the internet, and Wikipedia even opened a section in the Siberian language that by 2007 was the 66th largest in the world (it was later removed). In 2010, before a national Census, posts appeared on the Web asking Siberians to declare their nationality as ‘Siberian’, rather than Russian, Tatar or German, although it must be said that not many people followed this advice.
Konstantin Eryomenko — one of the leading figures behind a movement calling for people to declare their nationality as ‘Siberian’. Note the black and green flag of Siberia in the background. Photo (c) Yoshinori Toyomane
Sometimes passions break out onto the streets. In the autumn of 2011, when in European Russia people were marching under the slogan ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus!’, protesters in Novosibirsk turned it round to read ‘Stop Feeding Moscow!’ Now and then local politicians and other public figures join in: recently Aleksandr Lyulko, a Novosibirsk city councilor, called for an end to ‘harmful socialist elements’ such as the equal distribution of government funds around the regions, so as to stop money earned in Siberia from disappearing into the federal pot. And this summer two members of the Novosibirsk Regional Civic Chamber, Aleksandr Bakayev and Yevgeny Mitrofanov, well known as the founders of the Siberian National-Cultural Autonomy organisation, sent an open letter to the Siberian presidential envoy Viktor Tolokonsky. In it, Tolokonsky was asked to ‘initiate at the highest level a process of unifying existing Siberian regions into a super-region with enhanced powers of taxation, governance and legislation.’
In 2011, as people in European Russia were marching under the slogan ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus!’, protesters in Novosibirsk turned it round to read ‘Stop Feeding Moscow!’
Bakayev and Mitrofanov argued that the centralised allocation of tax revenue between the Centre and the regions was restricting Siberia’s growth. To take just one example: in 2012 the Tomsk region of Siberia delivered 130 billion roubles of tax revenue to Russia’s exchequer, but got back a mere 10,3 billion, the remaining 92 billion disappearing into the common pot. As a result the region had to borrow from commercial banks and float a bond issue on the stock exchange to cover its financial obligations. As they wrote: ‘In a situation where people living in the regions are becoming increasingly aware of the unfairness of the present system of distribution of tax revenue, their total dependence on central government decisions and the absence of any real power at regional level, we will inevitably see the rise not only of discontent with the status quo and rumblings of protest, but the emergence of separatist tendencies (already visible in many regions to the east of the Urals) which will present a serious threat to the unity of Russia.’
Siberian National-Cultural Autonomy is an organisation created to bring together people concerned about the future of the region. The word ‘autonomy’ is most often used to refer to the rights of ethnic minorities, and the 2010 census showed that people who considered themselves ‘Siberians’ were indeed a minority. Presidential envoy Tolokonsky announced publicly that he was one of them, and referred to those who had made the same choice as ‘patriots’. We, he said, have never separated each other as Belarusians, Tatars or Germans; we have all worked together to develop our region.
The recent resurgence of the provincial initiative owes its existence to Vladimir Putin.
The recent resurgence of provincial initiative in fact owes its existence to Vladimir Putin himself: there is simply not enough cash in the public purse to fund the pre-election promises he made to the regions last May. The regional authorities in Krasnoyarsk were clear on this; the president’s package of decrees, which prioritised areas such as public sector pay, social benefits and regional development, would bring the region to the brink of bankruptcy. This year they are simply not implementing it: experts calculate that to raise public sector salaries to the level promised by Putin, for example, they would need to find an extra 114 billion roubles over the next three years. This would only be possible if they cut or eliminated other areas of expenditure and took on a crippling level of debt. And there is no help from central government on the horizon. The region is building up a colossal deficit (‘if not critical’, according to the regional Finance Ministry head, who handed in his resignation soon after the announcement of the area’s imminent ‘financial tragedy’). His replacement announced just the other day that in 2013 the Krasnoyarsk region received 136 billion roubles of government allocation, but has spent 181 billion, a deficit of 45 billion, which for a regional budget is a very large sum. Vsevolod Sevastianov, deputy speaker of the regional legislative assembly, predicts that by 2016, with a budget of 162 billion roubles the debt will stand at 88 billion.
