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The Siberian archipelago

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There’s a popular misconception about Russian politics that ‘everything happens in Moscow.’ But sometimes it’s the capital that has to catch up with the regions (or with Siberia at least).

Aleksei Mazur
18 January 2014

Many people think of Siberia as an uninhabited wilderness of permafrost and pine forests. But in fact most Siberians live in modern cities connected by road and rail links, with the major cities – Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude and Chita – all on the famous Trans-Siberian railway, and Barnaul, Kemerovo and Tomsk within easy reach of it. These are all cities with populations of more than half a million, and one (Novosibirsk) has one-and-a-half million inhabitants.

Many people think of Siberia as an uninhabited wilderness of permafrost and pine forests. But in fact most Siberians live in modern cities connected by road and rail links, with the major cities – Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude and Chita – all on the famous Trans-Siberian railway, and Barnaul, Kemerovo and Tomsk within easy reach of it. These are all cities with populations of more than half a million, and one (Novosibirsk) has one-and-a-half million inhabitants. Distances between ‘neighbouring’ cities are however large by European standards, ranging from 250 km (Novosibirsk-Barnaul, Novosibirsk-Tomsk, Novosibirsk-Kemerovo) to 1,000 (Krasnoyarsk-Irkutsk). Indeed the political map of Siberia is probably best described as an archipelago, where each large city is an island leading its own separate existence.

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Though connected by modern roads and railways, Siberian cities are very remote from each other.

Siberian politics as seen from above

In the 1990s the various parts of Siberia rang with the sounds of political clashes as various factions fought it out at elections for mayors and governors. But even then, the ‘classical’ political picture associated with western-type democracy, where candidates from various parties stand against one other, had no basis in local reality.

The issues here had nothing to do with parties or socioeconomic groups. Financial-industrial conglomerates were busy dividing spheres of interest among themselves, and elections were merely another arena for their battles. Aluminium kings clashed with their oil and timber counterparts, with the bureaucratic clans walking a tightrope between them.

The numerous candidates for public office told the public how they would provide ‘Work for the Strong, Care for the Weak’ (a popular slogan at the time, rolled out at every election). But the voters could see how these candidates would spend enormous sums of money on their election campaigns and then, having won the seat of their choice, would disappear until the next time.

In the 90’s, the key question in Russian politics wasn’t ‘What are his opinions?’ or ‘What’s he promising us?’ but ‘Whose man is he?’

As parties rose and fell like ninepins, political consultants (members of a fast growing and extremely profitable profession in the 90s) would descend like locusts to explain to the electorate how a particular fat cat or his crony would enrich their lives, while the local papers would offer them editorial space for this propaganda bullshit and the parties would haggle over places in electoral lists. The key question in Russian politics wasn’t ‘What are his opinions?’ or ‘What’s he promising?’ but ‘Whose man is he?’

The result of these orgies of unscrupulousness and irresponsibility was that the electorate lost all interest in voting and turnout at municipal elections fell below 25%.

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Journeys between cities of this archipelago can take hours or even days. Photo CC yeowatzup.

The arrival of Vladimir Putin, however, did much to clarify the situation. All the ‘kings’, ‘barons’ and other neo-feudal ‘noblemen’ were corralled willy-nilly into 'United Russia’, after which the ‘battle of the clans’ was internalised within the party and only rarely intruded on the public’s consciousness. Occasions when it did included a battle between the United Russia leadership in Irkutsk and its then governor Aleksandr Tishanin. This ended with resignations on both sides, and a standoff between the Altai regional governor, Aleksandr Karlin, and Vladimir Kolganov, mayor of Barnaul, that led not only to the mayor’s resignation but to the abolition of mayoral elections in the entire region.

In the 2000s it looked as though regional politics was dead. United Russia won a convincing victory at every election; the opposition parties were going nowhere. The public, happy to have a bit of order and stability (pensions and salaries began to be paid on time), lost any interest it ever had in politics. But the observant might have noticed a few new shoots appearing as early as 2006.  

