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