The problem isn’t Putin’s decrees as such – public sector salaries need to be increased – but the government’s tax policies, which deprive the regions of so much of the revenue they raise.
Krasnoyarsk is only one of many regions experiencing these problems. Tyumen, for example, which provides Russia with two thirds of its oil and 90% of its gas, is also likely to turn from a donor region into a subsidised one, with this year’s expenditure 36.6 billion roubles higher than its income from central government. And the Omsk region’s governor has just announced that next year its debt will be equivalent to 70% of its income. Meanwhile in Novosibirsk Putin’s promises have led to a cut in its social welfare budget and will cost the region 35% of its annual expenditure.
The problem isn’t of course Putin’s decrees as such – public sector salaries need to be increased – but the government’s tax policies, which deprive the regions of so much of the revenue they raise. Russia isn’t the USA: Krasnoyarsk isn’t going to file for bankruptcy, like Detroit did in July, and Moscow isn’t going to send an emergency manager to try to sort it out – although it might make sense to do so. In any case, no one is coming up with sensible ideas about how to avoid financial collapse. There are no regional leaders capable of asking Putin to change the system.
That of course doesn’t stop Siberian politicians from complaining about the shortcomings in Moscow’s policies towards its Asiatic regions. Especially just before elections. Party spin doctors’ suggestions about wheeling out the regional patriotism bandwagon are always popular with candidates, since it’s what appeals to the voters. Until, that is, they get absorbed into the Kremlin power vertical and immediately change their tune.
The future – more of the same
For Russia’s present government the lands east of the Urals don’t exist.
There are any number of official plans for the future of Siberia at every level (district, regional, national). But what is blindingly obvious from all these strategy papers is that for Russia’s present government the lands east of the Urals don’t exist. Yes, there are resources to be tapped, but there are no real people with ordinary human relationships and needs.
Bureaucrats in Moscow and Siberia produce mountains of documents which never fail to quote the great 18th century Russian scientist and writer Mikhail Lomonosov’s phrase about the benefit to Russia’s might of Siberia with its frozen seas. And on the clapboard barracks where the people live who mine this might, hang banners with the slogan, ‘Siberia’s riches - for Russia!’ Our politicians love to quote Lomonosov’s archaic and rather ridiculous-sounding words. Maybe they feel that it excuses their colonial policies in their eastern regions. But what it shows is that their attitudes are stuck in the distant past.
In the government’s ‘Strategy for Siberian Development to 2020’, as indeed in many other policy documents, the region is described as ‘our country’s resource centre’. Once again, just as in Soviet times, our region is to be tamed and developed, a territory marked out for grandiose construction projects and multi-trillion investment. There will be many more hydro schemes, a huge number of mining and timber complexes, initial processing plants, metallurgical works still using old technology whose towers will belch out toxic gases to kill every living thing for miles around... It would be more accurate to describe all this not as a strategy for Siberian development , but a strategy for development at Siberia’s expense. And who gets to develop? Russian big business and the Chinese state. Many of the planned schemes are mainly of benefit to China.
For the government’s ‘Strategy for Siberian Development’ read ‘a strategy for development at Siberia’s expense’.
The list also includes projects rejected as unrealistic in the Brezhnev era (1964-1982) and projects that Stalin couldn’t complete even with a many million-strong workforce from the Gulag. There are plans, for instance, to resurrect a number of railway lines, including the unfinished ‘Transpolar Main Line’ better known as the ‘Road of Death’, although even in Brezhnev’s time they couldn’t work out what goods to transport on them and why.
One small consolation: Gazprom planned to build a 2,700 kilometre gas pipeline from Siberia to north-west China through the remote Altai republic, but in October the scheme was put on hold after protest from local and international campaigners, since it would threaten local ecosystems and sacred sites (UNESCO has designated the area as a World Heritage Site).