The beginnings of civil society

Something new started happening in Siberian cities in the second half of the last decade – grassroots campaigning by various population groups. This type of activity was categorically forbidden in the Soviet period and this ‘prohibition’ was hardwired into the mindset of former Soviet citizens. Ordinary Russians’ basic attitude was that, ‘making any demand of the state can be dangerous and is in any case pointless. You just have to wait until the state realises what you need and gives it to you.’ But since the state was giving less and less, and taking more and more, people began to emerge who had managed to surmount this psychological barrier in themselves and others.

Independent grassroots activity was categorically forbidden in the Soviet period and this ‘prohibition’ was hardwired into the mindset of former Soviet citizens.

The first to do so were, surprisingly enough, car owners. Most cars in Siberia were bought second-hand in Japan, so were right hand drive models, and the government tried more than once to restrict their import or increase customs duty on them. But each attempt met with a storm of protest in the Russian Far East and Siberia, as even used Japanese cars are much better than new cars from Russian factories. The car owners’ movement also protested against bad roads and the high price of petrol.

Against the backdrop of general political sterility and apparent total domination of United Russia, the success of this campaigning group was impressive. Later, during the economic crisis of 2008-2009, the government succeeded in raising the duty on imported used cars, but the idea of banning them has been quietly dropped and is unlikely to be revisited. And the movement also succeeded in its campaign for a review of the ‘Shcherbinsky Case’– people were incensed when this ordinary driver was threatened with prosecution over a road accident in which the Altai regional governor Mikhail Yevdokimov died.

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Novosibirsk skyline. Siberian cities are isolated but modern and vibrant cities. Photo CC oo-O-oo

The Greens are also active here in Siberia. There were always a few environmentally-minded people campaigning for the protection of Siberia’s wonderful natural beauty – from small rivers polluted by oil to the great sacred Lake Baikal poisoned by effluent from a giant paper mill. But what turned ecological issues into a mass campaign was the Transneft project, which planned to run an oil pipeline along the lake shore. The protest began in small scientific and academic circles, but suddenly acquired momentum among the population of Irkutsk, the large city nearest to the lake. In 2006 public protest began in earnest, with rallies attracting several thousand people. And Putin actually responded, drawing his famous arrows on the map showing a new route for the pipeline further away from Baikal.

Growing grassroots activity

After the 2008 economic crisis public activism started increasing by leaps and bounds, and although people involved in building a civil society are still a tiny minority of the population, their number doubles every year. Novosibirsk, for example, has a parents’ movement fighting for more nursery places. Russia has provided heavily subsidised nurseries for pre-school children since Soviet times, but in the 90s, when the birth rate was only half that of the previous decade, many nursery premises were handed over to other public sector organisations or private businesses.

Since 2000, however, the birth rate has been rising again; there is a great shortage of nursery provision (and waiting lists not entirely transparent in their operation) and many young mothers are forced to stay at home rather than working, causing a serious drop in family income. So the parents of a few dozen of the 30,000 children in Novosibirsk waiting for a nursery place, instead of ‘awaiting their turn quietly and with dignity’, as one local official put it, have started organising pickets and turning up at local government offices and deputies’ surgeries with their children. They are demanding not only an overall increase in nursery places, but compensation for parents whose children don’t get a place and more transparency in waiting lists. And thanks to their efforts, the subject is being actively debated at national level and there has been a significant increase in government funding for the building of nurseries. Parents in Novosibirsk are still waiting for their compensation and transparent waiting lists, but in a few cities in Russia this has happened as well.

In 2010 a tragic event took place in Novosibirsk: an ambulance failed to get a child to hospital on time. Medical services were so badly organised that he had to travel 40 km along congested urban roads, and he died. The child’s mother, Darya Makarova, set up an organisation called ‘Healthcare for Children’ which attracted hundreds of members and the city authorities were forced to take action.

In 2012 lefties, nationalists and liberals were to be found marching side by side – unthinkable in the 90s when they all hated each other more than they hated the regime.

Grassroots protest spread to more and more groups of the population. At the start of 2011, the Novosibirsk Regional authorities cut the concessions received by pensioners on public transport, triggering a mass campaign among senior citizens, who organised a monthly protest march. The marches attracted crowds of up to a thousand, which was totally unexpected given that these older people had spent their lives in the Soviet Union’s ‘political winter.’ And with their explicitly anti-United Russia slogans, they had had a clear political message as well.

