Meet the Siberian Liberation Army

Where Russia Meets China: Part 1 of a 5-part series in cooperation with Slate.

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 independence.

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 out.)

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


My Trip to a Fake Afghan Village

How the U.S. military is preparing civilians for a surge of their own.

Red and green Arabic-script graffiti scars the worn-down buildings. Concrete rubble and wrecked cars, riddled with bullet holes, line the muddy streets. Emergency trailers huddle along one road, their generators humming like flies. Soldiers carrying machine guns patrol in Humvees. The gray sky spits forth icy snow.

Inside one building, the lights are on, but not the heat, despite the freezing temperatures. The walls are bare, save for tacked-up printouts of Hamid Karzai and a ragged Afghan flag; armed and restive guards in fatigues and gray wool pace the perimeter of the room. A handful of elders sit around a table holding steaming cups of tea. One mullah wearing a heavily twisted lungee berates a team of American volunteers, shivering in the cold, flak jackets slumped at their sides. U.S. forces have destroyed two important buildings, and the townspeople expect them to rebuild at least one, he insists, speaking through a translator. Plus, their gunfire killed a young man -- and the thousands of dollars paid to his family are not worth his blood.

But this is not Afghanistan. This is North Vernon, Ind., halfway through the corn- and soybean-covered flatlands that separate Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The Afghan town is really a former state home for the severely developmentally disabled, now a military facility called the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, or MUTC for short. And it is where the United States is prepping the civilians for the so-called civilian surge.

This week, 51 volunteers for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other agencies are getting an immersive education in everything from military terminology to Afghan culture before deploying to Afghanistan. (The State Department invited me, a few other journalists, and staff from the State Department, USDA, USAID, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Foreign Affairs Committee to tour the facility. The military provided transportation within Indiana.) Most will join Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- units of soldiers, diplomats, and reconstruction experts -- in restive southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan.

The volunteers -- mostly skilled retirees, only some with careers in government service -- are tasked with interacting with Afghans on behalf of the United States, using their specific skill sets in everything from growing wheat to chasing down money launderers to bolster the Afghan economy and government. "We're not there to turn Afghanistan into something we'd recognize as America," explains Paul Jones, one of two top deputies to Richard Holbrooke, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "What we want to do is what the Afghans want to do.... We're there to increase governmental capacity."

This "civilian surge" is a counterpart to the military escalation, but actually predates it. In March, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a tripling of the number of U.S. civilian advisors to nearly 1,000, and possibly more. In his strategic review of the war effort, leaked this summer, Gen. Stanley McChrystal sounded desperate for more nonmilitary help, writing: "ISAF cannot succeed without a corresponding cadre of civilian experts to support the change in strategy and capitalize on the expansion and acceleration of counterinsurgency efforts," including "immediate and rapid expansion into newly secured areas."

To that end, the United States expects 974 civilians to be in place in Afghanistan by the end of January. Since July, the military and State Department have been sending them through MUTC, which normally hosts special forces and homeland security exercises. (For instance, this fall, it held "Vibrant Response," a simulation of a response to a nuclear attack in, conveniently but somewhat implausibly, downtown Indianapolis.) To accommodate the surge, the Army has spent around $5 million to bump the number of buildings on site from 60 to more than 100, constructing a cramped faux marketplace, complete with two-story terraced buildings and crisscrossing laundry lines. This coming summer, it plans to expand it even further, building a mosque, soccer field, fake oil pipeline, and buildings in various stages of destruction, as if bombed.

The civilian-surge trainees, who arrive in groups of about 50 for six-day training sessions, sleep at the nearby faux forward operating base, a kind of bulked-up campsite in a corn field, comprised of dozens of white trailers brought from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They then head out via armed convoy for the 10-mile drive to the "village." The primary training occurs in six play-acted scenes -- "vignettes" in MUTC terminology -- like the one with the angry council of Afghan elders.

The vignettes are meant to familiarize the civilians with working with the military and to acquaint them with situations they might encounter in Afghanistan. Most involve meeting with Afghans -- wailing aggrieved villagers and scheming provincial governors, for example -- and visiting mock courts, police stations, and farms. To staff the MUTC operation, the program has hired dozens of native Afghans -- most members of the diaspora or people who worked as interpreters for the United States in Afghanistan and then immigrated. Gina Mansouri Ladenheim, a native of Kabul and the director of cultural programs at IDS International, a contractor that helps staff the program, says the Afghan actors "bring that local knowledge that the United States often lacks."

The Afghan actors dress up in traditional tribal wear and play out various scenarios with the U.S. volunteers. On Tuesday, one "consequence management" vignette focused on the legal system and corruption. A team of Americans met with an Afghan judge (played by a former Afghan judge, no less) to discuss the Kabul government's attempts to improve the rule of law in the provinces. Dismissing the idea that corrupt local officials might be the problem, the judge announced through a translator: "The problem is that people don't respect judges and courts." The awaiting civilian-surge volunteers calmly nodded in response. Marshall Ferrin, a soft-spoken 59-year-old USAID volunteer who formerly directed an international business development program at George Mason University, listened before pushing back, ever so gently, explaining the common interest in good governance.

One final vignette is, in military parlance, "kinetic": the simulation of an insurgent attack on U.S. civilians. Soldiers on the base toss tiny sticks of dynamite to approximate grenades and fire 50-caliber blanks into the air. The civilian volunteers, who receive military training on, for instance, how to exit an overturned Humvee, are left to react. "Once, [the students] were with a district-level official when the attack came down," said Brad S. Parker, a State Department Afghanistan desk officer, chuckling as he walked along the cold and muddy streets. "[They] completely abandoned him! We had to remind them that it's an integrated effort over there."

Dozens of students -- in interviews as well as a town-hall session with Jones, the State Department official -- lauded the effort to simulate Afghan conditions and prepare the students, particularly since the United States had what they described as an insufficient ad hoc program before. John Gerlaugh, a former Pentagon official who will join the State Department in Afghanistan when he deploys the week after Christmas, also served as a civilian volunteer advising on governance in Iraq's Anbar province in 2007. He described the two experiences as night and day. "In 2007, we got a bit of military training. But it's nothing in comparison with what we've got here," he said, citing the cultural training as particularly important.

What remains to be seen is whether the civilians deployed to Afghanistan -- no matter how well-prepared -- will be able to accomplish the difficult goal of bolstering the historically and currently weak central government. Jones said civilians thus far had achieved important, if isolated successes, and that he expected the civilians would have a "force multiplier" effect, both by improving military efforts in restive villages and by hiring and training Afghans. "We're focusing on a whole-of-government approach," he said. "And that feedback loop is what we missed before."

Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.