Meanwhile the city of Krasnoyarsk is gasping for (and still without) a metro system. It has no shortage of fountains but hardly any public toilets. You don’t want to go near its hospitals. There are prisons and prison camps in the city centre and dormitory suburbs, and filthy metallurgical and chemical works within the city limits. But none of this is mentioned in the Strategy. The region will continue to block its rivers, fell its forests and build new aluminium smelting plants, but aren’t toilets and hospitals also part of strategic development?
It’s interesting that the Strategy does include (as it always does) an intention to ‘eliminate discontinuity in gravel roads’ and connect eastern with western Russia by means of an asphalted highway. Putin has already officially opened this road several times, but it still isn’t ready. In spring and autumn it is flooded by streams breaking their banks. There are no other roads connecting eastern and western Russia, and the whole project is an eloquent illustration of Russia’s attitude to us Siberians. After all, there are no such problems with the pipelines carrying the oil and gas out of Siberia.
The highway connecting eastern and western Russia is infamously poor and every spring and autumn it is flooded by streams breaking their banks. There are no such problems with the pipes that carry the precious black stuff; they are designed to endure the very harshest of conditions. Photo (c) wikimedia
The grand hydroelectric and railways projects included in the Strategy not only do not fit into any concepts of modernisation, they actually cancel them out. Trying to carry them through would be the most effective way of finishing Russia off. It would be the end of Putin’s plan to switch the economy from a commodity export base to high-tech, innovation-based development. It would also be the end of any dreams people might have had about freedom and democracy. Colonies, especially those rich in energy sources, need democracy as little as they need innovation.
Why Russia needs Siberia and the Caucasus
Individualism and the decentralisation of life don’t really go with a commodity export economy – they are superfluous to its needs. In the Krasnoyarsk region small and medium business account for just 1.5% of GDP, whereas in European Russia the figure is more like 17-20%, and in some places higher. In the developed world these businesses account for 60-70% of GDP, and are the main consumers of innovative products and services. And at Krasnoyarsk’s economic forum in February there was a proposal to create the post of business ombudsman – there are 300,000 people in Russia in prison for financial crimes.
Siberia - a commodity used to prop up the Kremlin, whether that be through its oil or providing the perfect nature backdrop to a photo op. Photo (c) wikimedia
It’s a medical fact that life on a commodity-derived income pollutes people’s minds and leads to stagnation, laziness, corruption and stupidity. It’s a dubious pleasure to own a hole in the ground with oil flowing out of it. Unearned income from the export of oil and gas doesn’t only strangle our real economy, but creates a careless attitude to its core values: the institution of private property, the principles of decentralisation of life and individualism. And here I’m not just talking about Siberia, but about the whole of Russia. Its reliance on the colonial exploitation of the larger part of its territory objectively leads to a general suspension of freedoms and the expansion of police power. And the resulting explosions in the metro, buses and stadiums equally objectively lead to a tightening of the screws.
It’s a medical fact that life on a commodity-derived income pollutes people’s minds and leads to stagnation, laziness, corruption and stupidity.
This colonial attitude to the regions, and the explosions in the centre, form part of a universal centralised organism based on cause and effect, with incompatible hormones to maintain an equilibrium. The regime produces policies that have horrific consequences, which in their turn justify the existence of the regime. It’s a vicious circle. Perceptions of Siberia or the Caucasus as wastelands that have to be tamed and exploited, whether by flooding or bombing, are unbelievably strong in Russia’s rulers. We only have to look at the appointment of Krasnoyarsk governor Aleksandr Khloponin, a glaring example of someone with a colonial mindset, to the post of presidential envoy to the Caucasus in 2010. This former ‘good oligarch’ (his own description of himself standing for governor, when he declared his monthly income to be 1.4 million dollars), is a member of the central committee of United Russia, a non-Petersburger [Putin comes from St Petersburg has tended to surround himself with others from that city], non-silovik and biker. And they sent him to the Caucasus. Of course his post is not a crucial one in that restless region, but its importance is difficult to overestimate. In any case Khloponin, despite his lack of FSB background, can match any Stalinist manager for toughness, lack of principles and a coldblooded ability to achieve his ends by all available means.