The other new thing that was noticeable around that time was the unusual pragmatism of the protesters and the willingness of people with widely differing views to come together in a common cause. Lefties, nationalists and liberals were to be found marching side by side - unthinkable in the 1990s when they all hated each other more than they hated the regime. But in 2012 they won their common battle for the full restitution of their concessionary fares.

The thaw began to spread

Both mass meetings and the coming together of various strands of opposition to form a united front happened earlier in Siberia than in Moscow. When the capital’s ‘creative class’ were still avoiding any involvement in politics, and United Russia won an enormous majority in elections to Moscow’s city council, the party was beginning to lose control of cities in Siberia. In 2010 United Russia suffered a string of defeats in the Irkutsk Region, with Irkutsk, Bratsk and Ust-Ilimsk all returning opposition mayoral candidates. This was not down to brilliant campaigning on the part of their respective parties (the Communists and ‘A Just Russia’) – the mass protest vote was informal and spontaneous. The mutiny had become openly political.

In 2011, this tendency began to spread geographically – in the Novosibirsk region, for example, United Russia lost three cities in the spring (although Novosibirsk itself didn’t have an election then). And in the autumn, United Russia won ‘only’ 45% of votes in elections to the regional assembly in the 50% of constituencies where candidates were returned by a party list system [the other 50% used a single member, first part the post system], which led to the resignation of the entire regional party leadership.

In 2010 United Russia suffered a string of defeats in the Irkutsk Region. And this mass protest vote was spontaneous. The mutiny had become openly political.

This, let me repeat, all happened a year or more before mass protest meetings began in Moscow. In the 2011 parliamentary elections United Russia had less than 40% of the vote in most Siberian regions (with only 35% in the Novosibirsk region, 10% less than the previous year), whereas in Moscow official figures put its share at 49%. It was probably these disappointing results for the ruling party that led to the appointment of new governors in the major regions of Siberia, rushed through by the Kremlin just before the law changed to restore direct gubernatorial elections, which had been abandoned in 2004. That way, elections for governors in the Omsk, Tomsk and Irkutsk regions were ‘postponed’ for another five years.

The protests against the rigged 2011 parliamentary elections that began in Moscow quickly spread to the regions and attracted a large number of previously apolitical young people into the opposition movement. Throughout 2012, opposition activity in Siberia mirrored that of the capital, but it petered out a lot more rapidly.

Russia’s political culture is noted for its battles for lofty ideals, its division of the world into ‘black’ and ‘white’. Mass protest brings people together and unites them in a common cause, but it doesn’t address the question of ‘What next?’ The key to solving Russia’s problems doesn’t lie in Moscow, but in the regions, since Moscow’s problems are very different from those in the provinces. It wasn’t vote rigging and propaganda that returned Putin to power – it was a conscious decision by the provinces, fearing the rise of people who were completely detached from real life in Russia. The question still stands: could the regions put forward possible ways for their country to go, or will they always be restricted to the choices made in Moscow?

In conclusion

In his book Face-Off: Russia - USA, co-authored with prominent journalist and TV talk show host Vladimir Solovyov, the political analyst Nikolai Zlobin recounts a conversation with western Russian specialists where he asked them why they disliked Russia so much. And they answered: ‘We were inspired to study Russia by the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; we wanted to discover people of great strength of character and the mysterious Russian soul. Instead of which, we have found a great many mean-spirited people with eyes that contain only dollar signs. Russia has deceived us.’

Politics in Russia is organised very differently than in the west. Almost all political battles in Russia are conducted not between different people, but within each individual person. There was a period when Russia was inundated by a wave of consumerism and greed. People committed terrible crimes, selling everything and selling out. But after plumbing the depths of moral degeneration and corruption, only some of them stayed there; others pushed off and floated upwards again. And, quite unexpectedly, the strength of character described by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky has started appearing in those same mean-spirited pygmies who but yesterday, it seemed, were only interested in money and new possessions.  

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