The regime produces policies that have horrific consequences, which in their turn justify the existence of the regime.
My mention of Stalin was no accident: Khloponin, a former liberal who then slipped easily into United Russia’s clutches, always used phraseology harking back to the Stalin era when talking about the harnessing of eastern Siberia and its wealth of natural resources.
Terrorist acts in Moscow and other Russian cities give Putin and his cronies no sleepless nights. Explosions are a natural element of this organism. If politics is the concentrated expression of economics, terror is the concentrated expression of politics. This country full of forests to fell, which lives not off its brainpower but the sale of its mineral deposits, requires someone on top tightening the screws. And a blown up train or bus is just something that triggers the process of screw-tightening, the evil that it protects and saves us from. The system is in equilibrium, and the all-powerful conservative camp, growing bloated on its natural revenue, its Siberian resources, is wedded to the status-quo.
Siberian separatism will never go away, but it will exist as no more than a phantom and with no prospects for development. Siberia, which only extracts and exports raw or semi-processed materials, is in no state to be independent either economically or politically – it is dependent on the corporations that process its production further, on the parasitic regime in Moscow that exploits its resources, on the people living off the profits, on the players in commodity exchanges around the globe. It is to its Siberian milch-cow, the basis of Russia’s prosperity, and the explosive Caucasus, which confirms the need for authoritarian government, that the present regime owes its very existence, and it will stop at nothing to prevent any change this.
In this situation, Siberia’s colonial economy functions if not with the Russian public’s approval, at least with its tacit agreement. Moscow’s middle classes, organising their wave of civic protest against the regime, are indifferent to the fact that they owe their comfortable existence to Siberian oil, gas and metals. Or at any rate it’s not their most pressing concern. The public is shocked about money being ‘siphoned off’ or people taking ‘kickbacks’. But theft is an important element of the major Siberian construction projects, just as the Gulag was in the past. These Putin era mega schemes are after all not actually designed to pollute Lake Baikal and the Angara or to spit on the souls of the people of the Altai by running a gas pipeline through their sacred sites. These projects were all dreamed up in the ‘noughties’, when the regime had spare cash from its oil profits, and needed to spread it around a bit among the lads. These ‘constructions of the century’ seemed the best way to do it.
Why fools have no need for Baikal
A skinny lad with glasses used to spend several hours each day standing in front of the Irkutsk city hall with a placard reading ‘Fools have no need for Baikal’. This lonely picket was the tail end of a long running battle over the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill - and the quintessence of disillusionment, loss of hope, a line being drawn underneath fruitless attempts to convince the powers that be that there is more to life than money.
The mill, which opened in 1966, has been a contentious issue ever since: Lake Baikal is the world's deepest freshwater lake and a UN world heritage site, and its unique ecosystem is under threat from the pollution caused by effluent from the mill. It was opposition to its construction, and also to a scheme, later abandoned, to divert the flow of Russia’s northern rivers southwards, that more or less formed what civil society existed in Russia at that time. Books were written and films made about protecting Baikal, and for a time there were large, high profile protest rallies. Production was eventually halted in 2008 but then in 2010 Putin reversed the ban, citing concerns about local unemployment. This year, however, thanks in part to the efforts of deputy Prime Ministers Dvorkovich and Shuvalov, the mill has closed for good.
The boy with the placard is right; this is a story about a fool who won the jackpot. This happens often enough: the Lord likes to spin the wheel of fortune (there’s even a popular saying, ‘Fortune favours fools’). And here you have one of them who gets lucky, and deliberately and systematically blows it. It’s as though he’s handed this enormous sum just so that he can show what a fool he is. He drinks it, fritters it away on bits and pieces that might even be useful and needed, but which inexplicably sprout a layer of mould, sticky mud and grease. He buys a flat and it suddenly burns down; he ruins the suspension of his nice shiny Ferrari by driving it along dirt roads; the expensive prostitutes he bathes in champagne give him a nasty disease and so on. The Lord gives the wheel another spin.
When mice are let loose in a pantry, they just crap all over it. They hardly eat a bite, but everything is spoiled. Baikal, the reservoir for the purest water on our planet, is Russia’s jackpot. For many people it more than compensates for all the terrible things that have happened to our environment. When you take your child to its shore for the first time and he burbles in delight, ‘Daddy, is so booful’, you realise you will never leave, no matter what happens.
Russia was given the earth’s most important ‘resource’; if only a fool hadn’t got his hands on it.
Russia was given the earth’s most important ‘resource’, as the bureaucrats call it. And as the triumphal march of progress and consumerism progressed, the ‘resource’ would have only gained in value. If only a fool hadn’t got his hands on it.
Of course it wasn’t Putin and Deripaska who started squandering the jackpot. It started with Khrushchev, in 1966. But it’s no good pointing the finger at him – he’s dead and gone. And those were different times; clean water wasn’t such a problem, and people still believed in progress and science. Khrushchev’s mind was on rockets and space flights, and he was assured that Baikal’s superpure water would provide him with the best cord pulp. They probably imagined that if we messed our earth up, we could always fly to Mars. Now the scientists are talking about water wars in the near future. The quality of our freshwater is in steep decline, and many sources are poisoned or exhausted. Baikal is the earth’s well shaft, containing about 20% of the planet's freshwater reserves.
For many in and outside of Siberia Lake Baikal is a sacred place – a fact Moscow has consistently ignored since the time of Khrushchev. Photo (c) Sergey Gabdurakhmanov
But apart from all the objective reasons for protecting it, for us Siberians Baikal is sacred. And not just for us: visitors from Japan have told me that for them, you haven’t lived if you haven’t seen Baikal. Many of them come on an annual pilgrimage, travelling thousands of miles from their homes.
People go into its water, or in winter onto its ice, to pray. Its shores are lined with pyramidal stone towers and altars, and poles tightly wound round with ribbons, with notes in many languages expressing gratitude and love to Baikal. In Siberia, at Baikal, everyone becomes bit of a pagan, a nature worshipper.
At Baikal, everyone becomes a pagan, a nature worshipper.
So three young women are in prison for dancing in front of a Christian altar, but what about our holy place – were Dvorkovich, Shuvalov and Putin to be allowed to destroy it?
If that question seems a bit extreme, let me just repeat: this is not about a prime minister (as Putin was at the time) disregarding the clear and understandable will of the people of the Baikal region, and insulting and injuring their sense of worth as human beings and citizens. It’s about his invasion of a religious space. So all sorts of people with diametrically opposed beliefs, or people with none at all who have previously shied away from any public activism, have been uniting for the sake of the future of Baikal. So the protest has a deep, religious basis to it.
The poet Levitansky, who lived and worked in Irkutsk after the war, wrote a poem about it that begins, ‘A fool spat in the sea/ Closer, further, laughed “hee hee!”/ Everyone likes a spit in the water/ And he enjoyed it more than he oughter…’ The poem ends: ‘Playing lotto with himself/Loses, wins, plays it cool/ Plays his harmonica, he’ll lose the sea/But what good is the sea to a fool?’
Levitansky wasn’t writing specifically about Baikal – it’s about Siberia as a whole. If Russia has a global mission today, it’s to protect this land of taiga – it is still alive and its contribution to the preservation of the earth’s ecological equilibrium can’t be overestimated. It is a guarantee of our planet’s future.
Now a colony of China as well?
In the 90s all the local mafia bosses were shot or expelled from the region, but new ones have appeared from European Russia.
Twenty years ago romantic supporters of Siberian independence felt it was time to change our region’s image as the home of the Gulag and advocated the deportation of all prisoners from the other side of the Urals. They also argued for the return to European Russia and Ukraine of all the radioactive waste and spent fuel from nuclear power stations that had been dumped here – they were tired of being ‘Russia’s dustbin’. Now we are faced with huge schemes to bring nuclear waste to the Krasnoyarsk region for storage from the whole world, not just former parts of the Soviet Union. And our 42 prisons and prison camps are filling up with people convicted of terrorist offences in the Caucasus and European Russia. In the 90s all the local mafia bosses were shot or expelled from the region, but new ones have appeared from European Russia and we have seven of them in our camps and prisons.
Residential block at maximum security Penitentiary No.17, Krasnoyarsk. Siberia has been assigned a service role by Moscow - to provide resources, absorb pollution and house prisoners. Photo (c) RIA Novosti / Alexander Kryazhev
But things like toxic waste and human dregs, the various kinds of filth ‘exiled’ to the far side of the Urals, are far from the minds of people here today – they seem insignificant beside the scenario for Siberia’s future proposed by the Kremlin. We are to become the source of electricity, timber and minerals for our eastern neighbour. China is being sold chunks of land cut from the body of Russia; Siberia itself is to be exported by the cubic metre, tonne, trainload. Siberia is being burned, felled and flooded so that the resulting products can be sold to the Chinese. Siberia’s cities are already surrounded by Chinese greenhouses, whose vast area can best be appreciated from the air. And after the growers go they leave behind dead soil. These polythene settlements are everywhere: north, south, east and west, even in the most remote mountain valleys. And where felling has been going on, the forests have bald spots – put a few together and you get a desert – again the work of Asian work gangs.
China is being sold chunks of land cut from the body of Russia.
Since Putin has been in power volumes of documents have been written and signed about the best thing to do with Siberia. There are agreement between United Russia and the Chinese Communist Party; schemes to set up state-owned corporations to ‘develop Siberia’ – strategies and plans of all kinds. In fact Russia’s far East and eastern Siberia are already being developed by China, which is reorganising and shaping local infrastructures to serve its own purposes. And the Kremlin is aiding and abetting this process, assenting to enormous tracts of Russian territory becoming a back yard, donor, milch cow for China in its battle for the prosperity of its people and its dominance in the world. Moscow is apparently happy for Siberia to bring benefit to China as well.
But none of this is new either. Deripaska’s EuroSibEnergo, Russia’s largest independent power company, and the Chinese Yangtse Power may have announced that they are creating a joint enterprise, YES Energo, to build up to ten gigawatts of capacity (mostly in hydro form) in Asiatic Russia. Rosneft, Russia’s top oil firm, may have concluded agreements with China’s National Petroleum Corporation and its Sinopec petrochemical group about oil extraction in eastern Siberia. And Putin has ordered the creation and signing off before the end of the year of a programme of construction of new hydro schemes on tributaries of the river Amur. But they all just confirm and consolidate a trend. Siberia is coming under the joint ownership of Moscow and Beijing.
80% of people polled recently in Irkutsk named the present Russian regime in one shape or form as their enemy, and only 2% named China.
It can’t be said that this prospect worries Siberians. An Irkutsk online news site recently ran a poll in which over 41,000 people took part. To the question of who was Siberia’s greatest enemy, 41.5% of respondents answered ‘Putin’, 13.8%, Deripaska, and 13.6 %, United Russia. And, going down the figures, the locals’ attitude to Moscow became even clearer: 7.8 % answered ‘Muscovites’, 4.7%, the power vertical, and Dmitry Medvedev and the national parliament got 1% each. Altogether 80% of respondents named the present Russian regime in one shape or form as their enemy, and only 2% named China (the bogeyman that Moscow political analysts love to scare them with).
Siberians will soon be asking to visit China, if only to see how local corrupt officials are shot for theft. The Chinese also love our Christian God – many of those who have settled here have joined the Russian Orthodox Church and are the most exemplary members of some Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk parishes. And the Chinese have fallen in love with Lake Baikal, which is after all so stunningly beautiful that your heart leaps with happiness and your lips spontaneously whisper a prayer.
Recently the Chinese flew in, for free, planeloads of the filtering substance activated carbon to clean the Angara of oil spilling into it from Baikal. This product is unavailable anywhere in Russia.
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